Christian Elements In Beowulf

.. n the mere, just as any rational soul would prefer death to eternal damnation. Beowulfs last monstrous foe is designated by the word wyrm meaning a serpent or worm, and the word draca meaning dragon. In the Old English poetry, the worm and dragon represent enmity to mankind. The worms who devour mans corpse after death, the dragons and serpents who receive his soul in hell, and the dragon of sin and mortality who rules over earth until Christ cancels for all time the work of the tempest.

The Grendel kin and the dragon share some of the descriptive words and epithets used for monsters in the poem such as slayer, enemy, and evil destroyer. They all live in demonic halls. Some poets believe that the dragon was the devil himself, guarding a hoard of gold that infects men with greed and pride and so leads to death and damnation (Clark, 257). The Beowulf dragon is sufficiently snakelike, both in his appearance and behavior, to qualify as a Christian symbol. In Genesis of the Bible, the serpent is never clearly called Satan.

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The snake is an allegory for the devil much like the dragon is an allegory for the archfiend. But if the dragon is of the same kind as Grendel, why was Beowulf unable to defeat him? To this question the Christian interpretation is that Beowulf has lost the favor of God. However, the dragon is the instrument of Beowulfs death. As J.R.R. Tolkien explains, the placing of the dragon is inevitable: a man can but die upon his death day (Holland-Crossley, 11).

If this view is accepted, the problem of why Beowulf had forfeited Gods favor disappears. Beowulf in his youth overcomes his foes with Gods help. But even with God at his side, Beowulf, like all men, must die. Beowulf is an allegory of Christian salvation. There are many symbols that allude to Christian references in Beowulf; the fight with Grendel represents the salvation of mankind, the fight with Grendels mother represents Christs Resurrection, and the fight with the dragon resembles Christs death. There is real conscious analogy between Beowulf and Christ.

There is, for example, the familiar parallel between Hroogars praise of Beowulf, Yes, she may say, whatever, woman brought forth this son among mankind-if she still lives-that the God of Old was kind to her in childbearing (Kermode, 45), and the remark of a woman to Christ in Luke 11:27, Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the breasts that thou hast sucked. Also, this speech occurs shortly after Christ has cast out a demon (11:14-18), while that of Hroogar follows Beowulfs cleansing Heorot of the demonic Grendel. Again, Beowulf goes forth to fight the dragon accompanied by a band of twelve, one of whom is a culprit; during the fight the eleven retainers flee, and one returns. This parallels the picture of Christ shortly before his death attended by the twelve Apostles: the treason of Judas, the flight of the eleven remaining Apostles, and the return of John at the crucifixion. Beowulf and Christ are icons of wisdom and power.

Christ is frequently represented by patristic writers as the wisdom and power of God. A Vercelli Homily remarks of his early life that he was filled with might and wisdom before God and before men (Tuso, 129), and the poetic Descent into Hell describes him at the Resurrection as brave . . . victorious and wise (Tuso, 22).

In early medieval iconography, there commonly existed a portrayal of a warlike and victorious Christ with his feet resting on a prostrate lion and dragon which parallels Beowulf and Jesus as heroic figures. Fr. Klaeber wrote, We might feel inclined to recognize features of the Christian Savior in the destroyer of hellish fiends, the warrior brave and gentle, blameless in thought and deed, the king that dies for his people (Chickering, 17). Both icons represented power and wisdom of heroes. The scene where Beowulf dives into Grendels dark mere and begins his descent into the watery depths swimming until the ninth hour of the day (Kermode, 57).

This is almost an unavoidable biblical echo. In Luke 23:44-46, it is the same hour that Christ, abandoned by all but a faithful few, died on the cross. Furthermore, this is where Beowulf dove into Grendel and his mothers dark mere and swam until the ninth hour, reaching the meres bottom, symbolizing the death of Christ and his stay in hell. Beowulf, having lain down his life for the defense of his people and having thanked God for winning the dragons treasure for their use, suggests the figure of Christ. Charles Donahue eloquently wrote, Our poet liked diptychs, and he left his audience with a pair of images, Beowulf at the dragons barrow on one side of the diptych, Jesus on Calvary on the other (Poupard, 18). Donahue suggests that both Christ and Beowulf are martyrs for their people.

They each gave up their lives to save the people. The champion Beowulf, in life is reminiscent of the champion Christ in various aspects of his wisdom and power. Beowulf in the end is not revealed to be a God-man but man. His death not a supernatural atonement but a natural phenomenon. An analogy of any kind between Beowulf and Christ in itself account for the notorious absence of explicit references in the poem.

The epic of Beowulf is wrapped in a history of pagan ideal and Christian surroundings. The poem is woven in Christian allegorical figures which give Beowulf a romantic mystery that many epics lack. Beowulf is a timeless classic that has endured the centuries. All that is left of the epic is the heros fame, a monument as enduring as earth. Bibliography Works Cited Primary Source Kermode, Frank, and John Hollander, et al. Beowulf.

The Oxford Anthology of English Literature: Vol 1. New York: Oxford UP, 1973. 29-98. Secondary Sources Chickering, Howell D, Jr. Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor, 1977. Clark, George.

Beowulf. New York: Twayne, 1990. Holland-Crossley, Kevin, and Bruce Mitchell. Beowulf. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.

Poupard, Dennis, and Jelena O. Krstonc, ed. Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism: Volume 1. Michigan: Gale Research, 1988. Morris, Richard, ed.

Blickling Homilies: Sermon 17 of the Tenth Century, Old Series, no. 73. London: EETS, 1880. 209-11. Tuso, Joseph F, ed.

Beowulf: The Donaldson Translation Backgrounds and Sources Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1975. English Essays.