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Symbols Of Faith And Traditions In Beowulf

Beowulf is an essential text in the history of British literature as it is the very first notable operate to be written in the English language. However, it is considerable beyond its chronological status. Containing each Christian and pagan components, Beowulf reflects the historical-relgious context in which it was written. The presence of two religious ideals tends to make the text’s approach to faith challenging to figure out. Beowulf, however, does not reflect a confused religious culture rather, it is a hybrid of Christian and pagan values with conventional elements of heroic storytelling.

Throughout the plot of Beowulf, many Christian themes are present as the speaker regularly references heaven and hell, as nicely as the justice of god. The narrator plays a large part in the Christian tone of the text by commenting on action as it is taking location. A single of the earliest examples happens following a description of men and women worshipping in heathen temples in lines 184-188, exactly where the poet states: “Woe be to the a single, who by way of terrible sin, would shove his soul into the fire’s embrace, foregoing all hope, with no likelihood of adjust! Satisfied the a single, who soon after his death-day, could seek the Ruler for peace and protection in the Father’s arms” (Beowulf 9). This is one particular of several remarks the speaker inserts throughout the piece that indicate a damaging attitude towards pagan practices, and implies that spiritual fulfillment is only feasible by way of Christianity.

Several distinct references to the Bible also take place all through the text. In line 108, Grendel is identified as “Cain’s kin” (six), and is for that reason connected with evil. There is also an allusion to the excellent flood described in Genesis in the description of Hrothgar’s sword hilt, which depicts evil creatures being engulfed by great waters sent from God. These references illustrate the author’s familiarity with Biblical stories.

We might also draw a number of parallels between the story of Beowulf and the story of Jesus Christ. Indeed, some critics have characterized Beowulf as a representation of the Christian tenet of salvation (McNamee 88). In McNamee’s interpretation, Grendel represents the unconquerable sin from which Hrothgar’s men and women cannot save themselves, and Beowulf acts as a savior appointed by God to defeat the overwhelming evil. This parallel is further developed by the worship of Beowulf right after his 1st battle. As the plot progresses, it could also be argued that Beowulf’s getting into the water to battle Grendel’s mother represents baptism, or Christ getting into hell to save mankind. This feasible allusion is strengthened by the repeated associations of Grendel with evil all through the tale (94).

The death and burial of Beowulf also resembles the death of Jesus in numerous respects. At the final moments of their lives, both Beowulf and Jesus are abandoned by all of their close followers, save a single: Beowulf is nevertheless accompanied by Wiglaf, as Jesus is by John. Moreover, as Beowulf’s physique is placed in the ground, twelve of his followers circle about the burial mound and sing of his greatness to the globe. This occasion evokes Jesus’ twelve disciples preaching his message to various nations following his death. Jesus and Beowulf are also each recognized for winning wonderful treasures (or salvation) for their folks at a wonderful expense to themselves, and are noted to have died at the ninth hour of the day (96).

Symbols widespread to the Christian faith appear frequently all through Beowulf as nicely. In numerous Germanic illuminated manuscripts, Satan is frequently represented as a dragon or monster, although Christ is shown top souls out of a fiery cave and defeating Satan with a sword. In truth, in The Psalter of the Harley, manuscript no. 603, Satan is depicted as a monster in the kind of a man who devours humans in a serpent filled lake (95). This symbolism bears a robust resemblance to Grendel, who also takes on the kind of a man, eats folks in their sleep, and abides in a fiery lake.

The structural parallels between Beowulf and the Bible are also present in Beowulf’s exploration of usually Christian themes such as the consequences of pride and covetousness. In section XXV of the poem, Hrothgar, dying, warns “do not foster pride, glorious warrior!” although speaking to Beowulf, and speaks against greed (Beowulf 59). He does not heed this warning, even so, and later faces the dragon alone, desiring its treasure, and dies in battle. Comparable principles are taught in the Bible, which also instructs against pride and coveting worldly objects.

