Beowulf: A Pagan Work
The poem Beowulf was written in England sometime in the 8th century. It was written during a time when the society was in the process of being converted from paganism to Christianity. The Christian influences are combined with early folklore and heroic legends of Germanic tribes. Yet, the pagan elements in the epic poem Beowulf clearly overshadow the Christian elements, and it is visible in the character’s superhuman personifications, their hunger for revenge, and their strong belief in fate.
The main character, Beowulf, is depicted as a superhero in many of his extraordinary battles. During the battle with Grendel’s mother, when Beowulf realizes that Unferth’s sword is useless against the monster’s thick skin, he grabs “…the best of all weapons / But so massive that no ordinary man could lift / Its carved and decorated length”(1558-1561). This shows the significance of Beowulf’s strength, because if it were any other man, they would not be able to lift this sword and kill Grendel’s mother. His strength is far superior to any other human, and therefore Beowulf fits the epic and pagan quality of being “head and shoulders” above the rest. Another instance where Beowulf demonstrates his superhero abilities, is his final battle with the dragon. Beowulf is a very old man by now and although he is, in the end, fatally wounded, he manages to deliver the final blow that kills the dragon. His lack of fear to fight the dragon by himself, is portrayed when he tells his friends to stay outside so they will not get injured. Even as an elderly person, Beowulf still has the same extraordinary courage and strength as earlier in the poem. And even with age, he has not lost the qualities that make him universally well known, and an outstanding hero. These battles are examples of epic folklore during pagan times.
Another pagan element is visible in the craving for revenge by many of the Anglo-Saxons. Beowulf illustrates this wish for vengeance after Hrothgar loses one of his counselors to Grendel: “Let your sorrow end! It is better for us all / To avenge our friends, not mourn them forever” (1384-1385). This passage disproves the idea that Beowulf is a Christian poem, because taking an eye for an eye is not at all a Christian belief. Revenge is an idea promoted by Pagans, and was thought to be necessary to avenge to death of a friend. Another act of revenge is seen when Beowulf attempts to defeat the dragon after it wreaks havoc on the land of the Geats, causing much damage. Even though Beowulf was very old, the fame-hungry king was seeking retribution for the fury the dragon had lashed out onto his city. Beowulf is obviously very arrogant and hot-headed, and does not follow Christian ideas and beliefs. It is proven that this epic poem is a pagan work, because of the accepted seeking of revenge.
One final pagan aspect of this poem, is the strong belief that everyone was in the hands of fate, the idea that your life is predetermined. For instance, when the men of Herot are awaiting Grendel’s wrath, Beowulf states, “Fate will unwind as it must!” (455). This shows that the warriors did not worry about what would happen, because they are unable to change what is already planned for the future. Beowulf’s courage is also explained in this segment, since he could not alter the future no matter what he did, he was not afraid of what would happen. Another occasion where fate takes control is when the dragon kills Beowulf. He has lived a long and meaningful life, but this tragic event proves that everyone is in the hands of fate. This also negates the belief that Beowulf is a Christian poem, because the Christian belief is that one’s life is in the hands of God, and is not determined by fate.
Beowulf is clearly a pagan poem because it conveys standards that are almost the opposite of Christian beliefs. The pagan beliefs of the time are accepted and followed entirely. The very apparent aspects of this poem that make it pagan are, character’s superhuman personifications, a strong belief in fate, and a longing for revenge.