Archetypes in British Literature: Beowulf

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The poem Beowulf, which begins the canon of British literature, is a great example of Anglo-Saxon poetry, as it gave birth to the range of literary archetypes, used in subsequent literary works and cultures in general. Archetypes play a crucial role in understanding the Old English literature and its influence on the modern worldview.

Archetype is an original model, which creates the basis for other later copies of certain characters, actions, or situations. The latter represent some common patterns of human life and humanity’s characteristics. As a rule, the archetype includes a theme or character that is thought to have a common meaning in many cultures or is equally meaningful for whole humankind. In other words, archetypes are the relations, which have been a part of human experience from the very beginning. Archetypes have a strong emotional power and resonance. A number of common archetypes are recreated by individuals in myths, pieces of literature, and dreams and have their root in people’s unconsciousness. The first philosopher, who used archetypes, was Plato; among the ones he used were the archetypes of beauty, truth, goodness, and others. Later on, Sophocles used original models of patricide, blindness, and fratricide. Among the most powerful sources of archetypes were myths, namely the Greek ones. Other archetype sources are ancient fairy-tales and folklore.

One of the main studies of archetypes was conducted by psychologist Carl Jung, who theorized that the archetypes originate in the collective unconscious (shared experience) of humankind. He described the collective unconscious as a notion consisting of mythological motives or archetypes. Carl Jung himself claimed, “Archetypes are typical forms of behavior, which, once they become conscious, naturally present themselves as ideas and images, live everything else that becomes a content of consciousness” (Jung, par. 435). An archetype can appear in life, a fantasy, or a dream; each time this happens, it brings with it certain power or influence. Although archetype manifests itself in dreams and unconsciousness, it is usually expressed in consciously constructed myths and literature.

Speaking about the literature, archetypes are usually present in plot, characters, problems, and ideas of the writing. They may have a form of some symbolic situation (the damsel rescued form monster by the hero, the long journey, the descent into the underworld), recurring theme (forbidden love, madness, the nature of death or fate), character (a witch, Don Juan, the snob, the mad scientist, the helpless old woman, the stern father), symbolic color (green symbolizes life, and white is a symbol of purity), and symbolic image (image of blood, water, rose, or eagle).

The question of why the archetypes are so important has several answers. First, they help people develop different levels of their consciousness and unconsciousness. One of Jung’s followers Gray asserted, “The archetypes define at the most primitive level what it means to be human” (115). He also explained how humankind is linked to animal world. On the higher level, archetypes show what is typical of certain race or nation. Finally, the next layers correspond to specific linguistic and national groups. To sum it up, according to Gray archetypes help people survive and are “the part of the survival repertoire of mankind.” Archetypes also play an important role in the development of religious sentiment in humans. It is interesting that scholars speculate about the existence of so-called ‘gene for religiosity’, which can explain people’s beliefs in God and religion. In this way, many concepts and notions that are important components for people today have originated many years ago as archetypes. Today, original archetypes are recognizable in visual images and verbal identity. Although all men and women have the same archetypes, which influence the development of culture, these archetypes are expressed differently and depend on current cultural circumstances and other factors. Within the given assignment, it is important to find out how archetypes were present in the Old English period and how this period can be compared to the present days, regarding the archetypal theory.

Anglo-Saxons favored honor and bravery, loyalty and justice. According to the warrior code of those times, every warrior was to demonstrate his worth and uphold all the oaths. In this way, people were valued according to the above criteria. Nowadays, the situation is similar: although present day society is not a warrior one, it is highly praiseworthy to treat other people equitably, to keep one’s word, and to demonstrate loyalty to other people. However, today all these traits are not associated with physical fighting. That is why, an example of a hero archetype in Old-English literature (Beowulf) is quite usual and typical, while contemporary heroes are usually fantastic and not real individuals (Superman). Precisely, the poem Beowulf outlines what traits constitute the archetype for the Anglo-Saxon period; this poem is considered to be a powerful source of collective unconscious of present-day society.

