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Christian Elements in Beowulf
Christian Elements in Beowulf
The praised epic poem, Beowulf, is the first great heroic poem in English
literature. The epic follows a courageous warrior named Beowulf throughout his young,
adult life and into his old age. As a young man, Beowulf becomes a legendary hero when
he saves the land of the Danes from the hellish creatures, Grendel and his mother. Later,
after fifty years pass, Beowulf is an old man and a great king of the Geats. A monstrous
dragon soon invades his peaceful kingdom and he defends his people courageously, dying
in the process. His body is burned and his ashes are placed in a cave by the sea. By
placing his ashes in the seaside cave, people passing by will always remember the
legendary hero and king, Beowulf. In this recognized epic, Beowulf, is abound in
supernatural elements of pagan associations; however, the poem is the opposite of pagan
barbarism. The presentation of the story telling moves fluidly within Christian
surroundings as well as pagan ideals.
Beowulf was a recited pagan folklore where the people of that time period
believed in gods, goddesses, and monsters. It’s significance lies in an oral history where
people memorized long, dense lines of tedious verse. Later, when a written tradition was
introduced they began to write the story down on tablets.
The old tale was not first told or invented by the commonly known, Beowulf poet.
This is clear from investigations of the folk lore analogues. The manuscript was written
by two scribes around AD 1000 in late West Saxon, the literary dialect of that period. It
is believed that the scribes who put the old materials together into their present form
were Christians and that his poem reflects a Christian tradition. The first scribe copied
three prose pieces and the first 1,939 lines of Beowulf while the second scribe copied the
rest of Beowulf and Judith. In 1731, a fire swept through the Cottonian Library,
damaging many books and scorching the Beowulf codex. In 1786-87, after the
manuscript had been deposited in the British Museum the Icelander, Grinur Jonsson
Thorkelin, made two transcriptions of the poem for what was to be the first edition, in
1815 (Clark, 112-15).
Beowulf is a mixture of pagan and Christian attitudes. Heathen practices are
mentioned in several places, such as vowing of sacrifices at idol fanes, the observing of
omens, the burning of the dead, which was frowned upon by the church. The frequent
allusions to the power of fate, the motive of blood revenge, and the praise of worldly
glory bear testimony to the ancient background of pagan conceptions and ideals.
However, the general tone of the epic and its ethical viewpoint are predominantly
Christian . There is no longer a genuine pagan atmosphere. The sentiment has been
softened and purified. The virtues of moderation, unselfishness, consideration for others
are practiced and appreciated. Beowulf is a Christian reworking of a pagan poem with “a
string of pagan lays edited by monks; it is the work of a learned but inaccurate Christian
antiquarian” (Clark, 112).
The author has fairly exhaulted the fights with Grendel, his mother, and the
dragon into a conflict between powers of good and evil. The figure of Grendel, while
originally an ordinary Scandinavian troll is conceived as an impersonation of evil and
darkness, even an incarnation of the Christian devil. Grendel is a member of the race of
Cain, from whom all “misshapen and unnatural things were spawned” (Kermode, 42)
such as ogres and elves. He is a creature dwelling in the outer darkness, a giant and
cannibal. When he crawls off to die, he is said to join the route of devils in hell. The
story of a race of demonic monsters and giants descended from Cain. It came form a
tradition established by the apocryphal Book of Enoch and early Jewish and Christian
interpretations of Genesis 6:4, “There were giants in the earth in those days, and also
afterward, when the sons of God had relations with the daughters of men, who bore
children to them” (Holland Crossley, 15).
Many of Grendel’s appellations are unquestionable epithets of Satan such as
“enemy of mankind,” “God’s adversary,” “the devil in hell,” and “the hell slave.” His
actions are represented in a manner suggesting the conduct of the evil one, and he dwells
with his mother in a mere which conjures visions of hell.
The depiction of the mere is the most remarkable because it is a conceptual
landscape made fearsomely realistic by the poetry. The closest parallel with Grendel and
his mother’s mere is from the vision of hell in sermon 17 of the tenth century Blickling
Homilies. This scene is based on the apocryphal vision of St. Paul, where the saint visits
hell under the protection of St. Michael. The similarities to the mere are italicized:
“But now let us ask the archangel St. Michael and the nine
orders of holy angels that they be a help to us against
hell-fiends. They were the holy ones that receive men’s
souls. Thus St. Paul was looking toward the northern part
of this middle-earth, where all the waters go down under,
and there he saw a hoary stone over that water, and north
of that stone the woods had grown very frosty, and there
were dark mists, and under that stone was the dwelling of
nickers and outlawed creatures. And he saw that on that
cliff many black souls were hanging on the icy trees with
their hands bound, and the devils in the likeness of nickers
were seizing them as does the greedy wolf, and the water
was black underneath the cliff. And between the cliff and
the water there was the distance of twelve miles, and when
the branches broke off then souls that were hanging on the
branches plunged downward, and the nickers seized them.
These, then, were the souls of those who here in this world
had sinned unrighteously and would not repent of it before
their life’s end. But let us now earnestly ask St. Michael
that he lead our souls into bliss, where they may rejoice in
eternity without end. Amen” (Morris, 209-11).
These remarkable verbal parallels show that the landscape of the mere symbolizes
hell. It is a garden of evil, in which one of the race of Cain dwells in freezing sin. The
soul that avoids these dark waters is based on Psalm 42, “As the hart pants after the
running streams, so my soul cries aloud to Thee, O God.” The soul would rather die than
hide his head in the mere, just as any rational sou
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