Symbols Of Faith And Traditions In Beowulf
Beowulf is an important text in the history of British literature as it is the first notable work to be written in the English language. Yet, it is significant beyond its chronological status. Containing both Christian and pagan elements, Beowulf reflects the historical-relgious context in which it was written. The presence of two religious ideals makes the text’s approach to faith difficult to determine. Beowulf, however, does not reflect a confused religious culture; instead, it is a hybrid of Christian and pagan values with traditional elements of heroic storytelling.
Throughout the plot of Beowulf, many Christian themes are present as the speaker frequently references heaven and hell, as well as the justice of god. The narrator plays a large role in the Christian tone of the text by commenting on action as it is taking place. One of the earliest examples occurs after a description of people worshipping in heathen temples in lines 184-188, where the poet states: “Woe be to the one, who through terrible sin, would shove his soul into the fire’s embrace, foregoing all hope, with no chance of change! Happy the one, who after his death-day, may seek the Ruler for peace and protection in the Father’s arms” (Beowulf 9). This is one of many remarks the speaker inserts throughout the piece that indicate a negative attitude towards pagan practices, and implies that spiritual fulfillment is only possible through Christianity.
Several specific references to the Bible also occur throughout the text. In line 108, Grendel is identified as “Cain’s kin” (6), and is therefore associated with evil. There is also an allusion to the great flood described in Genesis in the description of Hrothgar’s sword hilt, which depicts evil creatures being engulfed by great waters sent from God. These references illustrate the author’s familiarity with Biblical stories.
We may also draw several parallels between the story of Beowulf and the story of Jesus Christ. Indeed, some critics have characterized Beowulf as a representation of the Christian tenet of salvation (McNamee 88). In McNamee’s interpretation, Grendel represents the unconquerable sin from which Hrothgar’s people cannot save themselves, and Beowulf acts as a savior appointed by God to defeat the overwhelming evil. This parallel is further developed by the worship of Beowulf after his first battle. As the plot progresses, it could also be argued that Beowulf’s entering the water to battle Grendel’s mother represents baptism, or Christ entering hell to save mankind. This possible allusion is strengthened by the repeated associations of Grendel with evil throughout the tale (94).
The death and burial of Beowulf also resembles the death of Jesus in several respects. At the final moments of their lives, both Beowulf and Jesus are abandoned by all of their close followers, save one: Beowulf is still accompanied by Wiglaf, as Jesus is by John. Furthermore, as Beowulf’s body is placed in the ground, twelve of his followers circle around the burial mound and sing of his greatness to the world. This event evokes Jesus’ twelve disciples preaching his message to different nations following his death. Jesus and Beowulf are also both known for winning great treasures (or salvation) for their people at a great expense to themselves, and are noted to have died at the ninth hour of the day (96).
Symbols common to the Christian faith appear frequently throughout Beowulf as well. In many Germanic illuminated manuscripts, Satan is often represented as a dragon or monster, while Christ is shown leading souls out of a fiery cave and defeating Satan with a sword. In fact, in The Psalter of the Harley, manuscript no. 603, Satan is depicted as a monster in the form of a man who devours humans in a serpent filled lake (95). This symbolism bears a strong resemblance to Grendel, who also takes on the form of a man, eats people in their sleep, and abides in a fiery lake.
The structural parallels between Beowulf and the Bible are also present in Beowulf’s exploration of typically Christian themes such as the consequences of pride and covetousness. In section XXV of the poem, Hrothgar, dying, warns “do not foster pride, glorious warrior!” while speaking to Beowulf, and speaks against greed (Beowulf 59). He does not heed this warning, however, and later faces the dragon alone, desiring its treasure, and dies in battle. Similar principles are taught in the Bible, which also instructs against pride and coveting worldly objects.
But despite these strong Christian overtones, many pagan ideas are also present in Beowulf. A common phrase found in Anglo-Saxon literature is “Dom biÃ° selast,” or “fame is the best of all” (Phillpots 6). Though this exact phrase is not found in Beowulf, the theme behind it is present throughout. The characters believe that obtaining glory is the greatest achievement to strive for in life, and Beowulf exemplifies this belief in lines 1387-89 by stating “so we must work while we can to earn fame before death. For a warrior it is best to live on in memory after life has departed” (Beowulf 47). Many pagans did not have strong convictions about life after death, but they did believe there was honor in remaining in the memory of a people, and Beowulf registers that belief.
The funeral ceremonies also reflect the strong pagan traditions of the Anglo-Saxons. The burial of leaders often involved cremation and laying treasures and weapons with the body, traditions that were banned by the church at the time Beowulf was written. Nevertheless, some Christian converts still chose to have heathen elements in their funerals. Attila the Hun was believed to be Christian, yet in his burial ceremony his body was placed on the ground while horsemen rode around it and sang praises to him. There was then a feast, which was followed by the actual burial of the body (Chambers 123-124). There are also other Germanic documents, such as Dream of the Rood that depict people in Christian times lamenting dead leaders in a similar manner after the funeral takes place (125). While this ceremony bears some resemblance to the funerals in Beowulf, there are some common pagan elements found in other Germanic works, such as offerings and references to pagan gods that do not occur. So while the text depicts heathen-like funerals, it does not necessarily follow that it promotes completely pagan beliefs about death and the afterlife.
Another non-Christian idea present in Beowulf is the emphasis placed upon human virtue and manmade objects, rather than faith. Though the characters attribute their victories to God, it is ultimately “to Beowulf…was glory given in battle” (Beowulf 29). In his final moments, Beowulf chooses to see the gold he has won rather than reflect upon his life or his fate after death. In fact, one of his final commands to Wiglaf is “go quickly now, so I may readily gaze on the long-held riches, look on the gold treasures, the bright beaded gems, and thus I may more peacefully, for winning this wealth, pass on from this life” (91).
