Friday, January 13, 2012

The Christian Influence in Beowulf

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The poem Beowulf is an epic poem about how the strength of a man combined with faith and courage helped to change the outcome of a land of people. The Beowulf poet wrote the poem with an influence and aspect that can be interpreted as a Christian one. The poem itself makes many references to Christian themes, elements, the evil of sin, judgment, and even makes references to God frequently throughout the work. The poem seems to be dominated by Christian ideas. These Biblically-based ideas are incorporated into the poem, but there are also some ideas in the work that contradict Christian ideals or beliefs. Some of the themes in the work stray from a Biblical base, or even contradict the Bible. Even with these elements entwined into the story, the reader still gets the idea that the story is based off of the ideals and the theology of Christianity.

The poet had a strong knowledge of Christianity, and wrote the work with a confidence that the reader or listeners would also have some sort of knowledge of Christianity. With the many references and acknowledgments to God and His Word, the poem could confuse one who was not familiar with stories from the Bible or the ideas behind Christianity.

No specific references to the church, the cross, or worship are made in the poem. Without these elements though, Christianity is still incorporated into the work. One specific direct reference to the Bible is the story of Cain and his sin.

In the story of Cain, (found in Genesis 4) he and his brother give offerings up to the Lord. Cain is a man who works the ground, and Abel is one who tends animals. When the two offer their offerings up to the Lord, He is pleased with Abels offering but displeased with Cains. This makes Cain angry against his brother, since his brothers offerings were accepted but Cains were not, and Cains countenance fell (Genesis 46). The Lord tells Cain, If you do well, will not your countenance be lifted up? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door; and its desire is for you, but you must master it (Genesis 47). Cain is unable to tame his anger and hatred towards his brother and kills him. The Lord asks Cain what has become of his brother and tells Cain that because his brothers blood is crying from the ground, now you are cursed from the ground which has opened its mouth to receive your brothers blood from your hand. When you cultivate the ground, it will no longer yield its strength to you; you will be a vagrant and wanderer on earth (Genesis 41). The Lord then gives Cain a mark that will prevent anyone that finds him from slaying him.

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One of the monsters Beowulf fights in the story, Grendel, is said to have the kin of Cain killer in his blood(5). The poet says that The Measurer (God) fashioned a fitting revenge for the death of Abel(5), and that God drove His slayer far from Mankind and far from His grace(5). This hints that Grendel is of some direct blood relation to Cain.

Grendel is similar to Cain in many ways and is an ancestor of Cain. When Cain was cursed for his sin, the Lord told him that he would be a vagrant and wanderer on earth(Genesis 41), and that the ground would not supply him (Genesis 41). Grendel is also a vagrant and a distraught wanderer of the earth, as described in the poem. In the poem, he is said to have circled sounds of the harp, prowled the marshes, moors, and ice streams, forests, and fens. He found his home with misshapen monsters in misery and greed(5). This could imply that Grendel is a wanderer from time to time and may settle down temporarily and then move on when he has finished a killing spree or when his resources have been depleted at his current location.

It is also obvious that Grendel has a murderous lust in him and is unable to please the Lord because the Shaper has banished him(5) and Gods wrath() is on him. The poet says that Grendel is rejected by God and marked with murder, rejected by his sins(6). This may explain why Grendel resorts to killing men. It may have to do with the reason that Cain was angry that God had rejected his gifts, and that he was rejected by God, and now it has been in the blood line of Cain to have a hate for God because of the punishment bestowed upon Cain.

It is also slightly implied that Grendel may not be able to yield produce from the ground because of the murky and nasty habitat in which he dwells, described as mere and bleak(7). Grendels dwelling place is also described as a nicor and tomb of the damned(7). This most definitely sounds like an unnatural place for growing things and may mean that Grendel needs to eat men for strength, and in relation to his murderous feastings and slaughtering of men the poet says that he was hells banquet guest and lashed by hunger(6), when talking about his killings and murdering of men.

In Beowulf, Grendel has an enormous hand-grip, and it is obvious that Grendel must be quite strong since he was able to fight against Beowulf, who was said to be the greatest warrior of the Geats and to have a great handgrip. One of the possible explanations of Grendels enormous strength may have to do with the mark Cain received from God that would protect him from being slain. The Bible does not tell what sort of mark that the Lord gave to Cain. The mark could have been a strength that prevented men from slaying him. This could be a possible explanation for Grendels enormous strength.

Grendel also has a curse placed upon him that lets no weapon harm him. The author says that the choicest of blades champions war weapons were helpless to harm that hells messenger(6). This means that weapons, or at least bladed weapons, are harmless against Grendel. This could also be an explanation for the curse that God placed upon Cain, the mark that protected him from being slain. In the same way, the mark has passed down from Cains descendants, and weapons will not slay them, but only mighty power, like the power Beowulf has.

