Making A Christian Epic From A Pagan Legend: A Study Of Beowulf

beowulf

Beowulf is the highest literary mark of Old English literature. It describes a society in the midst of great changes, particularly transitioning from a pagan to a Christian society. What many of the Christian leaders tried was to take existing pagan symbols and stories and repackage them as Christian. So when one reads a story like Beowulf, one can see both pagan and Christian elements. One of the best examples is the constant appeals for men to be humble before God, and yet the main characters, particularly Beowulf, demonstrates great pride. Also, Christian faith points to eternity as being with God in Heaven, but pagan eternal life was having a great reputation that lived long after you, and the best reputation was to be a great warrior. And while the pagan elements are clear in Beowulf, the more evident use of the piece is the interposition of Christian elements over the old pagan story, because that is clearly why it was written for us.

Grendel

Beowulf shows its Christian fingerprints the clearest in all of the conflicts end up being types of good versus evil. Grendel is described as a descendant of Cain. In the book of Genesis, Cain is mostly known as a murderer, but this results from unacceptable worship. Further, the Nephilim were descendants of Cain before the flood, who were supposed to be giants. These Nephilim were among the wicked destroyed in the flood. Further, Grendel like Cain was jealous. So when Grendel is described as a descendant of Cain, we can gather he is abnormal in appearance, wicked, murderous, and one who worships in vain. In short, Grendel represents the pagans. And the conflict of Beowulf versus Grendel as a type of good versus evil ends up being a struggle between Christianity and paganism. Beowulf never outright kills Grendel, but tears off his arm. And just as Christianity did not obliterate idolatry from Europe, it clearly disarmed it, at least, according to the Beowulf poet.

Grendel’s Mother

Following this, Beowulf has to combat Grendel’s mother. There is half as much said about her as there is Grendel or the dragon, so interpretations of her place can be speculative. Typically she is defined by her relationship to Grendel or by being a woman. And so she ends up being evil just because she’s Grendel’s mother, and nothing more. But there must be something that can touched upon. Grendel’s mother seems to brush up again the world of spells and charms, and she probably is a sea-witch. In contrast to Beowulf’s giant sword (which fails), her only weapon is a small dagger. This may represent her tongue with which she casts spells. And when she knocks Beowulf to the ground, she mounts him in what is clearly a sexual position. There were witches thought of in this time who would subdue men by raping them, and this is more than likely what the poet has in mind. But I think there may be a more basic use for Grendel’s mother, one that is not so mystical. She appears in an instant, wipes out a room, and disappears just as quickly. Grendel’s mother may just as well symbolize disease, famine, and plague. As blessings came from God, sickness was often thought to come from the devil. The lesson for the reader is simple: turn your life over to Christianity and you and your family will not fall prey to disease.

The Dragon

Many see Beowulf as a symbol of Christ himself, but I do not think that is warranted. Instead, I would argue that he represents Christianity, or better yet, a Christian individual. I gather this from the struggle with the dragon. Clearly, the dragon is a symbol of the devil. This is an image that even the Bible uses for the Great Adversary. And while the dragon is slain, Beowulf also dies in this conflict. What is significant in that Beowulf seems to die as a result of the curse on the dragon’s gold. In the Bible, the curse that comes from the devil is sin, and the wages of sin is death. Christ came to free us from the curse of sin, but that doesn’t mean that a Christian can still allow himself to recursed and slain by his own intemperance. If we remember the swimming contest, Beowulf was taken to the bottom of the ocean by a sea-monster. This clearly brings to mind the story of Jonas. But Jesus referred to himself as Jonas by his death, burial, and resurrection and how that is similar to Jonah going to the bottom of hell and rising up from that. But I priorly mentioned Beowulf is not a Christ-figure, but a Christian. For one to become a Christian they must reenact the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus by their own repentance and baptism, from which they arise from the waters in a new life. Beowulf’s long trip to the bottom of the sea and back is not emblematic of him as Jesus, but a follower of Jesus. And yet he died because the dragon’s curse, the curse of sin from yielding to the devil. This yielding could be in his pride or even greed. Possibly the point to this is to usurp the pagan view of eternal life. Even a great warrior and hero can be spiritually failing. In this, Beowulf ends up being a cautionary tale for all those who would go back to paganism in any of its forms. And so the final description of Beowulf as one who was eager for fame may be a condemnation and not a commendation.

As writers, we all sorts of reference points for tales. We can take any one of them and make them our own, just as the ancient English monk did by writing out Beowulf for all of us. When you write something, even if you are rewriting something old, it is yours. You have no obligation to the former story to be faithful to its rendering. Your only obligation is to yourself and your story.

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