Finally, the concept of wyrd, or fate, is strongly evident throughout the text. Wyrd refers to the belief that every action one does affects every aspect of his or her life. It also indicates that noble deeds are rewarded, while evil ones are punished (Canote 1). The virtues valued most by the Germanic pagans included courage, friendship, patience, generosity, and strength (1). Beowulf exhibited these qualities through his fearlessness in battle, his fellowship with Hrothgar, his steadfastness against the dragon, his frequent giving of treasure, and the skill with which he defeats his enemies. These characteristics were esteemed by the people of the time period, including the author, who declares “that [Beowulf] was a good king” (Beowulf 79).
Some critics believe that the presence of both Christian and pagan elements in the text indicates that the author was a Christian, but one not yet firm enough in his beliefs to include anything more specific about God or the Bible. There is little evidence to support this view. Throughout the poem, the only explicit Biblical allusions occur in the speaker’s commentary, and specific references to Christ, salvation, and the trinity are entirely absent. In fact, God is mainly referred to by the narrator, or characters in battle through vague, grandiose titles. R.W. Chambers suggests that the use of broad terms is due to the more poetic nature of such language, and states, “Surely the explanation is that to a devout, but not theologically-minded poet, writing battle poetry, references to God as the Lord of Hosts or the Giver of Victory come naturally — references to the Trinity or the Atonement did not” (126).
From a historical standpoint, it is logical that the characters do not appear to recognize precise biblical doctrines. Though the original manuscript of Beowulf is dated somewhere around the eleventh century, the actual story takes place around 500-600 AD. In order to maintain a believable plot, the characters had to be followers of the pagan religion. References to god and hell are acceptable, because they already believed in those ideas, but anything more specific would not have been realistic. The author compensates for this by including his own Christian commentary throughout the text.
There is also critical speculation that Beowulf was originally a completely pagan work, with the Christian references added by a monk later. Again, there is little support behind this belief, due to the grammatical nature of the poem. Chambers notes that if one did try to tamper with the meaning, “the difficulties which the interpolator would meet in removing a heathen phrase, and composing a Christian half-line in substitution, would be metrical, rather than theological” (125). The syntax of the work indicates the early date it was written, and is uniform throughout the entire piece. It is very unlikely that a writer could be skilled enough to insert such changes so subtly. Therefore, “we are justified in regarding the poem as homogeneous: as a production of the Germanic world enlightened by the new faith” (128).
While Beowulf is notable for its juxtaposition of two different faiths, it is also significant for the way it tells a traditional heroic epic with more modern literary techniques. It includes characteristics of most Germanic heroic stories, such as references to actual past kingdoms, wyrd, numerous battle scenes, ceremonies, and dramatic speeches, as well as an overall tragic mood. (Phillpots 10).
However, the author of Beowulf also frequently alters the literary conventions he appears to use. For example, Beowulf dies for the sake of his people, as most traditional heroes do. But instead of the kingdom being saved, as is customary in other tales, it is left weaker without its leader to guide it. This event contributes to a larger theme of the futility of man, which is also common in traditional stories. The premise appears much less subtly than in other Germanic epics, however, due to the speaker occasionally comparing humans to God. This may be to show how the actions of man are worthless when considered from a Christian perspective (Andersson 224).
Another unusual technique utilized in Beowulf is a primary focus on poetic language, rather than the events in the story itself. Theodore Andersson comments that “there is [a] quality that sets Beowulf apart…It has to do with a persistent cultivation of mood and emotional resonance…Beowulf is more remarkable in communicating an experience, or a series of experiences, than in telling a story” (223). It is the text’s emphasis on mood over the actual battle that has caused some critics to be wary of classifying the piece as a heroic poem. Yet, the historic settings, the character traits of Beowulf, and the presence of catastrophe and several battles all qualify Beowulf as a traditional heroic epic. Despite its status as an “epic”, Beowulf investigates human nature more thoroughly than other works in its genre. Margaret Goldsmith observes that “the poet uses the heroic combats of story to typify man’s unending contest with the powers of darkness, an idea implicit in the Psalms, made explicit by Paul in his epistles, and elaborated on by the fathers” (106). It is evident that the author wished to tell a traditional epic tale, but chose to include newer elements in order to highlight the ideals of Christianity.
Beowulf is unique in its literary standing as the first poem to be written in the Old English language, as well as its innovation of an English national epic. Yet, Beowulf is most notable as a work that successfully represents traditional customs and attitudes with newer beliefs. It “is neither devotional nor homiletic. Yet…it is by no means an irreligious or wholly secular poem. It is a poem about the heroic life, written by a Christian poet, and such [traditional heroic] theme[s] could not be divorced from Christian faith and hope” (107). Beowulf utilizes new faith and modified literary conventions in order to tell a timeless epic of heathen bravery and honor.
Andersson, Theodore M. “Tradition and Design in Beowulf.” Interpretations of Beowulf. Ed. R.D. Fulk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. 219-234.
Beowulf. Trans. John McNamara. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005.
Canote, Swain Wodening. “Asatru and Heathenry.” House Wodening. 21 Nov 2006
Chambers, R.W. Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.
Goldsmith, Margaret E. “The Christian Perspective in Beowulf.” Interpretations of Beowulf. Ed. R.D. Fulk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. 103-119.
McNamee, M.B. “Beowulf — An Allegory of Salvation?” Interpretations of Beowulf. Ed. R.D. Fulk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. 88-102.
Phillpots, Bertha S. “Wyrd and Providence in Anglo-Saxon Thought.” Interpretations of Beowulf. Ed. R.D. Fulk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. 1-13.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Interpretations of Beowulf. Ed. R.D. Fulk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. 14-44.
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