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By Josephine Stone
Monsters and immortal beings present a challenge to leaders and kings that aid in the progression of personal change while representing anxieties of a civilization. The creatures that challenge Odysseus in The Odyssey and the title character in Beowulf represent a hurdle in the growth of a leader and further solidify this role. The immortal and monster women on Odysseus' journey home speak to his growth and ability to favor family over plunder, and a treasure-guarding dragon shows Beowulf that settling down and valuing material objects is a deadly mistake. These monsters are perceived to be a plight on society that must be destroyed, and it is only after their defeat that the positive reinforcements of their confrontation can be noticed--whether it be for a king's personal growth that will help how he rules his people or by demonstrating the unwholesome nature of materialism. These kings face monsters that help positively change who they are and provide commentary on societal anxieties of the time by characterizing common leadership challenges with otherworldly beings, allowing for the defeat of familiar issues in beast form to provide a greater morality and taste of success.
Odysseus learns with the help of female monsters that his immature actions for glory cause many of his men’s demise, and that without them and the role of leader he must assume full responsibility as family member. The impermanence of his self-control is apparent after the final loss of all of his men, when it seems his leadership skills have finally passed the tests presented by the immortal and female monsters on his journey home. He is seduced into Kalypso’s Eden, perhaps weaker at this point because he is alone, and after many years of reflection and becoming jaded to paradise, Odysseus fully realizes his main goal of getting home to his family. It is these trials and the loss of his men that allows Odysseus to morph from fearless leader to faithful husband and father.
The overarching theme in The Odyssey is the importance of family. This theme demonstrates the scrutiny of a good leader to be not only successful in the battlefield or in town hall, but in the household. Inside the hierarchy of society are varying roles within families, and it is clear that while Odysseus learns a lesson about leadership, he also learns a lesson about a task already familiar to many people within Ithaca -- providing for his family. William James Booth, author of "Households: On the Moral Architecture of the Economy" writes, "The Odyssey is above all a poem about the household, about being at home and a member of one's community as a central moment of the human condition…and displays before us the crucial importance of this element of rule within the community" (Booth 17-8). Society puts a great deal of weight on the actions of a husband and father, and it is through the trials presented to Odysseus on his journey home that he realizes that he must be able equally balance these roles in addition to the role of king.
Upon arrival at the island of Aiaia, after performing rites in the land of the dead for progression toward Ithaca, Odysseus is given instruction by Kirkê on how to approach the next leg of his journey. He will be traveling toward home by sea, and will come across several tests of his willpower and strength. The representation of the Seirênês, Skylla and Kharybdis as natural disasters of the sea shows a clear distinction between these nonhuman women and the more helpful, pleasure nymph kind that lead Odysseus to similar situations that involve being lured off track and allowing his men and ships to be destroyed for pride. The portrayal of these women as natural disasters also demonstrates the fear of traveling by sea and the common difficulties of this means of transportation. Monster women, such as the Seirênês, Skylla and Kharybdis maybe physically attractive, but do not offer any of the common distractions as the previous women (mortal or immortal), such as the provision of sexual pleasure or food and shelter--giving an interesting look at Odysseus’ challenges after gaining some experience of the women of the latter kind.
It is the immortal nymph Kalypso that keeps Odysseus away from his family for the majority of the time that he is gone, and it is nymphs that are his first challenge after shipping off from the shore of Aiaia. The repeating theme of being seduced by these otherworldly creatures may represent the sentiments of women left at home and the double standard of loyalty represented throughout mythology. The Seirênês are seemingly more similar to the nymphs Kirkê and Kalypso than to Skylla and Kharybdis, who lack any physical human female qualities, but have stark differences from Odysseus’ earlier and later captors. Kirkê warns Odysseus of their enchanting voices that lure men to their death, saying, “He will not see his lady nor his children in joy, / crowding about him, home from sea; / the Seirênês will sing his mind away / on their sweet meadow lolling” (Homer XII.51-4).
