Beowulf: Good versus Evil
The heroic poem, Beowulf, is a combination of society’s views and religious ideals and concepts of the Anglo-Saxon period, although some of the poem today may appear different compared to the original text prior to translation. The central conflict of good versus evil in Beowulf may have been altered to fit the Christian beliefs of the time. “Beowulf is considered the oldest of the great long poems written in English, may have been composed more than twelve hundreds years ago, in the first half of the eighth century, although some scholars would place it as late as the tenth century” (Greenblatt, 2012, p. 36). Being one of the oldest verbal and written poems has caused the original meaning and writing to change over the years. Yet, the central themes of good versus evil and the religious undertones could have been an adaptation to the world that was dominated by the Christian believers.
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The central focus between good versus evil is represented within the combination of pagan and Christian allegories that provides readers with an insight not only what society found acceptable, but the religious convictions of the Middle Ages. During the Middle Ages, the church was a major power house and influencing many scholars to adapt pagan heroes into a more acceptable Christian faith hero. It would have been unacceptable for a pagan hero to triumphant over the forces of evil, while proclaiming only one religious belief to be correct. According to Stevick (1963), in order to honor God and the Christian beliefs of the time, the transcriber may have chosen to adapt the pagan references to Christianity in order to make the poem relatable to the Christian believers (p. 80).
As readers enter the world of Beowulf, they are giving a glimpse of the social conflict during the Middle Ages. This conflict in expressed through the religious views of a pagan society adapting to a new religion with the mention of One God versus the several Deities normally followed in pre-Anglo-Saxon culture. When Beowulf is considered a Christian story, the strong allegories may be found within the characters of Beowulf and Grendel. Beowulf, the Geat warrior, could be a reference to Jesus in the Christian faith. Jesus had traveled to Israel to save them from their sinful ways, Beowulf comes to the Danes “to perform to the uttermost what your people wanted or perish in the attempt, in the fiend’s clutches” (Greenblatt, 2012, p. 54, line 634-636). Although the image of Jesus is widely known as a humble man, Beowulf appears to be boastful about his feats. The commonality between the two individuals is clear when referencing the Christian faith.
Jesus and Beowulf both fight an evil that is determined too great for the likes of normal humanity. Each are willing to sacrifice their lives in order to being salvation to people whom they feel are worthy of the action. Each are faced with a trail of the battle without seeking guidance from God, but rather put their faith in the protection and safety that God has shown them. The most interesting is the lack of reference to Jesus within the tale. According to Blackburn (1897), Beowulf is seen as a representation to the Christian Savior within the poem, even though Beowulf contains no references to him, “to the cross, to the virgin or the saints, to any doctrine of the church in regard to the trinity, the atonement, etc., or to the scriptures, to prophecy, or to the miracles” (p. 216).
Readers are presented with a plot that focuses on Scandinavian culture, however much of the poet’s narrative interference reveals that the poet’s culture is silently different from that of his ancestors and that of his character’s as well. For example, Beowulf lives by the heroic code of honor that is often defined as a relic of pre-Anglo-Saxon culture. Some principles seen within the text, “Beowulf, son of Ecgtheow, spoke: Wise sir, do no grieve. It is always better to avenger dear ones than to indulge in mourning. For every one of us, living in this world means waiting for our end. Let whoever can win glory before death. When a warrior is gone, that will be his best and only bulwark” (Greenblatt, 2012, p.72, line 1383-1389). The concept of eye for an eye, death for death was met with same justification during this time period. Yet, in some ways it remembers the First Testament of the Bible when eye for eye was the manner of payment injustices.
Grendel represents the evils of the world as a whole, although some may see it as the Satan confronting Jesus in his three trails of faith. According to Greenblatt (2012), “the poem turns on Beowulf’s three great fights against preternatural evil, which inhabits the dangerous and demonic space surrounding human society,” which would be another reference to the Christian allegory reference. (p. 38-39). Grendel is one of three manifestations of evil and the first for Beowulf to face. Grendel’s first attack of evil is on the order of the Danes and wreaking havoc on the people. His evil appears to seek the destruction of the Danish society from the top down, leaving the community without leadership and protection against the evils that may surround them. In this approach, Grendel would be an allegory for the minion demons that cause destruction to order and civil society with wholesome values.
While good versus evil is a common theme seen in multiple of folklores prior to Christianity can be seen, the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxon society has influenced the transcriber to relate the story to a boarder Christian audience. According to Stevick (1963), when passages use references to pagan traditions and then mention a Christian reference or lack Christian elements, “into which at one point a Christian explanation is added in anticipation of a subsequent Christianized account of the fight and explanation of its outcome, and because the poet was attempting to produce a major, written poem about Beowulf that avoided inconsistency in Christianized and non-Christian matter with which he was working” (p. 84). The information and facts that point to a transcriber who found in somewhat necessary to conform the Germanic hero tale into something about the Christian society in which the poem may have originated, and something about the society in which the Christian writer lives within. The original tale informs readers that the society that the poem may have been written in valued great acts of courage and strength. It would be a society that relished in the tales of great conquests and hardships as a pastime entertainment.
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However, this would have been different from the time of the poem was transcribed; the rewrite would have been influenced by the power of the Church. All the honor and prestige would have been given to God for blessing them with extraordinary men granting who were favored by God. Success with battles was no longer considered the achievement of the individual’s strength, but by the will of God. It was no longer acceptable to praise or boast about the achievements over a good meal, but rather to be thankful and put one’s faith into God for providing victory over evil. According to Stevick (1963), Beowulf belongs to a more Christianized Anglo-Saxon society and the oral materials existed prior to the conversion of the British kingdom. While oral tradition may have continued with the pagan beliefs still attached, the written version was adapted to include the Christian beliefs. While there is no actual reference to Jesus within the tale, the references to God and contributing the success to him allowed the stale to be acceptable in a Christian society during the Middle Ages.
While the central conflict of Beowulf is good and evil, the rewritten tale removes many elements referencing the pagan beliefs and converting them into the Christian concept of God winning over horrors of evil. This coincides with the conversion of Druid and pagan beliefs into the new belief of Christianity. The church would find ways to convert pagans and druids into accepting the new faith by combining pagan traditions, folklore and references with Christian beliefs. Beowulf appears to be just another victim of Christianity overtaking an existing culture and finding ways to find it acceptable for their beliefs.
Blackburn, F. A. (1897). The Christian Coloring in the Beowulf. PMLA, (2). 205. Retrieved on June 7, 2015 from http://www.jstor.org.proxy- library.ashford.edu/stable/456133?&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
Greenblatt, S., et al. (Eds.) (2012). The Norton anthology of English literature (9th ed., Vol.1). New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Stevick, R. D. (1963). Christian Elements and the Genesis of ‘Beowulf’. Modern Philology, (2). 79. Retrieved on June 7, 2015 from http://www.jstor.org.proxy- library.ashford.edu/stable/435497?&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents
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