Mention the name Beowulf in anyone’s ears and you will receive one of two responses: a gasp of pure disgust—“Ugh that book! I had to read it in high school”—or a cry of delight—“ah Beowulf that wonderful heroic saga!” While the majority of my peers would sadly be in the former position, I take my stand with the latter crowd; Beowulf is definitely one of my favorites. Beowulf, anonymously written between the 8th and 11th centuries A.D., stands out in English literature for many reasons. It is one of the largest texts in Old English and stands as a good representation of Old English literature and Anglo-Saxon culture. The character Beowulf himself is quite famous for his heroism and kingly attitude. The story of Beowulf is “essentially a heathen poem” but despite its heathen elements, it is also a Christian poem (Blackburn 1). Having read Homer and Virgil, whose epic poems are quite equal to Beowulf, I can remember that their material is undoubtedly pagan due to its use of mythology and pagan heroism. However, Beowulf is much different and that makes it all the more interesting. Despite it being ostensibly pagan, it is imbued with many Christian elements. Among these elements are the acknowledgement of God, various Biblical descriptors and characters (like the story of the Flood and Grendel being a descendant of Cain), but more importantly, Christian heroism. Christian heroism is displayed throughout medieval and renaissance literature and surprisingly is seen even in this Old English text. Morte Darthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Faerie Queen are examples of such literature where Christian heroism is vividly seen. But Beowulf is not far removed from them. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the essentials of Christian heroism are described and praised in the poem making this epic poem the first “English” text where Christian heroism is embodied. There are two characters who exhibit Christian heroism, Beowulf and King Hrothgar and each character has differing levels of Christian heroism. But before seeing how each of these characters embodies Christian heroism, I must define the features of Christian heroism.
Levin L. Shücking gives some light on the subject as he gives Augustinian ideas of what befits a Christian king/hero. “The prince must be master of all his desires and passions, and especially, not yield power over himself to the greatest and for him the most dangerous sin—pride (superbia), but remain modest and humble” (39). Second, his rule is to be one marked by love, sympathy, and benevolence (Shücking 39). The ideal Christian king/hero also desires to serve not command (Shücking 39). Shücking goes on to say that a true Christian king/hero is “indulgent and pardons easily” (39). “If he is forced to act harshly, he tries to compensate by mercy and ample charity. His purpose is to bring and keep for himself and his people the true peace of God on earth” (Shücking 39). He tries to maintain harmony and be both a lord and father to his people (Shücking 39). Other prominent church fathers like Sedulius Scotus wrote that being a peaceful king was the highest virtue a king could possess (Shücking 39). Even Charlemagne added the Latin name “pacificus” to his title to state his qualities as a peaceful king (Shücking 39). Gregory, whom Shücking states was revered by the Anglo-Saxons, states that the highest virtue of a Christian king is “complete and humble devotion to God’s will” (40). Shücking also hints that the Anglo Saxons knew this well since they wrote that the king was to be “folces forfor and rihtwis hyrde ofer cristene heorde” or the “protector of the people and just shepherd over the Christian flock” (40). As Shücking demonstrates later in his article, Christian kings must display some sort of intellectual prowess or wisdom. A true Christian hero is illuminated by his speaking too. J.R.R. Tolkien also discusses the Christianization of Beowulf, especially in its repetitions of the Old Testament (79). The “shepherd patriarchs” and kings of Israel are emulated in the text as being “servants of the one God, who attribute His mercy all the good things that come to them in this life” (Tolkien 79). Tolkien suggests another Christian trait of a king in the form of idolatry: “We have in fact a Christian English conception of the noble chief before Christianity, who could lapse (as could Israel) in times of temptation into idolatry” (79). Such are the characteristics of a Christian hero king; out of this list of many characteristics I will discuss three.
First of all, a Christian hero must rule over his desires and passions. He must not take unjustly what is not his. King Hrothgar and Beowulf do this very well. In the beginning of the poem, when Beowulf and his men arrive in Heorot, Hrothgar gives a speech about the allegiance he had with Beowulf’s father. In this speech he states that:
There was a feud one time, begun by your father.
Finally I healed the feud by paying:
I shipped a treasure trove to the Wulfings,
and Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance.
