Beowulf The Epic Poem English Literature Essay
Treasures often go for centuries without being found. And the best ones often come from unknown origins. Beowulf, the epic poem about a heroic Geat had gone untold and unappreciated for centuries until it was finally recognized in the early 1800's. Known as one of the greatest and most important Anglo-Saxon Literatures and written by an unknown Anglo-Saxon poet, Beowulf proceeds to bring about many allusions and themes which are of great literary value. In particular however, the poet of Beowulf employs an array of Christian themes mixed in with some Germanic paganism in his epic poem.
In order to completely understand Beowulf, critics often look into the mysterious poet himself. The fact that the Beowulf poet was a Christian is a recurring theme for many critics. For example, “..the Christian author who was responsible for giving the poem the general shape and tone..”(Rogers 233). Rogers goes on to talk about the attitude of the poet towards the poem and the material which he used. It is safe to assume that the poet didn't invent anything in the poem but instead, used the material in “...his own purpose, placing his personal emphasis upon it”(Rogers 233).
Rogers feels that the poet is clearly biased pro Christianity. “The poet saw the heroic past of the Danes and the Geats through the eyes of a Christian Anglo-Saxon.” The critic then goes on to give examples of the various methods of the poet which suggest his Christian influence on the poem. The poet is portrayed as being a complacent Christian, one who believes in all things good, and is disgusted by the paganism of his time. The poet uses motives such as weapons, treasure, and society to his advantage in an entirely Christian method. Unlike in other works of literature, similar motives in Beowulf are used in a completely different method. Such as the sword, in Beowulf is melted away after performing just one great deed, when in other literature the hero would treasure it and do many great deeds. Treasure is also portrayed in a Christian way, instead of showing both sides of treasure, which most other literature would have done, the poet only emphasizes the evils of treasure (Rogers 234-235).
Although the poet of Beowulf uses many Christian doctrines carefully and mostly successfully, it's his use of paganism, and the knowledge or to some, the lack of, that intrigues many critics. “No one now doubts that it was composed by a poet thoroughly versed in Christian and biblical traditions, but whether its author had the same degree of knowledge of the background to his chosen subject matter--specifically, Scandinavian paganism--has been fiercely debated” (O'donoghue). In questioning the poet’s knowledge and views on paganism, whether Germanic or Anglo-Saxon, many critics peruse the poet’s sources, most of which include older literature available to the poet at the time.
O'donoghue goes on to analyze and compare different sources such as Old Norse-Icelandic literature and how the poet distorts and kilts it with ancient Germanic past.
Further criticism is made out of the way in which the poet uses pagan sources. “Doubtless he was less disturbed than we are by vestiges of his pagan sources that lie awkwardly in the matrix of his Christian prepossessions” (Hamilton 105). It is most likely that the poet did this intentionally, and included a certain “underlying principle” all of which he made possible by the diction of the poem. When the poet used words that had multiple meanings, or who’s meanings were very elastic, it was he who had the advantage of knowing. Hamilton continues on to criticize the poets further manipulation of heathen tales in his own perspective, that is to say in the Christian view. The poet represents “..Scandinavians of per-conversion days as orthodox Catholics;” Hamilton viewed this as the poet deliberately transforming “pagan Teutonic lore” into a Christian tone. The poet also did well not to show any signs of his work, as he “avoided Christian worship or saints and merely represents his nobler agents as intelligent monotheists”. But perhaps the poet needed to do this, perhaps he himself, or his audience although not accepting Anglo-Saxon worshiping “...would not have understood a man with no religious allegiance” at all(Hamilton 105-107).
R. E. Kaske also speaks of the poets use of paganism and Christianity in Beowulf. But unlike other critics, Kaske believes the driving force behind the entire poem is “sapientia et fortitudo”, which can be vaguely translated as wisdom in either physical strength or courage. Karke speaks of sapientia et fortitudo as being the major theme and having all of the other themes, such as paganism and Christianity molded around it. Kaske believes “that the poet used this old ideal as an area of synthesis between Christianity and Germanic paganism” (Kaske 273). The method which the poet uses is a two-step method. First he draws aspects of both Christianity and Germanic paganism which relate to sapientia et fortitudo. Second the poet looks to take aspects of both traditions that comply the most with the point of view of the other. Hence, the Christian point of view is primarily derived from the Old Testament, and the poem has an Old Testament tone. Because the “ sapientia of the Old Law is more nearly compatible with the wisdom of Germanic Paganism than the sapientia in the New”(Kaske273). Kaske then continues to dissect individual characters and weather their sapientia et fortitudo was more Christian or pagan.