This warning rings true to Odysseus’ experience with Kirkê, having been seduced into her bed by her warm invitation, gifts and feasts. Despite the lack of information about Odysseus’ sexual endeavors before his journey, it can be assumed that he neared Aiaia in innocence, later repeating this action with Kalypso, to not to see home again for a long time, and never seeing his wife or little child greet him in the same manner they did before he left. He has already experienced the seduction of a nymph in a fertile land and it can be assumed after Kirkê’s warning that Odysseus will not allow the pleasurable sound of their voices to seduce him from the current motivation he has grown for getting home to his family and Ithaca. Their physical characteristics are never given in detail, but their surroundings are, and despite the meadow that encompasses the seductresses sounding as pleasant as their voices, the ground is littered with the rotting corpses of men who could not resist them.
Setting is important in the temptations of each of the immortal and monster females. The sensational, physical temptations of Kirkê, Kalypso and Nausikaa are depicted as fertile, lush and beautiful- all important factors in reproduction. The horrific, violent temptations of Skylla and Kharybdis are described as the setting itself, such as creatures of a jagged cliff and a whirlpool, respectively- an important factor in choosing a path of journey quickest to get home. The Seirênês are a mix of both temptations, being both pleasing and deadly, therefore having the image of a thriving meadow juxtaposed by rotting corpses that present a great confusion of pleasure and fear, and, based on the favored excursions of Odysseus, could represent his biggest hurdle to pass.
The incompleteness of a lesson learned against temptation is clear when he still allows himself to experience the pleasure of hearing their voices and is the only one of the ship crew to do so, commanding the others to keep a watchful eye on him to make sure that he isn’t taken by the sea nymphs. He has realized that falling into seduction does not produce the best outcome, but still does not keep from enjoying himself, even telling the men, “Yet she urged that I alone should listen to the song,” exaggerating Kirkê’s orders before telling them to tie him up tight (Homer XII.193-4). He allows himself a bit of indulgence, neglecting his men by using the word of another and not taking responsibility of what he wants in turning the situation to seem like repayment for his rescuing them from her swine spell earlier. This lack of complete communication is what caused their landing on Aiaia in the first place when Odysseus’ men are suspicious of the gift of wind given to him by Aiolos, supposing it to be gold, and is what inevitably leads to their downfall when they disobey his orders against eating the cattle of Lord Hêlios.
It is clear his excursion with Kirkê has not changed him completely, and it is also evident later when he is seduced by Kalypso after successfully avoiding the Seirênês. At that moment, however, he does not have his army to lead, or multiple men’s honor to defend, and when his title as leader is stripped from him after suffering the complete loss of his men he seems most susceptible and naïve, beginning anew, solely with the role of patriarch of his family. Regardless of his lying with Kalypso, Odysseus spends this time lamenting memories of Penélopê and Telémakhos, and shows his growth later when he is presented with Nausikaa in the land of Phaiákia and is not tempted even when in his most animalistic form as an unclothed castaway. Athena positions the beautiful daughter of ruler Alkínoös as an ambiguous situation, seemingly as a helpful hand to get Odysseus directions into town, but also testing his will against temptation.
Odysseus also shows constraint when approached with the challenge of riding past the cave that contains the hideous Skylla, with her six heads full of razor sharp teeth that Kirkê says, “God or man, no one could look on her in joy” (Homer XII.105-6). This time the challenge is not Odysseus being seduced by physical attraction or song, but for a fight like he had with Kyklopês. After Kirkê’s lengthy description of both Skylla and the nearby threat of the gigantic whirlpool that is Kharybdis, Odysseus asks for advice about slipping away from the whirlpool and fighting Skylla after she inevitably takes some of his men into her cave with her long necks. To this Kirkê replies, “Must you have battle in your heart forever? Old contender, will you not yield to the immortal gods?” (Homer XII.136-8). Kirkê exclaims that with the time it would take him to get his armor on, or get a shot ready with his bow, Skylla will have killed another dozen of his men. Her complete disbelief towards his incompetence and disregard for his men’s lives is an indication of his need to change. Odysseus’ experience with the Kyklopês is similar to what Kirkê predicts would happen with Skylla, and proved to be a lesson learned. The Kyklopês’ cave was a place to be avoided, such as the boat-wrecking whirlpool of Kharybdis, but because of Odysseus’ wish to adventure into the one-eyed monster’s dwelling place he cost the life of several of his men. Skylla would normally prove a challenge to the adventurer and would be someone to taunt and yell his title and address to as he passed by after the battle was won, but Odysseus seems to have learned (with a helpful reminder from Kirkê) that having the last word is not necessary to complete the objective of getting home, which is slowly becoming more important to him.
