Since the early nineteenth century, critics have debated the extent to which Christianity plays an integral role in the poem. Some have argued that the original poem simply celebrated the virtues of the society that existed in northern Europe before missionaries brought Christianity to the region. These critics contend that overt references to a Christian God were added by later transcribers, who adapted the original tale by giving it a Christian coloring. Others, among them the distinguished medieval scholar and fantasy novelist J. R. R. Tolkien, have argued that the Christian elements have been woven skillfully into the text; they claim that the poem in its present form celebrates Christian virtues as they were understood by a medieval audience.
The most obvious Christian reference is the designation of the monster Grendel and his mother as descendants of Cain, the son of Adam who kills his brother Abel. Less direct references include frequent acknowledgement by characters in the poem that their lives are in the hands of God, who determines their destiny and who will reward or punish them for their deeds.
Additionally, Beowulf celebrates those who exhibit friendship, self-sacrifice, concern for their community, and generosity, virtues shared by Germanic peoples and by the Christians who converted them. The idea of gift giving, a holdover from pre-Christian tradition, figures prominently in the poem, as evidenced by Hrothgar’s sharing of valuable treasures with Beowulf to honor his bravery and Beowulf’s sharing of the gifts he receives from the Danish king with his own sovereign, Hygelac. The hero of the poem is venerated not simply for his bravery, but also for his concern for those whose welfare has been entrusted to him. In the Danish kingdom Beowulf puts his own life at risk to relieve Hrothgar’s people from the scourge of the monster that has been threatening their safety. Similarly, when he has become king of the Geats, he takes it on himself to lead a band of warriors in combat against the dragon to retrieve the treasure that will benefit his people once it is rescued from the serpent’s clutches.
In several ways the poem presents a value system consistent with Christian principles that would have resonated with a medieval audience that saw personal bravery and combat in service to kingdom and church as noble. The monsters in the poem are clearly embodiments of evil forces that must be overcome for society to be safe and prosperous; the hero who takes on the quest of freeing the land from such monsters fights as the representative of good. Beowulf does not believe he can conquer these forces on his own; rather, he recognizes that he will succeed only as long as God allows him to do so. He also knows that he will eventually die, and he accepts that knowledge stoically. Throughout the narrative, he measures his success by his ability to make life better for those he serves. The idea of fatalism that permeated northern European religions is transformed into a version of divine providence that stresses God’s control over human events. All people, even heroes, have to face the inevitable fact that death awaits them at the time God has chosen to call them.
While it would be unwise to make specific links between Beowulf and Christ, there is one parallel that can be seen in the poem; both are aware of their mission to take responsibility for and act with love toward their fellow men and women. This is the great lesson of Beowulf’s life, and it is brought home to readers by the contrasts the poet sets up between Beowulf’s actions and those of many of the other leaders described in the poem. At three points in the narrative, the stories of Norse rulers and fighting men are highlighted: first in the opening prologue; again by the scop, or poet, at the banquet given by Hrothgar to honor Beowulf after he has slain Grendel; and once more in the section that follows Beowulf’s return to his homeland. In all three instances, one reads of leaders who take vengeance on their neighbors and even on their own kinsmen, perpetuating blood feuds that lead to social unrest. By contrast, Beowulf is presented always as a peacemaker—albeit of a distinctly medieval character. He fights against the monsters not to gain personal favor but to first to rid Hrothgar’s kingdom of the monsters menacing it, and then to save his own people from the threat of the dragon. The audiences that would have listened to the poem in the eleventh century would have accepted the notion that violent behavior was compatible with Christian principles. In fact, most devout Christians believed in the idea that “might makes right”—at least in the sense that a just God would not allow those fighting in his service to fail.
Seen in this light, Beowulf’s actions speak of selfless sacrifice; if he is violent, it is because, like people of his age, the times required violent action to secure peace and bring about prosperity. His own words throughout the narrative and the advice he receives from Hrothgar before departing the land of the Danes stress the importance of avoiding the sin of pride and recognizing that victory comes not from personal prowess but from the hand of God. In a sense—though it is important to emphasize that the parallels are not exact—Beowulf is like Christ, working on earth to further the eternal Father’s plan for humankind. Like the knights of Arthurian legend, whose stories would replace the Norse tales as favorite readings among English audiences within a century after the surviving version of Beowulf was transcribed, Beowulf is the model Christian hero.
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Themes Essay: Beowulf In the Epic Beowulf there are three specific themes. The themes are “Good vs. Evil”, “Revenge”, and “Personal Honor and Reputation”. These symbols depict the main concepts for Beowulf. Good vs. Evil is demonstrated through the bible reference of God and Cain, and The battle with Grendel. Revenge is portrayed throughout the poem from Grendel to his own mother. Personal Honor and Reputation is shown mainly through Beowulf. Putting these three themes together gives the reader the main idea and concept of the Epic Poem Beowulf.
Good vs. Evil is the main theme a reader will interpret in Beowulf. It is first recognized by the allusion from the bible the reference of God vs. Cain. “He (Grendel) was spawned in that slime,/ Of Cain, murderous creatures banished / By God, punished forever for the crime/ Of Abel’s death. ” (Littel, McDougal 40). God is of high power and alone God he is known as the Good in all. While Cain who had killed his own brother committed a crime and God punishes him. Cain is evil. In addition, Beowulf vs. Grendel is also Good vs. Evil.
In The Battle with Grendel Beowulf before had already told Hrothgar he would fight for him and kill Grendel. During battle it was not easy at first to harm Grendel “trying to open/ A path for his evil soul, but their points/ Could not hurt him,” (Little, McDougal 48). His evil “bewitched” mortal weapons. Until Beowulf came in and fought “The battle was over, Beowulf/ Had been granted new glory:” (Little, McDougal 49). Beowulf had earned victory and the good conquers the evil. Revenge is depicted by the evil characters in the poem, Grendel and his mother.
Grendel is introduced in the beginning “A powerful monster, living down/ In the darkness, growled in pain, impatient” (Little, McDougal 38). The description foreshadows Grendel’s actions. It states the monster is impatient regarding he can’t wait and is vengeful. After the battle with Grendel the story introduces Grendel’s mother. Grendel’s mother shows a parental instinct, “Grendel’s mother emerges, bent on revenge” (Little, McDougal 51) Beowulf killed Grendel and now Grendel’s mother seeks to avenge her son.
Revenge can easily kill a person. Personal Honor and reputation is mainly described with Beowulf, but also Wiglaf shows some part in honor. Beowulf goes to Herot and tells Hrothgar about his reputation “That I, alone and with the help of my men. ” (Little, McDougal 44) shows his honor of himself and his own men. In Beowulf’s Last Battle he his old and yet still fights for his own sake. Fighting with the dragon Bewoulf gets wounded and his men run away but one man Wiglaf. “As a good man must, what kinship should mean. His name was Wiglaf,/”(Little, McDougal 60-61) Wiglaf helps Beowulf defeat the dragon. He gives a long speech to the Geats with kind words. Honor comes with various aspects but mostly responsibility. The themes are shown in a number of ways. Good vs. Evil, Revenge, and Personal Honor and Reputation are all parts to making what is Beowulf. Good vs. Evil: Beowulf vs. Grendel, Revenge: Grendel and his mother, Personal Honor and Reputation: Beowulf and Wiglaf. The themes are important aspects to give the concept of Beowulf.
Author: Allan Leider
Beowulf Themes Essay
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