Myths and legends are excellent sources to learn more about ancient societies and cultures. This sample essay explores the monomythical context of Beowul and Volsung, some of the most famous Nordic legends of all time.
The monomythical context in which Beowulf and Volsung lived
We see through the epic tales of “Beowulf” and the “Volsunga Saga” a kind of shared path to heroism in confirming both stories as part of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth tradition. Campbell’s paradigm amounts to a pattern in which the journeys of prototypical heroes occur in manners similar to each other. In Campbell’s paradigm, a hero is thrust from within the mundane world into a supernatural realm, where he wins a great victory and thereafter returns from his adventure, having done that which imbues his fellows with courage. Through the tales of Beowulf and Volsung, we bear witness to this paradigm.
Celebration in the Great Hall
In both the “Volsung Saga” and “Beowulf,” the reader is presented with a celebration of sorts taking place in a great hall, filled with the citizens of their respective locales. In each tale, the hall itself becomes the cite of a formational encounter, in which the eponymous hero of each tale is thrust into a narrative of pursuit. In the case of Beowulf, he and his men come to the aid of the King of Geats, where Heorot is plagued by the monster Grendel, who Beowulf dispatches before doing the same with her mother.
While no monster appears in the Volsung-equivalent great hall, the events precipitating Sigmund’s encounter with the dragon do begin with Odin’s appearance in the Great Hall and Sigmund’s refusal to cede his sword to Siggeir, who does eventually ambush Volsung’s force.
Having entered the first stage of Campbell’s paradigm, in which the hero is thrust into an adventure regardless of whether he is aware of it, we approach stage two, in which the hero often refuses the call to action, for whatever reason. As the “strongest of the Geats,” however, Beowulf accepts this quest (Heaney l.110). Similarly, King Volsung and his force ignore warnings to the contrary and are ambushed by Siggier’s force, leading to the fall of King Volsung and the rise of Sigmund, his son.
In Campbell’s paradigm, aid will now be offered the hero by some supernatural force, which we see in the form of Odin, who appears in the great hall of Volsung, thereby allowing for Sigmund to claim his right to the sword sought after by Siggeir. Similarly, we see Beowulf allude to the celestial aid provided for him by implication of Grendel’s familiarity with a “feud with the Almighty” (Heaney l.385).
Slaying of Grendel
The crossing of the first threshold is for Beowulf the slaying of Grendel, as detailed above. However, for Sigmund, son of Volsung, his first threshold is the claiming of his sword over his eventual adversary, Siggeir, whose mother subsequently aids in his bloodlust, just as Grendel’s mother does on behalf of her own son. In this sense, the monomyth functions to place the hero within three distinct settings from which he must emerge: acquiring the reverence of third-parties, defeating that which is most feared by those third parties and, finally, unifying his superhuman existence with a kind of mortal one.
Beowulf earns this reverence through his performance at the great hall, then proceeds to slay the dragon and then finally succumbs to death, though not without having first eliminated his mortal enemy. For Sigmund, he avenges his father’s death after his performance at the great hall, only to fall victim to Odin in disguise, though not before leaving an heir who will perpetuate his people’s security: Sigurd, who will safeguard his people going forward, in Sigmund’s stead.
In both Beowulf’s tale and that of Sigmund in the “Volsunga Cycle,” we witness heroes who follow the particular patterns of Campbell’s paradigm, eventually succumbing to one of those entities who they set out to destroy, but not without providing for the the path necessary for their respective peoples to move forward with security. Both heroes journey from the mundane to the supernatural, though neither returns from this journey.
Nevertheless, both have acquired knowledge of some supernatural order in the course of their journeys, which allows them to distinguish themselves as saviors of their respective realms. For Beowulf, though he succumbs to the dragon, he does so in a warrior’s fashion, perpetuating his own legend through that which he bestows upon his people:
“[T]hey had killed the enemy, courage quelled his life; that pair of kinsmen, partners in nobility, had destroyed the foe. So every man should act, be at hand when needed” (Heaney 3.2068).
Similarly, from the shards of Sigmund’s sword will come an heir capable of ensuring the freedom of the people on whose behalf Sigmund takes vengeance. Indeed, just as Beowulf does battle with the dragon, so too will Sigurd, son of Sigmund, thereafter slaying the dragon for the benefit of his people.
In tracing the heroic journeys of Beowulf, King Volsung and Sigmund, we find their narratives unified in the monomyth paradigm. Like the first known epic story, Gilgamesh, Both Beowulf and Sigmund are compelled into supernatural action from their respective mundane existences, both proceed to defeat adversaries posing a substantial threat to the people about whom they care most and, finally, both heroes depart the Earth in a manner that ensures the future of generations to come, thereby unifying their mortal existence with the supernatural realm through perpetuation of their respective legacies.
Indeed, we see through a close reading of the “Beowulf” text an even stronger confirmation of the applicability of Campbell’s paradigm: Sigmund is referenced in the tale as having himself slayed a dragon, as Beowulf’s heroism is compared to that exhibited by Sigmund. As such, the monomyth paradigm manifests in even starker fashion than originally perceived, thereby lending credence to Campbell’s belief in “the one myth” being that upon which all others are founded, at least as applied to the epic hero motif.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A Verse Translation. Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Daniel
Donoghue. New York: Norton, 2002. Print.
Swannell, J.N. and Morris, William. Williams Morris & Old Norse Literature. London: William Morris Society, 1961. Print.