Throughout Western Literature, several writings appear that belong to the genre called epic. By definition, an epic is “a long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the past history of a nation” (OED). As a proud speaker and writer of the English language, I am pleased to know that such a heroic poem exists in my own language’s history which joins the ranks of other epics like The Iliad and The Odyssey. Beowulf, anonymously written between the 8th and 11th centuries A.D., is such an epic but it stands out in its genre for a certain reason. Most of the other epics, whether Greek, Latin, or Mesopotamian, include their own mythologies and deities and are filled with ancient pagan motifs and language. Not so Beowulf. The original text of Beowulf, which is in Anglo Saxon or Old English, stands alone as a text which fuses Anglo Saxon/ Scandinavian pagan ideas and culture with that of Christian heroism. As F.A. Blackburn writes in his article, “The Christian Colouring in the Beowulf”, that the epic is labeled as “essentially a heathen poem” by many who state “that its materials are drawn from tales composed before the conversion of the Angles and Saxons to Christianity” (205). If this is verily so, how did it have such a vivid Christian coloring as Blackburn and many others have stated? Charles Donahue and Blackburn give varying hypotheses. Blackburn gives three solutions:
1. The poem was composed by a Christian, who had heard the stories and used them as the material for his work. 2. The poem was composed by a Christian, who used old lays as his material. (This differs from the first supposition in assuming that the tales had already been versified and were in poetical form before they were used by the author.) 3. The poem was composed by a heathen, either from old stories or from old lays. At a later date it was revised by a Christian poet, to whom we owe the Christian allusions found in it. (This hypothesis differs from the others in assuming the existence of a complete poem without the Christian coloring.) (205).
Donahue, via Tolkien and Klaeber’s research, espouses that the work was not that of a Christian editor, as others were inclined to think. Rather, “the Christian material cannot, therefore, be regarded as the work of an editor. It is integral to the poem” (Donahue 56). Yet how are these Christian elements integral to the poem? While such a study could be done, it is much too broad. Therefore, the purpose of this study shall be to examine the text for how Christian heroism is portrayed in Beowulf and how that is integral to the poem, not merely an editor’s “corruption” (Donahue 55).
Christian heroism is a common enough theme in Western Literature. Works such as Morte Darthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, and The Faerie Queen exemplify how a hero is supposed to act. Each hero fights off some visage of evil whether monster or tyrant and ostensibly saves someone from such danger. These stories, especially those further along in the medieval age, would include courtly love in their tales and the hero’s struggle with maintaining Christian chastity despite the femme fatale’s offers. There are many other characteristics but these tales are heavily saturated with Christian heroic elements, almost to the point of becoming nauseating. Yet Beowulf, though imbibed with Christian heroic elements is quite different. It plays a different air that combines Christian elements, such as Bible references, Christian stories, and even some practical theology; with Anglo Saxon/ Scandinavian pagan culture, brutish feats of strength, as well as many other ideas.
Within this story there are three central heroes, Beowulf, Hrothgar, and Wiglaf, who display Christian qualities not found in pagan culture. Each character is a leader of their people and therefore need to be treated as such. But first, what characterizes a Christian hero or king? Levin L. Shücking gives some light on the subject as he gives Augustinian ideas of what befits a Christian king or 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). Shücking quoted prominent church fathers like Sedulius Scotus who wrote that being a peaceful king was the highest virtue a king could possess (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, author of The Lord of the Rings and one of the most influential Beowulf critics of all time, also discusses the Christianization of Beowulf, especially in its allusions to the Old Testament and the treatment of monsters (11). 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 11). 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” (11). 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. John Halverson, in “The World of Beowulf” states that “The ruler who abandons his primary duties of protection and liberality becomes a monster, solitary and joyless” (594). Hrothgar is no such monster. 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
natural powers. (2178-2183)
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). He also shows his beneficence through “adopting” Beowulf as his own. This is due to an ancient Anglo Saxon practice which Michael D.C. Drout calls “inheritance by deeds” (208). 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 generosity 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).
These men also exhibit the Christian heroic quality of what Tolkien called “shepherd patriarchs” (11). 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 11). 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. Robert Morey admits this when he says, Beowulf’s “sagacity and martial prowess make him an exemplary masculine figure” (486). 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.
