Transformation of the Redeemer: From Beowulf to the Vicar of Wakefield

Within the span of British literature, it should come as no surprise that the themes and motifs which appear in written works evolve in nature. Times, cultures, and peoples change, so it is only natural that the things they write down change as well. An example of this development can be seen when analyzing the role of a redeemer as is apparent in three works: Beowulf, Titus Andronicus, and The Vicar of Wakefield. Beowulf, an old English epic poem produced sometime between the eighth and tenth centuries, tells the story of a hero who defeats numerous enemies in order to preserve the Danish people. At least six hundred years later at the end of the sixteenth century, William Shakespeare wrote Titus Andronicus, a tragic play that chronicles the story of a Roman general and the revenge he seeks. A final work, The Vicar of Wakefield, is a novel composed by Oliver Goldsmith during the eighteenth century and it tells the story of a country clergyman who, along with his family, experienced many misfortunes but whose story ends with resolution. Present in each of these works is a person who clearly acts as a savior; with time, however, the role of this savior transforms from a position of physical deliverer to one of a moral redeemer.

In Beowulf, Titus Andronicus, and The Vicar of Wakefield, the saviors are Beowulf, Titus Andronicus, and Dr. Primrose, respectively. Beowulf’s story is rich with acts of deliverance. He comes to the rescue of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, and defeats a monster named Grendel (Beowulf 57-58). He then defeats Grendel’s mother and a dragon (75-77, 98-100). Each of these killings relieves a people from sorrow and violent attacks. In this respect, Beowulf is quite the hero for he is able to preserve people from their enemies; indeed, Judith Garde, analyzing the poem from a Christian perspective in an article entitled “Christian And Folkloric Tradition in Beowulf: Death and the Dragon Episode,” says that Beowulf was “blessed with an incredible gift of strength to destroy God’s infamous enemies” (332). Garde emphasizes Beowulf’s ability to be a physical savior both for the Danish people and for his native people, the Geats. In comparison with Beowulf’s, Titus’ acts of heroism may seem unsuccessful. He cuts off his hand in an effort to save the lives of his sons, but they are killed anyway. His daughter is raped and killed. As will be shown later in this paper, however, Titus’ acts are redemptive, and Caroline Lamb agrees, noting that “overcoming physical barriers to communication and action, Titus and Lavinia enable themselves to act and to revenge” (42). The final redeemer is Dr. Primrose of The Vicar of Wakefield who experiences a life laden with opportunity to rescue his family from distress. They lose all their money, their house is burned down, one daughter is believed to die, one daughter is abducted, and two family members end up in jail. Though it is not Dr. Primrose who actively repairs all of these damages, it is his virtuous behavior throughout all of the misfortune that is central to the resolution of all of the conflict. Dr. Primrose believes that “divine justice guarantees virtue its due, if not in this world, then in the next” and because of this “the Vicar [Dr. Primrose] … is consoled by the prospect of divine justice” (Anderson 429-430). Dr. Primrose ends up as an indirect redeemer because his virtuous behavior results in the restoration of all of his family’s comforts and joys.

The redemptive acts in Beowulf’s story are entirely of one nature: each of the three acts consists of Beowulf defeating a monster. Beowulf’s first salvific act, his fight with Grendel, culminates in this manner: “Beowulf was granted the glory of winning; Grendel was driven under the fen-banks, fatally hurt, to his desolate lair. His days were numbered, the end of his life was coming over him, he knew it for certain: and one bloody clash had fulfilled the dearest wishes of the Danes” (Beowulf 58). Next, he defeats Grendel’s mother by cutting “the corpse’s head off” (76). And finally, he kills the dragon and the text tells us that “of the dragon there was no remaining sign: the sword had dispatched him” (100). Each of these situations exemplifies the physical nature of Beowulf’s redemptive acts – Beowulf defeats three monsters who were threatening the physical well-being of the Danes and the Geats. Although Beowulf “suffers ultimate defeat literally, he triumphs symbolically” because his death means life for the people who had previously been threatened by the dragon (Helterman 3). He triumphs because he protects from bodily harm those who had been in danger from either Grendel, Grendel’s mother, or the dragon. Beowulf as a type of savior is nothing more than a physical protector.

