Beowulf Essay, Research Paper
Beowulf was written in a time when Christianity was a newly budding religion in England.
Throughout the book there are obvious references to both Christian and Pagan rituals. The
characters in the epic are newly found Christians who are trying to remain true to their new faith
but are weak and hence, in times of great trouble, they resort back to their Pagan traditions and
gods out of fear. Pagan rituals in the book are usually present only as reflections of the past or in
times of the characters’s greatest turmoil. Otherwise, in times of happiness and rejoicing, they
worship their one, almighty, Christian God.
When Grendel is attacking Herot, and it’s people think they are in their greatest danger,
the people of Herot “sacrificed to the old stone gods / Made heathen vows / hoping for Hell’s
Support, the Devil’s guidance in driving their affliction off.” (175-178). With the use of the word
“old” in this section, it can be inferred that the stone gods are things of the past. The rest of the
passage shows that it was because of the doubt and fear, instilled in the people by Grendel, that
the people of Herot regressed back to their old gods. The use of the word “heathen” shows that
the soldiers were already Christian and reverted back to their old ways.
Soon after this statement, the poem reads:
Beware, those who are thrust into danger,
Clutched at by trouble, yet can carry no solace
In their hearts, cannot hope to be better! Hail
To those who will rise to God, drop off
Their dead bodies and seek our Father’s peace!
This says that the people whose fear consumes them to the point that they lose faith that,
after death, their souls will not be granted eternal peace by the Father, God. This illustrates that
the soldiers who have fallen from faith in their worship are doing so only because of great fear,
but that they are looked down upon by God and good Christians. It says that only those who will
sacrifice themselves and trust in God will be let into Heaven. These soldiers know this but are too
scared to keep faith.
During the telling of the origins of Grendel, there is mention that Grendel is a product of
Cain, a Christian character. This is a way that the characters of the book justify their belief in
monsters. If they can say that the monster comes from a biblical character, then they can’t hold
themselves as blasphemers for believing in the Pagan idea of monsters. The characters are both
scared of the monster that is taking their lives and of what will happen if they show a lack of faith,
as is shown in the above quote.
This fearful rationalization is made again when Beowulf is bragging about all his victories
and stops to say that he is not boastful but that he is truthful. Having too much pride had been the
downfall of many Biblical characters and is the first deadly sin in Christianity. Beowulf proceeds
to tell his story but only after he has put on a facade of humility, demonstrating that, at heart, he
certainly isn’t an orthodox Christian but only needs to appear to be one.
In the reflections of Shild’s burial at sea which was reminiscent of a Norse ceremony, in
which they sent their great warriors across the River Stix to Valhalla, we see the obvious Pagan
tradition. At the end of the book, Beowulf is cremated which is far from a proper Christian burial.
It is also said that the smoke from the fire is swallowed up by the Heavens which is very similar to
the Egyptian idea that the light which hits the top of a pyramid carries the spirit into the afterlife.
Both events were times of great sadness where one might question one’s faith. In fact, throughout
the story, all but Shild’s death ceremonies are conducted by cremation, a non-Christian burial.
Indeed in times of question the people of Beowulf’s England were not the devout Christians they
would have liked to be. From the beginning of the novel to the end, there is this ever present
return to the old Pagan ways. There is little transition because even after the monsters are
defeated there is still the greatest fear of all in death. It shows that it will take time for these
people to fully accept their new faith and they are fragile.
However, when making glorious speeches and trying to impress one another, the Christian
beliefs are expressed. When the story tells of the times before Herot fell to Grendel, one of the
images used to paint them as a beautiful time in history is the poets of Herot singing the Creation
Song. When more closely examined, the song is very similar, if not the same as, the Christian
myth of creation.
Throughout the entire poem there are numerous examples of both Pagan and Christian
rituals. The people of the times were Christians. As is seen when the threat of Grendel is
looming, when Beowulf is bragging about his accomplishments, and when Beowulf is dead, these
people are weak and susceptible to the ideals that other religions offer them. All the examples can
be used to focus on the conclusion that, in this text, the Christians are weak and often revert back
to their Pagan ways when they are most frightened.