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 sharing of valuable treasures with Beowulf to honor his bravery and Beowulf’s sharing of the gifts he receives from the Danish king with his own sovereign, Hygelac. The hero of the poem is venerated not simply for his bravery, but also for his concern for those whose welfare has been entrusted to him. In the Danish kingdom Beowulf puts his own life at risk to relieve Hrothgar’s people from the scourge of the monster that has been threatening their safety. Similarly, when he has become king of the Geats, he takes it on himself to lead a band of warriors in combat against the dragon to retrieve the treasure that will benefit his people once it is rescued from the serpent’s clutches.
In several ways the poem presents a value system consonant with Christian principles that would have resonated with a medieval audience that saw personal bravery and combat in service to kingdom...
(The entire section is 959 words.)
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