In Shakespeare’s play, Titus performs a similar act of physical saving. His efforts, however, are unsuccessful. When the emperor demands that a hand be sent in order to save the lives of Titus’ sons, Titus says “with all my heart I’ll send the Emperor my hand. Good Aaron, wilt thou help to chop it off?” (Shakespeare 3.1.162-3). Later, a messenger enters with “two heads and a hand” for the emperor had not kept his promise – he had killed Titus’ sons even though Titus had complied with his demands (107). Caroline Lamb’s take on the loss of Titus’ hand is interesting:

“In Titus Andronicus Shakespeare endows the body – whether political or personal – with a remarkable persistence and adaptability, enabling it to suffer loss, fragmentation and trauma and yet generate its own recuperation. Within this discursive model, the body is enabled, not disabled, by challenges to its own structural integrity, since it is ultimately able to reinstate a functional and effective relationship between the parts and the whole.” (43)

Lamb seems to suggest that though Titus lost both his hand and his sons, his efforts as a deliverer were not in vain. Instead, he persists, continually exercising an attitude of rising above hardships. This is what makes him a savior: he harms himself in order to save others. Titus, in a manner that recalls Beowulf, is a savior who seeks to protect those whom he is saving from physical harm; in this case, he seeks to save his sons from being executed by the emperor.

The way in which Titus Andronicus differs from Beowulf, however, is that he performs additional acts of deliverance that involve more than physical protection – they involve moral redemption. One such deed is the killing of Chiron and Demetrius, Lavinia’s rapists. This scene manifests itself in physical action: Titus cuts the throats of his daughter’s rapists, collects the blood, mixes it together with their ground up bones, and serves the prepared pie to Tamora, the mother of Chiron and Demetrius (Shakespeare 5.3.200-210). His reasoning behind this is not necessarily physical protection – Lavinia has already been raped and mutilated and Titus can offer her no physical protection at this point. Rather, he seeks revenge against the molesters of his daughter: “For worse than Philomel you used my daughter,” says Titus, “And worse than Procne will I be revenged” (5.3.198-9). The intentions of Titus Andronicus are clearly stated here. He wishes to take out revenge against Chiron and Demetrius who so brutally violated his daughter. Titus is aware that he cannot protect his daughter from harm – the rape and mutilation have already taken place. Instead, he takes upon himself the role of redeemer. He seeks to make right a wronged situation. He exacts punishment on Chiron and Demetrius for their crimes against his daughter; he offsets the pain that his daughter has endured by destroying the lives of her rapists. In this way, Titus Andronicus does not necessarily act as a physical protector; indeed, Lavinia experiences great physical pain – rather, he takes on the role of an avenger.

Dr. Primrose, of The Vicar of Wakefield, is also a moral redeemer in addition to being a physical protector. At least three times throughout the novel, he restores one of his lost children. One such example is the return of George, the eldest son who had not been heard from in three years. Dr. Primrose finds him putting on a play and informs his hosts that the actor is his long-lost son and his host “sent his coach, and an invitation, for him; … and we soon had him [George] with us” (Goldsmith 119). Dr. Primrose acts as a kind of rescuer and restores his son to his family. In addition to restoring his son physically, however, Dr. Primrose also notices that Arabella Wilmot, George’s ex-fiance, is greatly affected by the return of George. Dr. Primrose is encouraging and, ultimately, instrumental in the future marriage of George and Arabella Wilmot. This is evidence that his concern is not only with the physical well-being of his family; additionally, he goes out of his way to concern himself with their moral, emotional, and spiritual well-being. Anderson, arguing for Dr. Primrose as one who holds to a “Stoic construction of virtue” believes that Primrose “constitutes a rigorous and, more importantly, a practical and sustainable social ideal” (420). She sees Dr. Primrose as much more than a physical protector, he has qualities of virtue that make him an ideal moral redeemer.

In contrast, Beowulf’s acts contain no qualities of moral redemption; instead, they focus solely on the physical protection and deliverance of a people. Each of his acts – the killing of Grendel, the killing of Grendel’s mother, and the killing of the dragon – is the defeat of a foe, a physical foe who had been threatening the lives of either the Danes or the Geats. Beowulf’s role as a hero manifests itself through physical protection, strength and superiority. Indeed, Garde notes that “the Geats thank God for their safe arrival and the coast-warden entreats the Almighty Father to keep them safe in grace” (334). Garde implies, here, that the only concern of the people is bodily well-being. This is what Beowulf, as a savior, provides. He defeats their foes and keeps them safe.

