Beowulf Essays and Criticism

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An Overview of Themes in Beowulf

Whether we consider it to be an intentional theme or an incidental artifact of the poem's authorship and composition, the tension between its pagan and Christian elements is an over-arching feature of Beowulf. In the very first line of his text we are alerted to the fact that the poet is depicting a world that existed in the past, for his story is set "in days gone by" (l.1). Many scholars have asserted that the unknown author of Beowulf was an Anglo-Saxon Christian who wrote in the first half of the eighth century about a Scandinavian hero, Beowulf, who, in turn, purportedly lived in the sixth century, a period and culture in which pagan worship prevailed. There are, however, only scant references to the Old Testament in the poem (Grendel and his mother are characterized as being descended from the first murderer, Cain) and none whatsoever to the New Testament Jesus or any of the specifically Christian topics or symbols that predominated the thought of the early Middle Ages. Throughout the poem there are odd juxtapositions between pagan beliefs in fate and personal prowess, on the one hand, and acknowledgements of an All Mighty power or God, on the other. The Danes to whom Beowulf lends his assistance in the first half of the story express some reliance upon God, but at the same time, they practice pre-Christian rituals. Thus, when Hrothgar, the king of the Shield-Danes, learns of Beowulf's vow to help his people, he thankfully says that, "Now Holy God/has, in His goodness, guided him here/to the West-Danes, to defend us from Grendel" (ll.384-385). But as for his subjects, we have previously read that "sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed/offerings to idols, swore oaths/that the killer of souls might come to their aid/ and save the people" (ll.142-145) from scourge of the monster who has been decimating them for a dozen years. At one juncture, the teller of the tale affirms that "Almighty God rules over mankind/and always has" (ll. 699-700). Yet after Grendel is slain, the narrator muses that "all of us with souls, earth-dwellers/and children of men, must make our way/to a destination already ordained/where the body, after the banqueting/sleeps on its death bed" (ll.1004-1008). The former sounds like a statement of Christian faith, but the latter, with its implicit denial of an of an afterlife, is not congruent with Christian doctrine.

As for Beowulf himself, he seems to be both pagan and Christian in his orientation. Before his encounter with Grendel, the poet says of Beowulf, that he "placed complete trust/in his strength of limb and the Lord's favour" (ll.669-670). On the whole, the youthful Beowulf trusts in his own abilities, rather than in God's will, yet he also acknowledges God's assistance after each of his exploits. In his later years as the elderly king of the Geats, Beowulf appears to gravitate toward a Christian credo, as when he thanks the "everlasting Lord of all/to the King of Glory" for allowing him to view the slain Dragon's treasure before he dies (ll.2795-2796). Nevertheless, in preparing for his final challenge, the aged Beowulf reverts to a pre-Christian mindset when he proclaims, "what occurs on the wall/between the two or us will turn out as fate/overseer of men, decides" (ll.2526-2528).

Fate, as opposed to divine judgment, remains a powerful force in the world that the Beowulf poet depicts, and it is most often associated with violence, cruelty and death. Beowulf's people, the Geats of southern Sweden, are engaged in myriad long-standing blood feuds with other nations or tribes. The driving force behind these wars is the felt need to exact vengeance for past bloodshed, and so it is virtually pre-determined that retaliatory conflicts will continue to cycle onward. After Beowulf's death, Wiglaf, the young hero who aids the hero in slaying the dragon, predicts that the Geats will suffer in a retaliatory war from the Heathobards. The messenger who brings word of Beowulf's demise to the Geat people warns...

(The entire section is 6,331 words.)