Christian Symbolism in Beowulf
Christian symbolism in
Beowulf within the poem Beowulf, the poet utilizes the Christian religion to symbolize the elements of good and evil and Heaven and Hell. Beowulf is the oldest known English epic poem. The manuscripts date back to about 1000 A. D., when two scribes wrote it down for posterity. The poem was handed down from the Anglo-Saxon period, and through the retelling of the poem, it changed a little each time. The poem creates an oral depiction of an epic hero who strived to fight against the forces of evil. There really was a “historical” Beowulf who helped the Geats and Danes fight off pirates, but he was neither King of the Geats nor Danish hero at any time. In fact, he was not considered a man of any extraordinary qualities, much different than the Beowulf in the poem.
Christianity influenced much of the
literature during this period of time. Although the poem never mentions Christ, the poet did use various characters and references to the Old Testament. The poet uses them sparingly, but the references to biblical events and characters are clearly evident. Protected by God, King Hrothgar became a mighty ruler over the lands surrounding Herot. When Grendel, an epitome of sin, comes into the poem, Hrothgar was probably less worried about himself, and more worried about his people. He was not “an old pathetic king, incapable of protecting his people”(Bloom 47). He was described as being a famous hero because of his goodness and great wisdom. Made of earthen walls covered by gold and ivory, Herot’s beauty and reverence reigned throughout the land. “Herot, the great hall becomes an emblem for God’s word itself ”(Chickering 271). Fire has and probably always will be a representation of evil. It is ironic that the single force that could bring down the glorious Herot, was fire. Throughout Grendel’s barbarous attacks, he never challenges Hrothgar’s throne: “He never dared touch King Hrothgar’s throne, protected by God, God whose love Grendel could never know” (Beowulf 83-86). Unable to contend with God’s love, Grendel forfeits his own life. During the opening of Beowulf, the poet summarizes the beginning chapters of Genesis in the Bible. The poet tells about “ The Almighty making of the earth, shaping beautiful plains, marked off by oceans, then proudly setting the sun and moon to glow across the land and light it”(7-10). In the Bible, Genesis 1:1 reads, “ In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”
Immediately following this passage, it goes on to explain the history of Creation. Included in this description is how God made light and dark, land and ocean, plant and animal, and finally the ultimate creation, man. God gave the gift of free will to all of His children. Beowulf relies on God’s will and his own strength in his three battles. Beowulf’s first battle is against the evil monster, Grendel. “Beowulf trusts in his own strength as much as in God’s grace in his battle” (Chickering 272). After his first battle, “A pang of mortality strikes Beowulf as he looks back at the splendid neck-ring he has been given by Hrothgar as part of his reward for victory over Grendel”(Price 25). Beowulf was showing humility because he knows that he is human and could have been killed. The Bible speaks about humility in numerous
books. For example, 1 Peter 5:5 says that “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Nearing death, Grendel realizes that he “once the afflictor of men, tormentor of their days—[knew] what it meant to feud with the Almighty God” (Beowulf 490-492). This passage shows Grendel falling victim to God and the strength-driven Beowulf. In the next battle with Grendel’s mother, she seemed to gain the upper hand on Beowulf. With Beowulf’s life at stake, “God, who sent him victory, gave judgement for truth and right, Ruler of Heavens, once Beowulf was back on his feet and fighting”(630-632).
God exercised His will and intervened in the fight to set good above evil. As Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother, a divine light shone down from the heavens. The poet states that “As though burning in that hall, and as bright as heavens own cradle, lit in the sky”(647-648). Beowulf knew that he was a great fighter, but he also knew that God was still in control and could change his successes to failures and his very life to death. “My hands alone shall fight for me, stuggle for life against the monster. God must decide who will be given to death’s grip”(172-175). The Anglo-Saxons believed that “life was a struggle against insuperable odds and that a man’s wyrd or lot would be what it would be” (Chickering 269). Basically, the Anglo-Saxons believed that whatever happened in a person’s life was what God had already thought of and planned for. God knew that Beowulf’s battle with the dragon would be his last, therefore, God’s will played a tremendous factor in Beowulf’s victories. The three battles are significant because they were not against men. If they were against men, then his motives and actions might have been portrayed differently. As it turns out, his battles were against evil monsters that represented everything that points to evil.
In the Bible, Ephesians 6:12 closely parallels this idea; “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against…the powers of this dark world and the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.” The monsters were presented as a tangible evil, but their evil did not hinder Beowulf’s courage and faith in God. According to Bloom, “Beowulf was a hero mainly because of his deeds” (Bloom 46). This principle of faith and deeds is showed in James; “…You have faith, I have deeds. Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do” (New International Version Bible. James 18:18). The epic poem Beowulf depicts the monster, Grendel as being a spawn of the devil. The poet uses the biblical story of Cain and Abel to show Grendel’s origin and how he represents evil. “Conceived by a pair of those monsters born of Cain, murderous creatures banished by God, punished forever for the crime of Abel’s death” (20-24). In the Bible, Genesis 4:15 says, “and The Lord set a mark on Cain, lest anyone finding him shall kill him.” Grendel put confusion and fear into the people of the village, causing the people to become so scared that they strayed away from God. Grendel was formed from Hell and will never know God’s grace, love, or mercy. In John Gardner’s Grendel, Gardner portrays Grendel as a monster that strived for the slightest bit of positive attention, but received no acceptance instead. And without knowing God’s love, none of his creatures will ever see Heaven, but will spend eternity after death in Hell.
Grendel’s cave is clearly a symbol of Hell, portraying a dark and torturous place, where the stench of blood and the odor of death are all around and never ceasing. Grendel’s home is not the Hell that is usually thought of when someone mentions Hell. It is on earth, but is so hideous that it is compared to Hell itself. “That demon, that fiend, Grendel, who haunted the moors, the wild marshes, and made his home in a hell, not hell but earth” (Beowulf 16-19). Grendel’s cave lay under a massive swamp filled with fire and snakes. In the book of Matthew, Hell is described in numerous passages as being a pit of fire and brimstone where “there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (New International Version Bible. Matthew 8:12). Again, in Revelation, Hell is described as being a “…lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death” (Revelation 20:14). The epic poem Beowulf contains a clear theme of good versus evil. Such words as Heaven, Hell, devil, and soul appear as part of the poet’s natural vocabulary. “The poet made natural man as Christian as he could without introducing doctrinal matters” (Chickering 273). Grendel struggles for God’s love, but never achieves this goal. Moreover, Grendel dies in pain and agony only to continue his suffering in Hell.
As Beowulf faces the dragon, he also faces the inescapable will of God, and he ultimately gives in to God’s great plan. As Chickering says, “We cannot tell what God has stored up for us; we must bear the reversals of fortune precisely because God rules over mankind” (Chickering 276). Many different critics have seen this poem as being written by an unknown Christian poet, because of the overwhelming use of Christian allegory. The poet uses Beowulf to represent goodness and light, and Grendel to represent evil and darkness. Beowulf is looked at as a hero because of his deeds and faith that God would bring him through any difficulty. Grendel, on the other hand, was destined to be evil, because of who he descended from. W. F. Bolton says, “[Beowulf’s] sacrificial death is not seen as tragic, but as the fitting end of a good ( some would say “too good”) hero’s life” (Bolton 1).
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