Another central element to Christian heroism, and especially its fusion with Anglo Saxon paganism, is Beowulf’s relationship with the monsters, namely Grendel, his dam, and the dragon. J.R.R. Tolkien and his memorable lecture Beowulf and the Critics, argues in defense of the usage of monsters in this epic tale. Other critics have dismissed the story as “a wild folk tale” but Tolkien states that “there was room for myth and heroic legend, and for blends of these” in this story (4, 6). Tolkien states that the most renowned deed a hero of this time could ever do was
the slaying of the prince of legendary worms. Although there is plainly considerable difference between the later Norse and the ancient English form of the story alluded to in Beowulf, already there it had these two primary features: the dragon, and the slaying of him as the chief deed of the greatest of heroes—he wæs wreccena wide mærost. (6)
Monsters come into play into many medieval tales but their roles are allegorical, as in Spenser’s Faerie Queen. Tolkien states that Beowulf is above that and therefore the poem is distinguished from other more Christian tales. He states,
Beowulf’s dragon, if one wishes really to criticize, is not to be blamed for being a dragon, but rather for not being dragon enough, plain pure fairy-story dragon. There are in the poem some vivid touches of the right kind—as þa se wyrm onwoc, wroht wæs geniwad; stonc æfterstane, 2285—in which this dragon is real worm, with a bestial life and thought of his own, but the conception, none the less, approaches draconitas rather than draco: a personification of malice, greed, destruction (the evil side of heroic life), and of the undiscriminating cruelty of fortune that distinguishes not good or bad (the evil aspect of all life). (7)
While this may infer allegory, Tolkien denies this and espouses that “large symbolism is near the surface, but it does not break through, nor become allegory” (7). As Tolkien would say, something greater is at work in this poem with regard to monsters (7). For a heroic tale, monsters “are essential, fundamentally allied to the underlying ideas of the poem, which give it its lofty tone and high seriousness” (Tolkien 7). But how does this epic poem treat monsters in a fusion of Anglo Saxon culture and Christendom?
Within his lecture, Tolkien quotes an extended passage from an essay entitled ‘Beowulf and the Heroic Age” which compares real pagan heroic epics’ usage of monsters with that of Beowulf’s usage:
In the epoch of Beowulf a Heroic Age more wild and primitive than that of Greece is brought into touch with Christendom, with the Sermon on the Mount, with Catholic theology and ideas of Heaven and Hell. We see the difference, if we compare the wilder things—the folk-tale element—in Beowulf with the wilder things of Homer. Take for example the tale of Odysseus and the Cyclops—the No-man trick. Odysseus is struggling with a monstrous and wicked foe, but he is not exactly thought of as struggling with the powers of darkness. Polyphemus, by devouring his guests, acts in a way which is hateful to Zeus and the other gods: yet the Cyclops is himself god-begotten and under divine protection, and the fact that Odysseus has maimed him is a wrong which Poseidon is slow to forgive. But the gigantic foes whom Beowulf has to meet are identified with the foes of God. Grendel and the dragon are constantly referred to in language which is meant to recall the powers of darkness with which Christian men felt themselves to be encompassed. They are the ‘inmates of Hell’, ‘adversaries of God’, ‘offspring of Cain’, ‘enemies of mankind’. Consequently, the matter of the main story of Beowulf, monstrous as it is, is not so far removed from common mediaeval experience as it seems to us to be from our own. … Grendel hardly differs from the fiends of the pit who were always in ambush to waylay a righteous man. And so Beowulf, for all that he moves in the world of the primitive Heroic Age of the Germans, nevertheless is almost a Christian knight. (8)
Within Beowulf, there is a fusion of Christendom and Northern culture with regard to what Tolkien calls “Northern courage” and the fact that monsters become the enemies of “ece Dryhten, the eternal Captain of the new” (8,9). Man, hæleð under heofenum, is now seen in the Christian worldview as “a mortal hemmed in a hostile world” (Tolkien 9). Moreover, the purpose of combining Scriptural allusions and northern ideas is that the reader understands the whole purpose of the epic. Notice how the aura of the poem is quite somber and ends with the death of the great hero, Beowulf. This is not an accident. Tolkien espouses that “Man alien in a hostile world, engaged in a struggle which he cannot win while the world lasts, is assured that his foes are the foes also of Dryhten, that his courage noble in itself is also the highest loyalty: so said thyle and clerk” (11). With this understanding let us look at the text at the monsters therein.
