Epic of Beowulf

Epic of Beowulf

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     It is common opinion that Beowulf was written by a Christian poet. This was probably true because at the time when it was written, most of the few people who knew how to read and write were in the clergy. There are various references within the poem to elements of the Christian religion. However, the story is about Pagan people and certain aspects of their culture are even glorified. The ambiguity of Beowulf’s religious content has caused confusion as to what significance religion had in inspiring the author and in what manner the author meant to inspire or influence his audience. I do not think that Beowulf is a Christian allegory because Beowulf had very little in common with the Biblical figure of Jesus Christ. I think that religion was not the primary thematic concern of the writer. Although there are discrepancies between the two styles of thinking, Beowulf seems to praise values which were considered moral and good among all humanity, both Christian and Pagan.
     The text of Beowulf clearly shows that at some point in time Biblical allusions were added to it, and suggests that someone learned in Christianity helped shape the story. The initial depiction of Grendel regarded the beast as “a fiend out of hell,” and claimed, “…he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts.” References to hell, Cain, and “the Creator”, make it evident that Christian elements were present in the story. More importantly, the reference to “the Creator” shows that monotheistic theory was incorporated into the text. Grendel’s relationship to this “Creator” is further elaborated on, in which case the author refers to the latter as “Eternal Lord”, “Almighty”, and “God.” All four of which are common ways to refer to the individual Christian God, and were capitalized as would have been in the Bible.
     These allusions to Christian faith could lead a critic to assume that Beowulf is a Christian allegory. Critics who read the poem in this way often call Beowulf a Christ figure because he is a savior to his people. However, if the poem was really meant to be read in this way, I think that Beowulf would have been ultimately triumphant and would have survived his fight with the dragon. I do not claim to be a Biblical scholar but I can not remember any stories from the Bible where Christ did any killing or boasting.

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     The themes of wealth and fame in Beowulf are interesting ones. I think that they are the main difference between the Pagan and Christian values in the story. Christianity teaches that people should do good deeds only for the sake of helping their fellow people. Christianity also teaches the importance of modesty. Beowulf does want to help his fellow man, and he is very selfless in doing so. However, Beowulf is also quite open about his desire for fame and treasure. I think that the reason Beowulf is more concerned with these things than a good Christian would be lies in his Pagan beliefs. Pagans did not believe in God, Satan, heaven or hell. Since the society of Beowulf did not believe in an afterlife, the only way they saw to transcend their physical lives was to accumulate great wealth and fame so that they would be remembered long after their deaths.
     I do not think that Pagan culture is completely celebrated in Beowulf though. The ideas of boasting, fame, and wealth are questioned in the poem. The text even stated that, “The high-born chiefs who had buried the treasure declared it until doomsday so accursed that whoever robbed it would be guilty of wrong and grimly punished for their transgression, hasped in hell-bonds in heathen shrines.” Unferth is another tool the author uses to question Beowulf’s integrity as a hero. Unferth points out Beowulf’s “sheer vanity” and accuses him of making idle boasts. I think it is important to note that Unferth does not question the idea of boasting in itself but only idle boasting. It is also important to note that Beowulf clearly wins this battle of words.
     In lines 1723-1768, the narrator lectures the reader on the perils of Beowulf’s lifestyle. He warns the reader about indulging in wealth and pride. The narrator pleads with Beowulf to find his salvation in the afterlife and not with material wealth or fame. This creates an obvious problem when all of the actions and words of the characters suggest that wealth and fame are noble pursuits. The narrator see Beowulf as a noble savage, someone with noble and respectable qualities but who was still damned because of his sin of pride. Beowulf’s pride does result in his undoing, “the prince of rings was too proud to line up with a large army against the sky-plague. He had scant regard for the dragon as a threat, no dread at all of its courage or strength.” Beowulf could probably have survived the battle had he not been too proud to prepare himself better. Beowulf also asked to see the treasure before he died which shows how important it was to him. Beowulf also wished be cremated which is a more Pagan ritual.
     Fate is another theme of the poem that needs to be addressed in order to better understand its religious ambiguities. Beowulf assures himself before his battles that fate will have its way. Christianity teaches that one makes decisions that are either good or evil and that this determines their ultimate fortune. The idea that people have no say and that everything that happens is out of our control is a more Pagan thought. The Fates were thought to be supernatural beings who choose what will happen to people. This also suggests an element of polytheism which would contradict the Christian ideas of the poem.
     The narrator of the poem definitely leans toward the Christian side of this religious balance. This is probably a result of the writer’s own religious convictions. The characters tend to swing more toward the Pagan side. This is because the European society at that time was only just becoming Christianized. Pagan values were still important among the people of this time, even the Christian ones. I think that the Christian values dominate slightly in the poem because of the great amount of biblical language. I also think that Beowulf’s death suggests that the Pagan values of fame and wealth are wrong. Being probably written by clergy member makes it inevitable that Christian values are portrayed as more correct in the story.
     Nobody will ever be able to say for certain what the writer of Beowulf intended his readers to think about the religious aspects of the poem. Beowulf is an epic poem the tells the story of one man’s incredible adventures. If one reads the poem as folk story which was meant to entertain people of its time and reflect their values and ideals, the answer to the question of religion not difficult to find. The culture that produced this story was a blend of Pagan and Christian beliefs. Therefore, it would be logical to assume that their literature would reflect this mixture. I do not think that Beowulf was written as a primarily religious text. A complete understanding of its religious content is not necessary to enjoy the poem. I think that the writer was trying to do what all writers try to do, to make the story and its characters seem interesting to the reader. The fact that Beowulf is still popular today makes it clear that the writer succeeded in this task. I think that it is more important understand how religious ideas add to the work in this way than to worry about which religion is made to seem better.
     Beowulf is a success in that it must have captured something innately human to transcend the massive changes in our culture over time. Part of this success is due to how well the writer combined Pagan and Christian ideas in the poem. This technique allowed the writer to accurately capture the complex moral structure of his society. Combining the two systems of thought simply gave the writer a bigger pool of themes and ideas to draw upon. If there is no conflict in a story it is pretty uninteresting. The conflicting ideas in Beowulf invite the reader to take a more active role and question their own ideas about some of the themes presented. The writer was also able to make the characters more interesting by infusing them with aspects of both Christian values and Pagan folklore. The mixing of the ideas of Paganism and Christianity greatly added to the story itself and our understanding of the morals and values of the culture that created it.
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