The praised epic poem, Beowulf, is the first great heroic poem in English
literature. The epic follows a courageous warrior named Beowulf throughout his
young, adult life and into his old age. As a young man, Beowulf becomes a
legendary hero when he saves the land of the Danes from the hellish creatures,
Grendel and his mother. Later, after fifty years pass, Beowulf is an old man and
a great king of the Geats.
A monstrous dragon soon invades his peaceful kingdom
and he defends his people courageously, dying in the process. His body is burned
and his ashes are placed in a cave by the sea. By placing his ashes in the
seaside cave, people passing by will always remember the legendary hero and
king, Beowulf. In this recognized epic, Beowulf, is abound in supernatural
elements of pagan associations; however, the poem is the opposite of pagan
barbarism. The presentation of the story telling moves fluidly within Christian
surroundings as well as pagan ideals.
Beowulf was a recited pagan folklore where
the people of that time period believed in gods, goddesses, and monsters. Its
significance lies in an oral history where people memorized long, dense lines of
tedious verse. Later, when a written tradition was introduced they began to
write the story down on tablets. The old tale was not first told or invented by
the commonly known, Beowulf poet. This is clear from investigations of the folk
The manuscript was written by two scribes around AD 1000 in late
West Saxon, the literary dialect of that period. It is believed that the scribes
who put the old materials together into their present form were Christians and
that his poem reflects a Christian tradition. The first scribe copied three
prose pieces and the first 1,939 lines of Beowulf while the second scribe copied
the rest of Beowulf and Judith. In 1731, a fire swept through the Cottonian
Library, damaging many books and scorching the Beowulf codex. In 1786-87, after
the manuscript had been deposited in the British Museum the Icelander, Grinur
Jonsson Thorkelin, made two transcriptions of the poem for what was to be the
first edition, in 1815 (Clark, 112-15).
Beowulf is a mixture of pagan and
Christian attitudes. Heathen practices are mentioned in several places, such as
vowing of sacrifices at idol fanes, the observing of omens, the burning of the
dead, which was frowned upon by the church. The frequent allusions to the power
of fate, the motive of blood revenge, and the praise of worldly glory bear
testimony to the ancient background of pagan conceptions and ideals. However,
the general tone of the epic and its ethical viewpoint are predominantly
Christian . There is no longer a genuine pagan atmosphere. The sentiment has
been softened and purified.
The virtues of moderation, unselfishness,
consideration for others are practiced and appreciated. Beowulf is a Christian
reworking of a pagan poem with "a string of pagan lays edited by monks; it is
the work of a learned but inaccurate Christian antiquarian" (Clark, 112). The
author has fairly exhaulted the fights with Grendel, his mother, and the dragon
into a conflict between powers of good and evil. The figure of Grendel, while
originally an ordinary Scandinavian troll is conceived as an impersonation of
evil and darkness, even an incarnation of the Christian devil. Grendel is a
member of the race of Cain, from whom all "misshapen and unnatural things were
spawned" (Kermode, 42) such as ogres and elves. He is a creature dwelling in
the outer darkness, a giant and cannibal.
When he crawls off to die, he is said
to join the route of devils in hell. The story of a race of demonic monsters and
giants descended from Cain. It came form a tradition established by the
apocryphal Book of Enoch and early Jewish and Christian interpretations of
Genesis 6:4, "There were giants in the earth in those days, and also
afterward, when the sons of God had relations with the daughters of men, who
bore children to them" (Holland Crossley, 15). Many of Grendels
appellations are unquestionable epithets of Satan such as "enemy of
mankind," "Gods adversary," "the devil in hell," and "the hell
slave." His actions are represented in a manner suggesting the conduct of the
evil one, and he dwells with his mother in a mere which conjures visions of
hell. The depiction of the mere is the most remarkable because it is a
conceptual landscape made fearsomely realistic by the poetry.
parallel with Grendel and his mothers mere is from the vision of hell in
sermon 17 of the tenth century Blickling Homilies. This scene is based on the
apocryphal vision of St. Paul, where the saint visits hell under the protection
of St. Michael.
The similarities to the mere are italicized: "But now let us
ask the archangel St. Michael and the nine orders of holy angels that they be a
help to us against hell-fiends. They were the holy ones that receive mens
souls. Thus St.
Paul was looking toward the northern part of this middle-earth,
where all the waters go down under, and there he saw a hoary stone over that
water, and north of that stone the woods had grown very frosty, and there were
dark mists, and under that stone was the dwelling of nickers and outlawed
creatures. And he saw that on that cliff many black souls were hanging on the
icy trees with their hands bound, and the devils in the likeness of nickers were
seizing them as does the greedy wolf, and the water was black underneath the
cliff. And between the cliff and the water there was the distance of twelve
miles, and when the branches broke off then souls that were hanging on the
branches plunged downward, and the nickers seized them. These, then, were the
souls of those who here in this world had sinned unrighteously and would not
repent of it before their lifes end.
But let us now earnestly ask St. Michael
that he lead our souls into bliss, where they may rejoice in eternity without
end. Amen" (Morris, 209-11). These remarkable verbal parallels show that the
landscape of the mere symbolizes hell.
It is a garden of evil, in which one of
the race of Cain dwells in freezing sin. The soul that avoids these dark waters
is based on Psalm 42, "As the hart pants after the running streams, so my soul
cries aloud to Thee, O God." The soul would rather die than hide his head in
the mere, just as any rational soul would prefer death to eternal damnation.
