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Christian Elements In Beowulf Essay Research Paper

Christian Elements In Beowulf Essay, Research Paper Christian Elements in Beowulf The praised epic poem, Beowulf, is the first great heroic poem in English

Christian Elements In Beowulf Essay, Research Paper

Christian Elements in Beowulf

The praised epic poem, Beowulf, is the first great heroic poem in English

literature. The epic follows a courageous warrior named Beowulf throughout his young,

adult life and into his old age. As a young man, Beowulf becomes a legendary hero when

he saves the land of the Danes from the hellish creatures, Grendel and his mother. Later,

after fifty years pass, Beowulf is an old man and a great king of the Geats. A monstrous

dragon soon invades his peaceful kingdom and he defends his people courageously, dying

in the process. His body is burned and his ashes are placed in a cave by the sea. By

placing his ashes in the seaside cave, people passing by will always remember the

legendary hero and king, Beowulf. In this recognized epic, Beowulf, is abound in

supernatural elements of pagan associations; however, the poem is the opposite of pagan

barbarism. The presentation of the story telling moves fluidly within Christian

surroundings as well as pagan ideals.

Beowulf was a recited pagan folklore where the people of that time period

believed in gods, goddesses, and monsters. It?s significance lies in an oral history where

people memorized long, dense lines of tedious verse. Later, when a written tradition was

introduced they began to write the story down on tablets.

The old tale was not first told or invented by the commonly known, Beowulf poet.

This is clear from investigations of the folk lore analogues. The manuscript was written

by two scribes around AD 1000 in late West Saxon, the literary dialect of that period. It

is believed that the scribes who put the old materials together into their present form

were Christians and that his poem reflects a Christian tradition. The first scribe copied

three prose pieces and the first 1,939 lines of Beowulf while the second scribe copied the

rest of Beowulf and Judith. In 1731, a fire swept through the Cottonian Library,

damaging many books and scorching the Beowulf codex. In 1786-87, after the

manuscript had been deposited in the British Museum the Icelander, Grinur Jonsson

Thorkelin, made two transcriptions of the poem for what was to be the first edition, in

1815 (Clark, 112-15).

Beowulf is a mixture of pagan and Christian attitudes. Heathen practices are

mentioned in several places, such as vowing of sacrifices at idol fanes, the observing of

omens, the burning of the dead, which was frowned upon by the church. The frequent

allusions to the power of fate, the motive of blood revenge, and the praise of worldly

glory bear testimony to the ancient background of pagan conceptions and ideals.

However, the general tone of the epic and its ethical viewpoint are predominantly

Christian . There is no longer a genuine pagan atmosphere. The sentiment has been

softened and purified. The virtues of moderation, unselfishness, consideration for others

are practiced and appreciated. Beowulf is a Christian reworking of a pagan poem with ?a

string of pagan lays edited by monks; it is the work of a learned but inaccurate Christian

antiquarian? (Clark, 112).

The author has fairly exhaulted the fights with Grendel, his mother, and the

dragon into a conflict between powers of good and evil. The figure of Grendel, while

originally an ordinary Scandinavian troll is conceived as an impersonation of evil and

darkness, even an incarnation of the Christian devil. Grendel is a member of the race of

Cain, from whom all ?misshapen and unnatural things were spawned? (Kermode, 42)

such as ogres and elves. He is a creature dwelling in the outer darkness, a giant and

cannibal. When he crawls off to die, he is said to join the route of devils in hell. The

story of a race of demonic monsters and giants descended from Cain. It came form a

tradition established by the apocryphal Book of Enoch and early Jewish and Christian

interpretations of Genesis 6:4, ?There were giants in the earth in those days, and also

afterward, when the sons of God had relations with the daughters of men, who bore

children to them? (Holland Crossley, 15).

Many of Grendel?s appellations are unquestionable epithets of Satan such as

?enemy of mankind,? ?God?s adversary,? ?the devil in hell,? and ?the hell slave.? His

actions are represented in a manner suggesting the conduct of the evil one, and he dwells

with his mother in a mere which conjures visions of hell.

