Heroes: Text and Hypertext Second Year Seminar



Beowulf


The heroic elegiac poem, Beowulf, is a reflection of many Anglo-Saxon ideals and concepts. This work was written after the Anglo-Saxons were already Christianized, yet the pagan traditions that had dominated their lives were still present in their minds. Overall, Beowulf contains many pagan themes and concepts, but yet it also contains many clear references to Christianity. It is an Anglo Saxon work with a “peculiar spiritual atmosphere.”


In order to evaluate the fusion of Christian ideas and pagan-heroic characteristics, the development of religion in Britain must first be considered. Originally dominated by the Celtic faith, Britain’s belief structure underwent a significant change with the conquest of the Anglo-Saxons and their Germanic paganism.


In these and the following centuries, Britain was gradually converted to Christianity. The Anglo-Saxons’ Christianisation began in 597. This conversion and the expression of Christian ideas were founded on the existing pagan terminology and symbols, with pagan temples merely stripped of their idols and used as places for Christian worship. Christianisation involved the conversion of a king rather than the people themselves. It is in Beowulf, composed not more than approximately 50 years after this conversion, that we are able to find a vivid image of a society still struggling to establish their identity within a new belief structure.


The two major societies directly depicted by the narrator of Beowulf are the Danes and the Geats, of Southern Scandinavia, home to the epic’s hero, Beowulf. At first glance, the two societies seem completely converted to the Christian faith. Both Hrothgar and Beowulf, as representatives of their people, acknowledge the power and sovereignty of God in various instances. Regarding his people’s plight, Hrothgar tells Beowulf; “ My household guard are on the wane, fate sweeps them away into Grendel’s clutches - but God can easily halt these raids and harrowing attacks!”.


Christian terminology is found in the speeches of various characters throughout the poem even regarding the final burial of Beowulf himself; “…then let us bring the body of our lord, the man we loved, to where he will lodge for a long time in the care of the Almighty.”


Moreover, the poet himself praises the divine supremacy on several occasions; “Almighty God rules over mankind and always has” while denouncing pagan traditions; “ Oh, cursed is he


Who in times of trouble has to thrust his soul in the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help; he has nowhere to turn.”


As Boris Kuhne argues in his essay; The Amalgamation of Christian Ideas and Pagan Heroic Characteristics in Beowulf, it is notable that the epic bears occasional reference to the Old Testament but none to the New Testament. This goes counter to our knowledge of Old English poetry such as The Dream of the Rood, which proves that the medieval Anglo-Saxon society was well acquainted with the New Testament. Nonetheless, both societies were intrinsically pagan; Denmark was Christianised during the beginning, Sweden close to the end of the 11th century. The poet acknowledges this fact most notably for the Danes: as they suffer under Grendel’s reign of terror, they turn to their heathen gods for help; “at pagan shrines they vowed offerings to idols, swore oaths that the killer of souls might come to their aid.“ However, A.G Brodeur makes an interesting point in his book; The Art of Beowulf, that the poet was faced with a dilemma : on the one hand, he had to recognise his subjects’ idolatry and their resulting punishment; while he still wished to present them as good and noble men for whom a god-fearing attitude was crucial. Failing to give his characters a Christian background in their speeches would have made them appear sinful and proud to the poet as well as to his audience. Hence, the Danes’ dialogues exhibit a strongly Christian colouring, and the characters are related not as being heathens by choice but almost by innocent ignorance; “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.”


Pagan customs are vividly portrayed throughout the poem. The Danes and the Geats nations practice crematory rituals as can be seen in the funeral pyres of the former Danish King Hnaef and of Beowulf himself; “ The Geat people built a pyre for Beowulf, stacked and decked it until it stood footsquare, hung with helmets, heavy war-shields and shining armour…”.


As R.G. Owen argues in his book Rites and Religions of the Anglo-Saxons; the Anglo-Saxons held the belief that posthumous elevation and wealth was reflected in the funeral pyre .


The heroic individual in Beowulf is subject to two main factors, one stemmed from the Christian and one from the pagan-heroic world. First of all, the hero depends on the attributes God has embodied in him, his physical abilities and prowess; “ Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength, the wondrous gifts God had showered on him”.