Beowulfs last monstrous foe is designated by the word "wyrm" meaning a
serpent or worm, and the word "draca" meaning dragon. In the Old English
poetry, the worm and dragon represent enmity to mankind. The worms who devour
mans corpse after death, the dragons and serpents who receive his soul in
hell, and the dragon of sin and mortality who rules over earth until Christ
cancels for all time the work of the tempest.
The Grendel kin and the dragon
share some of the descriptive words and epithets used for monsters in the poem
such as "slayer," "enemy," and "evil destroyer." They all live in
demonic halls. Some poets believe that the dragon was "the devil himself,
guarding a hoard of gold that infects men with greed and pride and so leads to
death and damnation" (Clark, 257). The Beowulf dragon is sufficiently
snakelike, both in his appearance and behavior, to qualify as a Christian
symbol. In Genesis of the Bible, the serpent is never clearly called Satan.
snake is an allegory for the devil much like the dragon is an allegory for the
archfiend. But if the dragon is of the same kind as Grendel, why was Beowulf
unable to defeat him? To this question the Christian interpretation is that
Beowulf has lost the favor of God. However, the dragon is the instrument of
Beowulfs death. As J.R.R.
Tolkien explains, "the placing of the dragon is
inevitable: a man can but die upon his death day" (Holland-Crossley, 11). If
this view is accepted, the problem of why Beowulf had forfeited Gods favor
disappears. Beowulf in his youth overcomes his foes with Gods help. But even
with God at his side, Beowulf, like all men, must die. Beowulf is an allegory of
There are many symbols that allude to Christian references
in Beowulf; the fight with Grendel represents the salvation of mankind, the
fight with Grendels mother represents Christs Resurrection, and the fight
with the dragon resembles Christs death. There is real conscious analogy
between Beowulf and Christ. There is, for example, the familiar parallel between
Hroogars praise of Beowulf, "Yes, she may say, whatever, woman brought
forth this son among mankind-if she still lives-that the God of Old was kind to
her in childbearing" (Kermode, 45), and the remark of a woman to Christ in
Luke 11:27, "Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the breasts that thou
hast sucked." Also, this speech occurs shortly after Christ has cast out a
demon (11:14-18), while that of Hroogar follows Beowulfs cleansing Heorot of
the demonic Grendel.
Again, Beowulf goes forth to fight the dragon accompanied
by a band of twelve, one of whom is a culprit; during the fight the eleven
retainers flee, and one returns. This parallels the picture of Christ shortly
before his death attended by the twelve Apostles: the treason of Judas, the
flight of the eleven remaining Apostles, and the return of John at the
crucifixion. Beowulf and Christ are icons of wisdom and power. Christ is
frequently represented by patristic writers as the wisdom and power of God. A
Vercelli Homily remarks of his early life that "he was filled with might and
wisdom before God and before men (Tuso, 129), and the poetic Descent into Hell
describes him at the Resurrection as "brave . .
. victorious and wise" (Tuso,
22). In early medieval iconography, there commonly existed a portrayal of a
warlike and victorious Christ with his feet resting on a prostrate lion and
dragon which parallels Beowulf and Jesus as heroic figures. Fr.
"We might 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" (Chickering, 17). Both icons
represented power and wisdom of heroes. The scene where Beowulf dives into
Grendels dark mere and begins his descent into the watery depths swimming
until "the ninth hour of the day" (Kermode, 57). This is almost an
unavoidable biblical echo. In Luke 23:44-46, it is the same hour that Christ,
abandoned by all but a faithful few, died on the cross.
Furthermore, this is
where Beowulf dove into Grendel and his mothers dark mere and swam until the
ninth hour, reaching the meres bottom, symbolizing the death of Christ and
his stay in hell. Beowulf, having lain down his life for the defense of his
people and having thanked God for winning the dragons treasure for their use,
suggests the figure of Christ. Charles Donahue eloquently wrote, "Our poet
liked diptychs, and he left his audience with a pair of images, Beowulf at the
dragons barrow on one side of the diptych, Jesus on Calvary on the other" (Poupard,
18). Donahue suggests that both Christ and Beowulf are martyrs for their people.
They each gave up their lives to save the people.
The champion Beowulf, in life
is reminiscent of the champion Christ in various aspects of his wisdom and
power. Beowulf in the end is not revealed to be a God-man but man. His death not
a supernatural atonement but a natural phenomenon. An analogy of any kind
between Beowulf and Christ in itself account for the notorious absence of
explicit references in the poem. The epic of Beowulf is wrapped in a history of
pagan ideal and Christian surroundings.
The poem is woven in Christian
allegorical figures which give Beowulf a romantic mystery that many epics lack.
Beowulf is a timeless classic that has endured the centuries. All that is left
of the epic is the heros fame, a monument as enduring as earth.
Primary Source Kermode, Frank, and John Hollander, et al. Beowulf.
Anthology of English Literature: Vol 1. New York: Oxford UP, 1973. 29-98.
Secondary Sources Chickering, Howell D, Jr.
Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition.
New York: Anchor, 1977. Clark, George. Beowulf. New York: Twayne, 1990. Holland-Crossley,
Kevin, and Bruce Mitchell.
Beowulf. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
Poupard, Dennis, and Jelena O. Krstonc, ed. Classical and Medieval Literature
Criticism: Volume 1. Michigan: Gale Research, 1988.
Morris, Richard, ed.
Blickling Homilies: Sermon 17 of the Tenth Century, Old Series, no. 73. London:
209-11. Tuso, Joseph F, ed. Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation
Backgrounds and Sources Criticism. New York: W.
W. Norton, 1975.