Beside direct examples from the Bible, examples are laced into the poem and only opened to a keen eye. A direct example is a reference to God being the Creator of the earth. In the poem, a poet sings a song lyrics are He shaped the earth, opened the Heavens, rounded the land, locked it in water, then set skyward the sun and the moon lights to brighten the broad earthyard, beckoned the ground to bear gardens of limbs and leaves- life He created of every kind that quickens the earth(5). The poem says he is singing of what he knew in respect to mans work and the Measurers work.

God is also referred to many times in Beowulf, not only by Beowulf but also by others in the story. Many different names are used throughout the work to describe God, such as The Shaper, Wielder, WorldShaper, and Measurer(5,1,5,4). God is also referenced in many positive ways, such as a guider of safety, and the Wielder of glory who brings wonder after wonder().

Through reading the poem, the idea is strong that Beowulf is somewhat of a strong Christian man, or at least has a strong belief in God. He constantly refers to or praises God throughout the poem. These conclusions come from examples Beowulf himself says.

In one part of the poem, Beowulf is describing a story of when he and another were racing through the ocean. He talks about how it was very difficult and strenuous, but in the end a light from the east lifted the storm clouds, Gods bright beacon burnished the sea- looming headlands leaned high above wind scoured cliff walls(1). This shows that Beowulf gives credit to God when due, because he is telling the story in a bragging sort of manner, but still gives God the credit he deserves.

Other characters in the tale also make sure to give God credit when due. After Beowulf has defeated Grendel, the first thing Hrothgar, says to his people is

May thanks to the Wielder for this wondrous sight, long be in our hearts. Loathsome mind pain Grendel has brought me. God brings us wonder after wonder, Wielder of glory. Until this day, I dared not imagine relief from sorrow, shame and treachery, sinful murdering when stained with gore this best of meadhalls mournfully stood, empty and idle- agony and grief gripped our heart-thoughts with no hope for mercy or a hand to defend us from that foul hell monster, sorcery and death. Through the Shapers will a visiting warrior has vanquished in the night this murdering sprite that no Spear-Danes war strength could banish or harm (4).

This shows that even though Beowulf did everything with Gods help, it is made sure that God is still given full credit.

In another part of the poem, towards the end, Beowulf is going off to face a dragon. He is fighting the dragon to protect the people but also because of an enormous treasure mound that will be his to claim if the dragon is defeated. The treasure mound is described as a huge gold chamber with unimaginable treasures. Beowulf states that all of the treasure is void compared to the higher will of God, and once he has slain the dragon and has obtained the treasure, he gives thanks to God by saying For these fine war trophies I finally must say thanks to the Wielder Wonder-King of all our glorious Shaper for such gold and gemstones that I now may leave to my beloved Geatfolk(8). This statement shows that Beowulf has a high regard for God and is thanking Him for what He has blessed him with even though he knows he is going to die from the fight with the dragon.

The poet implies in Beowulf that Grendel is a sort of demon, and could even represent Satan himself, and the fighting between Beowulf and Grendel is morally enlightening, as is Beowulfs fights with the other monsters. Though Beowulf is fighting to protect others by using the strength God has given him, he is also fighting for personal gain, to receive the large amounts of land and treasure that are offered to him, and also to promote his status.

These and other examples of beliefs that are not supported in the Bible, especially the reference to Wyrd. Wyrd is referred to as fate in the book and is not personified. Beowulf makes many references to Wyrd throughout the poem, for instance when he is describing his story of his great race across the ocean, after he tells how God helped him through, he also adds the statement that Wyrd often spares an undoomed man when his mind strength prevails(1).

Though Wyrd and other elements that are not essentially Christian are added to the story, such as the motive of blood revenge, quests for worldly glory, and worship of idols, the author still gives the idea that Christianity is one of the main themes of the story. He helps to illustrate this idea in the poem. During the time when Grendel is ravishing and destroying the countryside and home of the Geats, Beowulf states that the people

ignored the Measurer, Maker of Heaven and Shaper of Glory stuck to their gods unable to praise or pray to the Father wish for his guidance. Woe unto those with ill in their hearts hopeless and doomed forcing their souls to the fires welcome, praying to names that will never help them praise without hope. Happier are they who seek after deathday the Deemer of men free their soul-bonds to the Fathers embrace (7).

This passage illustrates the idea that praying to foreign gods will not help, and that it is needed to remain true to the one and only God.

With these ideas incorporated into the story, it is clear that a Christian moral was definitely in mind when the poem was written, and a Christian theme and belief are what the story projected. Even with a few elements added into the story that could be controversial against Christian beliefs, the Christian value is still strong and these elements can be easily overlooked. Based on these conclusions, the poet was most definitely a Christian and wanted to put a Christian moral into the poem.

Works Cited

Rebsamen, Fredericked. Beowulf. New York HarperCollins, 11

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