The first blending of the Christian and pagan in regard to monsters is the allusion to Grendel’s bloodline. He is of
Cain’s clan, whom the Creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him an anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too that strove with God
time and again until he gave them their reward. (106-114)
Grendel, an undoubtedly Northern monster, is poetically described as an enemy of God. Franz Klaeber states that “Grendel, at any rate, while originally an ordinary Scandinavian troll, and passing in the poem as a sort of man-monster, is at the same time conceived of as an impersonation of evil and darkness, even an incarnation of the Christian devil” (l). This is why the killing of monsters is the highest end of the hero; he must defeat the enemies of the Dryhten so that men may have hope. The author even uses a distinctive kenning to describe Grendel. Grendel is known as “God-cursed brute” or simply “unhaelo” in Old English as he ravages in Heorot (121).Grendel is seen for being not only a pestilence to the Danes but to God as well through his predator like behavior. Ward Parks, in “How Heroes Perceive Monsters in Beowulf,” equates Grendel to a lion that pounces on a helpless deer (2) Grendel’s mother, another monster is seen as “a swamp thing from hell” (1518). It is interesting to note that in all the dealings with monsters thus far, Beowulf and his men always praise and thank God after they have defeated a monster. While Grendel and his mother were incredible enemies, Beowulf’s true match is in the dragon at the end. Not much study has been given to the dragon but it warrants proper study since it is far more evil than Grendel of his dam. As William Witherle Lawrence states in his article “The Dragon and His Lair in Beowulf, ” “The dragon in Beowulf does not appear to be a strange or unusual type”(549). That is why Tolkien wrote that the dragon was “not dragon enough” (7). Beowulf’s battle with the creature is of unparalleled proportions as the dragon breathes fire upon him and wounds Beowulf. This unnamed dragon is much more fierce and evil than the other monsters in the story. Its symbolism in being evil in denoted in its behavior. As Thomas Klein would state in his philological treatise “Stonc aefter stane,” we come to understand that the dragon is indeed a creature not an elemental force (22). Felicia Jean Steele also confirms this by saying that, “the dragon is a ‘wyrm’ characterized first, and most significantly, by its sense of smell. The dragon is animalistic, instinctive, and most unlike the human trespasser, who, with a “dyrnan cræfte,” has enough skill to go unnoticed initially” (139). Another critic saw it as “the greatest of internal evils, the perversion of the mind and will” (qtd. in Nelson 1). Its rage is mindless as it defends its hoard and resorts to weapons of greater power than Beowulf can wield. Dragons have interesting purposes in such Northern literature. Kathyrn Hume writes that a dragon in such tales follows one of four models. She states
The monster exists to test the protagonist and to affirm his status as professional hero. (2) The monster preys upon society, thus letting the hero put his strength to the service of others. (3) The supernatural being serves as a comic or ironic device for reducing exaggerated heroes to more human stature. (4) The monster forms part of a deliberate comment on the nature of heroism. (Hume 3)
It would seem then that the second model is used in this tale since each monster is a plague to society and therefore the hero must fight to save his people; the ultimate example of Christian heroism. These monsters serve a purpose as a prey upon society but more ultimately as enemies of the people and of God. Therefore Beowulf must destroy them.
As a final testament to the fusion between the pagan culture found in this epic and elements of Christian heroism, one must consider the redemptive theme found at the very end of the story. Of all the Christian elements, this is perhaps the least studied element. However, a critic by the name of M. B. McNamee suggested that this story is an allegory of the Christian story of salvation (191). As has been hinted before by Tolkien, there is an obvious somber tone in the poem that alludes to the sacrifice of Beowulf so that his people may be rid of the desolation of the dragon. With every redemption story there is someone who comes who is admired by all by his deeds and words but then he has a great struggle wherein the hero ultimately dies. But unlike most tragedies, redemptive stories, with Beowulf being no exception, have ends which bring hope to those whom the hero died for. McNamee also finds the redemptive thread in this poem. While McNamee examines the entirety of the story for such a theme, I shall only look at the end since it is the most poignant. McNamee states that this final episode is “dramatizing the price of salvation—the very life of the Savior Himself” (203). McNamee explains it in this fashion:
The literal story is again quite simple. Beowulf’s own people are being ravaged by a fiery dragon whose treasure-hoard has been disturbed by a fugitive from justice. They are powerless to save themselves from the havoc wrought by the dragon, and hence Beowulf goes out to do battle with the fire-drake. He is led out to the lair of the dragon by the guilty follower who enraged the dragon in the first place. When the monster comes forth belching fire to meet his challenger, all Beowulf’s followers flee in terror with one sole exception—the faithful Wiglaf, who stays with his master to the end. Beowulf succeeds in giving the dragon a mortal wound, but he himself has been mortally wounded by the beast in the struggle. He has saved his people and won for them the treasure hoarded by the dragon but at the price of his own life. He expires at the ninth hour of the day, and the poem ends with the picture of his twelve followers circling his funeral mound singing his praises to the four corners of the world. (203)
After hearing this summary, one who is familiar with Christian beliefs or who is a believer can obviously see the connection. McNamee also makes the connection between the reaction of Beowulf’s followers and Beowulf’s fight. They flee the field and only Wiglaf remains (2596-2601). These are incredible similarities to the account in the Bible and Beowulf’s death in the end is also very symbolic of that story. With such symbolism and plot narrative, one could hardly realize that this was really an old Anglo Saxon pagan tale.
Beowulf, a narrative poem that nearly every English speaking student has or will read is perhaps the most undervalued text in the canon of Western Literature. Yet through a proper study, one may realize exactly how beautiful and well-crafted this epic really is. One should come to appreciate this text which has survived the horrors of the Vikings and come to us through all the ages as the one and only representative epic in the English language and tradition. Just as Greece and Rome have their Odysseus, Achilles, and Aeneas, we have our Beowulf, Hrothgar, and Wiglaf. These heroes, in whom the values of Christian heroism glisten, can become great models of courage and leadership, despite the tale’s antiquity. Through the leadership of their people, their struggle against mighty monsters, and their great redemptive sacrifice these men, especially Beowulf, demonstrate the fusion between Christian heroic values and Anglo Saxon pagan strength to make Beowulf one of the greatest epics of all time.
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