The issues that have been reckoned with earlier in the epic can be utilized now as a growing experience to further the point that family and homecoming are of the utmost importance. Seth L. Schein writes in the article, “Female Representations and Interpreting the Odyssey,” thatthe time Odysseus spends on his journey is rarely spent with mortal women. The tales of the challenging female creatures are a contrast that enhance the positivity and helpfulness of the mortal women in the story, such as Nausikaa, Arete and Penélopê, and provides a greater motivation to return to the land of mortals (Schein 21). The challenges he faces present issues of pride, sex and fertility, which are factors important to reproduction and Odysseus’ familial role, which is one he cannot assume living in lands of immortal women and monsters.
The role of monsters as a lesson learned in Beowulf's position as leader is similar to Odysseus' in that the biggest test comes after glory and when spoils have been won. In contrast to the king of Ithaca, Beowulf does not have a family, and after the defeat of Grendel and Grendel's mother, he has only been lauded for his immense amount of treasure. In this way he parallels the dragon that attacks the land of the Danes, for the serpent creature is said to live in "a stone-roofed barrow / where he guarded a hoard" (Heaney 149.2213-4). It is a gem-studded goblet, in a parallel description to the gem-studded sword awarded Beowulf as king, that is stolen from the dragon's hoard that triggers the attack and calls Beowulf, who has had fifty years of peaceful rule, to defend his land. The dragon represents a reflection of Beowulf that helps him learn about priorities more important than materialistic objects and the morale of his people. As he nears the end of his lifetime as king, Beowulf understands that the treasures he has are anchored to his mortal life and will not find him happiness in death, similarly to the thief in the dragon's barrow when "he foresaw that his joy / in the treasure would be brief" (Heaney 151.2240-1).
The social anxiety presented in the first strife of Beowulf between Hrothgar and Grendel can be seen as an example of the negative effects of settling down, building a mead hall for celebrations and quitting one's role as traveling warrior. It is said that the spoils of battle had favored Hrothgar, and among the many men who joined to live with him a strong army was formed, in the same instance that he is said to have his "mind turned to hall-building" (Heaney 7.67-8). Shortly afterward the mighty demon Grendel becomes annoyed by the sounds of the jovial feasts, harps and poetry, attacking every night and devouring any man in Heorot. Beowulf is then called to the rescue, a young warrior who is agreeable to all. After Beowulf becomes king, however, he too settles down and it is then that he, and the monster who is also presented in a stable, throne-like building, realizes the significance of sitting on a pile of treasure without defending it. In addition to the anxiety about settlement without active protection, the act of the townsman stealing from the dragon's hoard shows discontent in the land. Beowulf makes it clear that his treasure is a substitute for family and is a priority in his life, and when leading by this example his people can be assumed to adapt a warped sense of materialism that, when not as rich as a king, could cause immoral behavior.
The anxiety against a focus on material wealth is apparent in the anecdote describing the creation of the barrow full of treasures that the dragon currently inhabits. A man, who is the last of his people because they have all perished in war, buries treasure under a hill while describing the uselessness of all the spoils of plunder in the end when everyone is dead. "The coat of mail that came through all fights, / through shield-collapse and cut of sword, / decays with the warrior," the burrow creator says before he mourns alone "until death's flood / brimmed up in his heart" (Heaney 2258-60, 2269-70). This example of a person who is literally the last man standing of his people paints a negative aspect of war as the taker of life. A parable on the importance of a strong army, however, could be taken from this, and the idea that perhaps this man had a great deal of treasure because his people were once great warriors who earned spoils and then settled down, becoming weak and defenseless with celebration like Hrothgar. This adds another parallel to the role of leader in civilization for Beowulf to utilize as a way not to be, and the final defeat of the dragon is how Beowulf realizes the idea of dying as a man with a lot of treasure instead of as a father or army leader.
