The Christian Elements in Beowulf
The Old English epic poem Beowulf is the oldest epos keeping a unique place in the cultural history of Europe. The poem is dated approximately from the beginning of the eighth century and its author remains unknown. It presents a fabulous picture of the spirit and embodiment of heroic tradition of that epoch.
Very little is known about the conditions under which the Beowulf had appeared. But a lot of critics have been searching out, and still continue this process, to define the background material from which the poem is shaped, its literary base, its authorship, pagan folklore and Christian influences.
In his research work Charles W. Kennedy claims that: In the light which modern critical scholarship has focused upon the Beowulf, it has come to be recognized that we have here a poem of cultivated craftsmanship, sophisticated rather than primitive in form, and definitely influenced by literary and religious tradition. The influence of the Christian faith is marked and pervasive. (Kennedy, x)
The material of the Beowulf is rooted in pagan folk-tale and legends. The anonymous Old English poet converted this material from pagan to Christian. Blackburn F. A., for example, admits the possibility that the poem was composed by a Christian, who had heard the stories and used them as the material of the work.
Allusions In Beowulf
This conversion is supported not only by evidences of altered style or references to the Christian faith, but also we can trace Christian approach to opinions, governing motives and actions in the poem. Some passages of the poem contain biblical references to some scriptural texts. These include allusions to Cain, Abel, and the flood.
The poem is prolific in references to Christian doctrines such as hell and heavenl, and the Doomsday. The characters regularly appeal or refer to the Christian God. Of course, the poem is not absolutely deprived of the pagan elements; one of many examples is the curse upon the dragon’s treasure.
However, the fundamental aim of this essay is to bring into sight the numerous elements of Christian tradition presented in the Beowulf. But to speak of the Christian elements of the poem is somewhat curios activity as there simply are no direct Christian references in the poem. However, attentive reading and analysis provides the evidence to support the Christian influence tangible in the work. Thus, referring back to the curse upon the dragon’s treasure the author excludes from the affect of the curse one who has God’s favor. Elsewhere in the epos, the Fate is always under the control of the superior power of Christian divinity.
That’s true that Beowulf typifies a successor of Geatish kings, however, his character and behavior are presented in the manner of the Christian tradition. Divine guidance is solicited throughout the Beowulf and acknowledged as the assisting force for Beowulf’s success in his heroic deeds.
To be more specific, let’s analyze the parallels between the epic narrative and Christian writings traceable in the Beowulf. First of all, the Christian impact is reflected in the allusions to the Old Testament. Beowulf and his folk resemble the early Old Testament society of tribes of warriors, with its intense accent on relationship and fidelity to their lord.
Furthermore, the poem contains an array of specific references to Cain’s murder of Abel in the context of Hrothgar’s court, where Beowulf accused Unferth of committing fratricide.
Grendel is referred to as a descendant of Cain: “grim-souled fiend, the foe of God, murder-marked” (2.4).Grendel, the antagonist in the Beowulf, the same as Cain, bears God’s mark that set him apart from other characters. This difference from surrounding is the embodiment of God’s anger and a symbol of Grendel’s estrangement from other people.
Examples Of Christianity In Beowulf
Being Cain’s scion, he is unable to find a shelter in society. The significance of the Cain story is underlined by Grendel’s behavior, which is absolutely unacceptable. He shows no fidelity to kin or lord, he murders and devours Hrothgar’s warriors. His origin is a mystery for those around. He is as alienated from normal society as, again the resemblance of Biblical motives, Lucifer, descended to the Hell.
Berger and Leicester take note: If God himself in the midst of his leafy new world wove kin strife as well as kin love into the primal family structure, how could Hrothgar do less (or more)? To create a family, a society, a dynasty, or a gift-hall is to create those conditions which are inseparable from, and have no meaning apart from, social order: treachery, envy, isolation, and exile. To create an Inside is to create an Outside, but an Outside existing within the bonds of hall and family as well as beyond them (41).
The pervasive influence of Christian religion is obvious in the divine guidance for the warriors’ deeds throughout the poem. God is attributed the function of the protector of the virtuous warrior Beowulf after his victory over Grendel and his dam. Beowulf admits that he could have failed “if God had not protected me”; Hrothgar’s most immediate reaction to Beowulf’s victory is to give “thanks to Almighty God”, and to remind Beowulf that he has conquered the monsters “through God’s might” (2.4).
