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A Freudian Take on Beowulf
In the classic tale of Beowulf, the protagonist's main nemeses are the monsters Grendel, Grendels mother, and the dragon. It has been argued that each represents a different evil from an unknown world or has certain religious significance. The reality is that these antagonists are not from the outside but rather from the psyche of Beowulf himself, or at least the poet reflecting his own struggles or common struggles of the times.
Sigmund Freud divided the human psyche into three parts: the Id, the Ego, and the Superego. If one were to view each division of the Freudian psyche in correlation with each of the monsters in the poem, they might notice the following breakdown:
- The Id is represented by Grendel.
- The Ego is represented by Grendel's mother.
- The Superego is represented by the dragon.
Grendel as the Id
Let us start with Grendel, the Id.
King Hrothgar builds a mead hall called Heorot for his warriors. The noise from Heorot bothers Grendel, who lives in the swamp near the castle. In turn, Grendel terrorizes the mead hall, killing Hrothgar's warriors. This goes on for years until Beowulf hears about it and decides to help. Beowulf takes on Grendel, unarmed, and rips his arm off, fatally wounding it.
Both Beowulf and Grendel seem to be dominated by the Id aspect of the personality at this point in time. Beowulf feels the need to fight an undefeatable foe…unarmed. He feels that he is invincible, and has a need to prove it to himself and the world.
Grendel, on the other hand, is just stepping on ants. He is bothered by something and has the power to alleviate the source of his nuisance. A brief explanation of the Freudian "Id" by David Straker is as follows:
The Id contains our primitive drives and operates largely according to the pleasure principle, whereby its two main goals are the seeking of pleasure and the avoidance of pain.
It has no real perception of reality and seeks to satisfy its needs through what Freud called the primary processes that dominate the existence of infants, including hunger and self-protection. The energy for the Id’s actions comes from libido, which is the energy storehouse. The iI has two major instincts:
- Eros: the life instinct that motivates people to focus on pleasure-seeking tendencies (e.g., sexual urges).
- Thanatos: the death instinct that motivates people to use aggressive urges to destroy.
Beowulf and Grendel took pleasure in what they were doing: displaying primitive aggressions in order to fulfill their primal needs at the time. While Grendel was fulfilling the Thanatos instinct through his destructive action, Beowulf was satisfying the Eros instinct by getting pleasure out of his daring feat.
After Beowulf rids the kingdom of Grendel, the warriors celebrate. However, unbeknownst to them, Grendel lived with his mother. While this leaves the door open to a more complex issue hinting towards a minor Oedipal complex—also a Freudian issue—it would be straying from the subject at hand.
Grendel's Mother as the Ego
Grendel's mother wants revenge for the killing of her son. Mother goes to Heorot, wreaks havoc, and kills the king's best friend. Hrothgar calls on Beowulf once more, and Beowulf obliges.
The Ego, is the next phase in Freud's personality factor. Straker describes it as follows:
Unlike the Id, the Ego is aware of reality and hence operates via the reality principle, whereby it recognizes what is real and understands that behaviors have consequences. This includes the effects of social rules that are necessary in order to live and socialize with other people. It uses secondary processes (perception, recognition, judgment and memory) that are developed during childhood.
The dilemma of the Ego is that it has to balance the demands of the Id and Superego with the constraints of reality. The Ego controls higher mental processes such as reasoning and problem solving, which it uses to solve the Id-Superego dilemma, creatively finding ways to safely satisfy the Id’s basic urges within the constraints of the Superego.
Psychologically, Beowulf is growing. He has defeated his immature, compulsive, counter-Id Grendel but now has to face the consequence: Grendel's mother. While he still has the Thanatos and Eros instincts, the stakes have been raised. Grendel's mother is older, wiser, and larger, and he has to face her on her own ground—in the swamp.
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Beowulf takes on the challenge, and, showing growth, he uses reasoning and problem-solving skills. The fight is harder than he thought it would be. During the battle, he is almost overcome by Grendel's mother, but his perception is keen: he notices a sword he knows only he could lift and slays her as well. He returns to the mead hall with her head, is rewarded, and returns home to Geatland as a renowned hero.
