Beowulf is one of the great heroic poems 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.
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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 epic the presentation of the story telling moves 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, monsters,a heaven and an underworld. 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 lore analogues. 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. 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 mostly 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. 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 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, 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. Many of Grendels actions 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.
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 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. The snake is an allegory for the devil much like the dragon is an allegory for the archfiend. 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 Christian salvation. 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 (), 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. Klaeber wrote, 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.