7 March 2008
Pagan vs. Christian Influences in Beowulf
At the time of its creation, Beowulf was influenced by Pagan rituals, deities and ideas, but by passing down the epic narrative word of mouth, an age of Christianity will have had a residual effect on the story. The mix of ideas is not a struggle for religious power in the story, but Paganism's heroic ideals and Christianity's self-sacrificing virtues blend to form a delicate mosaic that could not have formed otherwise. Danish Paganism highly regards the concepts of Fame, Fate and Vengeance, and these are highly evident in Beowulf, but within these are woven the Christian qualities of loyalty, humility, sacrifice for the good of others and sympathy for those less fortunate. The story also subtly hints at the negative consequences of greed and pride throughout, also falling under Christian influence.
Paganism today can be grouped by the belief that there is a pantheon of gods or deities, each controlling the fate of the world. There was a Roman Pantheon, a Greek Pantheon, a Celtic Pantheon, which may not have as many characters in it as the former, but it still was not considered a monotheistic religion like Christianity or Islam, where they focus on a single omniscient being (Dunwhich 11). Roman and Greek Paganism were hugely different than northern Europe's more magically based style. In Celtic Paganism, the theme is more peaceful, and its few warriors are known for their renowned deeds that could normally surpass a regular human's limits, such as Beowulf (Buhres 20). Northern Paganism differs from the Southern European Paganism because of its strong, sincere beliefs of key concepts, not just in its deities. Southern versions pretty much did what they wanted. They just casually acknowledged that there were gods, but those southern versions died quickly, and its pagan version is now known more as mythology. Now, Paganism as a whole usually refers to areas underdeveloped and not as technologically advanced for the time period, like the Anglo-Saxon areas (Dunwhich 25)
Christianity is not just about Jesus, but the belief of the entire Bible, all of its concepts, and the usage of a moral code to live by. Such concepts of Christianity reveal themselves in the epic Beowulf, attracting the reader's better natured side and appealing to emotions like sympathy, and ideals relating to preserving all life forms (The Bible). By using the three key monsters, Grendel, Grendel's Mother and the Dragon, there are moments within that feed the Christian instinct (Lawson). Not only appealing to the Christian audiences, the Characters in Beowulf take on certain Biblical roles that similarities in like characters can be drawn to. Take for instance the story of David and Goliath. This is one of the basic stories of good versus evil where the under capable hero is down and out due to the evil enemy. Beowulf, being the underdog, travels to Grendel's home field, as David had, and slew the impossible beast. Further similarities are uncovered when Beowulf fights Grendel's Mother. Again there is the struggle against an impossible enemy, but more exact similarities are defined. When David defeats Goliath, he uses his [Goliath's own sword to behead him (The Bible). The parallel to that in Beowulf is when Grendel's mother is near death; her sword is also used to decapitate her (Chin). With such closely aligned stories from Christian culture as well as Beowulf, the effect that Christianity had on the epic is too evident to ignore and say that the story is purely Pagan.
The role of Fame is lathered heavily in the plot of Beowulf. In fact, after setting up the beginning scene in Herot, Fame is the first idea stressed when Beowulf tries to enter. Upon hearing of King Hrothgar's plight with the fearsome demon, Grendel, Beowulf comes from over seas to enlist on the front lines against it. But the guards into King Hrothgar's town, Herot, are reluctant to allow him passage. To prove his sincerity, Beowulf boasts about his former triumphs and because of his fame, enters unadulterated (Chin). Fame, in Paganism, is highly praised (Squire). To be famous, according to Beowulf and other characters in the story, is to have great prowess and to accomplish many heroic deeds (Lawson). Beowulf demonstrates this when he boasts, but not only then. Beowulf Demonstrates how important Fame is to himself and his people when he boasts, fights Grendel, tears off his arm and uses it as a trophy in the great hall in order to receive more fame, fights Grendel's mother, lops off her head, and so on and so forth.
This is where it can be argued that during his many battles, Beowulf fought because of one of two, or both, motives. He could have been fighting purely on the behalf of himself. When he heard a challenge, he came running, because he was on a power-ego trip where its expansion would never cease until he died. He didn't care if the others died, as long as he killed the monster, his Fame would be boosted, and he would be the hero. End of story, he was a one way man whose own ego controlled his will to be exalted.
