Throughout early English literature as well as modern stories of various mediums, a popular literary device is that of allegory. The Merriam-Webster online dictionary describes allegory as “the expression by means of symbolic fictional figures and actions of truths or generalizations about human existence” (“Allegory”). Essentially, allegory is the implementation of symbols and metaphors as a means of progressing the narrative in a story or relaying a message of sorts. Two potent examples of allegory can be found in the epic Beowulf as well as the morality play, Everyman. A recent example of this storytelling mechanic can be found in the form of Darren Aronofsky’s film, Mother!, which will be discussed later in this essay. While Beowulf adopts pointed instances of symbolism and allegorical concepts, the entirety of Everyman utilizes allegory by way of personifying mankind’s deeds and struggles.
Perhaps the most profound allegorical elements of Beowulf are Grendel and his mother. Grendel is a descendent of Cain while his mother can be interpreted as a personification of original sin. Elaborating on the idea of the allegorical relationship between Grendel and Cain, take a look at the similarities of their respective origins between the Bible and Beowulf. In the book of Genesis, Cain is exiled by God to the land of Nod for murdering his brother: “…what hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood cries unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth…when thou tillest the ground, it shall not henceforth yield unto thee her strength; a fugitive and a vagabond shalt thou be in the earth” (Holy Bible Genesis 4:10-12). Here we have Cain marked as a figure of maliciousness. Beowulf references this Biblical text describing Grendel as “[having] dwelt for a time / in misery among the banished monsters, / Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts” (lines 104-107). The fact that Beowulf explicitly references this text reinforces the idea that Grendel was written in as a beast of Cain and manifestation of evil.
A crude textual example of symbolism within Beowulf occurs at a point in the story where Beowulf defeats Grendel in combat: “Clear proof of this [victory] / could be seen in the hand [Beowulf] displayed / high up near the roof [of Hrothgar’s mead hall]: the whole of Grendel’s / shoulder and arm, his awesome grasp” (lines 832-835). We commonly associate arms and shoulders as symbols of brawn and perhaps braggadocio. Grendel spent much of his time terrorizing people in a show of strength, solely due to his disdain for merriment. Given that Beowulf quite literally tore off his arm, Grendel’s physical prowess as well as his innate ability to inflict terror has effectively been silenced. One aspect of this passage that stood out to me was that Grendel’s grasp is referred to as ‘awesome.’ A close synonym to the word ‘awesome’ is ‘fearsome,’ which simply means “[to cause] fear” (“Fearsome”). The decision to use ‘awesome’ to describe Grendel’s grasp could be seen as a conscious decision on the part of the author to insinuate that even though Grendel was defeated, his grasp of terror still has lingering effects.
Now let’s examine Grendel’s mother. Immediately we have another point of similarity between Beowulf and the Bible: Grendel’s mother and Eve both brought various sins into the world; Eve gave birth to Cain and wrought about original sin into the world by disobeying God. In the case of Grendel’s mother, Beowulf describes her as a “monstrous hell-bride, brooded on her wrongs” (line 1259). Nothing the parallels between Eve and Grendel’s mother, it wouldn’t be too far-out to suggest that Grendel’s mother is a relative of Eve depicted as ‘monstrous’ on account of her being malformed by sin.
Near the end of Beowulf, there remains another instance of allegory that appears as a dragon, specifically a “slick-skinned dragon, threatening the night sky / with streamers of fire… / He is driven to hunt out / hoards underground, to guard heathen gold…” (lines 2273-2276). This creatures is meant to represent Satan being that it spends its days guarding swaths of ‘heathen’ treasure. It would seem likely that J.R.R. Tolkien borrowed parts of this character from Beowulf as inspiration for the dragon Smaug in The Hobbit. Beowulf ends up defeating the dragon at the expense of his own life, which could in turn read as an exegesis of Christ sacrificing himself for the sins of mankind.
Possibly a more straightforward example of allegory can be found in Everyman. A prime example of the classic morality play, Everyman personifies the personality traits of man and allegorizes the character of Everyman as a symbol for all of mankind. Contrary to other morality plays of the time, Everyman trades crude humor for a more “straight-to-the-point” conversation on salvation. The point being, Everyman presents itself as a digestible means of addressing complex thoughts on spirituality. Allegory within the play presents itself most significantly toward the end, where the character Good Deeds discusses the negativity of holding earthly desires: “All earthly things is but vanity. / Beauty, Strength, and Discretion do man forsake. / Foolish friends and kinsmen that fair spake— / All fleeth save Good Deeds, and that am I” (lines 869-872). Within this passage, the play is floating the idea that enshrining yourself with earthly ideals leads only to abandonment; the good you have done throughout your life is the only thing that won’t come back to bite you in the rear. Everyman depicts mankind’s earthly wants sort of as a gang of flakey friends that man must be willing to rid himself of in order to attain salvation and enter Heaven.
Fast-forward to 2017. While some cast it off as absurd, a discerning viewer can easily spot bits of allegory in Darren Aronofsky’s divisive film Mother!. The story centers around a couple, referred to respectively as Mother and Him (they are otherwise unnamed), who lead a tranquil, if isolated life. Him is a poet who is suffering from a major bout of writer’s block. Mother is Him’s unconditional muse and support. Shortly into the film, uninvited guests start creeping into Mother and Him’s household. In a nutshell, all Hell breaks loose. The allegory in Mother! is fairly easy to decipher: “[the film] is about Mother Earth…and God [Him]…the house represents our planet” (Ryzik par 15). While the film might appear as abstract or perhaps pretentious on the surface, it actually does well to paint a potent metaphor for the destruction we wreak about on our planet. The reason Mother has been included within this essay is because of the necessity to discuss the contemporary application of allegory as it can aid the otherwise perplexed reader in developing a clearer understanding of its use. Whether it be in classical literature or modern film, allegory and symbolism have remained popular methods of boiling down otherwise dense material.
Throughout Beowulf, symbolism is implemented to effectively illustrate the victory of good over evil. Everyman serves as a lesson in what man must do to attain salvation through the use of allegorical characters. In the contemporary realm, the film Mother elucidates the destruction we often unknowingly bring upon the environment. Some might view allegory as little more than a hoity-toity ego trip for the writer’s own gratification, but the fact remains that it is a highly potent way to present difficult subject matter and relay a relevant message to an otherwise casual, unassuming audience.
“Allegory.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2017.
“Fearsome.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2017.
“Beowulf.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 41-108. Print. “Everyman.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. 1. New York: W.W. Norton, 2012. 507-529. Print.
Holy Bible. King James Version. Zondervan, 2010.
Ryzik, Melena. “Making ‘Mother!,’ the Year’s Most Divisive Film.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Sept. 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/09/19/movies/jennifer-lawrence-darren-aronofsky-mother-explained.html.