Ultimately, the difference between Beowulf and Titus Andronicus is that Titus Andronicus is not known as a physical protector. His attempt to be a physical protector, to save the lives of his sons, is unsuccessful. Rather, Titus’ redeeming act is the killing of his daughter, Lavinia, which is the complete opposite of physical protection. The conversation that ensues between Titus and Saturninus expresses the reason the Titus kills his own daughter:

[Titus] An if your Highness knew my heart, you were.

My lord the Emperor, resolve me this:

Was it well done of rash Virginius

To slay his daughter with own right hand

Because she was enforced, stained, and deflowered?

[Saturninus] It was, Andronicus.

[Titus] Your reason, mighty lord?

[Saturninus] Because the girl should not survive her shame,

And by her presence still renew his sorrows.

[Titus] A reason mighty, strong, and effectual;

A pattern, precedent, and lively warrant

For me, most wretched, to perform the like.

Die, die, Lavinia, and thy shame with thee,

And with thy shame thy father’s sorrow die. (5.3.34-47)

The reason that Titus kills Lavinia is not to protect her, but to redeem her. She has been shamed and deflowered, as he says, and because of this, her death was worth more than her life. Regardless of the modern opinions that may be had about the loss of virginity and shame and reputation, it cannot be denied that Titus’ reasons have a lot more to do with morals and values than physical protection. In fact, they have nothing to do with physical protection. His role as her savior is to redeem her shameful circumstances by taking her life.

Finally, the ultimate act of redemption is the vicar’s restoration of his daughter, Olivia, to the family after she has eloped with a man and ruined her reputation. Raymond Hilliard argues for a reading of The Vicar of Wakefield that acknowledges “the power of a self-sacrificing paternal love” and that exemplifies “the scriptural drama of fall and redemption” (467). Hilliard is aware the redemption that takes place in this story as a result of Dr. Primrose’s paternal love and dedication. He finds Olivia at an inn and brings her home to her family, but more importantly, he bestows love upon her: “I assured her, that she should never perceive any change in my affections, and that during my life, which yet might be long, she might depend upon a guardian and an instructor” (Goldsmith 140). When Olivia’s mother was not as receptive to the return of her daughter as Dr. Primrose was, he tells his wife, “I have here brought you back a poor deluded wanderer; her return to duty demands the revival of our tenderness” (143). So the importance of this scene lies not in the safe return of their daughter, but in the decision to forgive her, to be tender towards her, to right her wrongs. Dr. Primrose is the prime example not only of a physical protector, but of a moral redeemer.

The evolution of the redeemer from Beowulf to Titus Andronicus embodies a savior who changes from performing acts solely of physical protection to one provides both physical protection and some form of moral redemption. The change from Titus Andronicus to The Vicar of Wakefield solidifies the idea that a savior does much more than save the body; a savior addresses the reputation, the virtue, the soul.

Works Cited

Anderson, Margaret. “Stoic Constructions Of Virtue In The Vicar Of Wakefield.” Journal Of The History Of Ideas 69.3 (2008): 419-439. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.

Beowulf. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt, 9th edition, Volume 1. WW Norton & Company: New York, 2012.

Garde, Judith. “Christian And Folkloric Tradition in Beowulf: Death and the Dragon Episode.” Literature & Theology: An International Journal of Theory, Criticism and Culture 11.4 (1997): 325-346. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.

Goldsmith, Oliver. The Vicar of Wakefield. London: Penguin, 1982.

Helterman, Jeffrey. “Beowulf: The Archetype Enters History.” ELH 35.1 (1968): 1-20. JSTOR. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.

Hilliard, Raymond F. “The Redemption Of Fatherhood In The Vicar Of Wakefield.” SEL: Studies In English Literature, 1500-1900 23.3 (1983): 465-480. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.

Lamb, Caroline. “Physical Trauma and (Adapt)Ability in Titus Andronicus.” Critical Survey 22.1 (2010): 41-57. Academic Search Complete. Web. 7 Dec. 2016.

Shakespeare, William. Titus Andronicus. Ed. Jonathan Bate. London: Arden, 1995.