Christian Elements in Beowulf

"...Most often He has guided the man without friends"



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).



Aristotle and Augustine

There is a dichotomy of values in Beowulf: that of pride vs. humility. Beowulf is a man who boasts, yet he also has wisdom and humility. On the one hand Beowulf is reminded that pride will bring destruction: "until his portion of pride increases and flourishes within him; then the watcher sleeps, the souls guardian; that sleep is too sound, bound in its own cares" (5.9). Yet it is that very pride and boastfullness that help make Beowulf a heroic warrior capable of achieving the greatest of deeds. The concept of the tragic flaw of which Hrothgar warns Beowulf was first expounded by the Greek philosopher Aristotle, with Sophocles' Oedipus Rex as the ultimate example in Greek literature. However, as much as the Greeks spoke of the tragic flaw, there is still a strong sense of the heroic in their epic literature. Heroism and arrogance are to be admired as long as the hero does not strive too close to the gods and the heavens. It is not until well into the medieval period that Christianity reaches full bloom and the quality of heroic arrogance falls into disrepute. The Christian philosopher St. Augustine helped to turn man away from this earthly arrogance and the desire for material wealth and success. In Augustine's City of God, he attacks pagan culture and its pantheon of gods, blaming them for the decadence of society. It is Augustine's ideas that we see in Beowulf, tempering the heroic arrogance of the great warrior.
However wide the dichotomy of values may be, Beowulf appears to have achieved the difficult balance between pride and humility. For example, at the end of Further Celebration at Heorot Beowulf returns the sword Hrunting which turns out to be useless in his battle with Grendel's mother. But instead of taunting Unferth, Beowulf praises the sword: "...in his words he found no fault at all with the sword's edge; he was a thoughtful man" (11.3). Beowulf is a mix of two ideals: the heroic warrior of the pagans and the humble selfless servant of the Christians.

Opening page of City of God manuscript




Biblical Allusions in "Further Celebration at Heorot"

There are several Biblical references in Beowulf that are quite interesting. Grendel is referred to as a descendant of Cain: "the hostile-hearted creature, Gods enemy, guilty of murder" (2.4). In addition, there is a reference to the Great Flood that took place in Genesis: "the origin of ancient strife, when the flood, rushing water, slew the race of giants they suffered terribly: that was a people alien to the Everlasting Lord. The Ruler made them a last payment through waters welling" (3.2). In this reference to the biblical flood, the author of Beowulf is suggesting that the sword's creators were descendants of those that caused God to bring on the flood perhaps even suggesting that they were descendants of Cain. However, earlier in the passage these same giants are referred to with reverence: "There came into the possession of the prince of the Danes, after the fall of devils, the work of wonder-smiths" (2.2). Once again there is a contrast between the pagan and Christian cultures, as the same "giants" are referred to with honor and contempt in succeeding paragraphs.



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