The Christianity Of Beowulf Essay, Research Paper
It is agreed by almost all critics that Beowulf was once a pre-Christian poem but no one is completely sure how it went from pre-Christian to Christian influenced. There are many ideas of how it was written and one of the most popular theories is that the poem was already in poetic form and the author’s own beliefs were added. Another theory is that the poem was written by a Christian who heard the story and added some of his own beliefs when he wrote it. A third theory is that the poem was already written and a Christian revised it and added his own beliefs (Blackburn, p.1). Throughout the poem there is an underlying non-Christian feeling with Christian beliefs added in. It is obvious that some of these beliefs were added but no one knows to what amount they were added in. There are comparisons that can be made from Grendel to the Devil and Beowulf to Christ that seem to suggest that the Christian influence may have been more than just a couple words changed around, but these could have been just coincidental.
Throughout the whole poem there are non-Christian practices and beliefs told. Some are the offering of sacrificing to idols, the observations of omens, burning of the dead, the many references to fate, and blood revenge. These are all things that Christians are against and are often considered sins. Though mostly minor things, these are seen quite frequently and show that the author was familiar with knowledge of the bible and Christian terminology. If the poem was originally Christian, then probably non of these things would be mentioned. On the other hand, there are absolutely no references to angels, saints, the cross or Christ. These are things that are often in Christian stories but fail to show up in Beowulf.
It is also believed that when the Christian beliefs were added later, the author may have changed a significant amount of the story. This can been see through the character of Grendel. Grendel is a type of man-monster and represents all evil and darkness, just like the Christian devil. They often say Satan related things about him such as calling him “God’s enemy”, “Hell slave”, and at one point even call him “the devil in Hell”
(Klaeber, p104). It is also mentioned that Grendel descended from Cain, the first murderer that was banished by God, and where he lives with his mother describes what could be thought of as Hell. “They live in secret places, windy cliffs, wolf-dens where water pours from rocks, then runs underground, where mist steams like black clouds, and the groves of trees growing out over the lake are all covered with frozen spray and wind down snakelike roots that reach as far as the water and keep it dark. At night that lake burns like a torch. No one knows its bottom, no wisdom reaches such depths.” (Beowulf, ll. 1358). The scop knows of Grendel being God’s enemy through the whole poem but it is not mentioned by Hrothgar or anyone else, which suggests that these things may have been added later.
Then there is Beowulf, the victorious hero who beats the monsters and dies for his people while doing so. In the story the author has called Beowulf “defending, protecting, and redeeming being” (Klaeber, p104). We can recognize the characteristics of Beowulf as the same or at least related to Jesus. He is the destroyer of hell-like monsters, a brave but gentle warrior, blameless for his actions and a king that eventually dies for his people.
In the story there are about fifty-seven references to God such as “Allowed them by the grace of God” (Beowulf, ll. 14), “holy God, who sent him victory, gave judgement for truth and right, Ruler of Heavens ” (Beowulf, ll. 1554), and many that vary in length. There is a very simple way to take the Christianity out of Beowulf. Everywhere the word “God” is written, just substitute the word “fate”, which is already often used in the poem, for it. There is usually no other changes needed to make the poem entirely non-Christian. An example of this is when it is said that Grendel could not destroy the followers of Beowulf because “God willed it not”, all that has to be done is change it to say because “fate willed it not” and it is the same thing except now its non-Christian. It would take little effort to take the entire Christian feeling out of Beowulf, all that is needed is a few verbal changes.
In conclusion, Beowulf is almost definitely a non-Christian poem or at least non-Christian story at one time until it was written or just revised. When written or revised, the changes according to the beliefs of the author, which are Christian, were added. Whether these changes were major or minor is unknown. The Grendel to the Devil and Beowulf to Christ references could have been purposely added which would suggest that the story was changed more then just a little bit. If they were just coincidence then maybe its true that all that has to be done is change the word “God” to “fate” and all Christianity is gone and we see the poem in the relative original form, before the Christian influence was added. It is something we will never know unless an earlier version of Beowulf, before it may have been revised, is recovered.