In the relation of his fights, Beowulf always acknowledges the powerful influence of God, both favourable and adverse. Beowulf admits himself that he could never have defeated Grendel’s mother without the aid of God. “…if God had not helped me, the outcome would have been quick and fatal.“


Various characters in the poem perceive God’s will as being a direct result of their own actions, and it is therefore that both Hrothgar as well as Beowulf ponder over a reason for incurring the Lord’s wrath when they are afflicted by a supernatural menace; “… the wise man thought he must have thwarted ancient ordinance of the eternal Lord, broken his commandment.”


On the other hand, it is courage and the resulting glory that governs the life of the hero and is celebrated in various speeches; after Aeschere has been killed and carried away by Grendel’s mother, Beowulf consoles the grieving king saying: “For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death.”


It has been argued that Beowulf conveys the attributes of a Christian saviour, a claim that is easily refuted if we inspect the hero’s deeds. Indeed there are several notable annotations to this throughout the poem. As Beowulf prepares to face the wrath of the dragon he is joined by twelve men (alike the twelve apostles) though in his struggle for life he is abandoned by all but one, Wiglaf.


However, although the means through which men gained fame may seem to conflict with certain elements of Christianity, the author reconciles this fame with many references to God. Although strength and heroism may not necessarily be Christian concepts or virtues, the author attributes both of these to God through the speech of his characters. Hrothgar states that Beowulf's killing of Grendel was achieved with the help of God; “First and foremost, let the Almighty Father be thanked for this sight… The Heavenly Shepherd can work His wonders always and everywhere.“ This ties Beowulf's prowess and fame back to God, and reconciles a pagan concept to Christianity.


However, Beowulf is essentially a Germanic warrior whose actions, despite their Christian glossing, are not of a truly self-sacrificing character. He is concerned with the courage and honour that the heroic code demands of him; the reason for his voyage to Denmark is not primarily to avenge and protect Hrothgar and his people, but to extend his and his lord’s glory. Moreover, Beowulf’s death does not deliver his people or ensure their safety but rather the opposite, as the messenger of the hero’s death prophesies; “Now war is looming over our nation, soon it will be known to Franks and Frisians, far and wide, that the king is gone.”


The poem features various monstrous forces for Beowulf to overcome, Grendel, Grendel’s mother and lastly the bloodthirsty dragon. Monsters would generally be regarded as part of a pagan cult but the Old Testament bears note to similar demons. As Kuhne points out in his essay; Grendel clearly constitutes the direct opposite of the Christian spirit: he abhors the joy and warmth of the human community, especially enhanced through the scop’s song about the Creation. He glories in slaying and destruction for its own sake; and as a descendant of Cain he bears the curse of God. There are also pagan elements to be found here : Out of the curse of Cain’s exile “there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too.”


Another such fusion is to be found on the sword hilt depicting he annihilation of the giants through the Flood as seen near the beginning of the story of Noah, Genesis 6.4. “They suffered a terrible severance from the Lord; the Almighty made the waters rise, drowned them in the deluge for retribution”.


Beowulf exhibits different pagan concepts such as ‘wyrd‘ and vengeance, each of which plays a central role in the narrative. These concepts, however, seem to be tied in with the elements of Christianity exhibited in the work. The author reconciles many pagan concepts with regard to elements of Christianity despite their sometimes obvious and direct contrast. Perhaps this was done to show the way in which both pagan concepts and Christianity were interrelated. As Thomas D. Hill states in his essay “The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf”, the Beowulf poet is presenting a radical synthesis of pagan and Christian history- which is seemingly without parallel in Anglo Saxon or Anglo-Latin literature.


Works Cited


Brodeur, A. G. The Art of Beowulf. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1959.
Kuhne, Boris; The Amalgamation of Christian ideas and pagan heroic characteristics in Beowulf. boriskuehne.net/boriskuehne/up/material/Beowulf.PDF
Owen, G. R. Rites and Religions of the Anglo Saxons. Newton Abbot: David & Charles, 1981.

This presentation was written by Aoife Moloney

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- Orla Murphy