Beowulf is a masterpiece that has pillaged and powered through centuries of oral retelling and translating just as the character it vividly illustrates does throughout the epic. Despite being so impressive and entertaining on the surface, the Old English classic embodies something a lot greater, and that is the moral struggle of religion going on at the time. Religion played a huge role in Anglo-Saxon culture for it was what gave the people a reason to live for, it was what motivated people to work to make it through the harsh winters.
Even today, it can be seen that people require that extrinsic motivation to work hard and push through obstacles in their path. The dichotomy of Paganism and Christianity at the time is depicted by the tone of the narrator, which subliminally hints at what their own beliefs are, symbols, that accentuate the severity of the dichotomy itself, and allusions as well as foreshadowing, that further the Christian impact on the poem. The moral ambiguity of the tone is a result of the inner conflict the narrator is facing in depicting pagan characters when being a Christian themselves.
The first instance in which the tone relays a sort of lack of faith in Paganism is when the people are being terrorized by Grendel and begin to pray to the pagan gods to harm him. The narrator describes their feeble attempts as fruitless. This part of the text reveals the narrator’s inquisitive attitude towards the pagans due to his own bias. He most probably believes that since he is a follower of Christianity, all other religions are silly, or simply of no importance.
At the time, a majority of the Anglo-Saxons that remained had already been Christianized, and a very small fraction of them still followed paganism, and they were shunned by others for it. This bias was not completely one-sided, however, because it was still an attempt to glorify the hero Beowulf, who was pagan. In other words, what makes Beowulf so impressive is that it reflects the religious dichotomy of the time while not changing the story itself. Beowulf can in fact be described as being a great pagan and a Christian. Beowulf is a mix of two ideals: the heroic warrior of the pagans and the humble selfless servant of the Christians.
One can find many elements of Christian philosophy throughout Beowulf, such as the constant protection from God, everything comes from God, and that man is to be humble and unselfish. God’s constant protection of Beowulf can be seen throughout the poem in instances such as when he was battling Grendel and he just happened to come across a weapon that could defeat her. Coincidences don’t happen that often, and when Beowulf is relating his story to his people, he says “The fight would have ended straightaway if God had not guarded me”. It doesn’t get more direct than that.
It’s possible though to believe whenever Beowulf says God, as in one god, he means Woden, the god of gods in Paganism. It is subjective to whoever is hearing or reading the poem. Hrothgar seems to be an old, wise mentor for Beowulf for he keeps giving him advice instilled to the brim with Christian values. For example, when Hrothgar was telling Beowulf of the king who fell into the deadly clutches of his pride, he said “he turned away from the joys of men, alone, notorious king, although mighty God had raised him in power, in the joys of strength, had set him up over all men”.
This shows that he believed God is the one who gave people power. Beowulf becomes no foreigner to this because as he is relating his fight against Grendel’s mother to his people, he credits “the Wielder of Men”, another name for God, for bringing him the sword. Despite these Christian values present in the poem, Beowulf still maintains a very strong sense of pride. This is because pride was a very important aspect of Anglo-Saxon culture and it was necessary to portray Beowulf correctly.
That would be the dichotomy of pride vs. humility. Before the Geats returned to their homeland after killing Grendel’s mother, Hrothgar reminds Beowulf that pride, untempered by humility, will result in the tragic fall. This scene is odd because Hrothgar tells Beowulf “Do not give way to pride”. It seems very ironic in the Anglo-Saxon culture, in which everyone takes pride on everything, including their pride. This is just showing the contrasting views of Paganism and Christianity once again.
Hrothgar also teaches Beowulf that wealth, accumulated through the grace of God, must be shared unselfishly. He does so in the line that goes “What he has long held seems to him too little, angry-hearted he covets, no plated rings does he give in men’s honor, and then he forgets and regards not his destiny because of what God, Wielder of Heaven, has given him before, his portion of glories”. By being unselfish, Beowulf would not only be considered a good Christian, but a great pagan leader of Anglo-Saxons, who truly valued generosity in their leadership.
Beowulf’s humbleness is shown when he returns Unferth’s sword, Hrunting, to him, and thanks him for it as well as praising the sword, although it actually did nothing in his battle against Grendel’s mother because it had no effect on her. It was this humbleness and respect that was not only valued by Christians, but by Pagans who believed it was necessary for a leader to keep good ties with foreigners. In Beowulf, the monsters faced by the hero have symbolic meaning. Grendel and his mother were fiends with nothing more than animalistic, bloodthirsty impulses.
