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Christian And Pagan Ideals In Beowulf

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Before the invention of the printing press or written history, oral history, especially in early Germanic culture, became the foremost means of transcribing values, and past events. Written down in approximately 1,000 A.D. by an unknown author, Beowulf, originally a pagan fable, became a Christian allegory upon its transcription by Christian monks. However, as scholars have debated over the religious context in Beowulf, the attempts by the monks to turn the epic poem into a Christian parable ended merged, including both original and Christian aspects. Throughout Beowulf, the epic combines pagan ideals of fate or wyrd and the will of God, the similar concepts of the afterlife, and the contrasting ideas of the individual.

In Beowulf, a tension arises between the natural construction of the poem and the Christian ideals added. Before the advent of Christianity, paganism placed an emphasis on wyrd. According to Christianity, God instills within mankind a sense of free will, which directly contrasts with the pagan idea of fate. Throughout Beowulf, these characteristics of paganism and Christianity transmute together. Beowulf instills the principle of fate within his speeches, as when he talks about how “fate saves an undoomed man when his courage is good” (11). However, previously in the poem, Beowulf graciously thanks “God that the wave-way had been easy for them” (5). In the fight with Grendel, Beowulf does not depend on his weapons, but his innate strength. As King Hrothgar states “вЂ?Fate always goes as it mustвЂ™Ð²Ð‚Ñœ (9), Beowulf trusts in his own abilities, and not those created by man. As a young warrior, Beowulf “had long been despised” (38), but “change came to the famous man for each of his troubles” (38). Beowulf’s realization of fate allows him to full develop his abilities, and these allow him to gain a venerable reputation through feats of accomplishment, as with his victorious swimming match against Brecca, that cement his standing among the warrior elite. Whenever Beowulf may speak, he may insinuate that God gives him strength; in actuality, Beowulf confides in his own abilities, stressing the pagan idea of wyrd. Other themes arise in Beowulf concerning Christian principles when King Hrothgar speaks because the majority of his speeches allude to Christian imagery:

God may always work wonder upon wonder, the Guardian of Heaven…Now through the Lord’s might a warrior has accomplished the deed that all of us with our skill could not perform (17).

After the battle with Grendel, King Hrothgar elaborates on the mightiness of the Lord, and the salvation that He gives to the Danes in the form of Beowulf. Upon the defeat of Grendel and his mother, Hrothgar presents Beowulf with several splendid gifts, but reminds him “keep yourself against the wickedness, beloved Beowulf, best of men, and choose better-eternal gains. Have no care for prideвЂ¦Ð²Ð‚Ñœ (31). Foreshadowing the necessary qualities that Beowulf uses in his reign, Hrothgar reminds Beowulf to take precautions on the spoils of warfare, and avoid the deadly sin of pride. After the death of Hygleac, Beowulf rises to the throne due to his respectful and altruistic nature, not because of some divine right. Despite the religious allegories of Hrothgar’s speeches and Beowulf’s gratitude to the Lord, most of the poem retains the underlying pagan ideal of fate.

The concept of the afterlife in Beowulf becomes one of the major similarities between the underlying pagan idealism and the Christian allegory attempted by the monks. In both religions the concept of the afterlife involves similar themes of darkness and light. After the death of Grendel’s mother in her lair, a вЂ?blaze brightened, light shone within, just as from the sky heaven’s candle shines clear” (28). Grendel and his mother both represent a certain evil, and once this evil dissipates from earth, God’s light can shine down. In the beginning of Beowulf, Scyld Scefing, the founder of the royal blood line of the Danes, has a funeral, where “on his breast lay great many treasures that should voyage him out into the sea’s possession” (2). This reference to Scyld Scefing’s funeral parallels Beowulf’s funeral at the end of the fable. After the slaying of the Dragon, no person can open the hoard of treasure except under the will of God, but Beowulf’s last dying request includes having the dragon’s treasure buried with him:

“Be quick now, so that I may see the ancient wealth, the golden things, may clearly look on the bright curious gems, so that for that, because of the treasure’s richness, I may the more easily leave life and nation I long have had” (48).

Standing in direct opposition to the King Hrothgar’s emphasis on eternal rather than earthly rewards, Beowulf’s materialistic attachment to the dragon’s treasure parallels the Egyptian (pagan) concept of needing

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