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Beowulf was written in England around 1000 AD. "This provides us with an idea of a poem that was written during a time when the society had converted from paganism to christianity"(Cohen 138). "We know that paganism did exist alongside Christianity during the approximate era that Beowulf was composed"(Hall 61). "The Christian influences were combined with early folklore and heroic legends of dramatic tribes, early Beowulf scholars began to investigate whether or not Christian and biblical influences were added later to originally pagan influences"(Hall 61). "The Christian elements are almost without exception so deeply ingrained in the fabric of the poem that they cannot be explained away as the work of a reviser or later interpolator"(Klaeber 2). The fact that the two values are so closely intertwined in the poem, I believe that is the reason Beowulf has both Christian and pagan influences.
The pagan elements in the epic poem Beowulf are evident in the characters superhuman personifications. Beowulf is depicted as a superhero. Beowulf takes it upon himself to save the Danes from Grendel. In his battle with Grendel, Beowulf chooses not to use weapons; he relies on his super strength. During the fight, Beowulf's strength takes over and Beowulf wrestles with Grendel until he is able to rip one of the monster's arms out of its socket. Superhuman feats also appear in the fight with Grendel's mother. When Beowulf enters the water, he swims downward for an entire day before he sees the bottom. He does this without the use of oxygen. During the battle with Grendel's mother, Beowulf realizes that Unferth's sword is useless against the monsters thick skin. He grabs an enormous sword made by giants, almost too heavy to hold and slashes through the monster's body. This superhero strength continues into the battle with the dragon. By this time, Beowulf is an old man. He stands up to the dragon and wounds him. Although Beowulf is fatally wounded himself, he still manages to deliver the final blow that kills the dragon. Grendel is also seen as a superhuman monster. Grendel has no knowledge of weapons so he too depends on his extraordinary strength to destroy his enemies. The dragon is also seen as a super powerful adversary. "As in most pagan folklore, the dragon is a much used enemy of the hero of the story"(Greenfield 87).
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The pagan beliefs about immortality are also significant in the poem. "It is believed that a warriors life after death was a continuation of his life on earth" (Greenfield 91). Beowulf's single destiny is to help his people by dying while fighting a supernatural creature. " If Beowulf's confrontation with the dragon is a symbol of evil, then Beowulf's death, to the pagan, would be regarded as a victory for Satan because Beowulf dies"(Greene 66). "The fundamental contrast between the good God and blind fate is shown by the fact that God invariably grants victory, whereas it is a mysterious spell that brings about Beowulf's death"(Klaeber 2). Beowulf wants his body cremated; a very unchristian ritual. " In supernatural elements of pre-Christian association, heathen practices are mentioned in several places such as the vowing of sacrifices at idol fanes, the observing of omens, and the burning of the dead which was frowned upon by the Church"(Klaeber 1). Beowulf wants his ashes placed in a memorial tower as a reminder of his bravery. This leaves us the impression of pagan immortality;" the memory in the minds of later men of a hero's heroic actions"(Greene 68).
While many pagan influences appear in the poem, Christian overtones dominate. Many of the characters exhibit Christian characteristics. Beowulf has a Christ-like behavior in his humility and charity. Beowulf understands the plight of the Danes that are being oppressed by the evil monster Grendel just as Christ knew of the oppression of the Jewish people. Both set out on a venture to save their people. "To free themselves from the monster, the Danes need a savior and Beowulf through his desire to alleviate their suffering, comes to save them"(Cook 287). When Beowulf battles Grendel, he exhibits a sense of fairness when he refuses to use a weapon. "In the rejection of armed help, there is perhaps a suggestion of Beowulf's magnanimity and rejecting the use os swords in his fight with Grendel; but the emphasis here is certainly not upon character in the old heroic sense, but upon the ease with which without shield or spear, Christ is able to overcome the enemy in spiritual battle"(Greenfield 142). The idea throughout the poem of living right, of loyalty, and of being a good leader can all be seen as traits of Christ. Just as Beowulf exemplifies Christ, Grendel mirrors Satan. Beowulf and Grendel represent the Christian beliefs of good verses evil. Grendel is referred to as a descendant of Cain. "He is the image of a man fallen from grace through sin"(Cook 299). Like Satan who is jealous of the happiness and joy that Adam and Eve have in the Garden of Eden, Grendel is jealous of the happiness and joy in Heorot. Grendel, as with Satan, is an adversary of God and poses a great challenge to Beowulf. Grendel lives in an underworld as Satan lives in hell. "Grendel was concieved as an impersonation of evil and darkness even an incarnation of the Christian devil"(Hall 76). Grendel is referred to in the poem as "the guardian of sins". The dragon is Beowulf's last and greatest battle. The dragon represents malice, greed, and destruction. He is a symbol of the power of Satan. Beowulf's fight with the dragon is a realization of the story of salvation where Beowulf like Christ gives his life for his people. "The dragon is ' a timeless foe.' He represents the eternal evils that man must fight to preserve that which is good"(Hall 82).
Beside Christian elements, the poem has many Christian parallels. Grendel who is described as a descendant of Cain is a very hateful creature. He envies the fellowship and happiness he sees. He hates living in the underworld, cut off from the company of other men. He stalks the people and terrorizes them because he is jealous of their joy. This is similar to the devil when he was cast out of heaven and the joys that were there. He became jealous of mankind and to this day stalks people with temptations of evil. Also, along the lines of parallels, the concept of comitatus exists in the poem. "In the concept of comitatus, a band of warriors pledges themselves to a feudal lord who is known for his bravery and generosity. They swear to defend him to their death. They were known for their bravery and loyalty. In return, the lord gave protection"(Cohen 120). This is comparable to Christ and his band of warriors called apostles. They all swore their loyalty to Christ and the lord protected them. More parallels are evident in Beowulf's preparation and descent into the mere where Grendel's mother lives. "While Beowulf is preparing to enter the water, he is pondering the evils that inhabit the pond"(Greene 74). He knows he is faced with a greater challenge than before. He prepared as though he were preparing for death. "He forgives his enemies and does not mourn death"(Greene 74). Christ knew before his death that he was facing a great challenge and he forgave his enemies. "Beowulf's descent into the mere is like a baptismal rite. The immersion purifies him and he overcomes the evil power of Grendel's mother. He rises from the water a redeemed man much as Christ arose from the tomb"(Greene 74). While Beowulf is in the mere, all the thanes except Wiglaf gives up hope and leaves at the ninth hour-the hour of the day-the hour of Christ's death on the cross. The waiting is similar to the apostles waiting for Christ to return from the Garden of Gethsemane. While Christ was in the Garden, the apostles gave up and fell asleep, all except Peter who loyally awaited Christ's return. Finally, just as Christ had one last battle, Beowulf has his final battle with the dragon. Both Christ and Beowulf fought hard in their last battles with evil and although they both ultimately died in their final battle, they both were able to conquer the evil before they died.
In conclusion, the author of Beowulf was very effective in combining pagan and Christian ideas in his poem. "A poet leaves his mark on a poem through the techniques he uses"(Klaeber 4). The technique of combining two different ideals made the poem Beowulf very interesting to read. "In fusing pagan and Christian ideas, the poet was able to emphasize the morals of his times and to enhance his characters with Christian values and pagan folklore"(Klaeber 8).
Works Cited and Consulted
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Chambers, R. W. Beowulf: An Introduction. Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1967.
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.
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