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Beowulf is an epic poem written, most likely, towards the end of the first millennium. It is considered a masterpiece and is the oldest known piece of English literature. Written in Old English, the story tells of magnificent heroes and terrible monsters, of the struggle between good and evil. Beowulf follows the style of the time, intended to be read aloud and one of few stories written in that manner successfully recorded. Because of the time period the story was told, it encompasses many different worldviews. Within the epic are found ideas common in the Christian faith, alongside the values of Germanic warriors of the Teutonic tradition. Each of the characters in Beowulf also have importance in both lines of thinking. The Anglo-Saxon poetry allows the reader to get a picture of the beliefs held by society of that time, and these beliefs are exemplified through the uses of the main characters. Though it’s a poem full of entertainment, once one looks beneath the surface and past the excitement found in Beowulf’s battles with mysterious monsters of the shadows, many more applications can be found within Beowulf’s pages.
Beowulf tells the tale of the Danes and how a horrible monster, Grendel, plagued them. Upon hearing of this great and powerful creature, Beowulf travels to Herot (the mead-hall built by Hrothgar) to ask permission to challenge Grendel. Upon receiving permission and defeating the beast, Beowulf must then try his hand again at the monster, Grendel’s Mother. She proves to be a more difficult battle, but Beowulf is successful none-the-less. After gaining the position of King of the Danes, fifty years pass before Beowulf must fight again. This time, the country is being torn apart by a dragon who is seeking revenge for stolen treasures. However, this fight proves to be Beowulf’s last, as the dragon is able to strike the final blow. Though he was able to defeat the dragon, he still pays the price of his own life for the safety of his people. Given a proper burial and many funeral speeches, the epic ends with a fond farewell to a great leader.
Crucial to understanding the importance of Beowulf’s place in society is the ideas of Christian and pagan thought found within the poem’s twelve episodes. Most obvious are the references to Christianity. These points are easily recognizable by the mentions of there existing one God. Many quotes from the text are evidence of this. When Beowulf and his men arrived safely on the shore, “they thanked God ” (page 5). Grendel’s anger is described as “he was hostile to God” (page 15). However, many times in the text, a character will refer to the grace of God and the presence of Fate in the same breath. These examples show that both ideas are intermingled in the thoughts of the author for one reason or another. One example of this is when Beowulf requests permission to fight Grendel and says “there he whom death takes my needs trust to the judging of the Lord” (page 8) (meaning that God will decide who shall be taken by death) and “Fate ever goes as it must” (page 9) in the same plea. The ideas of fate and God do not follow the same beliefs. This notion of fate is along another line of thinking entirely. The values of Germanic warriors at the time believed in fate and that their works on earth are what mattered most, along with wealth, power, and heroic deeds. Through the presence of characters and situations, the reader sees that both ideas are laid out in the text.
Four of the characters in Beowulf exemplify the ideas held by Christian and Pagan thought at the time. The first of these is Beowulf, himself. When looking at Beowulf from a Christian point of view, on sees that he exemplifies many qualities of the savior figure in the religious thought. When the Geats are in fear of another, powerful being, Beowulf is the one they put their trust in. When he fights the dragon at the end of the epic, the dragon’s lair is full of treasures and gold, but Beowulf is more concerned with his people than with the treasures he might discover. The poem directly states “But Beowulf was not greedy for gold; rather had he looked for the grace of the Almighty.” Also, when he fought Grendel’s Mother, upon viewing the sword hanging upon the wall, his response is “but the Ruler of men vouchsafed that I should see a huge old sword hang gleaming on the wall” (page 30), not that he somehow found it. He gives his credit to God, not himself. However, at the same time, there is a strong sense of heroic pride in Beowulf that at times is in direct conflict with the aforementioned Christian values. While his actions don’t lead the reader to believe that he is mostly concerned with his earthly works and wealth, there is evidence that he is certainly interested in being heroic and having power. He also refers both to the God and to fate as having a partnership in his future. He considers himself to be the only man able to save the Danes from their monsters, and though he is able to prove himself, at first the reader believes him to be unnecessarily prideful. His character brings both pagan and Christian elements into the epic, and is one of the many factors that leads scholars to debating the two contrasting views.