Beowulf's parallel with the dragon can be interpreted as closer in relation than one would assume for a king and a fire-breathing monster. Raymond P. Tripp, author of "More About the Fight with the Dragon," theorizes that the beast in Beowulf can be thought of as a man-dragon--a monster created through a curse that is actually the last man of the race that hoarded the treasure. On the "death" of the original, human hoarder, Tripp writes, "It is clear he did not die then and there, so to speak, after completing his hoard and pronouncing his complaint against death. He lived for three hundred years, until Beowulf killed him" (Tripp 95). According to Tripp there are several context clues that lend to the understanding of the mortal man's transformation to a dragon, such as the reference to the creature as "slick-skinned" like without scales and the many references to the fate of those who enter and leave the barrow as being mystical or cursed (Heaney 2274). Within the epic poem a description that leaves ambiguity to the death of the hoarder and of the dragon is described by, "First the dragon slew / that man among men, who in turn made fierce amends / and settled the feud. Famous for his deeds / a warrior may be, but it remains a mystery / where his life will end" (Heaney 3060-4). Before Beowulf entered the battle with the dragon he knew it would be where he died, so this description may be of the hoarder who was "killed" by the dragon, losing his normal, human mortality. This aids in furthering the parallel to Beowulf as a lesson in how mortal men that value treasure enough to bury themselves alive with it can literally become monsters, losing sight of their human qualities and touch with reality. This shift in hierarchy of importance allows for one to possibly lack the complete transformation to monster, i.e. scales, and draws a clearer resemblance between the hero and his enemy.
Beowulf admits during his speech to his warriors before their attack on the dragon, when he knows his life will soon come to an end, that he was not raised in a normal family and later, in his dying breaths, seems to show regret for his never seeing importance in having a wife or an heir. He says that at the age of seven he was sent by his father to be raised by King Hrethel. Beowulf notes that King Hrethel treated him just as he treated his sons, and goes on to describe the murder of Herebeald by Haethcyn. The misery a father must feel, Beowulf says, is something wisdom cannot heal, and it is during this speech that he perhaps gains an understanding of sadness when the choices of one's life cannot be changed, as well as speaking to the murder of Cain by Abel in Genesis -- Cain being a direct relative to Grendel, showing that the late monster and Beowulf are not that distantly related.
Beowulf has spent his life after defeating the monsters for the Danes surrounded by treasure, no longer needing to defend his title as hero or king, but he realizes that the fight against the dragon is a task he must take on in order to leave a legacy of worth beyond monetary means, stating, "Nor is it up to any man except me / to measure his strength against the monster / or to prove his worth / I shall win the gold / by my courage" (Heaney 2533-6). Earlier in his speech Beowulf states that the dragon must end his leasehold on the treasure barrow, an idea that is reiterated in vagueness as to whom it references, but is located directly after the description of the failure of Beowulf's sword against the monster, stating, "So every man must yield / the leasehold of his days" (Heaney 2590-1). This repetition in the narrative, moving from Beowulf's speech to his men to the narrator's commentary during the battle shows a greater parallel between the dragon and Beowulf, and how both must give up the title as lease holder to a barrow of treasure.
The relaxed lifestyle of Beowulf's people and land causes the inability of his warriors to assist him in battle. Beowulf is almost engulfed in flames when his men with their swords and shields run to the forest to save themselves, making it clear that although they have the provisions and look of warriors, they have not had the experience of an actual battle--a fact that is unfortunate for Beowulf in the end, despite the positivity of peacefulness. It is only Wiglaf who stays by Beowulf's side in battle and helps him defeat the dragon, his courage explained as the product of good parenting and being lead by example. His bravery is described as he carries his "ancestral blade," further showing the importance of good lineage as a necessity for sound protection and warriors, his strength to be called "inborn" (Heaney 2628, 2696). This support by a warrior that is not his own son causes Beowulf, as he is bleeding profusely and slowly dying, to admit that he wished he could place his armor on the shoulders of a son. He then tells Wiglaf to take a moment to look at the dragon's treasures, for Beowulf is glad that he is able to die having seen them. It seems that this dying leader may be admitting that treasure truly was the happy family he wished for, but his last words can be interpreted as a lesson to his pseudo-son, because despite Wiglaf's wonderment at the hoard, he concludes, "How easily treasure / buried in the ground, gold hidden / however skillfully, can escape from any man!" (Heaney 2764-6). When Wiglaf delivers some of the treasure to Beowulf, the kings last words direct Wiglaf to create a barrow to store the hoard and then tells Wiglaf that he is the last of the Waegmundings -- putting him in the exact position of the man who created the barrow the dragon inhabited.
