Date of Award

Spring 1981

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


This dissertation focuses on the Heroic Plot or the hero-monster conflict as it appears in five major works: Beowulf, Tristan, Yvain, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and Book One of The Faerie Queene. It traces the survival of this motif from its archetypal deployment in epic song through its various forms in the romance narratives to its ultimate metamorphosis in Christian allegory.

The Heroic Plot is central in Beowulf where heroism is defined in purely physical terms. The monsters are treated seriously as superhuman creatures which must be destroyed in physical combat, and the conflicts are described in vivid detail as occurring within the external world.

In the world of romance, martial prowess is no longer the sole determinant of heroic worth, and the monster-fights correspondingly lose centrality in the narratives. The two major traditions in the use of this motif, the parodic and the symbolic, are best exemplified in Tristan and Yvain respectively. The fading of belief in the physical reality of monsters is obvious, and the Heroic Plot appears moribund in literary art.

In Sir Gawain, however, the motif resurges on the physical plane. The monster-figure is resuscitated with the application of the faery tradition, and the confrontation is taken seriously as a physical encounter within the external world. The nature and function of the conflict are yet drastically altered: the action resolves itself into a psychological ordeal which tests the hero's moral calibre and generates in him a new understanding of the human condition.

The shift from objective to subjective reality in the presentation and use of the Heroic Plot is crystallized in The Faerie Queene. Though the monster-fights are delineated in the manner of epic song, the creatures here are primarily externalizations of aspects of the human psyche and the battles are visualizations of the psychological struggles that take place within the mind as and individual strives to attain moral stature. Belief in the physical existence of monsters may be dead, but the Heroic Plot lives on in the human imagination.