Beowulf was written in England sometime in the 8th century. This provides us with an idea that the poem that was written during a time when the society was in the process of converted from paganism to Christianity. The Christian influences were combined with early folklore and heroic legends of German tribes and we try to look at whether or not Christian and biblical influences were added later to originally pagan poem or not. The fact that Christianity and Paganism are so closely intertwined in the poem is the reason Beowulf has both Christian and pagan influences.
The pagan elements in the epic poem Beowulf are evident in the characters superhuman personifications. Beowulf is depicted as a superhero. Beowulf takes it upon himself to save the Danes from Grendel. In his battle with Grendel, Beowulf chooses not to use weapons; he relies on his super strength. During the fight, Beowulf’s strength takes over, and Beowulf wrestles with Grendel until he is able to rip one of the monster’s arms out of its socket. Superhuman feats also appear in the fight with Grendel’s mother.
When Beowulf enters the water, he swims, without the use of oxygen, downward for an entire day before he sees the bottom. During the battle with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf realizes that Unferth’s sword is useless against the monster’s thick skin. He grabs an enormous sword made by giants, almost too heavy to hold, and slashes through the monster’s body. This superhero strength continues into the battle with the dragon. By this time Beowulf is an old man. He decides that he must avenge his people and fight the dragon.
Although Beowulf is fatally wounded himself, he still manages to deliver the final blow that kills the dragon. Grendel is also seen as a superhuman monster. Grendel has no knowledge of weapons, so he, too, depends on his extraordinary strength to destroy his enemies. The dragon is also seen as a super-powerful adversary. As in most pagan stories, the dragon is a much-used enemy of the hero of the story. The dragon in Beowulf spits fire with such intense heat that it melts Beowulf’s shield to his body.
The author has exalted the fights with fabled monsters into a conflict between the powers of good and evil. These battles are examples of epic folklore during pagan times. Also, in the poem Beowulf partakes in many non-Christian deeds. He drinks alot and has a tendency to kill people and creatures. Beowulf also cares more about being remembered and getting treasure more that doing a deed for the charity of it. The fact that he wished to be cremated also suggests that he is a pagan. While many pagan influences appear in the poem, Christian overtones dominate.
Many of the characters exhibit Christian characteristics. Beowulf has a Christ-like behavior in his good-heartedness and charity. Beowulf understands the plight of the Danes that are being oppressed by the evil monster Grendel just as Christ knew of the oppression of the Jewish people. Both set out on a venture to save their people. To free themselves from the monster, the Danes need a savior, and Beowulf, through his desire to disperse their suffering, comes to save them. When Beowulf battles Grendel, he exhibits a sense of fairness when he refuses to use a weapon.
The idea throughout the poem of living right, of loyalty, and of being a good leader can all be seen as traits of Christ. Just as Beowulf exemplifies Christ, Grendel mirrors Satan. Beowulf and Grendel represent the Christian beliefs of good verse evil. Grendel is referred to as a descendant of Cain, whom Satan tricks into sinning and committing the first murder. He is the image of a man fallen from grace through sin. Like Satan who is jealous of the happiness and joy that Adam and Eve have in the Garden of Eden, Grendel is jealous of the happiness and joy in Heorot.
Grendel, as with Satan, is an adversary of God and poses a great challenge to Beowulf. Grendel lives in an underworld as Satan lives in hell. Grendel is referred to in the poem as the guardian of sins. The dragon is Beowulf’s last and greatest battle. The dragon represents malice, greed, and destruction. He is a symbol of the power of Satan. Beowulf’s fight with the dragon is a realization of the story of salvation where Beowulf, like Christ, gives his life for his people. The dragon is a timeless foe, which represents the eternal evils that man must fight to preserve what’s good.
Beside Christian elements, the poem has many Christian parallels. Grendel who is described as a descendant of Cain is a very hateful creature. He envies the fellowship and happiness he sees. He hates living in the underworld, cut off from the company of other men. He stalks the people and terrorizes them because he is jealous of their joy. Grendel’s stalking of the Dane’s is similar to the devil when he was cast out of heaven and the joys that were there. He became jealous of mankind and to this day stalks people with temptations of evil.
More parallels are evident in Beowulf’s preparation and descent into the mere where Grendel’s mother lives. While Beowulf is preparing to enter the water, he is pondering the evils that inhabit the pond. He knows he is faced with a greater challenge than before. He prepared as though he were preparing for death. Christ knew before his death that he was facing a great challenge, and he forgave his enemies. Beowulf’s descent into the mere is similar to a baptismal rite. The immersion purifies him, and he overcomes the evil power of Grendel’s mother.
He rises from the water a redeemed man much as Christ arose from the tomb. While Beowulf is in the mere, all the thanes except Wiglaf gives up hope and leaves at the ninth hour, the hour of Christ’s death on the cross. The waiting is similar to the apostles waiting for Christ to return from the Garden of Gethsemane. While Christ was in the Garden, the apostles gave up and fell asleep, all except Peter who loyally awaited Christ’s return. Finally, just as Christ had one last battle, Beowulf has his final battle with the dragon.
Both Christ and Beowulf fought hard in their last battles with evil, and although they both ultimately died in their final battle, they both were able to conquer the evil before they died. In conclusion, the author of Beowulf was very effective in combining pagan and Christian ideas in his poem. The technique of combining two different ideals made the poem Beowulf very interesting to read. In mixing Christian and pagan ideas, the poet of Beowulf was able to emphasize the morals of his time and to enhance his characters with Christian values and pagan legends.