A second character who exemplifies pagan characteristics as well as Christian ideas is that of Hrothgar, King of the Danes. Hrothgar’s influence in the epic is more along the lines of advice. He serves as a counselor to Beowulf and advises Beowulf on the way to respond to his victories. Hrothgar tells Beowulf that God gives success on earth and that if he does not share it with humility, he will be the cause of his own doom. He should be willing to share his earthly possessions and be one who “recklessly gives precious gifts, not fearfully guard them.” Hrothgar’s speeches to Beowulf doe not focus on the glory of battle or the honor of war. Instead, he seems to say: trust in God, be generous and humble. However these same lessons can be looked at from a pagan standpoint. Hrothgar advises Beowulf to keep fame in mind, watch out for his foe, and make his valor known. Beowulf is told that he will lack nothing if he accomplishes this. These ideas of valor and fame do not coincide with Christian beliefs of humility. Hrothgar’s character, as well as that of Beowulf, exemplifies the teachings of both beliefs in society.
The third and fourth major characters in Beowulf are Grendel and his Mother. This monster, Grendel, also exhibits characteristics common to both pagan thought and Christianity. Direct mentions are made of Grendel being a descendant of the Biblical figure, Cain. By alluding to these similarities, the author is describing Grendel as chaotic and his presence being evidence of the presence of evil. Both he and his Mother live in the shadows, similarly to the way Cain was cast outside of society after killing his brother. They are on the outside, roaming around in the shadows. They are threats to the order of society and destroy the peaceful mood surrounding Herot. As Grendel approached the civilizations at night, it was stated that “he bore God’s anger” (page13) just as Cain bore the seal of sin after killing his brother. Grendel’s Mother lives beneath the murky waters and in an underground cave of sorts. The symbolism here is that Beowulf had to swim down to her lair to engage in the battle similarly to the descent into hell. The presence of the light shining on the cave after Grendel’s Mother is defeated is likely an allusion to the way a light supposedly shone down from heaven when a saint has done a wondrous deed.
Along with being examples of Christian ideals in the epic poem, Grendel and his Mother also exemplify the pagan ideas of evil. They are the presence of selfishness and pride. The mere concept of a monster terrorizing a town is not Biblical and certainly pagan in nature. These beasts lived their lives for revenge and hatred, concepts largely anti-Christian in nature. It is clear that Beowulf is looked at as being a “good” character and Grendel and his Mother are looked at as “evil” characters.
The Christian tradition seems to be much more prevalent within Beowulf. Its ideas are more vivid and clear, and a careful analysis would likely show that while some pagan symbols appear in the work of literature, they are few and far between. The mixing of the two ideas is most likely a result of the time period the epic was written in. The poem seems to be written by a Christian, but he is aware of the pagan influences in his own life, and they are equally portrayed in his writing. For every mention of fate or evil, there is at least one mention of something good, whether that is God Himself or the presence of Beowulf. The moral of the story follows a Christian theme of good vs. evil. Obvious parallels can be drawn between Beowulf and Grendel (or his Mother, or the dragon) and the people of the town and the monsters that plague them. The author is trying to show that in the world around us, there are evil things pulling all of us down, but good will win out in the end. In every situation, Beowulf was the winner of the fight. He may have died at the end of the epic, but his death was one of honor and dignity, not humility like that of the dragon.
The epic of Beowulf is an excellent story to consider when analyzing the ideas of good vs. evil. It is an interesting take of heroes and monsters, but at the same time it entertains the reader, it teaches him or her about the battles going on in life around them as well. The lessons of pride and humility that Hrothgar taught Beowulf are quite necessary for all to understand and be made aware of. Beowulf is a true example of a selfless servant who put himself in harm’s way for the lives of his men. While it is not likely that many readers of the epic will find themselves in the same positions, it is a lesson for all to learn – to respect mankind and work for the better of others. When one acts humbly and for the good of another, that good cannot help but win out over the evil.
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