The depiction of the mere is the most remarkable because it is a conceptual

landscape made fearsomely realistic by the poetry. The closest parallel with Grendel and

his mother?s mere is from the vision of hell in sermon 17 of the tenth century Blickling

Homilies. This scene is based on the apocryphal vision of St. Paul, where the saint visits

hell under the protection of St. Michael. The similarities to the mere are italicized:

?But now let us ask the archangel St. Michael and the nine

orders of holy angels that they be a help to us against

hell-fiends. They were the holy ones that receive men?s

souls. Thus St. Paul was looking toward the northern part

of this middle-earth, where all the waters go down under,

and there he saw a hoary stone over that water, and north

of that stone the woods had grown very frosty, and there

were dark mists, and under that stone was the dwelling of

nickers and outlawed creatures. And he saw that on that

cliff many black souls were hanging on the icy trees with

their hands bound, and the devils in the likeness of nickers

were seizing them as does the greedy wolf, and the water

was black underneath the cliff. And between the cliff and

the water there was the distance of twelve miles, and when

the branches broke off then souls that were hanging on the

branches plunged downward, and the nickers seized them.

These, then, were the souls of those who here in this world

had sinned unrighteously and would not repent of it before

their life?s end. But let us now earnestly ask St. Michael

that he lead our souls into bliss, where they may rejoice in

eternity without end. Amen? (Morris, 209-11).

These remarkable verbal parallels show that the landscape of the mere symbolizes

hell. It is a garden of evil, in which one of the race of Cain dwells in freezing sin. The

soul that avoids these dark waters is based on Psalm 42, ?As the hart pants after the

running streams, so my soul cries aloud to Thee, O God.? The soul would rather die than

hide his head in the mere, just as any rational soul would prefer death to eternal

damnation.

Beowulf?s last monstrous foe is designated by the word ?wyrm? meaning a

serpent or worm, and the word ?draca? meaning dragon. In the Old English poetry, the

worm and dragon represent enmity to mankind. The worms who devour man?s corpse

after death, the dragons and serpents who receive his soul in hell, and the dragon of sin

and mortality who rules over earth until Christ cancels for all time the work of the

tempest.

The Grendel kin and the dragon share some of the descriptive words and epithets

used for monsters in the poem such as ?slayer,? ?enemy,? and ?evil destroyer.? They all

live in demonic halls. Some poets believe that the dragon was ?the devil himself,

guarding a hoard of gold that infects men with greed and pride and so leads to death and

damnation? (Clark, 257). The Beowulf dragon is sufficiently snakelike, both in his

appearance and behavior, to qualify as a Christian symbol. In Genesis of the Bible, the

serpent is never clearly called Satan. The snake is an allegory for the devil much like the

dragon is an allegory for the archfiend.

But if the dragon is of the same kind as Grendel, why was Beowulf unable to

defeat him? To this question the Christian interpretation is that Beowulf has lost the

favor of God. However, the dragon is the instrument of Beowulf?s death. As J.R.R.

Tolkien explains, ?the placing of the dragon is inevitable: a man can but die upon his

death day? (Holland-Crossley, 11). If this view is accepted, the problem of why Beowulf

had forfeited God?s favor disappears. Beowulf in his youth overcomes his foes with

God?s help. But even with God at his side, Beowulf, like all men, must die.

Beowulf is an allegory of Christian salvation. There are many symbols that allude

to Christian references in Beowulf; the fight with Grendel represents the salvation of

mankind, the fight with Grendel?s mother represents Christ?s Resurrection, and the fight

with the dragon resembles Christ?s death.

