A Jungian Reading of Beowulf
This essay will propose an alternative means by which to examine the distinctive fusion of historical, mythological, and poetic elements that make up the whole of Beowulf. Jeffrey Helterman, in a 1968 essay, “Beowulf: The Archetype Enters History,” first recognized Grendel as a representation of the Shadow archetype and identified Grendel’s mother as an archetypal Anima image; I wish to extend the scope of the reading by suggesting that the dragon, too, represents an archetype: the archetype of the Self. John Miles Foley, in his landmark 1977 essay “Beowulf and the Psychohistory of Anglo-Saxon Culture,” first suggested that the progression of battles between man and monster in Beowulf symbolically recalls the primal myth, the “monomyth,” which recounts both the process of individual psychological growth and the development of universal human consciousness. I will explore in greater detail the idea that the progression of battles specifically represents the process of individual psychological development through which the ego confronts personal archetypes in order to achieve complete self-knowledge: the process of individuation.
According to Jung, an archetype represents “certain instinctive data of the dark, primitive psyche…real but invisible roots of consciousness (9,i:271). He notes that the “ultimate core of meaning may be circumscribed, but not described,” as elements represented by the archetypal image remain unconscious; yet he also proposes that the individual psyche responds to the presence of the archetype by imprinting it with its own psychic material, thus creating a series of images informed by both universal understanding and personal experience. Jung compares the original archetype to the axis of a crystal, about which material clusters; in the same way, he suggests, the archetype defines the images which cluster about it (9,i:165). This essay will involve an exploration of images or image clusters which circumscribe the archetypes of the hero, the shadow, the anima, and the Self.
Unfortunately, Jung’s discussions of individual archetypes were not free of cultural or sexual bias. For example, his description of the shadow, the archetype of the psyche’s “dark side” which I agree is represented in Beowulf by Grendel, suggested that aggression and emotionalism were always shadow-like behaviors; he never suggested that those behaviors could be desirable in some societies, nor did he ever address the cultural bias inherent in his assertions. Jung’s students Jolande Jacobi and Marie-Louise von Franz, in particular, sought to clarify Jung’s position by suggesting that a shadow projection expresses behaviors undesirable to the society in which its parent personality lives.
Jung’s definition of the anima has also drawn its share of criticism. His definitions of the archetype were certainly culture-bound; he repeatedly identifies both “soft” and “manipulative” qualities in common anima...