Beowulf: A Pagan Epic Hero?

Beowulf: A Pagan Epic Hero?

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Throughout literature there have been countless parallels and references to the story of Christ as written in the Bible. Even in such unexpected places as in seemingly pagan poems of ancient Danes and Geats- an epic with dragons and monsters- one still finds similar biblical allusions. In just such an unexpected place, the epic Beowulf, it's title hero and his circumstance, become an allegory for the story of Christ. In this sense, Beowulf can be seen as a Christian story of salvation.
The similarities between Beowulf and the story of Christ are striking. All one would need to see the many parallels between the two would be a simple sign or thought that this allegory does exist. After that simple hint of what to look for, the evidence in the text itself becomes proof enough that Beowulf is indeed a allegory for Christ.
Firstly, the people, the Danes and Geats, in Beowulf live in a seemingly pagan setting but never once do they mention the Gods or even allude to any of the Nordic myths. Instead, every reference to a higher deity is described by the "Ruler, the Judge of Deeds, the Lord God, Protector of Heaven, and the Glorious King." (Beowulf, pg. 29) This distinctly Christian concept of monotheism should be the reader's first point of awareness on what type of story Beowulf actually represents.

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With this in mind, one might notice the biblical quality of the sword Beowulf discovered: "Hrothgar discoursed; he scrutinized the hilt, the ancient heirloom, upon which was inscribed the rise of primeval strife when the flood, the rushing deep, destroyed the brood of the giants. They suffered terribly; that was a race alien to the Everlasting Lord, The Ruler made them a last payment through the water's welling." (Beowulf, pg. 48-49) Just reading this passage, one can see the shape of the entire epic of Beowulf. Through the reference to the great flood of Noah in the Bible, the allusion to the Everlasting Lord and Ruler, slightly colored by the addition of the people being called giants; this passage, like the entire epic of Beowulf, is an obvious Christian tale juxtaposed into a pagan setting.
Symbolizing these two opposed concepts of Christian and Pagan as used in Beowulf, are the ideas of God and Wyrd. They are the two deities, or higher powers, by which Christians and Pagan respectively believe in : God and Fate. According to Professor Kennedy, "In the poem, God and Wyrd are brought into juxtaposition in such a manner as to imply control of Fate by the superior power of Christian divinity." (Kennedy, pp. 87-88) By this same thought, Beowulf as a literary work, can be seen as a first progression of epic literature into the Christian genre. It is in a sense, the normal pagan epic written around serious Christian themes.
The most self-evident, and by far most superior of these Christian themes apparent in Beowulf is that of the correspondence between the Monsters and the Devil and therefore the relationship between Beowulf and Christ. "A din arose, strange and mighty; a horrible fear came to the North-Danes, to everyone who heard the shrieking from the wall, --heard the adversary of God chant his grisly lay, his song of defeat,-- the prisoner of hell wailing over his wound." (ln. 787) The descriptions of Grendel are clearly symbolic of the devil. Even his situation and his home are similar to that of Satan. "Then the mighty spirit who dwelt in darkness bore grievously a time of hardship, in that he heard each day loud revelry in hall; -- there was the sound of the harp, the clear song of the minstrel" (An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism pg. 335, Beowulf pg. 28) Grendel's envy of man's happiness, like Satan's which brought him to the garden of Eden, is what sparks him to attack Heorot. "Thus these warriors lived in joy, blessed, until one began to do evil deeds, a hellish enemy." (pg. 28) As Satan who used guile and deceit to ruin happiness and bring death to our first Mother and Father (and thereby all mankind), so Grendel too brings death to the North-Danes to end his solitary misery. Even the use of such concepts as "hellish" or having to do with Hell, and the Great Flood (as mentioned above) point to the fact that Beowulf is written for an audience that is at least familiar with, if not part of, the Christian doctrine. So, by this note - if Grendel is this "creature deprived of joy...driven by evil desire"(pg. 36), if he is the symbolic Satan- and the audience is knowledgeable of Christian theology- then it follows that Beowulf, who vanquishes Grendel and lays down his own life for his people by killing the Dragon, must be the representation of Christ.