They represented outsiders that the Anglo-Saxons would have despised due to themselves being so group-oriented. A foreigner to them would have normally been considered hostile. They either represent that, or they might be a social critique of Paganism, in that they are barbaric and immoral. Monsters, back in the medieval ages, described people who had birth defects. If so, this just made Grendel and his mother even bigger outcasts to society. Grendel is said to be a descendant of Cain, a biblical figure, who slew his own brother.
This might be what further characterizes Grendel with immorality. The dragon is another symbol of Paganism. The difference between how Paganism is represented in this case and before is that it is not as bad as one thought. It’s as if the narrator has come to terms with his own religion and another religion. If the dragon represents Paganism, and assuming Beowulf represents Christianity, the text said that in their deaths, they were pretty equal. This might be a way of saying that although there were many conflicts between the two, they both really had the same impact.
That, and since they caused their mutual destruction, the dragon and Beowulf, it might mean that the endless struggle will simply end in death. There are many allusions in this book as well as foreshadowing. First of all, is the direct allusion of the story of Cain from the Bible. By all means, Cain was to represent Grendel for his immorality. In the Old Testament, Cain is forced to wander as punishment from God, and Grendel similarly wandered as well until he found the mead-hall. The allusion to Cain doesn’t end there, for in the poem, the saga of Finn is told.
The saga of Finn parallels the story of Cain in that it involves the death of a brother, and that only vengeance could make things right. This is similar to Grendel’s mother’s situation. Also, Grendel’s story may also be social commentary on the double standard of the Anglo-Saxons, because just like Grendel, Hrothgar’s ancestors wandered into a new land and stole what belonged to the people there before him, but they didn’t find their own actions to be evil. Grendel might be the realization of their own mistakes. Another allusion presented in Beowulf is the Great Flood.
This is seen in how Beowulf finds the sword of giants in the water, because the ones in the story of the Great Flood were giants. That, and they were the descendants of Cain as well. That might be why the weapon was able to harm Grendel’s mother. The giants themselves were acknowledged ambiguously by the narrator. In this reference to the biblical flood, the author of Beowulf is suggesting that the sword’s creators were descendants of those that caused God to bring on the flood perhaps even suggesting that they were descendants of Cain.
However, earlier in the passage these same giants are referred to with reverence for being “wonder-smiths” that crafted the sword that saved Beowulf’s life. Further speculation could point out that when Hrothgar was telling Beowulf to be aware of his humility and to be generous, the phrase “he covets” is an allusion to the Christian Ten Commandments. This allusion would just further expatiate on the idea that material desire leads to wanting more and more, until nothing can satisfy what has become greed. In this poem, was also a lot of foreshadowing.
In the beginning of the poem, Shield Sheafson’s death and funeral are described, and then the story goes full circle, ending with Beowulf’s funeral. Another allusion was the story of Sigfried being told, and how he had to battle the dragon to get the treasure he was protecting, because Beowulf had to do the exact same thing in the end. Beowulf believed his legacy would become as great as Sigfried’s by accomplishing the task that he also did, and the Anglo-Saxons believed that they would be immortalized by being put into poetry.
All in all, Beowulf is a poem that embodies a significant schism that occurred in Olden times that all we can do is speculate on based off of the little knowledge this piece of literature offers us and what we can deduce based off of logical reasoning with their circumstances. Despite having such little information, this story gives us a deep look into the minds of Anglo Saxons. By using various writing techniques, the Anglo-Saxons that created Beowulf were able to fulfill the promise that all great and memorable poems have, which would be its reflection on the big ideas and just encapsulating so much meaning in a set number of words.
Works Cited “Beowulf – Further Celebration at Heorot Pages 48 to 50. ” Beowulf – Further Celebration at Heorot Pages 48 to 50. N. p. , n. d. Web. 10 Oct. 2013. . “Cain – First Human Child to Be Born. ” About. com Christianity. N. p. , n. d. Web. 10 Oct. 2013. . Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000. Print. SparkNotes. SparkNotes, n. d. Web. 10 Oct. 2013. .