Religion Issues In Beowulf Poem
The epic poem Beowulf is one of the earliest examples of English literature. Originally written in Old English, the story has been translated and passed on for generations. The fundamental story line of the poem follows an Anglo-Saxon hero named Beowulf, who is responsible for saving his town from multiple vicious creatures. However, one thing that is interesting about the poem itself is its usage of Christian elements and themes throughout the poem. Although the exact date of the original story is not known, it is suggested that many of the pagan elements in the poem had been altered by the recent establishment of Christianity. Due to the establishment and popularity of the newfound religion, many of the translations found it necessary to make Christianity have a bigger role in this early Anglo-Saxon culture than it really did. With this being noted, the element of Christianity could have been imported to give the Anglo-Saxon culture the opportunity to make the Christian beliefs seem like part of their deep cultural heritage.
The insertion of Christian elements into the epic poem was included due too many cultural changes that were beginning to occur at the time of the original writing. Many of the Anglo-Saxon people of the time period in which Beowulf is based upon were starting to look to the new found religion of Christianity to help develop and improve their culture as a whole. This new religion also began to shape the writing of their time period, which is illustrated by Charles Kennedy in his translation and criticism of the work: “We have seen that the primitive material of the Beowulf was derived from pagan folk-tale, chronicle, and legend, and slowly welded into new unities. It remained for the Old English poet to complete this process of fusion by the conversion, or transmutation, of this material from pagan to Christian” (Page xlix). With this statement, Kennedy is emphasizing how the new Christian belief system was beginning to have an impact on the Anglo-Saxon culture and writing, and began to ultimately shape their beliefs. Kennedy goes on in his criticism to mention how drastically the Christian shaping of the poem altered the writing: “This mutation, moreover, is not merely a matter of altered phrases, or of interpolated references to the Christian faint, but is a deeply pervasive infusion of Christian spirit coloring thought and judgment, governing motive and action, a continuous and active agent in the process of transformation” (xlix). This line explains how significant the insertion of the Christian elements into this poem were, and how many of the traditional pagan beliefs that the Anglo-Saxon people held before Christianity were overshadowed in this form of literature.
By including Christian elements throughout the Epic Poem of Beowulf, Christianity began to gain more mass exposure. Christianity, at the time that Beowulf was written, was a relatively new concept that had not yet gained the widespread popularity that it has today. This fact can be Illustrated in Thomas D. Hill’s article “The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf”, when he states, “Anglo-Saxon Christians, however, had to deal with a problem which all European Christians of the first millennium faced, the simple and unarguable historical fact that Christianity itself, and in particular their Christianity, was not particularly old” (199). The fact that Christianity was a new development helped the Anglo-Saxon people overcome many of their previous moral dilemmas and add more ethical beliefs to their historic background. However, even though this was a relatively new religion, the early Anglo-Saxon culture felt as if it were necessary to make Christianity a fundamental aspect of their society. This is emphasized with medieval literature, where the elements of Christianity were often inserted deeply into the histories and cultures of the traditional Pagan beliefs: “One of the ways in which medieval authors dealt with the problem of paganism and its consequences was to pretend that the history of their nation began with the conversion to Christianity and that nothing of real consequence happened before this momentous date” (199). An example of how these Christian elements have been directly placed into the story can be seen when the speaker states, “The truth is clear:/ Almighty God rules over mankind/ and always has” ( Lines 700-702). This quote shows how the author of this story is illustrating that even before the foundation of Christianity, God has possessed the control of the fate of the Anglo-Saxon people, and will forever play a big role in their culture. Another direct Biblical allusion can be illustrated with the direct lineage of Grendel, one of the creatures that Beowulf must fight, and his relation to Cain.
