Beowulf Essay Prompt: The poem works, not through ambiguity, but through irony. There is genius in the evocation of an “out-caste” pagan world sustained though the voice of a Christian poet… The engine of this poem is an unflinching, passionate theology. But in its psychological acuity, symbolic resonance and dramatic realism, Beowulf dazzles as a literary classic. The Nordic poem Beowulf transcends ancient pagan civilisation to today’s society, where Beowulf remains a literary archetype through Christian adaptation.
The original scop (poet) of Beowulf came from a Nordic pagan society dating back years before Christianity reached that region, however the translated text used today contains a strong Christian theology due to the interpretation of the Irish Catholic translator, Seamus Heaney. The rediscovery of Beowulf through a Christian lens magnifies the eternal human values portrayed in literature unaltered by religion or time. The pagan myth Beowulf withstands time due to Christian influences demonstrating the poems resonating plot, values and themes.
The archetype of the “Hero” repeats many times throughout the history of literature, in Viking literature and in the bible, the literary hero follows Beowulf’s same plot. The plot in Beowulf follows the archetypal structure of a Hero overcoming all enemies until he meets his match but still dies a Hero: Beowulf defeats his enemies Grendel, then Grendel’s Mother, then must kill the dragon and in doing so, sacrifices his own life for his people.
In true hero fashion, Beowulf fights the dragon alone, knowing he will die, “ he had scant regard for the dragon as a threat, no dread at all of its courage or strength, for he had kept going often in the past, through perils and ordeals of every sort, he had purged Hrothgar’s hall, triumphed in Heorot and beaten Grendel. He outgrappled the monster and his evil kin”. The quote outlines the Hero’s past triumphs and characteristically gallant outlook on the challenge ahead- the dragon Beowulf should fear, but does not.
The archetypal plot structure transcends from the original to the translation, as it does through much literature in human society. Beowulf’s society follows a strict set of moral values that govern their daily lives, which conflicts with the Christian moral. The characters seem to abide by a Germanic heroic code whereby strength, courage, loyalty and reputation are valued above all and in the tribal warrior society, one my only conform or violate the code. This belief system causes tension in the text, as the Christian translator’s beliefs value forgiveness one’s enemy, glory in the afterlife and honour through positive action.
The translator seems to struggle with advocating a pagan moral code, and tension ensues in the text, “Thus Beowulf bore himself with valour; he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour and took no advantage; he never cut down a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled his God-sent strength and his outstanding natural powers”. Evidently, the poet describes a barbaric society valuing the heroic code, however the translator manages to throw in a Christian belief in stating Beowulf’s strength is ‘god-sent’.
The tension between Christian values and Beowulf’s Heroic code throughout the poem forms a contradiction of values and codes that is unique to Beowulf, conveying the story adapted to beliefs of two different religions. Beowulf uses symbology that repeats in literature, mythology and folklore and evokes different meaning depending on one’s beliefs. The translator includes in his own beliefs when describing symbolic figures in the poem, which contrast with the original interpretation in Old English and even today’s perception.
Monsters, for example, universally symbolise evil and alien intrusion in a human society, however in Christianity monsters translate to sin or are used to describe birth defects – an ominous sign from god. Grendel, proclaimed a descendent of Cain, represents the evil in Scandinavian society of marauding and killing others, “Grendel was the name of this grim demon, haunting the marshes, marauding round the heath and desolate fences; he had dwelt for some time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts”.
Clearly, the original Scandinavian Scop did not describe Grendel as a member of ‘Cain’s clan’, however intended Grendel to symbolise evil, not in the Vikings, but just pure evil. The dragon holds much meaning in literature, a common symbol of sin for Christians, but a symbol of eternal malice by pagans and in Beowulf, a sign of death itself as Beowulf’s encounter ends in mutual destruction.
Monsters symbolise evil and sin in Beowulf, however the origins of the true intended symbology cannot be confirmed due to Christian influence as monsters are related back to God’s doing rather than evils overcome by a Hero. Christian values inflicted on Beowulf further enhance the poems meaning, demonstrating universal application of the stories ideas to a wide range of beliefs. Heaney inserts his own values to an eternal story, not only keeping this pagan world alive, but defining Beowulf as an eternal, archetypal story of heroism.
However, evidence shows the translator values his religion more than historical accuracy through insertion of Christian beliefs over pagan belief. References to God throughout the poem only deter the reader from the historical reality of the poem, while the theme, plot and value are for the most part maintained. The combination of pagan and Christian tradition preserves Beowulf as a fascinating tale that lives on through the storytelling, from one interpretation to another.