Christian Themes (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Since the early nineteenth century, critics have debated the extent to which Christianity plays an integral role in the poem. Some have argued that the original poem simply celebrated the virtues of the society that existed in northern Europe before missionaries brought Christianity to the region. These critics contend that overt references to a Christian God were added by later transcribers, who adapted the original tale by giving it a Christian coloring. Others, among them the distinguished medieval scholar and fantasy novelist J. R. R. Tolkien, have argued that the Christian elements have been woven skillfully into the text; they claim that the poem in its present form celebrates Christian virtues as they were understood by a medieval audience.
The most obvious Christian reference is the designation of the monster Grendel and his mother as descendants of Cain, the son of Adam who kills his brother Abel. Less direct references include frequent acknowledgement by characters in the poem that their lives are in the hands of God, who determines their destiny and who will reward or punish them for their deeds.
Additionally, Beowulf celebrates those who exhibit friendship, self-sacrifice, concern for their community, and generosity, virtues shared by Germanic peoples and by the Christians who converted them. The idea of gift giving, a holdover from pre-Christian tradition, figures prominently in the poem, as evidenced by Hrothgar’s...
(The entire section is 959 words.)
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Fortitude and Wisdom
For narrator and characters, wisdom and fortitude represent an ideal to which every man aspires and every society needs. Physical bravery was most appreciated when accompanied by understanding and discernment. This discernment was not merely practical, it was supported by a larger spiritual understanding of God and the human condition. This is the point of Hrothgar's "sermon" in lines 1700-82.
The Danish coast guard, for example, (lines 229-300) respects and demonstrates these qualities in his treatment of Beowulf and his men. Beowulf is a fearless master of hand-to-hand combat. He demonstrates discernment in his understanding and treatment of men and women and in his sense of God. Even if his decision to fight the dragon is questionable, the narrator underlines the reasonableness of its basis. Beowulf's uncle Hygelac, on the other hand, while having great courage, lacks wisdom and falls victim to his own folly and the greater military resources of the Franks.
Glory and Treasure
The characters in Beowulf, and its original audience, wanted glory, the immortality of good fame, to remain alive in human memory across time and space. Glory in Beowulf is usually connected with heroism in battle or with generosity. Treasure was the outward manifestation of glory. Men were anxious to receive gifts of fine weapons, armor, and jewellery—and, much as today's athletes look...
(The entire section is 1177 words.)