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In Beowulf, identify several instances of pagan images and several images of...

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daniel0989 | Honors

Posted October 3, 2012 at 10:49 PM via web

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In Beowulf, identify several instances of pagan images and several images of Christianity. How does the tone differ in each depiction?

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booboosmoosh | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

Posted October 4, 2012 at 3:56 AM (Answer #1)

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The tones used to refer to pagan behavior as opposed to Christian behavior in Beowulf are very different. Because Catholic monks were the first to transcribe tales of this kind onto paper, the influence of Christianity is apparent. Not all references to pagan behavior have been removed by the monks, but relying on God is praised; failing to do so promises suffering or loss of some kind.

In Chapter Two, desperate leaders, in fear of Grendel, turn away from God toward the old pagan ways, offering up sacrifices...

Betimes at heathen shrines they made sacrifice, asking with rites that the slayer of souls would afford them relief against their people's great pain.

Separated from God, these men were left only with visions of hell; they could not look for hope or protection in this life or the next by following the old ways, and there was warning to those who would do so:

Woe to he who in wretched adversity plunges his soul in the fiery bosom; he has no consolation, nor any place to turn. 

However, for those who were faithful to God, they would know his presence, and could count on the promise of eternal salvation after death:

But it goes well with him who may draw near to his Lord after the day of death, finding friendship in the Father's arms!

The practice of divination (augury) was also a pagan ritual: interpreting and reading omens was not a Christian practice and would have been frowned upon by the Catholic monks who recorded the story. In Chapter Three, as the "wise men" (wizards) prepare for Beowulf's departure to help Hrothgar, they can really only wish him luck, believing in fate (not God) to direct the hero's path. In this example, there is an absence of hope for the hero. They say that the signs look promising, but this indicates some doubt as well:

No wise man gainsaid the prince's adventure, though they loved him dearly; they commended his daring spirit and rendered good omens.

In Chapter Six, Hrothgar expresses hope after learning of Beowulf's arrival, praising God. The tone is more positive; Hrothgar believes that Beowulf's presence is a gift from God—there is an element of gratitude to God, in recognizing "His mercy" by sending this warrior to help him.

The blesséd God in His mercy has sent this man to the Western Danes as a hope against Grendel's terror.

Beowulf responds to Hrothgar's welcome with a declaration that if he succeeds, it is only as God wills it, showing again the Christian influence. Beowulf...

...seek[s] the glory which God gave to those who did his will... 

Although the story of Beowulf includes harrowing battles and glorious feats, the tone is based on Beowulf's desire to glorify God. Understandably, he does not believe in luck, but puts his fate in God's hands: whether he lives or dies.

...with my hand's grip, I will face the fiend and fight for life, foe against foe. There shall the one taken by death resign himself to the Lord's doom.

The element of Christianity reveres the warrior's dependence upon God. Beowulf is resigned to his fate based on God's will. The tone conveys a sense of nobility and humility, and his respect for, and faith in, God. Glory that day is God's: not Beowulf's.

Beowulf is a composite of pagan beliefs mixed in with those of the Christian faith. Fate is present to reflect the old beliefs. For Beowulf, glory reflects "heroism in battle," but Beowulf also symbolizes the values of doing one's duty "purely for the love of God."

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