Significant Allusions

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Last Updated on July 9, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 692

The Bible: The stories and events in Beowulf, which take place in a pagan cultural context, contain several allusions to Christian lore. These allusions were introduced by the poem’s unknown author, who framed certain aspects of the story using stories and figures from the Christian bible. 

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  • The clearest example of biblical lore occurs in an early passage (lines 100–114) that describes the origins of Grendel and his mother. According to the narrator, Grendel and his mother are both descendants of Cain, the firstborn son of Adam and Eve. After murdering his brother, Abel, in a fit of rage, Cain is cursed by God and fated to wander the earth. The allusion relates Grendel and his mother to the first human to commit violence, marking the pair of monsters as inherently wicked. 
  • After Beowulf slays Grendel’s mother, Hrothgar delivers a speech to the victorious hero. Before his speech begins, the narrator delivers a discourse on the hilt of Hrothgar’s sword. The engravings on the hilt depict the world’s first wars, which were followed by a great flood that killed the primordial race of giants. This is an allusion to the story of the flood from the Old Testament, in which God sends an enormous flood to destroy mankind. He spares only Noah and his family, who beget a new line of humans. 

Norse Mythology: There are several allusions to Norse mythology in Beowulf. In some cases, these allusions fill in the background of the pagan world in which the poem unfolds. In other cases, the mythological allusions offer stories that echo the story of Beowulf

  • The flood myth depicted on Hrothgar’s hilt, mentioned in the previous section on biblical allusions, is also an allusion to Norse mythology. Both the Norse and Christian traditions contain myths of primordial floods. Norse mythology tells of an ancient race of giants known as the jötnar. In a vie for power, the gods Odin, Vili, and Vé murder Ymir, the greatest of the jötnar. Ymir’s wounds bleed so profusely that the blood floods the world, killing the rest of the jötnar. In a fascinating overlap, the pagan and Christian layers of the poem connect in this diluvian allusion. 
  • After Beowulf kills Grendel, Hrothgar’s minstrel honors the victorious guest with the story of Sigemund, a Waelsing warrior who slays a dragon and takes its treasure hoard. The minstrel intends Sigemund’s story to mirror Beowulf’s victory over Grendel, but it has the additional effect of foreshadowing Beowulf’s encounter with a dragon in the poem’s last section. 
  • Beowulf’s battle with the dragon echoes another Norse myth. Thor, the god of thunder, battles a dragon known as the “World Serpent.” Thor’s and Beowulf’s dragon fights are similar in two distinct ways. Unlike Sigemund, both heroes fight to defend their wards, not to glean treasure. Also, Beowulf and Thor receive nearly identical wounds. Both are bitten in battle, and both, after vanquishing their dragons, are poisoned by their wounds, though Thor does not perish from his. 

Scandinavian History: In addition to its mythological material, Beowulf contains numerous references to real historical figures. These figures are woven into the contextual tapestry of the poem, creating a layer of realism that combines with the poem’s supernatural and mythical elements. These background figures include Hengest, Heremod, Hrothgar, Hrothulf, Onela, Offa, Ohthere, Ongentheow, and Scyld Scefing, all of whom appear in the historical record. These characters occupy various roles within the poem. Hrothgar and Hygelac appear as central characters. Scyld Scefing is important as the progenitor of the Scylding line, from which Hrothgar descends. Heremod is discussed as an example of an immoral figure, set in counterpoise to the virtuous Beowulf. Figures such as Onela and Offa are mentioned in passing, related to the topic at hand. This historical realism has made Beowulf a key text to historians of medieval Northern Europe. From an aesthetic perspective, the inclusion of historical events lends credence to Beowulf’s story. Though Beowulf is a fictional character, his interactions with historical figures imbue his story with verisimilitude.

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