Christian Elements In Beowulf Essay, Research Paper
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 soul would prefer death to eternal
Beowulf?s last monstrous foe is designated by the word ?wyrm? meaning a
serpent or worm, and the word ?draca? meaning dragon. In the Old English poetry, the
worm and dragon represent enmity to mankind. The worms who devour man?s corpse
after death, the dragons and serpents who receive his soul in hell, and the dragon of sin
and mortality who rules over earth until Christ cancels for all time the work of the
The Grendel kin and the dragon share some of the descriptive words and epithets
used for monsters in the poem such as ?slayer,? ?enemy,? and ?evil destroyer.? They all
live in demonic halls. Some poets believe that the dragon was ?the devil himself,
guarding a hoard of gold that infects men with greed and pride and so leads to death and
damnation? (Clark, 257). The Beowulf dragon is sufficiently snakelike, both in his
appearance and behavior, to qualify as a Christian symbol. In Genesis of the Bible, the
serpent is never clearly called Satan. The snake is an allegory for the devil much like the
dragon is an allegory for the archfiend.
But if the dragon is of the same kind as Grendel, why was Beowulf unable to
defeat him? To this question the Christian interpretation is that Beowulf has lost the
favor of God. However, the dragon is the instrument of Beowulf?s death. As J.R.R.
Tolkien explains, ?the placing of the dragon is inevitable: a man can but die upon his
death day? (Holland-Crossley, 11). If this view is accepted, the problem of why Beowulf
had forfeited God?s favor disappears. Beowulf in his youth overcomes his foes with
God?s help. But even with God at his side, Beowulf, like all men, must die.
Beowulf is an allegory of Christian salvation. There are many symbols that allude
to Christian references in Beowulf; the fight with Grendel represents the salvation of
mankind, the fight with Grendel?s mother represents Christ?s Resurrection, and the fight
with the dragon resembles Christ?s death.
There is real conscious analogy between Beowulf and Christ. There is, for
example, the familiar parallel between Hroogar?s praise of Beowulf, ?Yes, she may say,
whatever, woman brought forth this son among mankind-if she still lives-that the God of
Old was kind to her in childbearing? (Kermode, 45), and the remark of a woman to
Christ in Luke 11:27, ?Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the breasts that thou hast
sucked.? Also, this speech occurs shortly after Christ has cast out a demon (11:14-18),
while that of Hroogar follows Beowulf?s cleansing Heorot of the demonic Grendel.
Again, Beowulf goes forth to fight the dragon accompanied by a band of twelve, one of
whom is a culprit; during the fight the eleven retainers flee, and one returns. This
parallels the picture of Christ shortly before his death attended by the twelve Apostles:
the treason of Judas, the flight of the eleven remaining Apostles, and the return of John
at the crucifixion.
Beowulf and Christ are icons of wisdom and power. Christ is frequently
represented by patristic writers as the wisdom and power of God. A Vercelli Homily
remarks of his early life that ?he was filled with might and wisdom before God and
before men (Tuso, 129), and the poetic Descent into Hell describes him at the
Resurrection as ?brave . . . victorious and wise? (Tuso, 22). In early medieval
iconography, there commonly existed a portrayal of a warlike and victorious Christ with
his feet resting on a prostrate lion and dragon which parallels Beowulf and Jesus as
heroic figures. Fr. Klaeber wrote, ?We might feel inclined to recognize features of the
Christian Savior in the destroyer of hellish fiends, the warrior brave and gentle, blameless
in thought and deed, the king that dies for his people? (Chickering, 17). Both icons
represented power and wisdom of heroes.
The scene where Beowulf dives into Grendel?s dark mere and begins his descent
into the watery depths swimming until ?the ninth hour of the day? (Kermode, 57). This
is almost an unavoidable biblical echo. In Luke 23:44-46, it is the same hour that Christ,
abandoned by all but a faithful few, died on the cross. Furthermore, this is where
Beowulf dove into Grendel and his mother?s dark mere and swam until the ninth hour,
reaching the mere?s bottom, symbolizing the death of Christ and his stay in hell.
Beowulf, having lain down his life for the defense of his people and having
thanked God for winning the dragon?s treasure for their use, suggests the figure of Christ.
Charles Donahue eloquently wrote, ?Our poet liked diptychs, and he left his audience
with a pair of images, Beowulf at the dragon?s barrow on one side of the diptych, Jesus
on Calvary on the other? (Poupard, 18). Donahue suggests that both Christ and Beowulf
are martyrs for their people. They each gave up their lives to save the people.
The champion Beowulf, in life is reminiscent of the champion Christ in various
aspects of his wisdom and power. Beowulf in the end is not revealed to be a God-man
but man. His death not a supernatural atonement but a natural phenomenon. An analogy
of any kind between Beowulf and Christ in itself account for the notorious absence of
explicit references in the poem.
The epic of Beowulf is wrapped in a history of pagan ideal and Christian
surroundings. The poem is woven in Christian allegorical figures which give Beowulf a
romantic mystery that many epics lack. Beowulf is a timeless classic that has endured the
centuries. All that is left of the epic is the hero?s fame, a monument as enduring as earth.
Kermode, Frank, and John Hollander, et al. Beowulf. The Oxford Anthology of English
Literature: Vol 1. New York: Oxford UP, 1973. 29-98.
Chickering, Howell D, Jr. Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor,
Clark, George. Beowulf. New York: Twayne, 1990.
Holland-Crossley, Kevin, and Bruce Mitchell. Beowulf. New York: Farrar, Straus, and
Poupard, Dennis, and Jelena O. Krstonc, ed. Classical and Medieval Literature
Criticism: Volume 1. Michigan: Gale Research, 1988.
Morris, Richard, ed. Blickling Homilies: Sermon 17 of the Tenth Century, Old Series,
no. 73. London: EETS, 1880. 209-11.
Tuso, Joseph F, ed. Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation Backgrounds and Sources
Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1975.