Beowulf: the Pagan & Christian Epic Hero
Beowulf has both pagan and Christian influences. Throughout the story there are many elements of Christian teachings: that man survives only through the protection of God, that all earthly gifts flow from God, and that the proper bearing of man is to be humble and unselfish (csis. edu, 2011). While many pagan influences appear in the poem, Christian overtones are more prevalent, exhibiting many elements of Christian heroism in the poem. An example is when Beowulf says “God must decide who will be given to death’s cold grip” (Norton, lines 174-175).
He knows that God has already created an ending to this battle with Grendel, and he is lavished with peace. He shows true Christian character, bravery, and faith in the manner in which he fights his battles. Beowulf exhibits Christ-like behavior through his good heart and charity. Beowulf understands the Danes oppression by the evil monster Grendel; just as Christ knew of the oppression of the Jewish people. Both set out to free and save their people from the burdens of hardship. To free themselves from the monster, the Danes need a savior, and Beowulf, through his desire to disperse their suffering, comes to save them.
A strong sense of heroic pride within Beowulf is also seen in conflict with Christianity. Beowulf is reminded by Hrothgar that pride, without humility, results in a tragic fall. He also teaches the Christian philosophy that wealth, accumulated through the grace of God, must be shared unselfishly (csis. edu, 2011). Like many stories and poems written during this time, paganism and Christian values are intertwined. Beowulf moves seamlessly back and forth between the two worlds, showing himself to be a man living comfortably in two worlds.
The Christian influences are easiest seen in the main characters dependence on God, even though he relies on his own strength to overcome his enemy, which is characterized as a pagan influence. Paganism is evident by the burial rites given in the poem, a direct conflict to Christian beliefs The pagan and Christian elements are glaring in the main character’s strength, fairness and his acknowledgment that he needs God’s protection. Beowulf repeatedly acknowledges God as his protector, especially before a battle.
Specifically in episode two and three, God is referred to as the “Omnipotent Father who will protect them in kindness” (Norton, 2009). When Beowulf speaks of his battle with Grendel’s mother, he states that “The fight would have ended straightaway if God had not guarded me” (Norton, 2009). Though the poem gives a sense of divine power, it also gives the notion that God gives a warrior the will to fight in battle, therefore earning a position of prominence through his actions and deeds. This is the pagan idea that has Beowulf depicted as a superhero.
Beowulf feels it is his responsibility to save the Danes from Grendel. Beowulf does not use weapons but chooses to beat the monster with his own super strength. This is important because it shows how he has veered away from his dependence on God to fight his battle. Beowulf’s strength is greater than anything ever seen in a warrior. It is also important to note that Grendel is also considered supernatural because of his strength. He is seen as a superhuman monster. Grendel has no knowledge of weapons and depends on his powerful strength to destroy his enemies (Block, 2008).
Beowulf fights with Grendel until he tears one of the monster’s arms off. When Beowulf battles Grendel, he exhibits a sense of fairness when he refuses to use a weapon. There is a pervasive sense of living right, of loyalty, and of being a good leader in Beowulf, which are traits of Christ. Just as Beowulf exemplifies Christ, Grendel mirrors Satan. Beowulf and Grendel are images of the Christian beliefs of good versus evil. Grendel is acknowledged as a descendant of Cain, whom Satan tricks into sinning and committing the first murder (Block, 2008).
He is the image of a man fallen from grace through sin. Like Satan who is jealous of the happiness and joy that Adam and Eve have in the Garden of Eden, Grendel is jealous of the happiness and joy in Heorot. Grendel, like Satan, is an enemy of God and is one of the greatest challenges to Beowulf. Grendel lives in an underworld as Satan lives in hell. Grendel is referred to in the poem as the guardian of sins (Norton, 2009). Grendel, the descendant of Cain, is a very hateful creature. He stalks the people and terrorizes them because he is jealous of their joy.