Leaders as ring givers is an important image in civilization that shows that their king has earned enough spoils to share with his people, a sign that he is a good provider to an extent that frivolous gifts are a token to all. This prosperity and the successes of Beowulf are what kept his enemies at bay and is why his army was never trained in war. Whether or not he was able to win a fight in his old age, Beowulf had a reputation of an unbeatable force. If his people were confronted, however, it would be clear to their attackers that his men lacked bravery and that Beowulf was an aged king that did not have the amount of power he had before. In understanding that Beowulf's reputation is what had kept his people safe, Wiglaf orders that the treasure be burned with Beowulf's funeral pyre, calling it "treasure no follower will wear in his memory," because of the fact that no one truly deserved to wear the spoils Beowulf gifted his people. In society is important for leaders and their men to work as one, and when the ring-giver is an image only supported by the bravery of the king, the people as a whole will suffer, such as from cowardice, thievery or the inexperience of gaining one's own success. Beowulf's death and the action of Wiglaf to make sure that the treasure was buried with their late king showed that even though the treasure was available in an open barrow, everyone had learned a lesson about materialism through the death of their leader and through their actions that ultimately caused his death. Like the sword that helped Wiglaf assist in the defeat of the dragon, the treasure is referred to as ancestral, but in a way that lessens its value. "They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure, / gold under gravel, gone to earth, / as useless to men now as it ever was," as a final gesture that there would be no symbol left of Beowulf's death past the mourning faces of his people.
The lesson against the frivolous nature of hoarding or mourning through materials is not the only understanding that can be drawn from the death of Beowulf. Beowulf was a good leader because of his bravery, the fights he had won when he was young and his willingness to come to the aid of a people unrelated to him. It is in death, however, that we learn that he was completely selfless, willing to give up life for the safety of his people even after they abandon him at the frontlines. According to Tripp in his essay "Living too Long and "Pagan" Evil in Beowulf," Beowulf's readiness to die for his people served as a blessing. "The last act of not so quiet desperation is to resist death. The likes of the Grendels and the dragon do not, in a word, die -- they live too long, and living too long, clinging to life at any cost, leads to depravity" (Tripp 166). This is why, Tripp writes, that Beowulf can be considered an overall good king -- he did not cling to life. This leads to the main difference between having qualities like the hoarding dragon and being anything actually like the dragon. All of the monsters are described as hundreds of years old and have become depraved through "outliving" themselves and losing sight of what is most important, such as Grendel's anger at the sound of the celebrations and the dragon's anger at the theft of one goblet (Tripp 166). In the end of the epic poem Beowulf is referred to several times as old and he even requests the sight of treasure as he dies, signifying that his noble act of dying for his people was also a good thing for them in the long run as well.
There are several similarities and differences between the leadership of Odysseus and Beowulf that help determine the way they confront monsters and how society perceives morality. Anxieties exist in the civilized order of their worlds that stress the importance of family and equal treatment of warriors over the riches of war and adventure. The personal lessons learned by each leader, however, occurs in two separate instances and times of their lives, Beowulf realizing the importance of an heir and the unimportance of treasure as he dies and Odysseus coming to the same realization as he is on his way home to practice this new found knowledge. These kings, despite their many differences, such as Beowulf's willingness to die for his people and Odysseus' willingness to do anything necessary to stay alive for his, each go through a journey that helps portray the feelings and societal standards of civilized culture that set a sense of the morality of the time.
Booth, William James. Households: On the Moral Architecture of the Economy. 1st ed. Ithaca, London: Cornell University Press, 1993. Print.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf. Trans., 1st ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2000. Print.
Homer, "The Odyssey." Trans. Robert Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998. Print.
Schein, Seth L.. "Female Representations and Interpreting the Odyssey." The Distaff Side: Representing the Female in Homer's Odyssey. Ed. Beth Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Print.
Tripp, Raymond P.. "Living too Long and "Pagan" Evil in Beowulf." Literary Essays on Language and Meaning in the Poem Called Beowulf. Comp. Raymond P. Tripp. New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1992. Print.
Tripp, Raymond P. More About the Fight with the Dragon. 1st ed. New York: University Press of America, 1983. Print.