There is real conscious analogy between Beowulf and Christ. There is, for

example, the familiar parallel between Hroogar?s praise of Beowulf, ?Yes, she may say,

whatever, woman brought forth this son among mankind-if she still lives-that the God of

Old was kind to her in childbearing? (Kermode, 45), and the remark of a woman to

Christ in Luke 11:27, ?Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the breasts that thou hast

sucked.? Also, this speech occurs shortly after Christ has cast out a demon (11:14-18),

while that of Hroogar follows Beowulf?s cleansing Heorot of the demonic Grendel.

Again, Beowulf goes forth to fight the dragon accompanied by a band of twelve, one of

whom is a culprit; during the fight the eleven retainers flee, and one returns. This

parallels the picture of Christ shortly before his death attended by the twelve Apostles:

the treason of Judas, the flight of the eleven remaining Apostles, and the return of John

at the crucifixion.

Beowulf and Christ are icons of wisdom and power. Christ is frequently

represented by patristic writers as the wisdom and power of God. A Vercelli Homily

remarks of his early life that ?he was filled with might and wisdom before God and

before men (Tuso, 129), and the poetic Descent into Hell describes him at the

Resurrection as ?brave . . . victorious and wise? (Tuso, 22). In early medieval

iconography, there commonly existed a portrayal of a warlike and victorious Christ with

his feet resting on a prostrate lion and dragon which parallels Beowulf and Jesus as

heroic figures. Fr. Klaeber wrote, ?We might feel inclined to recognize features of the

Christian Savior in the destroyer of hellish fiends, the warrior brave and gentle, blameless

in thought and deed, the king that dies for his people? (Chickering, 17). Both icons

represented power and wisdom of heroes.

The scene where Beowulf dives into Grendel?s dark mere and begins his descent

into the watery depths swimming until ?the ninth hour of the day? (Kermode, 57). This

is almost an unavoidable biblical echo. In Luke 23:44-46, it is the same hour that Christ,

abandoned by all but a faithful few, died on the cross. Furthermore, this is where

Beowulf dove into Grendel and his mother?s dark mere and swam until the ninth hour,

reaching the mere?s bottom, symbolizing the death of Christ and his stay in hell.

Beowulf, having lain down his life for the defense of his people and having

thanked God for winning the dragon?s treasure for their use, suggests the figure of Christ.

Charles Donahue eloquently wrote, ?Our poet liked diptychs, and he left his audience

with a pair of images, Beowulf at the dragon?s barrow on one side of the diptych, Jesus

on Calvary on the other? (Poupard, 18). Donahue suggests that both Christ and Beowulf

are martyrs for their people. They each gave up their lives to save the people.

The champion Beowulf, in life is reminiscent of the champion Christ in various

aspects of his wisdom and power. Beowulf in the end is not revealed to be a God-man

but man. His death not a supernatural atonement but a natural phenomenon. An analogy

of any kind between Beowulf and Christ in itself account for the notorious absence of

explicit references in the poem.

The epic of Beowulf is wrapped in a history of pagan ideal and Christian

surroundings. The poem is woven in Christian allegorical figures which give Beowulf a

romantic mystery that many epics lack. Beowulf is a timeless classic that has endured the

centuries. All that is left of the epic is the hero?s fame, a monument as enduring as earth.

Primary Source

Kermode, Frank, and John Hollander, et al. Beowulf. The Oxford Anthology of English

Literature: Vol 1. New York: Oxford UP, 1973. 29-98.

Secondary Sources

Chickering, Howell D, Jr. Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor,

1977.

Clark, George. Beowulf. New York: Twayne, 1990.

Holland-Crossley, Kevin, and Bruce Mitchell. Beowulf. New York: Farrar, Straus, and

Giroux.

Poupard, Dennis, and Jelena O. Krstonc, ed. Classical and Medieval Literature

Criticism: Volume 1. Michigan: Gale Research, 1988.

Morris, Richard, ed. Blickling Homilies: Sermon 17 of the Tenth Century, Old Series,

no. 73. London: EETS, 1880. 209-11.

Tuso, Joseph F, ed. Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation Backgrounds and Sources

Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1975.

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