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Beowulf, Gilgamesh, and finding heroic purpose through building the future.
A mother does not explain the nuanced dangers of the forest to a young child, instead, a tale of the monsters that lurk in the dark preclude any naïve curiosities. Our actions often reveal simple truths – if you have an important lesson to share, it is best to crystallize it in a story. This, I believe, is why some of mankind’s most eternal values are intertwined with the fabric of our common myths.
But our stories do much more than just provide simplified directions; they are often the source of our inspiration. Most famously, the Hero’s Journey encapsulates the pursuit of purpose — a quest of adversity, achievement, and the return to the ordinary world with something you didn’t have before.
Consider that the Hero’s Journey, or the Monomyth, is more than just narrative coincidence across disparate civilizations, but actually touches on something deep about our nature, and is relevant to our present day lives. Perhaps these stories inspire us because they appeal to an ever-present, internal force that drives humanity forward.
The Hero’s Journey
By nature of the medium, much is lost through the lessons compressed into the deeds of a hero. Nonetheless, recognizing the unique characteristics of a story helps you better understand those who celebrate it. It’s for this reason I believe that the evolution of the stories we tell ourselves hints at a shift in our collective psyche, and that by digging deeper in our narrative history we uncover an ancient, better path forward.
Recall the stories of old. Legends tell tales of divine beings touched by the heavens: Gilgamesh’s quest for immortality, Rama’s exile, Heracles’ labors. As civilization evolved, heroism fell to the acts of mortal kings and we told stories of their wondrous deeds: Odysseus’ voyage, Arthur’s grail, and Beowulf’s sacrifice. Even those interweaving their destinies with rulers found purpose in sharing their glory; the brave knight or honorable samurai on a righteous quest continues to stir deep admiration. With time, the characters of the modern world, composed largely of the common celebrity, now dominate our narratives. Over thousands of years, the Hero’s Journey has been democratized, a social development that characterizes liberal progress.
Yet, in this proliferation, I fear that we’ve twisted what it means to be a hero. Simple stories of good triumphing over evil have been replaced by complex anti-heroes and social commentary: Lord of the Rings replaced by Game of Thrones. Entertaining, but not inspiring – in fact, often a critique of heroic virtue. Despite this, much of society today depends on leveraging an innate desire for heroism within us all . Political campaign ads invoke a virtuous quest, not unlike how commercials illustrate a heroic adventure being one, small purchase away. These are urges levied against you, tapping into a widening void of meaning that haunts our society.
This bleeds into nearly all aspects of our lives. Social media is a window into the stitched-together, perfect moments of others, a vision of a heroic life embodied with purpose at every step. In our mimetic world, the failure to achieve promised heroism, regardless if it’s by your fault alone, is a poison. The crippling ennui of my generation is rooted in this incongruity — we can’t all live heroic lives.
In the past, a society had a largely shared set of values. Whether you agreed with these beliefs made little difference; they provided a clear standard with which to collectively determine good and evil. Today, lingering moral questions are contentious, and factions are quick to signal a Call to Adventure for willing participants. However, the righteousness of modern heroism relies on the morality of the quests thrust upon us. This confusing state of affairs, I believe, stems from an old, corrupted tale.
Many of our contemporary stories trace their narrative roots to the oldest piece of literature in the English language: Beowulf. The legend itself is made up of three parts composed of battles — Grendel, Grendel’s Mother, and then the Dragon, where Beowulf is ultimately victorious, but succumbs to his wounds.
At face value, this is just the story of a man slaying monsters; a simplicity that many critics latch onto. There just isn’t much in the story beyond Beowulf fighting, unlike many of the romantic Greek epics and other classical tales of heroism. To this, J.R.R. Tolkien, himself authoring a famous translation of the poem, stated the following:
It has been said of Beowulf that its weakness lies in placing the unimportant things at the center and the important on the outer edges…I think it profoundly untrue of the poem, but strikingly true of the literature about it.
- J.R.R. Tolkien
Beowulf was written at a time that Christianity was sweeping across the Northern world, forming a uniquely blended pagan-Christian worldview. Unlike Heracles or Perseus facing mere monsters, Beowulf takes down Grendel, a “descendant of Cain” and manifestation of evil itself. Though, in the end, Beowulf is slain by the Dragon, another force of darkness.
To the pagan Northern world, man would claim glory on Earth, in contrast to the solemn life of early Christians seeking an eternal heaven. We see this famously through the battle spirit of the Vikings, believing that, even in death, they’d fight again in Valhalla until Ragnarok, the last battle of the gods and the end of the world. It’s here that we see the root of the Norse mindset. The Northern gods existed within time and, as the myth goes, are fated to die along with man and all of the world’s creations. Like Beowulf, they too succumb to the forces of darkness.
Recognizing this, it’s clear that Beowulf’s victories and ultimate defeat are what is most important about the poem, a last bellow of the receding pagan world. It’s here at the center of the story we find the unyielding will that defines Beowulf’s heroism, best described by Tolkien himself:
“caught in the chains of circumstance or of their own character, torn between duties equally sacred, dying with their backs to the wall”
- J.R.R. Tolkien
To Beowulf and the poem’s author, heroism was less concerned with Why an act was done, but instead with How it was achieved. Consider that Beowulf fought the monster Grendel “naked”, for Grendel carried no weapons. His foes were pure evil and his world was doomed to end, all that remained was seizing his fate through a momentary demonstration of virtue, and to die and fight again in the fields of Valhalla.
