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Beowulf

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Beowulf: Christian or pagan?
The epic poem, Beowulf, which was composed about 850 CE, is a tale of a warrior named Beowulf. The plot of Beowulf primarily revolves around the expeditions and fights that Beowulf undertakes throughout his life. Regarding this poem, one of the essential controversies is whether it is a Christian or pagan poem. In the text, Beowulf is depicted as the one who values his own fame most and is hallowed highly by people due to his violence in battle. These characteristics of Beowulf seem to separate the poem from Christianity. Although the poem appears to be originally pagan, Beowulf is a Christian poem in terms of its historical background, biblical allusions, and the characters’ beliefs and reliance on God.
First, the author of Beowulf lived in a period when the transformation from Germanic paganism to Christianity occurred. When Beowulf was written, the old paganism was dying out, and the influx of Christianity from Europe and Ireland had taken place. “This transformation reached every level of society and affected nearly every aspect of daily life” (Streissguth 83). Due to this Christian influence, people had to make a radical change, discarding the old beliefs that value courage, vengeance, and violence in gory battle. The poet of Beowulf was also a part of this drastic change of the era. The “nameless author undoubtedly was a Christian” (Bloom 1). We can observe the author’s Christian quality when he blames people who return to paganism in the poem:
“Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed offerings to idols, swore oaths that the killer of souls might come to their aid and save the people. That was their way, their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts they remembered hell. The Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad, the Lord God, Head of the Heavens and High King of the World, was unknown to them” (Beowulf 175-183).
The poet interpreted the gods that people in the poem worship as different forms of Satan. Thus, he criticized people through his poem who have futile, heathenish hope in idols. Also, he directly witnessed the decline of old Germanic religion. This firsthand experience of the poet was reflected in the poem Beowulf: “And they buried torques in the barrow, and jewels and a trove of such things as trespassing men had once dared to drag from the hoard. They let the ground keep that ancestral treasure, gold under gravel, gone to earth, as useless to men now as it ever was”(Beowulf, line 3163-8). These lines indicate that the old religion was “symbolically buried in the form of the dragon’s useless hoard” (Streissguth 83). Influenced by the historical background of the period, the poet depicted the fall of old paganism and rise of Christianity through his poem. Therefore, Beowulf is a Christian poem which was composed by a Christian-influenced poet.
Moreover, there are many Christian references that draw parallels between the Bible and the poem. For example, there is a parallel between Grendel and Satan. Grendel is described as a “fiend out of hell” (Beowulf 100) throughout the poem. He “had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts” (Beowulf 104-7). These lines clearly refer to Cain, the banished one from God, who shows up in Old Testament. The poet connects Beowulf to the Bible by mentioning Grendel to be associated with the family of Cain. As a result, Grendel is ultimate evil. There is a similarity between Grendel’s den and hell as well. The water where his den is located burns, and this indicates the flame of hell. While Grendel is compared with Satan, Beowulf forms a parallel with Jesus Christ. Although no one asks Jesus to save the people, Jesus comes down from heaven in a human form and cleanses people’s sin. Similarly, although no Danes ask Beowulf to come and kill Grendel for them, Beowulf goes to Denmark and kills Grendel to save the people. In his first fight, which is against Grendel, Beowulf completely relies on God just as Jesus utterly depends on Lord. In the end, both Jesus and Beowulf face death after accomplishing their purpose of conquering evil for their people. The Bible and Beowulf have much in common, and this supports the idea that the poem is intended for a Christian purpose.
Finally, the beliefs and reliance on God’s protection of the characters of the poem reflects the Christian point of view regarding one’s dependence on God. When Beowulf fights Grendel, he wears no mail or sword but says, “May the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side He sees fit” (Beowulf 685-7). Beowulf’s action and diction reflect his belief in God’s protection over him. Since he utterly places the result of the battle in God’s hands, he does not feel the need of armor that enhances his capability in war. However, it is not just Beowulf who has belief in God’s power. When Grendel attacks Heorot, “He took over Heorot, haunted the glittering hall after dark, but the throne itself, the treasure-seat, he was kept from approaching; he was the Lord’s outcast” (Beowulf 166-9). Grendel cannot approach the throne because he believes in God’s power over it. Moreover, when Beowulf arrives in Danes to kill Grendel, King Hrothgar says, “Now Holy God has, in His goodness, guided him here to the West-Danes, to defend us from Grendel” (Beowulf 381-3). This speech of Hrothgar’s shows his belief in God’s protection. He regards the arrival of Beowulf not as a fortunate event, but as God’s protection over him in defending his land from Grendel. These beliefs and dependence of characters on God clearly show that the poem has Christian influence.
In the poem, Beowulf shows several pagan characteristics from old Germanic religions, such as valuing his fame, honoring his violence in battle, and boasting of his prowess to others. Based on this behavior of Beowulf, Beowulf is often considered a pagan poem. However, Beowulf shows affinity to the Christian side. Although Beowulf has several pagan characteristics, the poet of Beowulf could not avoid the Christian influence of his period, and numerous references related to Christianity in the poem support the Christian quality of Beowulf. These Christian elements of Beowulf reflect the impact of Christianity of the era, and provide Christian lessons for readers.
Word count: 1069

Works Cited
Bloom, Harold. "Bloom on Beowulf." The Epic, Bloom's 20th Anniversary Collection.
2005. Chelsea House Publishing. 24 Nov 2008 .
Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. Lawall, Sarah, Gen. Ed. Norton Anthology. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001
Cain, Christopher. 'Beowulf,' the Old Testament and the 'Regula Fidei’. Renascence:
Essays on Values in Literature. Marquette University Press, 1997. Questia 24 November 2008 .
Stevick, Robert. "Christian Elements and the Genesis of Beowulf." Modern Philology,
61(1963): 79-89. JSTOR. 24 November 2008 .
Streissguth, Thomas. Understanding Beowulf. United States: Lucent Books, 2004.

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