The Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf is the most important work of Old English literature, and is well deserved of the distinction. The epic tells the story of a Scandinavian prince named Beowulf, who rids the Danes of the monster Grendel, a descendent of Cain. Throughout the epic, the Anglo-Saxon storyteller uses many elements to build a certain depth to the characters, using several religious themes. Because Beowulf was written in England sometime in the 18th century, we can base or presumptions upon an idea of a poem that was written during a time when the society had converted from paganism to Christianity. From previous research, we know that paganism did exist alongside Christianity during the approximate era that Beowulf was composed. The Christian influences were combined with early folklore and heroic legends of dramatic tribes, early Beowulf scholars began to investigate whether or not Christian and biblical influences were added later to originally pagan influences. Finally, Beowulf is a work that proves inconsistent with its religious themes because it accurately exemplifies the use of both Christian and Pagan elements.
The original Epic was obviously of pagan literature due to the time period of its creation. As a result, the pagan element in the epic poem Beowulf is evident in the characters superhuman personifications. Beowulf is depicted as a superhero, this is because he 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. This superhero strength continues into the battle with the dragon. By this time, Beowulf is an old man. He stands up to the dragon and wounds him. 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 folklore, the dragon, Grendel, 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 fairly exalted the fights with fabled monsters into a conflict between the powers of good and evil”(Klaeber 3). These battles are examples of epic folklore during pagan times. The pagan beliefs about immortality are also significant in the poem. “It is believed that a warrior s life after death was a continuation of his life on earth” (Greenfield 91). Beowulf’s single destiny is to help his people by dying while fighting a supernatural creature. To the Pagan, Beowulf’s death is regarded as a victory for Satan because Beowulf dies. “The fundamental contrast between the good God and blind fate is shown by the fact that God invariably grants victory, whereas it is a mysterious spell that brings about Beowulf’s death”(Klaeber 2). Beowulf wants his body cremated; a very unchristian ritual. ” In supernatural elements of pre-Christian association, heathen practices are mentioned in several places such as the vowing of sacrifices at idol fanes, the observing of omens, and the burning of the dead which was frowned upon by the Church”(Klaeber 1). Beowulf wants his ashes placed in a memorial tower as a reminder of his bravery. This leaves us the impression of pagan immortality – the memory in the minds of later men of a hero’s heroic actions. Overall, Beowulf, includes many pagan elements evidently due to the time of its origin, which conflict with its Christian elements.
While many pagan influences appear in the poem, Christian overtones dominate. Many of the characters exhibit Christian characteristics. Grendel is an example of an evil figure in the Epic, one is led to believe this because he is banishment from God. It serves to give the reader an idea of why Grendel would kill the Danes for no reason other than their happiness. Beowulf also has a religious motif to his character. One example of this is in Canto 6 line 381 in which Hrothgar states, Our Holy Father had sent [Beowulf] as a sign of His grace, a mark of His favor, to help us defeat Grendel and end that terror. This religious description shows Beowulf as a sort of messiah sent by god to save man from evil. But, more than that, since Beowulf is in fact not a messiah, this description shows the good in Beowulf s heart and the purpose of his mission. 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. It also shows the difference between mankind s ways (good), and evil s wild nature (evil). Grendel is wild and is therefore shown as evil. His wild home, Grendel, who haunted the moors, the wild marshes, and made his home in a hell not hell but earth. shows his wild, untamed, and therefore evil nature. Grendel s wilderness is countered in mankind s ways, especially Beowulf s. Beowulf is tame and civilized, the epitome of goodness and purity. This is another instance when the storyteller incorporates Christianity into the Epic. Another Biblical reference in Beowulf is shown in the tower of Herot, which is very similar to the tower of Babel in the fact that it s built as a sign of superiority and accomplishment. Like Babel, though, Herot only serves as a symbol of downfall more than one of glory because it causes many deaths and the coming of Grendel. Grendel also serves as a biblical motif in Beowulf. Grendel is biblically described as evil in this excerpt:
[ Grendel] was spawned in that slime,
Conceived by a pair of those monsters born
Of Cain, murderous creatures banished
By God, punished forever for the crime
Of Abel s death. The Almighty drove
Those demons out, and their exile was bitter,
Shut away from men; they split
Into a thousand forms of evil–spirits
And fiends, goblins, monsters, giants,
A brood forever opposing the Lord s
Will, and again and again defeated.
To the Anglo-Saxon pagan, a character s importance was measured by its wealth and status. An example of this is Hrothgar, king of the Danes. He is one example of the Anglo-Saxon measurement of importance in Beowulf. In Canto 1 the storyteller describes his wealth and importance, not as mounds of gold or jewels, but instead as his ability to [lead] the Danes to such glory. and as his tendency to In battle, [leave] the common pasture untouched, and taking no lives. Nevertheless, through this display of compassion for the commoner who do not fight in battles, Hrothgar provides an example of a Christ-like figure in Beowulf, caring and tending to the common or poor inhabitants of the land. Beowulf, the hero-prince, also proves his true wealth and status through his deeds as defender of the Danes. As he fights and defeats Grendel, Beowulf Earns Fame and wealth from his companions, and from the Danes before happening upon his fated, tragic death. Grendel, on the other hand, is the total opposite of Beowulf, he does not have such attributes, instead he is infamous as an evil killer. It is also important to take note that Grendel is a descendant of Cain, among the first children of Adam and Eve (from the Bible) whom in a jealous rage killed his brother Abel. This lack of wealth and honor defines Grendel as a symbol of evil and corruption. In addition to using Honor and wealth to add definition to its characters, the story-teller(s) have incorporated alternating Biblical and Paganistic motifs in the epic-poem.
In conclusion, Beowulf is an Epic poem of vast importance. The author of Beowulf was very effective in combining pagan and Christian ideas in his poem. “A poet leaves his mark on a poem through the techniques he uses”(Klaeber 4). The technique of combining two different ideals made the poem Beowulf very interesting to read. “In fusing pagan and Christian ideas, the poet was able to emphasize the morals of his times and to enhance his characters with Christian values and pagan folklore”(Klaeber 8). As a result, Beowulf is created, consisting of a tapestry sometimes consistent and sometimes inconsistent with Christian and Pagan elements.