Next we will explore the criticism of Beowulf the character, and the Christian influence which he is surrounded with. It is logical to think, that because the poet has employed so many Christian themes in what most likely are older heathen tales and Anglo-Saxon traditions, that the most Christianity would be portrayed through the hero, in this case Beowulf.
Perhaps one of the strongest correlations between Beowulf and Christianity is the obvious features of Christ himself in the Beowulf character. Allen Cabaniss carefully plots the specifics of Christ present in Beowulf especially in Beowulf’s battle against Grendel’s mom. To start off, the very place in which Grendel’s mother lives has very similar features to hell. The connection between hell and the lake is future strengthened by “..The statements that is a water weirdly aflame, reminiscent of the Apocalyptic 'lake which burneth with fire and brimstone:'”(Cabaniss 224). Next, as Beowulf prepares for battle and perhaps death, he does not mourn for his life, but instead tells Hrothgar what to do if he were to die. “The parallel with Christ is even more striking as Beowulf magnanimously forgives his enemy Unferth just before the plunge into the fen-depths” (Cabaniss 224).
Other themes, which Cabaniss points out include the audience, or the Danes in this manner who assume that Beowulf have been kill. But his fellow Geates are the only ones who stand by him, meanwhile the Danes “give up the vigil at the night hour of the day”(Cabaniss). This single theme is a noted with Christ as he was dying on the cross being abandoned by all at the ninth hour except for his few disciples. “Finally, there iis a suggestion of winter's end and springtime'gs burgeoning as Beowulf comes up in triumph, which although, not strictly biblical, is one of the most ancient of Easter Themes” (Cabaniss 225). By making seven distinct connections between Beowulfs adventures and battles and Christ's death, harrowing of hell, and resurrection, Cabaniss successfully puts forth undeniable evidence of the Christian motifs and ideas in Beowulf.
Although, Cabaniss's argument on the clear connections between Beowulf and Christianity, counter arguments can be made. Levin Schucking doesn't necessarily refute Cabaniss's claim of the poets spectacular use of allusions to Christ, instead he speaks of instances where the poet failed to grasps the Christian aspects of some things, which relate specifically to Beowulf the character.
It is hard interpret weather Schucking is criticizing the poet for not taking advatge of the death of Beowulf to use a Christian mechanism or simply rendering the facts of Beowulf lacking Christianity at his death, and thus making him seem less Christian than other critics would like to admit. Either way, Schuckings tone suggests that he was extremely upset with the concept of Beowulf being “unchristian”.
“For no moment of human existence characterizes Christian and non-Christian attitudes so unequivocally as that of death”(Schucking 36). In analyzing Beowulf death, the critic points out the correlations to Germanic heathen tradition rather than a a Christian based theme. The dying Beowulf looks back on his life, and “expresses satisfaction” for running his kingdom “so well that no enemy dared to attack it.” He also looks back on that fact that he was a good man, that be had not broken oaths, or committed any crimes. Too the untrained eye this flash back of Beowulf might seem fairly Christian, but Schuckings points out two distinct feature of this scene, one of which can be linked easily to Heathen Germans, and the other even more easily as a violation of the Christian moral code.
One of the elements is the concept of “code of morals of the Germanic people” which is emphasized greatly when Beowulf alludes to having a greater deed or performing a duty. “Treue” is the Anglo-Saxon words which relates to truthful behavior, faithfulness in the sense of loyalty, or keeping of a promise. It is most likely that the critic is trying to get through the fact that this concept, is a original Germanic/Anglo-Saxon concept untouched by the Christian poet and his Christian manipulation.
Furthermore Schuckings discusses the “concept that no enemy dared to attack him (Beowulf)” (Schucking 36). This concept is not very Christian-like. Schuckings disappointment over the UN-Christian parting of Beowulf is perhaps even more fueled with the dying heroes tone. “There is little harmony between the Christian penitential axiom that we are all sinners, and the beautiful pride of duty-performed that emerges from the parting words with which he goes confidently to his judge”(Schucking 37). The lack of humbleness of Beowulf upon his death shows a good distinction from Christianity in what seems to be a slip up by the poet.