But despite these powerful Christian overtones, a lot of pagan ideas are also present in Beowulf. A typical phrase discovered in Anglo-Saxon literature is “Dom bið selast,” or “fame is the best of all” (Phillpots 6). Even though this exact phrase is not discovered in Beowulf, the theme behind it is present throughout. The characters believe that obtaining glory is the greatest achievement to strive for in life, and Beowulf exemplifies this belief in lines 1387-89 by stating “so we have to perform although we can to earn fame ahead of death. For a warrior it is ideal to live on in memory following life has departed” (Beowulf 47). A lot of pagans did not have strong convictions about life after death, but they did think there was honor in remaining in the memory of a people, and Beowulf registers that belief.

The funeral ceremonies also reflect the robust pagan traditions of the Anglo-Saxons. The burial of leaders usually involved cremation and laying treasures and weapons with the body, traditions that were banned by the church at the time Beowulf was written. Nevertheless, some Christian converts nevertheless chose to have heathen components in their funerals. Attila the Hun was believed to be Christian, however in his burial ceremony his physique was placed on the ground although horsemen rode around it and sang praises to him. There was then a feast, which was followed by the actual burial of the body (Chambers 123-124). There are also other Germanic documents, such as Dream of the Rood that depict individuals in Christian instances lamenting dead leaders in a comparable manner soon after the funeral requires place (125). While this ceremony bears some resemblance to the funerals in Beowulf, there are some typical pagan elements located in other Germanic works, such as offerings and references to pagan gods that do not occur. So whilst the text depicts heathen-like funerals, it does not necessarily adhere to that it promotes fully pagan beliefs about death and the afterlife.

Yet another non-Christian notion present in Beowulf is the emphasis placed upon human virtue and manmade objects, rather than faith. Though the characters attribute their victories to God, it is ultimately “to Beowulf…was glory provided in battle” (Beowulf 29). In his final moments, Beowulf chooses to see the gold he has won rather than reflect upon his life or his fate right after death. In reality, a single of his final commands to Wiglaf is “go rapidly now, so I may readily gaze on the lengthy-held riches, look on the gold treasures, the vibrant beaded gems, and therefore I may possibly a lot more peacefully, for winning this wealth, pass on from this life” (91).

Finally, the concept of wyrd, or fate, is strongly evident all through the text. Wyrd refers to the belief that each and every action one particular does affects each aspect of his or her life. It also indicates that noble deeds are rewarded, while evil ones are punished (Canote 1). The virtues valued most by the Germanic pagans included courage, friendship, patience, generosity, and strength (1). Beowulf exhibited these qualities by way of his fearlessness in battle, his fellowship with Hrothgar, his steadfastness against the dragon, his frequent giving of treasure, and the talent with which he defeats his enemies. These qualities had been esteemed by the people of the time period, like the author, who declares “that [Beowulf] was a good king” (Beowulf 79).

Some critics believe that the presence of both Christian and pagan components in the text indicates that the author was a Christian, but 1 not however firm adequate in his beliefs to consist of something more distinct about God or the Bible. There is tiny evidence to help this view. All through the poem, the only explicit Biblical allusions occur in the speaker’s commentary, and specific references to Christ, salvation, and the trinity are entirely absent. In fact, God is mainly referred to by the narrator, or characters in battle by way of vague, grandiose titles. R.W. Chambers suggests that the use of broad terms is due to the a lot more poetic nature of such language, and states, “Surely the explanation is that to a devout, but not theologically-minded poet, writing battle poetry, references to God as the Lord of Hosts or the Giver of Victory come naturally — references to the Trinity or the Atonement did not” (126).

From a historical standpoint, it is logical that the characters do not seem to recognize precise biblical doctrines. Although the original manuscript of Beowulf is dated someplace around the eleventh century, the actual story takes spot around 500-600 AD. In order to preserve a believable plot, the characters had to be followers of the pagan religion. References to god and hell are acceptable, due to the fact they currently believed in these tips, but anything a lot more specific would not have been realistic. The author compensates for this by such as his own Christian commentary all through the text.

