Epic of Beowulf Essay - Ambiguous Allegories and Imperfect Symbols

Epic of Beowulf Essay - Ambiguous Allegories and Imperfect Symbols

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Ambiguous Allegories and Imperfect Symbols in Beowulf


         Though Beowulf contains apocalyptic elements from beginning to end, perhaps the most important apocalyptic element of Beowulf is the poet's historicizing of the biblical monsters in his characterization of Grendel, his mother, and the dragon. Of course, the many ambiguities found in Beowulf is the source of considerable confusion. For instance, on the one hand, early in the poem we read that the Danes in their dire necessity pray at heathen temples, invoking the devil for aid: "Such was their custom, the hope of the heathens; they thought of hell in their hearts; they knew not the Lord, the Judge of deeds, they knew not the Lord God, nor could they praise the Protector of the Heavens, the Ruler of Glory" (Beowulf: 175-188). On the other hand, Hrothgar and Wealhtheow constantly pray to the Christian God, whom they are supposed not to know, according to the lines cited above! In Beowulf and in the Book of Apocalypse, identity between symbols and realities, between allegories and their significations is ambiguous and imperfect.

A few scholars have pointed out eschatological elements in the poem. John D. Niles writes: "Although God's final judgment of humankind is affirmed by only a few verses (977b-979, 3069a, perhaps 2741a and 3083b), the prospect of judgment is implicitly present throughout the poem. Similarly, the reality of Christ's incarnation is also implicit--in fact, it is never mentioned" (192). The last things are alluded to in Beowulf's seeking out "the judgment of the righteous," (2820), in Scyld's going "into the Lord's keeping" (27b), in Hrethel's finding God's light (2469-70), and in Heremod's, Unferth's, and Grendel's suffering torments in hel...


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...duction. Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1967.

Collins, John J. "Apocalyptic Literature," Harper's biblical Dictionary, ed. Paul J. Achtmeier. San Francisco: Harper, 1985.

Emmerson, Richard K. and Bernard McGinn. The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell, 1992.

Garmonsway, et. al. Beowulf and Its Analogues. New York: Dutton, 1971.

Gang, T. M. "Approaches to Beowulf." RES 3 (1952):.6-12.

Gildas. De Excidio Britanniae in Wade-Evans, A. W. , trans. Nennius' History of Britons. London: Methuen, 1938.

Goldsmith, Margaret. "The Christian Theme of Beowulf." Medium Aevum 29 (1960): 81-101.

Green, Martin. "Man, Time, and Apocalypse in The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and Beowulf," JEGP 74 (1975): 502-518.

Hieatt, Constance B. "Envelope Patterns and the Structure of Beowulf," English Studies in Canada 1 (1975): 249-265.

 

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