Christian Elements In Beowulf Essay

Epic Of Beowulf Contradictory Christian Elements In Beowulf

Contradictory Christian Elements in Beowulf  


   In Beowulf the Christian element, which coexists alongside the pagan or heathen, sometimes in a seemingly contradictory fashion, is many faceted.

Certainly the Christian element seems to be too deeply interwoven in the text for us to suppose that it is due to additions made by scribes at a time when the poem had come to be written down. The Christian element had to be included by the original poet or by minstrels who recited it in later times. The extent to which the Christian element is present varies in different parts of the poem. In the last portion (2200–3183) the number of lines affected by it amounts to less than four per cent., while in the section dealing with Beowulf’s return (1904–2199) it is negligible. In the earlier portions, on the other hand, the percentage rises to about ten percent (Ward v1,ch3,s3,n16).  The Christian element is about equally distributed between the speeches and the narrative.

While the poet’s reflections and characters’ statements are mostly Christian, the customs and ceremonies, on the other hand, are almost entirely heathen/pagan. This fact seems to point to a heathen work which has undergone revision by Christian minstrels. In the case of cremation mentioned in reference to Hildeburh’s family in The Finnsburh Episode and in relation to Beowulf at the end of the poem, which is the prevalent form of funeral rite found in the poem, this practice had probably passed out of use by the time the poem was starting to be Christianized, so such passages could not excite the repugnance among the Christian listeners in the audience.

The Christianity of Beowulf is of an indefinite and undoctrinal type. The minstrels who introduce the Christian element probably had but a vague knowledge of Christianity. While the poet’s reflections and characters’ statements are mostly Christian, the customs and ceremonies, on the other hand, are almost entirely heathen/pagan: At the beginning of the poem, there is the account of the pagan funeral rites of Scyld Scefing, and at the close of the poem we see the heathen rites of burial for Beowulf himself, including cremation, deposition of treasures and armor, etc. with the corpse in the burial mound overlooking the sea. Including such heathen rites enables the poet to “communicate his Christian vision of pagan heroic life.”(Bloom 2). Additonally, earlier in the poem, the Danes, when under extreme pressure from Grendel, reverted to Satan-worship:

At times they prepared              sacrifice in temples,

war-idol offerings,                                 said the old words aloud,

that the great soul-slayer                       might bring some comfort

in their country’s disaster.                      Such was their custom,

the hope of the heathen;                        they remembered Hell

in their deepest thoughts.                       They knew not the Lord,

the...

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Throughout the story of Beowulf, one finds many elements of Christian philosophy: that man survives only through the protection of God, that all earthly gifts flow from God, and that the proper bearing of man is to be humble and unselfish. However, there is also a strong sense of heroic pride within Beowulf which is at times in direct conflict with these Christian values. Thus, we see the dichotomies of pride vs. humility and sacrifice vs. selfishness. In "Further Celebration at Heorot" , Hrothgar reminds Beowulf of the lessons of the Greek tragedians: that pride, untempered by humility, will result in the tragic fall. But he also teaches the lessons of Christian philosophy: that wealth, accumulated through the grace of God, must be shared unselfishly.

Throughout the story Beowulf repeatedly acknowledges God as his protector. When Beowulf relates his battle with Grendel's mother, he states that "The fight would have ended straightaway if God had not guarded me" (1.4). Further exemplified by the powerfully stated "most often He has guided the man without friends" (1.5), there is a sense of mystical protection permeating all of Beowulf's actions. However, there is also a strong sense that God's protection must be earned; a warrior must first be true to his values, courage, honesty, pride, and humility and only then will he earn God's protection.

In addition to earthly protection, there is also the sense that all earthly good, be it success or wealth, derives from God. For example, when about to fight Grendel's mother in her cave, Beowulf sees a great weapon hanging on the wall. But he does not take credit for this perception. The credit is given to God: "But the Wielder of Men granted me that I should see hanging on the wall a fair, ancient great-sword" (1.5). And later in the passage, Hrothgar tells Beowulf that even the status of king is achieved through the grace of God. When telling of Heremod, a king who falls victim to pride and selfishness, Hrothgar tells Beowulf "he turned away from the joys of men, alone, notorious king, although mighty God had raised him in power, in the joys of strength, had set him up over all men" (4.4). And again, "It is a wonder to say how in His great spirit God gives wisdom to mankind, land and earlship. He possesses power over all things. At times He lets the thought of a man of high lineage move in delight" (5.1). In other words, a king's earthly power is only an illusion. The true power lies with God. Any "delight" that a man enjoys here on earth is achieved only through the grace of God.

Moreover, Hrothgar tells Beowulf that earthly success, given by God, must be handled with humility and a sense of sharing or the earthly king will bring on his own doom. Hrothgar tells Beowulf of a selfish king: "What he has long held seems to him too little, angry-hearted he covets, no plated rings does he give in mens honor, and then he forgets and regards not his destiny because of what God, Wielder of Heaven, has given him before, his portion of glories" (5.13). The phrase "he covets" is strongly reminiscent of the Christian Ten Commandments, that material desire leads to wanting more and more until nothing will suffice. Thus, a good king is willing to share his earthly possessions; he is one who "recklessly gives precious gifts, not fearfully guard them" (5.18). Hrothgar tells Beowulf that life itself is a gift from God, that even the human body is "loaned" (5.17), and that it eventually "weakens, falls doomed" (5.17).









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