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Describe the conflict between spiritual and material values in the poem Beowulf.

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malloryeli | Student, Undergraduate | eNotes Newbie

Posted September 20, 2009 at 7:54 AM via web

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Describe the conflict between spiritual and material values in the poem Beowulf.

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mrpoirier | High School Teacher | (Level 2) Adjunct Educator

Posted September 21, 2009 at 8:55 AM (Answer #1)

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Beowulf is a very conflicted poem in many ways.  This is most likely due to the fact that it is the product of an oral tradition.  It was a story sung and passed down through talk, rather than through being committed to paper.  As a result, it is a story that is surely a combination of many other stories and different manifestations depending on who was singing the epic and when. 

One of the main conflicts is between the pagan polytheism (the worship of many gods) versus monotheism (the worship of one all powerful God).  Both are represented in this epic.  For example, Hrothgar’s throne can’t be touched, because it is protected by God.  However, when Grendel is terrorizing Harot and the Danes can’t get rid of him, they fall back to making sacrifices to stone pagan Gods.  This is a representation of the changing religious views that were occurring during the transition in Europe from paganism to Christianity.  The two different religious views differ in their beliefs regarding material wealth and the idea of fame and glory in this life.  This is where the answer to your question of most prevalent.  Although our hero is said to have God on his side in the monotheistic sence (this is one of the reasons that he can defeat Grendel  and his mother) he also expresses a large interest in fame, glory and riches during this life, which is much more in tune with paganism.  It is this man’s opinion that the person that actually put the poem down on paper was trying to sell a monotheistic religious ideal to polytheists through subtle messages injected into this age old pagan tale.    So, Beowulf still has some of the characteristics of a pagan in terms of earthly glory and riches, he also represents the newer ideal which was moving toward monotheistic religion in the British Isles. 

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