The Epic Poem, Beowulf - Beowulf and Christianity


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Beowulf and Christianity

 

It was a dark time and the devastating effects of war had taken their toll.  Many had given up hope entirely that things would ever get better, that the land of present day England would cease its bloodshed.  From the conquests of the Romans, to the Germanic tribes, to the Vikings, the people of the British Isles had been battered.  They needed a hero, someone who represented strength, decency, and bravery.  So came the story of Beowulf.  Beowulf is a fictional hero of this time.  He is not only a hero, but also a man of faith.  His exploits are described as events that are ordained of God to bless the people.  Beowulf is an instrument of God, an instrument of righteousness called by God to perform His will for the Danes.  In stark contrast to his good, is the enemy, Grendel, the incarnation of pure evil.  He is an enemy of the people, and according to the text even an enemy of God.  Grendel is a destructive and murderous "creature" that is completely opposed to all that is good.  From certain passages we can see that the writers or editors of Beowulf intended to draw a religious parallel between these two characters of Beowulf and Grendel and the religious ones.  The premise of good versus evil is quite easy to surmise, but the writers intended to use the Bible to elevate the tone of the story to a more spiritual than natural one.  There are a few passages that this can be seen in.  The first is passages describing Grendel and his beginnings.  The second is selected dialogue from the Danes and Beowulf.

 

            Below is a passage at the beginning of the story describing Grendel:

 

This gruesome creature was called Grendel, notorious prowler of the borderland, ranger of the moors, the fen and the fastness; this cursed creature lived in a monster's lair for a time after the Creator had condemned him as one of the seed of Cain - the Everlasting Lord avenged Abel's murder.  Cain had no satisfaction from that feud, but the Creator sent him into exile, far from mankind because of his crime.  He could no longer approach the throne of grace, that precious place in God's presence, nor did he feel God's love. (102-113)

 

            Grendel is likened to Cain in this passage, but he seems to show characteristics of the devil as well.

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  He is called a prowler.  This seems to point to the New Testament scripture in 1 Peter 5:8 where it says, "Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour."  This characteristic can be seen through the narrative as well.  When the warriors slept this wicked creature would come and murder them without any remorse. 

 

It may be that at one point Grendel was a human much like Beowulf.  He has a mother, and he has the form of a man, but the humanness of Grendel has disappeared, and what remains is a creature that as the text says, "the Creator had condemned."  This can also be likened to Satan's fall.  Grendel, like the devil was not able to approach the throne of grace any longer.  In general, anyone can approach the throne of God's grace.  Grace is God's undeserved favor.  It does not matter what someone does, if they come to God and ask Him to forgive them, He will.  But Grendel, like the devil had fallen and was unable to take part in the benefits of the grace and the love of God.  Grendel was in a good place with God at one point, but as the text says, "he could no longer" stay there.

 

We can liken Beowulf to a religious man.  He seems to be a man ordained to carry out God's righteousness.  When he arrives in the land of the Danes, the first thing he and his crew does is thank God for a safe passage (225-226).  Wulfgar shortly after Beowulf's arrival says, "I am convinced that Holy God, of His great mercy, has directed him to us West-Danes and that he means to come to grips with Grendel" (378-381). Hrothgar also says, "Yet God can easily prevent this reckless ravager from committing such crimes" (471-472).

 

These men of the Danes are completely convinced that God has brought Beowulf to their land in order to wipe out Grendel.  Beowulf is not a "creature," or some cursed being like Grendel that had completely fallen out of God's favor.  He is just a man with a special gift.  Beowulf came to bring back what was taken from the Danes, their peace.  In a way Beowulf can be likened to the Danes savior.  He is sent from God to save the Danes from the evil Grendel.  This could also be considered a Biblical allusion.  This event could be likened to the coming of Moses who was sent to save the people of Israel from the evil Pharaoh.  Moses was chosen by God, much like Beowulf to deliver a nation of people.  He was just a man, but he had a special gift.

 

This analogy does not follow through entirely however.  Beowulf is a violent man of war.  Beowulf literally rips Grendel's arm out of the socket with his bare hands.  This is obviously not the route chosen by his Biblical counterpart.  War and violence were not the way the children of Israel were delivered.  Beowulf also appears to be quite consumed with himself and his exploits, whereas Moses was not.  It seems that the religious references could have been intentionally placed in the story to elevate its spiritual stature regardless of their conflict with other parts of the original narrative.

 

Why would the men who wrote this oral story down change the secular content to make it appear Christian?  The values of treasure, war, physical strength, boasting, and so on, in this story are clearly not Christian, but there are numerous mentions to God and the Bible.  This conflict continues throughout the story.  Most likely the men who wrote this down were in fact Christian.  During this time most of the writings in Latin were Christian, since Christians introduced the language to this area.  Old English also had a similar religious influence historically.  The story's content had changed to reflect the beliefs of the people at the time.  The people of the British Isles had seen many groups of people arrive in their land and Beowulf was one of possibly many oral stories that had a pagan hero.  The subtle and sometimes not too subtle Christian overtones that appear in this story simply show the complexity of a people and a land that had been conquered time and again.


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