In Beowulf, Faustus and Paradise Lost undergo a religious transition, from Paganism to Christianity, Christianity to Reformation and Rebel. These changes aptly reflect the historical shift from a boastful and violent view to a more humble and meritorious perspective.
We see a shift in consciousness from the writers point of view, beginning during the Medieval epic poem Beowulf and trace the religious shift in this consciousness between Beowulf and Paradise Lost. It can be seen in these texts, (including Faustus) that although Christianity was very much a powerful model against which society was built in the Middle Ages, it is also contradictory in many ways.
William Shakespeare is known for his writings on Denmark for his work in Hamlet and it is seen in Hamlet how pagan believes were rolled together with Christianity. However, Beowulf deals with a more sinister form of the pagan/Christianity shift and that is of occult and demonic existence. The monster called Grendel causes great devastation to the public and inhabitants of Denmark, much to the dismay of King Hrothgar who has continued a long lineage of good and mighty kings.
At this stage of literature, there was still a vast amount of emphasis placed on mythology and the belief in demons and monsters. One also has to be aware in this case of the parallels to Christian stories that follow the same lines as Beowulf does. For instance, Beowulf does not come from the same tribe as the king and his tribe are known as Geats. If we look at the subtle nature of this story, we can form a link between David and Goliath or even Saint George and the Dragon.
Beowulf lies in wait for the monster to arrive at the court and slays Grendel with his bare hands. The same is true but in varying degrees of the Biblical David and Goliath proverb. St George and the Dragon also has the same connotation in it. Beowulf also struggles with Grendel’s mother who comes to avenge her son’s death.
Beowulf slays her too but has to swim to the depths of a lake in order to find her. In this tale there is also a sentimental relationship to the story of King Arthur, a legend that has been intertwined with Christianity over the years. In Arthurian legend, Avalon is situated in the middle of a lake from which a ‘lady’ is reputed to hoist the sword of Excalibur – the sword that rules Camelot. Arthurian legend canonizes the same tale found in Beowulf, only making it appear less savage and pagan.
“A throng of sorrows I have borne from Grendel; but God still works
wonder on wonder, the Warden-of-Glory.”(Beowulf, XIV: 920-923).
There is clear reference above that God was indeed used and referenced in this poem, but God is also used somewhat as a talisman rather than as an all powerful supernatural being. In the same passage, God is referred to as “the God of ages” and the “Mighty Maker” (Beowulf, XIV: 936 & 985). Despite these references to God, there is still a great deal of emphasis placed on the monster who is representative of demonic power.
There is a symbolic reference to the mother of Grendel and also to the Queen, whom in Christianity can be seen as Delilah and Mary. Grendel’s mother is the dark side of the female Christian form, the one that is corrupt and subject to failure, while Wealhtheow is the mother figure who bestows upon her minions the strength and capability to fight evil.
In typically pagan stories, evil and good are not conceptual, but have to be referred to in terms of something tangible. It is for this reason that the numerous offenses undertaken by Beowulf are always against some horrific being such as a monster or a dragon and are never the inner most battles that are truly fought against evil. In Christianity, evil is possessed by every man and woman and the only way to thwart this inner evil, is to have God on your side. The pagan beliefs and mythology create physical representations of the inner battles that mankind faces.
The Tragical History of Dr. Faustus is Christopher Marlowe’s best known work. Unlike Beowulf, Faustus is aware of the dangers of the practice he is getting into because he is forewarned that the occult is not to be trifled with. Dr. Faustus essentially sells his soul to Lucifer in exchange for success as a practitioner of the magical arts.
Dr Faustus, despite numerous misgivings at various stages of the pledge, accepts that he has now signed his soul to the devil in a blood pact. Together with Mephastophilis, Lucifer’s own right-hand man, Faustus is richly rewarded and begins a series of assaults on humanity which includes the harassment of the Pope himself. In this play the symbolism of power is a great driving force for man’s downfall. Adam and Eve were instructed not to eat from the tree of knowledge upon which forbidden fruit grew, they ate of the fruit and were afflicted. In this story, Faustus too is warned against delving too deep into the occult, but his quest for knowledge and power is too great.
Faustus signs the pact with his own blood which is symbolic of Christ’s blood only that in Faustus’ case the blood threw him into sin, while Christ’s blood cleanses it. There is, in the Quatro of 1616 a dialogue between the Good Angel and the Evil Angel. This is extremely important when considering that there had been a deep conflict between Medieval paganism and Renaissance Christianity.