There is also crucial speculation that Beowulf was originally a fully pagan perform, with the Christian references added by a monk later. Again, there is small help behind this belief, due to the grammatical nature of the poem. Chambers notes that if one did try to tamper with the meaning, “the troubles which the interpolator would meet in removing a heathen phrase, and composing a Christian half-line in substitution, would be metrical, rather than theological” (125). The syntax of the operate indicates the early date it was written, and is uniform throughout the entire piece. It is very unlikely that a writer could be skilled enough to insert such changes so subtly. For that reason, “we are justified in with regards to the poem as homogeneous: as a production of the Germanic globe enlightened by the new faith” (128).

Although Beowulf is notable for its juxtaposition of two diverse faiths, it is also significant for the way it tells a conventional heroic epic with much more modern day literary tactics. It contains qualities of most Germanic heroic stories, such as references to actual past kingdoms, wyrd, numerous battle scenes, ceremonies, and dramatic speeches, as properly as an overall tragic mood. (Phillpots 10).

Nonetheless, the author of Beowulf also often alters the literary conventions he seems to use. For example, Beowulf dies for the sake of his people, as most traditional heroes do. But instead of the kingdom getting saved, as is customary in other tales, it is left weaker without having its leader to guide it. This event contributes to a bigger theme of the futility of man, which is also widespread in conventional stories. The premise seems significantly significantly less subtly than in other Germanic epics, nevertheless, due to the speaker occasionally comparing humans to God. This could be to show how the actions of man are worthless when deemed from a Christian point of view (Andersson 224).

An additional unusual method utilized in Beowulf is a primary focus on poetic language, rather than the events in the story itself. Theodore Andersson comments that “there is [a] top quality that sets Beowulf apart…It has to do with a persistent cultivation of mood and emotional resonance…Beowulf is much more remarkable in communicating an encounter, or a series of experiences, than in telling a story” (223). It is the text’s emphasis on mood more than the actual battle that has triggered some critics to be wary of classifying the piece as a heroic poem. But, the historic settings, the character traits of Beowulf, and the presence of catastrophe and many battles all qualify Beowulf as a conventional heroic epic. Regardless of its status as an “epic”, Beowulf investigates human nature much more thoroughly than other performs in its genre. Margaret Goldsmith observes that “the poet makes use of the heroic combats of story to typify man’s unending contest with the powers of darkness, an concept implicit in the Psalms, created explicit by Paul in his epistles, and elaborated on by the fathers” (106). It is evident that the author wished to tell a standard epic tale, but chose to contain newer elements in order to highlight the ideals of Christianity.

Beowulf is distinctive in its literary standing as the first poem to be written in the Old English language, as properly as its innovation of an English national epic. Yet, Beowulf is most notable as a perform that effectively represents conventional customs and attitudes with newer beliefs. It “is neither devotional nor homiletic. Yet…it is by no indicates an irreligious or wholly secular poem. It is a poem about the heroic life, written by a Christian poet, and such [standard heroic] theme[s] could not be divorced from Christian faith and hope” (107). Beowulf utilizes new faith and modified literary conventions in order to tell a timeless epic of heathen bravery and honor.

Functions Cited

Andersson, Theodore M. “Tradition and Style in Beowulf.” Interpretations of Beowulf. Ed. R.D. Fulk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. 219-234.

Beowulf. Trans. John McNamara. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics, 2005.

Canote, Swain Wodening. “Asatru and Heathenry.” Property Wodening. 21 Nov 2006


Chambers, R.W. Beowulf: An Introduction to the Study of the Poem. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Goldsmith, Margaret E. “The Christian Point of view in Beowulf.” Interpretations of Beowulf. Ed. R.D. Fulk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. 103-119.

McNamee, M.B. “Beowulf — An Allegory of Salvation?” Interpretations of Beowulf. Ed. R.D. Fulk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. 88-102.

Phillpots, Bertha S. “Wyrd and Providence in Anglo-Saxon Believed.” Interpretations of Beowulf. Ed. R.D. Fulk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. 1-13.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Interpretations of Beowulf. Ed. R.D. Fulk. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991. 14-44.
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