Or, Beowulf could have done all of this self sacrificially. Because of the Christian age, Beowulf is a good, accepted character, because he has character. The struggle created is which force would overpower the other: the will to sacrifice yourself for the greater good, a Christian concept, or the want of more fame, a Pagan concept (Daniel). But if he was totally virtuous and valued another human life without thinking of his own demise, he could then be paralleled to another Christian character.
Jesus Christ was the son of God. His purpose on Earth was to take all the sins on his own back from the entire population of the world, and by sacrificing himself, would save the masses. Jesus never took if another needed, he never faltered to knowingly follow his chosen path: imminent death (The Bible). This, oddly enough, is a Pagan Virtue, Fate (Lawson). Beowulf also threw himself into the mess of battle, knowing his day would also come. He, without hesitation, took it upon himself to relieve the citizens dependant on him of their suffering.
The most plausible of solutions would be that they mix, cohesively. Beowulf has proved himself a good man. By continually running head first into the opposition that threatens a civilization, he has shown himself fearless and noble, unlike King Gilgamesh who cowers when his turn to show his leadership appears. But nobody is pure in motive, and to say he was totally oblivious to his upcoming glorification is ignorant to human behavior altogether. So while he was most likely aware of his potential fame, his motives stayed on protecting either the citizens of Herot or his own citizens when he ruled as king himself. And, he was probably giddy with knowing he would have something else to brag about.
Back to Fate. When Beowulf completes a rather rigorous test of some kind, he usually attributes his victory to Fate, but on occasion, he will reference God in his success. When the author states that the sleeping men in Herot don't know what fate will await some of them, he mentions Fate, in this case, being future tense and showing the inevitability of death (Chin). Aside from this being intense foreshadowing, this also shows the heavy influence of Paganistic ideas, where the death of a human is already pre-decided. This would all have been regulated by the two Pagan deities, The Goddess and the Horned God (Dunwhich). Although that last example was blatantly Pagan, consider when King Hrothgar asks God to watch over Beowulf like he has up until now as he takes up the challenge of fighting Grendel's mother. Christianity shines through. Previously, Beowulf fought the monster Grendel and when Beowulf finished him off by detaching his arm using pure almost heavenly appointed God/man muscles, he proclaimed his inherent gratitude to the one and only God. Even before that, Beowulf tells King Hrothgar that those who would die would have to resign themselves to God's judgment. Oddly though, in the exact same sentence, Beowulf used the phrase "Fate must decide." (Chin). It's not really a struggle for control, and it almost seems kind of hypocritical, but Paganism and Christianity mix and swirl within this piece with ease that seems unnatural.
The last Pagan concept that is highly acknowledged is Vengeance. Pagans had no need to sit around and morn when action was needed. This shows when Beowulf tells King Hrothgar that it is better to avenge somebody than to grieve over him, in regards to his advisor being killed (Chin). Vengeance: clearly not a Christian value. Christianity lets God deal with vengeance. In the Bible Jesus says for people to "turn the other cheek," and to "love thy enemies," (Bible). By these examples, Vengeance holds no ground in Christianity. Or so one might think. After Beowulf's declaration of revenge, King Hrothgar lifts his hands to heaven and thanks The Almighty for Beowulf's words (Chin). Thanks God that Beowulf will go on a nice killing spree in the name of Vengeance. And God. But no matter how contradictory it is, the author blends it seamlessly, and unless it is studied, it would probably go unnoticed.
Vengeance can also be linked to Beowulf's fight with the Dragon. The author states that The King of the Geats was fueled by his rage. The Dragon destroyed the national stronghold after a peasant had tried to take the dragon's gold cup. Beowulf was enraged and set out to destroy the menace. This could also go back to the Fame and Fate. He saw the opportunity after fifty years to show his people what he was originally the king for. But it was more linked to vengeance than any of the other virtues. Beowulf, after wanting to get revenge, faltered because he thought he had angered God somehow and broken the Ten Commandments (Chin). The odd thing about this is that Beowulf kind of realizes that there are two different religions pulling o him without actually saying it. He Has the Pagan Vengeance pulling, but he doesn't want to upset his Christian God or break the Christian rules. The vengeance references are less than Christian, but using them shows that even Beowulf is human, because everybody sins.
The author of Beowulf used the three monsters, Grendel, Grendel's mother and the dragon, to specifically accent some Christian behaviors, not only in the characters in the story, but for the reader as well. Throughout the reading, Thinking of the creatures as not just monsters but as human-like will give them feeling that a reader might relate to and therefore the creature will seam less ominous.