While Grendel's mother is still filled with Thanatos and revenge,
she pounced upon him and pulled out
A broad, whetted knife: now she would avenge her only child (1545).
Beowulf has grown; he is aware of the reality he faces. He is unarmed but appeals to a higher mental process and takes a sword out of her own stash and kills her.
One would feel that this spot would be the perfect place to end this gallant tale. The poet, however, thought not.
The Dragon as the Superego
After a while, the king of Geatland is killed, and eventually Beowulf becomes king. Beowulf is a good ruler and has a fifty-year reign in which Geatland prospers. When Beowulf is old, a thief breaks into a lair where a dragon is hiding a huge cache of treasure. The thief steals some of the treasure enraging the dragon. The dragon takes its anger out on the Geats by burning up the town on a regular basis.
So now, saving the day is left up to Beowulf once more. Beowulf, now probably in his seventies, takes an army to hunt down the dragon. When they get there, the army runs away, leaving Beowulf and his young ward Wiglaf to do the fighting. Together they kill the dragon, but Beowulf is mortally wounded.
Before we go too much further, we need a working definition of the Freudian Supergo:
According to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic theory of personality, the superego is the component of personality composed of our internalized ideals that we have acquired from our parents and from society. The superego works to suppress the urges of the id, and tries to make the ego behave morally, rather than realistically (Cherry, 2020).
Realistically, Beowulf knew he was going to die. Nevertheless, he was the king. It was his duty to protect his subjects, unworthy as they were, even though it cost him his life.
When I meet the cave guard: what occurs on the wall
Between the two of us will turn out as fate,
Overseer of men, decides. I am resolved.
I scorn further words against this sky-borne foe (2525).
Here, for the first time, Beowulf was not fighting for glory. In altruistic fashion, he did the moral thing to do. He was the only one who could kill the dragon; he knew this and put the survival of his people above his own life. His growth is now complete. He had no primitive drive to deal with; he was cognizant of the problem at hand, and did what was, morally, the right thing to do.
Beowulf as a Story of Psychological Maturation
I chose Freud's personality factors for this comparison to Beowulf's antagonists for the obvious reasons of each being represented in threes. The true analogy, though, lies in the psychological factor of each of the demons represented. The fight with Grendel represented youthful ambition, wayward haphazardness, and immature overconfidence in seeking out adventure, which could have had dire consequences in the long run.
The fight with Grendel’s mother was the consequence. After going out and taking on the extreme challenge, there was no thought as to what consequences might arise in the aftermath. The outcome was that, now, he had to enter a fight with a more vicious and angrier demon.
In the fight, Beowulf's maturity was revealed. The story appeals to the rashness of youth and acts as a lesson for future readers.
The fight with the dragon was the moral of the story: you live by the sword, you die by the sword. While Beowulf did grow and learn from the first two fights, the last fight was already destined to be. He lived as a warrior; it was only natural that he should die as one as well. This was his chosen path. However, in his old age, the lessons he learned in youth remained with him. He weighed the consequences and realized that, as he was nearing the end of his life, his moral obligation, as leader and warrior, was to his subjects.
Whereas the first fight was out of disposition and the second out of effect, the final was out of obligation, thus showing the psychological growth of the legendary Beowulf.
Beowulf. Unknown. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Volume A. The Middle Ages. 8th Edition. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. W.W. Norton & Company: New York ,2006, pp. 67, 87.
Cherry, Kendra. “Understanding the Role of Freud's Superego”. Verywell Mind. 7/30/20 <https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-the-superego-2795876>.
Straker, David. “Freuds Personality Factors”. Changing Minds. 10/10/09 <http://changingminds.org/explanations/personality/freud personality.htm>.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
Kevin on November 13, 2017:
How is the dragon a superego?
Jermajesty on February 16, 2015:
Cheers pal. I do apacirepte the writing.
Robert Levine from Brookline, Massachusetts on November 19, 2014:
Very interesting and original insight.
Krynicah on September 23, 2011:
This is another perspective while analysing Beowulf from Freudian perspective: (watch out- extremely interesting ;) )
hope U like it!