The first comparison which must be drawn between Beowulf and Christ is that of their descriptions. Beowulf is described as the "Best of Men, Beloved Man, He held the great gift that God had given him, the most strength of all mankind" (Beowulf) Similarly Christ is called the "Savior, Redeemer, Lord, Master, The Lord's Anointed" (Microsoft Bookshelf) They are both clearly revered by man, in fact above all others, and blessed by God. Hrothgar says of Beowulf, "Lo! That self-same woman who bore this child among the tribes of men may say, if she still lives, that the eternal God has been gracious to her in her child-bearing." Anyone even remotely aware of Christian doctrine will recognize a fairly clear echo of what was written of the birth of Christ. From Luke 11:27, "As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, 'Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.'" Both Christ and Beowulf have a special quality that touches the lives of those around them causing irrevocable and desperately needed change. Through their actions they instill such hope in their people that they gain reverence and even worship.
As for the title of "Lord's Anointed", it can evenly be applied to both figures. Christ is Lord's Anointed for all the obvious reasons: he is God's Son, The Second
person of the Holy Trinity- he was born of God and Baptized in the Holy Spirit. Beowulf, similarly, is blessed by God, "he has the might of the Lord" and in his title story Beowulf too receives a symbolic Baptism. Beowulf journeys into the mire (the dwelling of monsters- Hell) to battle with Grendel's mother. There he is attacked by "many monsters, strange creatures and hateful fingers". (pg. 46) Beowulf battles with the symbolic Satan as man battles against the constant temptations of sin. When he returns after vanquishing the vile creature, Beowulf "plung(es) up through the water. (and) The currents were all cleansed". (pg. 48) As in Christian Baptism, Beowulf, through "water" is symbolically "cleansed" of his sins; he is Baptized, like Christ, in the Holy Spirit.
The most convincing evidence of the relationship between Beowulf and Christ is in the final part of the story. It is here as McNamee notes in "An Allegory of Salvation?", that the number correspondence and even circumstance of events, when Beowulf goes to battle the Dragon, is identical to the agony and death of Christ on the cross. Beowulf travels with twelve of his friends, like Christ and his apostles, to meet the Dragon. All but one of his friends desert him, as Jesus's did during his passion. The dragon Beowulf faces?; A serpent, much like the one that has represented Satan since the dawn of time in the garden of Eden. "Beowulf is described, too, as expiring, like Christ, at the ninth hour." (McNamee, An Allegory of Salvation) The similarities of their fate are unquestionable. Both Christ and Beowulf sacrifice themselves for the sake of their people. Christ's sacrifice, their sacrifice, of themselves is the "blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:27)
Beowulf's death is what separates him from any type of epic hero. He dies not for any hammartia, or fatal flaw, but because it is God's will. God's blessing which had been upon him from the beginning, protected him Grendel and Grendel's mother - all the monsters he had faced-, does not help him in the end. Beowulf's death has no other logical explanation other than that this all powerful God, who had protected him up until this time, decided it was right for him to die. As Jesus on the cross asked "my God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?" so Beowulf too must have been forsaken- not for any wrong that he may have committed, but as a sacrifice to redeem the wrongs of others. From this perspective Beowulf is much more than a Pagan Epic; It is as a tale of redemption and salvation. It is, as Gerald Walsh in his book on Medieval Humanism has observed: "Beowulf is not a pagan poem; it is the creation of a Christian, possibly of a monk. The legends had come from Denmark and Sweden, but the Norsemen knew comparatively little of composition or literary creation. By the eighth century, these legends had become grist for the Christian poets mill. They were welded together into a single allegorical song imitating the Divine Mystery of Redemption -- A conception beyond the scope of the Viking's power" (Gerald G. Walsh, S.J., Medieval Humanism (New York, 1942), pg. 45)) In essence, Beowulf is a story conceived from Christian doctrine; an allegorical tale of Christ placed in a mythical setting to provide more than any epic could. Beowulf, by entertwining Christian beliefs and old pagan elements of lore becomes a standard of literature hard to surpass. It places the story of Christ in the vernacular. Beowulf gives a remarkable twist to the concept of Epic poems by intermixing the story of Christian salvation.
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