Beowulf is an Old English poem, which was written by an anonymous author. Today, this literary work is considered the most significant known Old English poem. It is an oral poetry that was created in accordance with the best Germanic literary traditions; that is why it was not written down but just transmitted from a speaker to audience. The events of the poem take place during the first period of the migration of the Germanic tribes. The story incorporates numerous references to the heroic code of the then warrior societies. Two Germanic tribes, the Geates and the Danes, are in the center of the story, which describes their victories over foes and monsters, threatening the wellbeing and stability of their homeland. The heroic code dictates that relations in the society must be founded on respect and loyalty. The most important obligation of a warrior is to remain loyal to his lord and be brave and courageous. If warrior is obedient and performs a good service to his lord, he is rewarded. Being an epic poem, Beowulf deals with a serious subject and describes a hero, who fights to defend his values. The major themes in the poem include the clash between Paganism and Christianity, and the importance of the Germanic Heroic Code.

All in one, the elements of plot, composition, and characters create a system of archetypes, present in the text. Among them are situation archetypes (the Quest, the Fall, the Battle between Good and Evil), symbolic archetypes (Fire versus Ice, Heaven versus Hell), and character archetypes (the Hero, the Initiate, the Loyal Retainer, the Outcast, the Creature of Nightmare, the Scapegoat, and some others).

One of the major archetypes employed in Beowulf is an archetype of the Hero. Generally, Anglo-Saxon literature gave birth to the current understanding of heroism. As a literary archetype, the concept of Heroism is defined by bravery, honor, sense of duty, and adherence to the society’s code. It is obvious that all the heroes that people know today, the ones from the films or stories, repeat original heroes. Beowulf is considered one of them. The archetype of the Hero appears in all epics and mythologies of the world. The Hero is the expression of humans unconscious and shares certain characteristics. Usually, the Hero is born in danger; he has to leave his family and homeland to discharge duty. As a rule, some circumstances urge the Hero on a quest or adventure and the Hero acquires a special weapon, suitable only for him. Despite the fact that he has a supernatural help, he must prove himself for several times; after a victory over the foe, he usually marries a princess or becomes a king. Beowulf has many of the listed traits, for example, he has exaggerated strength, a power that helps him fight against foes. Besides, Beowulf has a supernatural help from God when he battles with Grendel’s mother. It goes without saying that he resembles many modern heroes and protagonists, and that is why he may be called and archetypal character.

The epic poem Beowulf contains the so-called archetypal pattern “hero vs. villain.” A hero in literature or movie cannot exist separately from a villain, as well as the villain must intend to kill someone who tries to prevent him from succeeding in his evil plans. In Beowulf, this archetype is embodied in the characters of Grendel and Grendel’s mother. Grendel may be also considered the archetype of the Outcast and the Scapegoat (the death of the monster results in his mother’s rage). One more archetype, used for the character of Grendel, is one of the Creatures from Nightmares. He is a monster, who comes from the dark part of human psyche and threatens lives of people.

Speaking about symbolic archetypes in Beowulf, the readers may find some of them in the plot: light/darkness, fire/ice, and heaven/underworld. They are usually organized in oppositions, which help to underline their meaning.

Finally, there are some situational archetypes, as well. For instance, the Quest (Beowulf’s search for glory, the Fall (main hero descends into the monster’s lair), the Battle between Good and Evil (final battle between Beowulf and the mother of Grendel).

Summing up, Beowulf is a perfect piece for archetypal analyses. Being a great example of British literature, it is also a powerful source of archetypes – generic, idealized models of people, objects, or concepts, from which similar instanced are copied, derived, or patterned. The author of Beowulf employed all the mentioned archetypes unconsciously, and this fact proves that they are the products of the inner world of humankind, the collective experience. All the archetypal situations and characters that are present in the Anglo-Saxon poetry repeat themselves in later literary works in different forms and situations, which depend on the current society and certain circumstances. Conducting and archetypal analyses, critics look for general themes and situations that have been a part of the humankind for many generations. By drawing on archetypes, modern writers allow their readers to know the character with little explanation; archetypes definitely play an extremely important role in understanding British literature and British society in general.

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