The relation of Cain and Grendel is a fundamental aspect of Christianity being inserted into the typical Pagan values. The relation of the two is stated when Grendel is first being introduced: “Grendel was the name of this grim demon/ haunting the marches, marauding round the heath/ and the desolate fends; he had dwelt; he had dwelt for a time/ in misery among the banished monsters,/ Cain’s clan, whom the creator had outlawed/ and condemned as outcasts” (102-107). This introduction and relation to Cain provides Grendel with an evil heritage, and shows that Grendel was created due to the curse that God had put on Cain’s lineage for murdering his brother. The depiction of Grendel as the story goes on demonstrates him as a character of true evil. The ultimate evil that Grendel demonstrates makes him appear to be related to another character in the Bible, as illustrated by Fr. Klaeber in his article “The Christian Coloring”: “The figure of Grendel, at any rate, while originally an ordinary Scandinavian troll, and passing in the poem as some sort of man-monster, is at he same time conceived of as an impersonation of the evil and darkness, even an incarnation of the Christian devil” (Klaeber). This depiction of Grendel as the devil comes from the fact that he is a direct descendant of Cain and the fact that him and his mother reside in a deep underground cave that seems to have many characteristics of the Christian Hell. While the relation of Grendel to Cain depicts how the Anglo-Saxon people inserted Christianity into their heritage, a lot of the traditional pagan elements of the story are overshadowed by the moralistic Christian behavior that many of the characters possess, including Beowulf himself.
While many of the original pagan elements of this time period were maintained throughout the story, many of the moralistic or behavioral traits that the characters possess are influenced by traditional Christian beliefs. The character of Beowulf possesses many typical qualities of an epic hero, such as super-human abilities, being praised by his society, and being tested on multiple occasions to prove his worth and ability. Along with these qualities of the epic hero, Beowulf also demonstrates many qualities of a good Christian. This quality is described by Klaeber: “Those readers who, impressed by Beowulf’s martial appearance at the beginning of the action, expect to find an aggressive warrior hero of the Achilles or Sigfrit type, will be disposed at time to think of him somewhat tame, sentimental, and fond of talking” (103). While he is depicted as a typical epic hero in his stature and the way he can defeat all of his strong enemies, Beowulf demonstrates many Christian characteristics with the way that he acts and speaks. Many times throughout the poem he gives thanks to the Creator and when he is going to fight Grendel’s mother Beowulf states, “And may the Divine Lord/ in His wisdom grant the glory of victory/ to whichever side He sees fit” (685-687). With this quote Beowulf illustrates his strong faith in god and explains how whatever happens in the fight he knows that it is all part of God’s greater plan. All of these religious details that are included in the characteristics of Beowulf are somewhat unusual for the typical epic hero, showing how he is somewhat humble and knows that God is the only being that has the ability to control his fate. Another thing that is demonstrated throughout the epic poem is that Beowulf himself can be seen as a Christ figure.
The possibility that Beowulf is meant to appear as a Christ figure throughout the epic poem is referenced many times in the poem itself. This is explained by Klaeber: “We might even 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. Though delicately kept in the background, such a Christian interpretation of the main story on the part of the Anglo-Saxon author could not but give added strength and tone to the entire poem” (104). With Beowulf possessing many qualities that the Christian Jesus demonstrated adds a religious undertone to the poem in its entirety and demonstrates how religion as a whole was injected into these early Anglo-Saxon stories. This is also significant due to the fact that, as referenced earlier, Grendel can be seen as a representation of the Christian devil. The battle between the two characters can be seen as both a typical element of good vs. evil and can be a true representation of the struggle between the Christian God and Devil.
Many of the early Anglo-Saxon writers inserted elements of Christianity into their writings in order to make it seem as if Christianity had always been a fundamental aspect of their cultural beliefs. By adding these Christian elements into Beowulf, it seems as if Christianity has always been fundamental in their beliefs and connects their lives to the genealogy of the characters. Along with the lineage of the characters, the speaker’s usage of direct discussion about God and how he is the almighty and the controller of everything. The introduction of Christianity to this culture played a huge role on their beliefs and changed the way that they acted and what they valued in many ways. The insertion of Christian elements into medieval writings, such as Beowulf, demonstrated the importance of this newfound religion on their culture and lives as a whole.
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