This passage shows that Hrothgar is a man not moved by passions and desires; he is selfless and heals the feud between two people with his own wealth. Out of the goodness of his heart, he gives Beowulf many gifts for his services to his kingdom (1042-1054). There is no mention of Hrothgar giving over to greed. Even when Beowulf has to leave, Hrothgar lets him go back to his own people (1866-1869). Furthermore, Hrothgar actually gives Beowulf advice to not be proud and to not to give in to his desires since they will lead to a speedy downfall (1724-1768). Throughout the poem, Beowulf is given many things for his wondrous deeds of conquering Grendel and his mother. He is given a golden standard, chain-mail, a helmet, a sword and much more; all these he takes gladly for his services but the text never gives any evidence of his passions getting the better of him and his taking things that don’t belong to him (1019-1026). Furthermore, his character is praised by the narrator once the hero returns to Geatland,
he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honor
and took no advantage; never cut down
a comrade that was drunk, kept his temper
and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled
his God-sent strength and his outstanding
Secondly, Hrothgar and Beowulf exhibit the Christian characteristics of love, sympathy, and benevolence. Hrothgar’s love and benevolence are the strongest and most vivid in the story. Hrothgar’s benevolence is best seen in his generosity to Beowulf and his men by giving gifts and shelter while in his hall (489-90, 1042-1054). His generosity is also praised by Beowulf’s men on their way back to Geatland (1884-5). Hrothgar’s true Christian love is evident once Beowulf has to leave. He gives Beowulf sound counsel how to live his life and embraced him as a son and then melts into tears. The narrator describes the strength of Hrothgar’s love:
And such was his affection
that he could not help being overcome:
his fondness for the man was so deep-founded,
it warmed his heart and wound the heartstrings
tight in his breast. (1876-1880)
Beowulf’s love is also exhibited in his powers of giving, especially once he is crowned king. But even before he is crowned king, he gives some of his new treasures to his king Hygelac and his queen Hygd:
Beowulf bestowed four bay steeds
to go with the armor, swift gallopers,
all alike. So ought a kinsman to act,
instead of plotting and planning in secret
to bring people to grief, or conspiring to arrange
the death of comrades” (2164-2169).
Of course this is only a small amount to the rich array of things he gave his king and queen. However, his love and benevolence are further evidenced after he becomes king by the words of his thanes. Wiglaf, the brave successor to Beowulf, recalls the benevolence of Beowulf just before he goes to help his lord battle the dragon. He speaks of Beowulf as a ring-giver, one who gives “war-gear” and one who “honored and judged us fit for this action, made me these lavish gifts” (2635-40). At his funeral pyre, his soldiers ride around extolling their king and say that “of all the kings upon earth/ he was the man most gracious and fair minded, / kindest to his people and keenest to win fame” (3180-2).
Third and finally, these men exhibit the Christian heroic quality of what Tolkien called “shepherd patriarchs” (79). Hrothgar is perhaps the best example of this though the other two do show some hints of this. Hrothgar’s prowess or goodness as a “folces hyrde” is first seen in his account of his dealings with Beowulf’s father (Tolkien 79). Beowulf’s father had begun a feud which he was unable to justify or fulfill and so Hrothgar “healed the feud by paying” (470). His actions are mediating and show his love and devotion to his people and others by laying his life and wealth down for them. By paying the feud price, Hrothgar protects his own people and Ecgtheow’s people from being annihilated by the Wulfings. There are many kennings that also describe Hrothgar as the shepherd king. One example is when Beowulf recounts his own prowess in battle; the kenning “keeper of his people” is used to describe Hrothgar as a shepherd king (609). Another kenning used is “shelter in war” to describe Hrothgar. Beowulf is also endowed with such titles; as Wiglaf prepares to help his lord in battle against the dragon, he calls Beowulf “the shepherd of our land”, once again denoting the Old Testament idea of being a shepherd king. Beowulf is also called a “warrior’s protector” in the poem (2337). Such kennings are very good evidence that these men were seen as the shepherds of their kingdoms and were trusted and honored for their devotion to their people.
While imbibed with various pagan elements, there are still a lot of Christian values to be gleaned from the text. True leadership and love are exhibited toward the thanes in the poem by two principle heroes, Hrothgar and Beowulf. It is interesting to note that each man possesses differing degrees of Christian heroism and in exactly that order. Hrothgar can be argued to be the most Christian of the men in this epic; his kindness, generosity, and humility are almost excellent. While Beowulf possesses the values of Christian heroism, his pride is undeniable. Had he explicitly followed the instructions of Hrothgar he might have lived longer. These characteristics are very honorable and are actually good models for leadership today thus making an almost 1200 year old epic poem still relevant today.
Beowulf. A Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th ed. Vol. A. New York: Norton, 2006. Print.
Blackburn, F. A. “The Christian Coloring in the Beowulf.” An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. Ed. Lewis E. Nicholson. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P,1963. 1. Print.
Shücking, Levin L., “The Ideal of Kingship in Beowulf.”An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. Ed. Lewis E. Nicholson. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P,1963. 39-40. Print.
Tolkien, J.R.R., “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. Ed. Lewis E. Nicholson. Notre Dame: U of Notre Dame P,1963. 79. Print.