To the Norse, evil was itself the progeny of time, a clock slowly ticking down until the final battle and inevitable sacrifice against darkness. But Beowulf was certainly not the last hero. This same formula is common among our most popular modern stories, famously illustrated in this scene of Iron Man sacrificing himself to defeat Thanos:
It’s the demonstration of unyielding will against overwhelming forces of darkness that make stories of heroism entertaining, but all the more enticing when the hero is sacrificed for the sake of victory. We’re drawn to the bestowed purpose of a soldier even though it would likely mean living in a reality much more horrific than our own. It is precisely this hardship, and thus opportunity to demonstrate virtue, that defines Beowulf and the stories that descend from it.
While Beowulf will forever remain a cornerstone of literature, I believe its legacy warps the modern day audience who often misunderstand it. While Beowulf fought pure evil —”torn between duties equally sacred” — legions of superhero-inspired fanatics have a far less clear quest ahead of them.
For Beowulf, slaying a “descendant of Cain” to defend his people was a simple, moral act. The “Why?” was just and unquestioned, and the “How?” presented a path towards heroic purpose within a shared Norse belief system. Today, it is not so simple. Just as the monsters that prowled the darkness revealed their banality as we grew older, our preconceptions of evil are often clouded by those meant to instruct us right from wrong. The complexities of the modern world shroud remaining monsters, the “Why?” is vigorously debated, and the “How?” is often reckless action.
This spirit of Beowulf twisted and glamorized in our culture celebrates conflict and sanctifies heroism through sacrifice. This is not sustainable in a world as large, diverse, and uncertain as our own — an arms race destined for Ragnarok.
I’m not so naïve as to believe that there are no monsters to be slain, or that decisive action is never justified. True evil will persist and must be appropriately dealt with when discovered. My concern is that the propagation of promised heroism across society is often misguided and outstrips its true foes, leaving many distraught by failure. With this, a crude mimicry of Beowulf; an obsession with the “How?” and dismissal of the “Why?”. Naturally, this leads to the conjuration of counterfeit monsters in an attempt to fulfill one’s heroic journey. Just as Tolkien questioned the critics of Beowulf, I, too, wonder if many of civilization’s critics fundamentally misunderstand the very nature of what they fight against, themselves becoming the true enemy of progress.
In this pursuit of purpose, we so often ignore the Hero’s Journey in its totality. The story does not end with simply the slaying of a monster, but in returning home and building upon what you started with. I believe this hints at a better path.
The Epic of Gilgamesh is perhaps the most important story ever told, encompassing thousands of years of pre-history into a hero’s tale depicting mankind’s most defining insecurity – the fear of death. Perhaps more impressively, this story was written around 2000 BC, making it, by far, the oldest window we have into the minds of our ancestors. The legend tells of Gilgamesh the god-king of Uruk, one of mankind’s first established settlements in Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. An epic journey drifts the reader through the mind of Gilgamesh as he reconciles with and conquers beasts representing the forces of nature, mirroring the conquest that followed our footsteps from the wilds into our first societies.
The monster of the Cedar Forest, Humbaba, is sought as a trophy by Gilgamesh and his companion Enkidu. Encouraged by the lower-god, Shamash, they believed that slaying this creature would bring fame and fortune, as it had prevented man from procuring valuable timber found only in the forest forbidden to mortals. Unbeknownst to them, Humbaba was placed there by a superior being, Enlil, and the creature’s defeat would spell misfortune. In its last breath, it cursed them — and ensuing events would lead to Enkidu’s death by divine hands.
Though nearly perfect in form, Gilgamesh is overcome by grief and thoughts of his own mortality. He travels in search of a way to prevent his own death, yet ultimately fails. But in this failure he comes to a profound realization: to be immortal is not to live forever, but rather to create something that does. Gilgamesh could claim immortality through his legacy as a great king of Uruk, and as a founder of civilization.
Unlike Beowulf and the Norse gods, Gilgamesh conquers time. He realizes the folly of prideful, wanton violence in defiance of the heavens, a personification of morality, and the disaster such action could bring. An act affirmed by a god was not condoned by superior divinities, and the duo reaped the consequences. In Gilamesh’s future, both the “How?” and “Why?” were of constant consideration. These traits were befitting of a king, and his legacy would be etched into the pillars of history itself. Poetically, this is mankind’s oldest lesson.
A Path Forward
At the root of all heroic pursuit lies the quest for immortality, symbolic or otherwise. A rebellion of the entropic nature of the universe and inquiry of the status quo. Whereas Beowulf is defined by a momentary struggle of will, Gilgamesh’s achievements materialize around us — a lasting impact in a far off time that he will never know.
The world needs new heroes to face the challenges ahead. But the stories we emphasize betray our most ancient understanding of these pursuits. Fighting evil is heroic, but relies on an external foe to be slayed and conquered, to say nothing of the true nature of the enemy. Heroism is no longer reserved for the few, and that demands responsibility. If your quest is centered on defeating monsters, then, in a sense, you are subject to them. You better be certain that they are indeed evil and that your efforts will truly make the world a better place when the dust has settled. Be mindful that the morality of your own heroic pursuits is in constant jeopardy and breeds consequences if misguided. Today, this is increasingly difficult to foresee.
The ending of Gilgamesh points toward a different conclusion suitable for our complex, modern world. Perhaps, for the troubles ahead, progress might be attained through a less destructive path — securing the future we seek on our own volition, and letting the detritus decay in the shadow of the immortal. Not to avoid conflict altogether, but reject measuring success by it. Achievement not because of monsters, but in spite of them. A careful reflection on the “How?” and “Why?”, and a return home with more than you started with. To not simply tear down, but build up. This is a lesson that all great founders, heroes who make history, know.
At the end of the day, these are just stories. But it’s the simple ideas that are the most powerful, their strength determined by your own capacity to let them inspire you. My hope is that you consider the lessons of our past and harness them towards a better future. A communion of mankind’s greatest feat: creation — an echo of divinity and a path towards a new age of heroes.