As far as other allusions made to Christianity in Beowulf, there are scores and scores. But one of the most overlooked is perhaps the allusion to Unferth. “In discussion of the Christian elements in Beowulf, it seems to have escaped the notice of scholars that the character of Unferth may provide an example of Christian allegory consciously employed by the poet”(Bloomfield 155).
To fully understand the implementation of Unferth in the poem, Bloomfield first dissects the name itself and it’s etymology. It is widely believed to mean exactly as it is, Un- eaning not and ferth- meaning peace. However Bloodfield explores the possibility of the “UN” being of a different meaning such as OE. Unhar meaning very old and ON. hunn meaning (bear). The critic then further notes that Germanic names, in a historical sense didn't or don't have to mean anything.
Bloomfield then continues to say that Unferth was an allegory, a conscious allegory of the poet.
Since it is widely accepted that Beowulf is regarded as “rex justus” or the just king, the poet felt a need to include in Unferth, a form of “discordia” which needed to be defeated. “Prudentius tells the story of how Discord wounds Concord and is killed by faith. Beowulf, however, defeats his antagonist, not by force, but by example, and Unferth hands over his sword, the symbol of his might”(Bloomfield 162). By alluding to Predentius, the critic is trying to set a standard for which he thinks the Beowulf poet is basing the portrayal of Unferth. Bloomfield repeatedly insists that the poet needed Unferth to be a part of the coloring of the Christian pattern that was his poem.
Bloomfield goes on to trace the origin and to figure out what the poet himself was thinking, and the actual values and themes which he put into the poem, and ultimately out of that the character of Unferth. Bloomfield feels that we over emphasize the “the pagan aspects of the oldest known Germanic epic (Bloomfield 163).
“It belongs to the Christian tradition, not only in mood and ideals, and in occasional Biblical references, but at least partially and tentatively, in literary technique. An old Scandinavian tale has been changed in to a Christian poem. Viewing Unferth as colored by the allegorical figure Discordi, enables us to join Beowulf with the Christian Middle Ages in a way not hitherto possible”(Bloomfield 163-164).
As Bloomfield repeatedly remarks on the allegory of Unferth to Discordia, he makes little progress in directly connecting the character to a Christian theme as he had promised. It seems as if the critic is too caught up in the motive of the poet, who he feels is so eager to employ the poem in a Christian basis to the Britain world of the sixth century. Nevertheless Bloomfield chose a different route in bringing the character of Unferth to light and his connection to Discordia.
S.J. McNamme also brings forth an allegorical sense of the poem which is overlooked by many critics, but rather than focus on a specific character, McNamme compares the poem to the Christian theme of Salvation and suggests its use of theological dogmas from the New Testament. “I suggest to wish in this study that as an allegory of the Christian story of Salvation the Beowulf poem both echoes the liturgy and reflects New Testament theological dogma”(McNamee 332). McNamme continues on and speaks of the fact the poet obviously and deliberately “gone out of his way to exclude all the old pagan gods from an active place in his poem”(McNamee 332). He further goes on to say that the god that they do refers to in Beowulf is the God of the Christians. The critic points out certain key aspects of the poem which relate to the Old Testament, just as Grendel the evil offspring of Cain, and the poems continuous upbringing of “Lord”, “The Creator”, “The human situation as a race fallen from grace is hinted at, too..”(McNamee 334) etc. However the critic uses these themes as a building up process in which he proceeds to bring forth themes from the New Testament. McNamme then continues to point out the Christian story of redemption, which is the fact that man has lost his touch with god, man has “fallen from the state of innocence and happiness and is in powerful grip of Satan. And thus man is helpless without a savior, a savior such as Christ. In the poem it is almost a clear coloration between Beowulf, as Christ having to save men from what can be perceived as evil in Grendel or even in The Dragon (McNamee 332-335).
Beowulf is the work of a brilliant poet, whatever his motives, who sought to bring forth a complex and contemplated tale for the centuries. Whether a Christian who chose to manipulate the tales of Heathen-German and Icelandic folk tales or an Anglo-Saxon protégée who took the many years of tales presented to him and decided to bring them to a new light, the Beowulf poet brilliantly portrayed various Christian themes and some Germanic traditions just as paganism into the epic poem.
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