In addition, there is a reference to Noah and the Great Flood that took place in Old Testament and destroyed Cain’s wicked scions: the elves, giants and other monsters: “Soon he was swimming who safe saw in combat downfall of demons; up-dove through the flood.” (2.3) In this reference to the biblical flood, the author of Beowulf is suggesting that the sword’s creators were descendants of those that provoked God to impose the flood and probably they were descendants of Cain.
The reference to Christianity is the mention of so called “ancient law”. When Beowulf sees ravages after the dragon’s fire, he reflects upon his guilt of infringement of the “ancient law”: “God he had angered, breaking ancient law, and embittered the Lord” (3.3) that is, the original agreement between Adam and God. The ancient law is the system by which a primitive people relate to their gods and to each other.
Another parallel comparison can be drawn between the passion of Christ and Beowulf’s battle with the dragon. Thus, it is possible to view Beowulf as an allegorical figure of Christ. Beowulf, escorted by ten thanes and the betrayer who brought down the anger of the dragon upon the people, approaches his end with reluctance, but realizing that his end is doomed.
Wiglaf is the only one of his followers that keeps faithful to the end. Beowulf is mourned by twelve warriors; obviously here the episode parallels Christ who had, originally, twelve disciples. Just in the same way, Christ is betrayed by Judas, and spends his last night with ten frightened followers in the garden of Gethsemene, and only the disciple John tried to comfort him.
The attempts to portray Beowulf as a Christ-figure were not fully realized. The difference between Beowulf and Christ is the way they come to the end of their lives. While Christ is a sacred and eternal Redeemer because he triumphed over death, and offered everlasting, rather than momentary, victory over the representatives of the evil, Beowulf is deficient in this respect since he died, and with him died the future of his people, for subsequently they were left without their protector.
The mood of the second section is gloomy and pessimistic. Beowulf still continues to gain respect as a warrior, and graduates from thane to king, however, he cannot exempt from the human susceptibility of aging. After fifty-years reign as a perfect king, he is confronted not only with the third and worst threat to him and his people, but with the finality of his own death. What is his destiny after death nobody knows, though Wiglaf expresses the hope that Beowulf shall “abide in the Lord’s keeping”. Beowulf’s life seems useless, in spite of his great deeds, without the salvation offered by Christianity.
Thus this partly explains the melancholy mood of the second part. Moreover, the narrator expresses his awareness that Beowulf is not a true savior for his people, while without him they are in the end overpowered by their foes, and there is no one to take his place. The mood becomes even more pensive when the narrator reveals his awareness of the fate of the honored but nevertheless pagan ancestors who had no chance for eternal salvation; and yet he is unwilling to admit their eternal damnation.
In the essay The Religious Principle Hamilton M. maintains that the poem’s style is consistent with Augustine’s pattern of God’s grace: that a society of the Righteous live together with one of the Reprobate on earth. In wyrd, we can see the beginnings of a change in what was a pagan concept and its acceptance of a new Christianized meaning. On the other side, Grendel is equated to the race of Cain, and the dragon to be an incarnation of the devil. Again, these characterizations of the monstrous and evil were well known to the English.
When all is said, the fact remains that all Christian elements are more general and diffused in Beowulf than is characteristic of distinctively religious Old English poetry. The nature and degree of the Christian influence is best understood when one estimates the poem as a composite of traditional themes of pagan heroism retold by a Christian poet.
The resulting fusion of pagan and Christian is what could naturally be expected under such circumstances. The Beowulf is a tale of the pagan past in which the endurance, the loyalty, the courage, and the strength of the heroic age are tempered by union with Christian virtues, graced with courtly manners, and elevated in presentment to levels of epic dignity.
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Anonymous Beowulf The Norton Anthology of English Literature Sixth Edition Volume 1 Ed. M.H.Abrams. New York: W.W.Norton and Company, Inc., 1993
Berger, Harry, Jr. and H. Marshall Leicester, Jr. “Social Structure as Doom: the Limits of Heroism in Beowulf.” Old English Studies in Honour of John C. Pope. Robert B. Burlen and Edward B. Irving, Jr., eds. U Toronto P, 1974.
Blackburn, F.A. “The Christian Colouring in the Beowulf” in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. University of Notre Dame Press. 1963.
Hamilton, M.P. “The Religious Principle” in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. University of Notre Dame Press. 1963
Kennedy, Charles W. Beowulf: The Oldest English Epic, Oxford University Press. 1978.
Wilson, James H., Christian Theology and Old English Poetry The Hague: Mouton, 1974.