Christian Elements In Beowulf

What are the Christian elements in "Beowulf"?

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There is a recurring tension between Christianity and native heathenry throughout the world of classic Germanic literature and legend. Though all Germanic nations ultimately adopted Christian belief, pre-Christian ideas, characters, and themes persisted in art and storytelling. For example, the Icelandic figure Snorri Sturluson stands as the source of much of what we know about the Norse religion and pantheon; his well-known Edda presents characters like Odin and Thor as historical figures who existed in a Christian world and were mistakenly identified as gods, thus preserving these ancient deities while maintaining a Christian framework.

Beowulf, a story dating to these pre-Christian times, was recorded by an unidentified author who likewise placed the characters and events into a Christian context. While we will never know the fully heathen version of the tale, the Christian elements are easily identified.

A very clear reference comes from Beowulf’s first opponent, the monster Grendel. Grendel is described as a descendant of Cain, the son of Adam and Eve who, in the Book of Genesis, became the first murderer when he killed his brother Abel. Cain was cursed for his sins, and Grendel’s monstrous nature can be explained as a result of this curse on his forebearer.

Later, in the Book of Genesis, God destroys the world through a flood; the world had become wicked and sinful. Much of this wickedness is attributed to the Nephilim, a race of half-angels who are understood in Jewish and Christian thought to have been giants. When Beowulf faces Grendel’s mother, he wields a sword that bears engravings referring to this event, when God flooded the world to destroy the race of giants.

On a more thematic level, references to God and Christian qualities are woven throughout the text. Beowulf fights for the classic heathen purposes of fame and remembrance, but he also relies upon God’s protection for all that he does, understanding that the favor of the Christian god is upon him so long as he is humble and honest. There is an understanding, reinforced by Hrothgar, that earthly glories are granted by God. Recipients of that glory must not indulge in pride, and he must use the blessings to act according to Christian principles of charity and selflessness.

These motivations and rewards are in contrast to the pre-Christian ideas of fame and fortune, making Beowulf an interesting story in which the legend of a heathen warrior fighting for heathen purposes is placed in a decidedly Christian context with Christian motivations. 

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In addition to many examples of Beowulf giving thanks to God for his victories, there are also some specific biblical references.  Grendel is said to be a descendent of Cain, Adam and Eve's son who murdered his brother, Abel.  Some say the story written on the hilt of the giant's sword is a reference to Noah and the flood. Hrothgar's fatherly words of advice to Beowulf after his defeat of Grendel's mother is often compared to Christ's Sermon on the Mount. Also, the 13th warrior and the betrayal of Beowulf's thanes during his fight with the dragon is often seen to be similar to the last supper and betrayal by Judas before Christ's death. Beowulf's dive into the haunted mere is often compared to Christ's harrowing of hell.

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Although Beowulf is a pagan myth, most believe it was originally written down by a Christian monk who incorporated several Christian elements into the dialogue and plot. Most importantly, at the end of the story, Beowulf, like Christ, gives up his own life to save others. However, there are several other references to God and Christianity. In many ways the three monsters Beowulf faces resemble the devil. When Beowulf is getting ready to battle Grendel, he says, "May the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side he sees fit." After he has cut off Grendel's arm and shoulder he remarks,""If God had not helped me, the outcome would have been quick and fatal." "He adds that the 'Lord of Men' was the one who 'allowed him to behold' the sword on the wall which he seized as the instrument of his salvation."Fifty years later, when faced with another dragon, Beowulf knows that he will probably be killed when he faces the dragon. But he says,"Because of my right ways, the Ruler of mankind need never blame me when the breath leaves my body." Although Beowulf's funeral is pagan in origin, it does celebrate life of "a gracious and fair minded
King", which mirrors the Christian view of Jesus.
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