Danish Paganism and Christianity in Beowulf

The story of Beowulf shows the effect of the spread of Christianity in the early Danish paganistic society that values heroic deeds and bravery above all else. The mythical creatures that Beowulf kills with his supernatural strength make the story into an epic celebrating the life of a great hero. However, blending in among Beowulf’s triumphs against the three key creatures, we also see Christian virtues being instilled upon the listeners. The good qualities of loyalty, humility, sacrifice for the good of others, and sympathy for those less fortunate are seen woven into the text as well as the negative consequences from greed and pride. The characters of Grendel, his mother, and the dragon are tools used by the author to teach values, but also to rejoice in the legendary success of Beowulf.

The menacing character of Grendel is introduced as horrible, but his humanistic side is shown as well. As a result, Grendel’s character helps further the Christian influence on the book as well as paint Beowulf as a magnificent hero. Grendel is first described as “the creature of evil, grim and fierce, and was quickly ready, savage and cruel, and seized from the first thirty thanes.” (Tuso, 3) Beowulf can be interpreted as a heroic epic when Grendel is seen as a ravenous monster because it makes Beowulf appear even more spectacular for defeating the horrendous monster. However, there is a strong Christian influence as well because Grendel is a descendent of Cain and is therefore rejected by God and must live in suffering. When Grendel appears, he is “wearing God’s anger” which is the opposite of the thanes who celebrate god’s grace in their victories in the hall Heorot. (Tuso, 13) The reader feels pity for Grendel when it understood that he hates Heorot because it is everything that he lacks. Grendel is even described as an “unhappy creature” while the thanes are regarded as living in “joy and blessed.” (Tuso, 3) Heorot is a symbol of the victory of the thanes and it where they are merry, happy, social, and even play music, which particularly irks Grendel. Grendel’s jealousy and pain resulting from being an outcast explain his violent reaction to the thanes. These are very human emotions and it seems like one of the first Christian values is being instilled here; sympathy for those less fortunate. Later on, when Grendel retreats to his lair to die, his weakness and human side is again seen.

Grendel is forced to flee because Beowulf mortally rips off his claw. The claw is a direct symbol of Beowulf’s strength since it is from his hand to claw battle with Grendel. “The awful monster had lived to feel pain in his body, a huge wound in his shoulder was exposed, his sinews sprang apart, his bone locks broke. Glory in battle was given to Beowulf.” (Tuso, 15) Beowulf is depicted as the great hero who gains victory over a supernatural being, Grendel. This story of the underdog is similar to the story in the Old Testament about David triumphing over the giant Goliath. When the claw is hung up in Heorot, Beowulf’s bravery is celebrated and it is obvious that this quality is highly respected among the thanes.

However, the claw has a different meaning to Grendel’s mother who sees it as an extreme sign of disrespect to her dead son and is enraged that it is hung for all to see as a trophy. The mother’s rage and hurt is another human emotion, which eventually leads to her revenge on the thanes when she storms the hall to regain the claw. She is even described as having the “war terror of a wife” which associates her with human beings instead of monsters. (Tuso, 23) This causes the reader to feel a certain amount of sympathy towards her, a Christian value, even though she decapitates one of the favored thanes. However, she is later regarded as a “sea wolf” when Beowulf bravely goes after her, so that the reader can again celebrate Beowulf’s bravery.

Beowulf’s character can be read as haughty and his actions interpreted as purely selfish on a quest for glory and fame, but his bravery can also be read as the ultimate sacrifice. Another Christian virtue is self-sacrifice for the good of others. Beowulf risks his life when he fights Grendel hand to claw and later on dives into the dangerous mere alone. His trip down to the bottom of the mere is symbolically similar to a journey to hell. He travels downwards and on his way “many monsters attacked him in the water, many a sea-beast tore at his mail shirt with war tusks, strange creatures afflicted him.” (Tuso, 27) These could be symbols of the types of creatures one would encounter through the passages to hell and Grendel’s mother’s lair is where the devil, or maybe one reincarnation of the devil resides.

Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother even though the odds are against him since he is not on his own turf. Again, the theme of the lesser, good one triumphing over the evil one is seen here. Perhaps god’s intervention takes place when Beowulf is in the lair as a “blaze brightened, light shone within just as from the sky heaven’s candle shine’s clear” appears to Beowulf as Grendel’s mother falls dead. (Tuso, 28) However, pagan influence is seen as well in this passage when the sword used by Beowulf is examined. Giants, supernatural beings, made the sword and its hilt is “twisted and ornamented by snakes.” (Tuso, 30) It is likely that Pagans worshipped animals as gods, so these animal symbols held special meaning for early Danish society. What is ironic about the sword is that its story tells of the last remaining Giants who were eventually slew by humans, but now it saves a human beings life who is killing off perhaps the last ogre. It seems as if it should have helped the mother, not Beowulf.

The characters of Grendel’s mother and the dragon help the author express another important virtue; loyalty. For example, when Beowulf is in the mere, after nine hours Hrothgar’s men give up on Beowulf, but his men remain steadfast even though they “are sick at heart.” (Tuso, 28) Later on, loyalty is again seen when all of Beowulf’s men flee except for Wiglaf during the battle with the dragon. Even though he is afraid, he also understands self-sacrifice and loyalty, so he willingly risks his life to save Beowulf’s. After the other men, “crept to the wood, protected their lives,” Wiglaf remained with a “heart surged with sorrows: nothing can ever set aside kinship in him who means well.” (Tuso, 44) This strong Christian value is rewarded in the end when Beowulf chooses Wiglaf to be his successor.

Besides rewards, punishments are also given for those who make mistakes. For example, greediness is considered a punishable sin. Beowulf resists greediness when he chooses to bring Grendel’s head back with him instead of the hordes of treasure. This action can also be interpreted as fame seeking and his deed does add to the epic quality of the poem since “four of them had trouble in carrying Grendel’s head on spear-shafts to the gold hall” even though Beowulf, alone swam with the head to the top of the mere. (Tuso, 29) However, his action shows that he knows that he already has a considerable amount of money and he understands that money is only a tangible good. In early Danish society, fame and success was probably much more important than wealth. This is seen when Beowulf is chosen as king for his loyalty to the previous king and his heroic deeds. Greediness is punished when the reader sees that the dragon has wasted all of his life guarding treasure that he will never use and the reason for the dragon’s attack on Beowulf’s land is that another man wanted the treasure.

The last key creature, the dragon, is terrifyingly depicted, but lacking the humanistic qualities that Grendel and his mother possess. The reader does not feel sympathy for the dragon because the dragon is described as “the evil spirit” who “began to vomit flames, burn bright dwellings; blaze of fire rose to the horror of the men, the deadly flying thing would leave nothing alive.” (Tuso, 41) The pagan influence is seen in the character of the dragon. The dragon is obviously a creature from past Danish myths and this one is even too strong for brave Beowulf to destroy alone.

The author employs the character of the dragon to show the irony among early Danish society and Beowulf’s weakness; pride. Beowulf starts out the book as a hero and this lands him the kingship. However, in the end, when he is forced to choose between being a hero or a king, he chooses being a hero. Hrothgar warned Beowulf that his pride may get in the way in the future, but Beowulf forgets his good judgment when the dragon attacks. As Hrothgar foreshadowed years before, “Have no care for pride, great warrior. Now for a time there is glory in your might; yet is soon shall be sickness or sword that with diminish your strengthÖthen is shall be that death will overcome you, warrior.” (Tuso, 31) He ends up leaving his kingdom in a time of need instead of being a responsible King and accepting that he has given up his role as a hero. In this instance, instead of risking his life as a self-sacrifice like he did as a hero, his real sacrifice would have been to remain king and forego a last chance at final glory and fame. However, Beowulf truly is a hero at heart, so he chooses the warrior path. In the end, he has a warrior’s burial on a funeral pyre, instead of a more Christian type service. Beowulf’s shortsightedness and quest for glory are clearly part of the pagan influence on the poem that molds it into the heroic epic that it is.

The poem beautifully celebrates the culture of the early Danes, while incorporating newer influences from Christianity. It is interesting in the end that Beowulf’s heroism, a Danish attribute, triumphs over the Christian values of humility and self-sacrifice. Beowulf can be interpreted so many different ways, but it stands out almost as much as a historical document of the changing times as a great work of fiction.