Grendel is introduced as a horrible, evil creature, but he has a humanistic side. The author justifies his losing against Beowulf because he kills, but certain lines cause one to feel pity for the monster. As a result, Grendel's death helps further the Christian influence while also making Beowulf look like the magnificent hero. Grendel is first introduced as "the creature of evil, grim and fierce, and was quickly ready, savage and cruel, and seized from the first thirty thanes," (Chin). Not a very human image. The thing that makes Beowulf so profoundly epic is that Beowulf is painted in such a heroic light and while the Christian influence is so subtly strong. Grendel is apparently the descendant of Cain and has to suffer for it every day (Chin). Thinking about his constant suffering, one would get the urge to feel sympathy for this loathsome beast (Daniel). But thinking about it biblically, Cain is only in the Christian religion, in the beginning. He was son of Adam and Eve and was the first to ever commit murder in the world (Bible). So being in the Cain bloodline, Grendel is rejected by God and is forced to live in suffering. When he appears, he is wearing "Gods Anger," essentially the opposite of the Danes, who celebrate God's presence in all of their victories and everyday life (Chin). Grendel has a right to be angry if anybody does.
The reader would feel pity for the monster because they see the Danes have everything that Grendel lacks. Basically, what makes something seem at least a little human is if it has some type of human emotion. Civilized people can relate to those feelings and inherently put themselves in that position. At one point, Grendel is described as an "unhappy creature," (Chin). By giving Grendel that human emotion, he no longer seems purely evil, a whole monster. He doesn't just kill like because he's hungry anymore, he has a reason. Some would argue that he has a good enough reason to kill.
When Beowulf mortally tears off Grendel's arm, Beowulf takes it back to town as the big hero. But Grendel's mother sees Beowulf quite differently. To her, he is the monster that just killed her son, and needless to say, her blood is a little hotter than normal. To her, it is the biggest sing of disrespect he could have shown (Daniel). She is not only enraged, but hurt as well. These emotions are also human, and at one point she is described as having the "war terror of a wife," (Daniel, Chin). To have your only son, probably the only person to talk to, that loves you, that even looks at you without grimacing or crying out in fear, to have that one person destroyed without a thought and then disrespected…Beowulf no longer looks like the hero. Sure, the Geats like him because he saved them, but Grendel's mother, she has now captured the reader's emotional side by capturing the readers heart. Now who's the bad guy?
Christianity has many good virtues that practicing peoples should abide by. It also has many limiting rules. Such as greediness. Greed is a punishable sin (Daniel). Greed plays a rather substantial role in the story. To start with, Beowulf kills Grendel's mother. He lops off her head and takes it back to the city to show the others. But consider what he had left behind: Grendel's mother had hoarded vast amounts of treasure and even the sword that killed her was intricately imbued with gems, studs and trinkets (Chin). Beowulf left all of that behind and instead took the head as proof. This deed could also be linked to the Fame seeking he was so adamant in partaking in. Beowulf, obviously having Christian values to an extent, knew better than to take what he did not need.
Though Grendel's mother had quite the plentiful stash, the dragon in the epic had so much more. Not just more gold, but much more of a greed problem as well. This dragon had tons of beautiful priceless things but a lowly peasant set out to snag a single jeweled cup. Out of all its treasures, the dragon could not forgive that peasant for his thievery of one measly goblet (Chin). The dragon showed the proof of what greed can do to you. Because it was so self-absorbed, its downfall was a bloody one. Following the battle with the dragon, Beowulf on his deathbed, he participated in one last act of self sacrificing. By killing the dragon, the dragon's treasure was rightfully his. But he gave it all away (Chin). From people like the beggar to those high in the social order, all received privilege to the dying king's generosity.
Beowulf showed considerable character throughout the entirety of the epic, which could not have otherwise been brought together by the means of one single religious set of properties. The blending of these two beautiful, unassociated religions ensures that the epic has depth and an enthralling plot line. Through the use of both of these religions, you can simultaneously be taking both sides of the fight: feeling the triumph that envelops a returning hero and the sorrowful heartbreak of a dismal mother. Without both religious characteristics tugging at you the entire time whilst reading, you could never get the experience as you did in the epic, Beouwulf.
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