Grendel’s stalking of the Dane’s is similar to the devil when he was cast out of heaven and the joys that were there. More parallels are evident in Beowulf’s preparation and descent into the mere where Grendel’s mother lives. While Beowulf is preparing to enter the water, he is pondering the evils that inhabit the pond. He knows he is faced with a greater challenge than before. He prepared as though he were preparing for death (Norton, 2009). Christ knew before his death that he was facing a great challenge, and he forgave his enemies.
Beowulf’s descent into the mere is similar to a baptismal rite. Going into the water purifies him, giving him the upper hand over his enemy, Grendel’s mother. While Beowulf is in the mere, all the thanes except Wiglaf gives up hope and leaves at the ninth hour, the hour of Christ’s death on the cross. They are easily compared to the apostles waiting for Christ to return from the Garden of Gethsemane (Block, 2008). While Christ was in the Garden, the apostles gave up and fell asleep, all except Peter who loyally awaited Christ’s return. He fights the same when he goes to deal with Grendel’s mother.
In order to even reach the monster, he swims for a day before even he sees the bottom. When he gets there and begins the battle with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf a regular sword is not enough against the monster’s thick skin. He uses his power to grab a sword made by giants, one that is too heavy for any other man, but he is able to prevail (Norton, 2009). This can be seen in two ways: God gave him favor and allowed him to prevail or he possessed the strength of the gods, which was more powerful than anything else. Even when Beowulf is an old man, his super strength gives him the victory over the dragon.
Beowulf is fatally wounded himself during this battle but he is still able to kill the dragon. The dragon spits fire that is so intense, the heat melts Beowulf’s shield to his body. The dragon is Beowulf’s last and greatest battle. The dragon symbolizes hatred, greed, and destruction. He represents the power of Satan. Beowulf’s fight with the dragon is the epitome of the Biblical story of salvation. Beowulf, like Christ, gives his life for his people. The dragon is a timeless foe, which represents the eternal evils that man must fight to preserve what’s good (csis. du, 2011). Just as Christ had one last battle, Beowulf has his final battle with the dragon. Both Christ and Beowulf were constantly fighting evil. Though they both died in their final battle, they both prevailed over evil before they died. Finally, Beowulf’s desire to be cremated is another example of the pagan intertwined with the Christian. Bryan McLucas believes that the funeral is the main element of paganism. He believes the writer of the poem includes it because it is the accepted burial right of the time, though the Christian tradition was coming into play.
Cremation gave way to the belief that the body had to be destroyed for the spirit to be safe. Beowulf’s funeral has other pagan ideals that do not coincide with Christian beliefs incorporated into the poem (McLucas, 2011). Christianity teaches that earthly treasures serve no purpose in the afterlife. However, Beowulf wants to be buried with his treasure. Being buried with the treasure rather than leaving for the people to use is a pagan belief. The author of Beowulf effectively intertwined pagan and Christian ideals in the epic poem.
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The combining of the two ideals was done essentially because during the time the poem was written, this was a common practice. Joining Christian and pagan ideals, Beowulf was able to emphasize the morals of the time and to enhance his characters with Christian values and pagan legends. The battle between good and evil is constantly illustrated throughout the poem. Good overcomes evil and Beowulf is portrayed as both a pagan and Christian hero. Beowulf is has superhuman strength and he is “greater and stronger than anyone in the world” (Norton, lines 110-111).
He represents the pagan ideal of indestructibility and the Christian ideal of savior as hero. References Block, G. W. (2008). Beowulf: Christianity versus Paganism. Retrieved from http:// bookstove. com/poetry/beowulf-christianity-vs-paganism/ McLucas, B. (2011). Beowulf: Pagan burial rites in a “Christian” poem. Retrieved from http:// bryan. myweb. uga. edu/papers/beowulf. html. Pace. edu (2011). Christians elements in Beowulf. Retrieved from http://csis. pace. edu/grendel/ projs1d/CHRIST. html The Norton Anthology of World Literature (2009). Beowulf. W. W. Norton Company, New York, NY.