Header Ads

Beowulf: Mythical and Christian Elements in Beowulf

 Mythical and Christian elements in Beowulf

Mythical and Christian elements in Beowulf

Q. Write a critical note on mythical and Christian elements in Beowulf.

Answer: When we turn from the human characters to the Grendelkin, the dragon and other demonic elements in Beowulf, we find the poet drawing on a quite different kind of source. Many of the terms used to describe Grendel, such as eoten, pyrs, and ylfe comes directly from Pagan Germanic demonology, but the point also draws on Christian concepts of evil associating the monster with Hell and the Devil.

There seems to be a double perspective maintained in such characterization: to the Pagan Germanic characters in the poem, Grendel is a monster out of Pagan Germanic mythology; to the Christian poet and his Christian audience, the creature is known to be in truth a manifestation of evil as it is rightly understood by Christians. Two Dragons are described in the poem.

One is the dragon slain by Sigmund, whose exploit is narrated by the court minstrel in Denmark. This Dragon is well known in Germanic legends outside the poem. The Dragon, which kills Beowulf at the end of the poem, seems to be much the same kind of creature.

At least some Anglo-Saxons continued to believe in the existence of dragons well into the post-Christian period, for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle states in the entry for the year 793 that ‘fairy dragons were seen flying through the air’ over Northumbria. But the majority of allusions to dragons are to be found in legendary literature, both Pagan and Christian, and in lore – such as the Old English Maxims II, which state that ‘a dragon is found in a cave, old and glorying in his treasure’.

In addition to the historical and legendary dimensions of Beowulf, there is a third important ingredient in the narrative and that is the religious atmosphere. How to portray the religious beliefs of his characters is a serious challenge to the poet because of his very boldness in choosing pagan Germanic heroes as his subject matter.

The Anglo-Saxons themselves began to accept Christianity only from the late 6th century on and throughout the Anglo-Saxon period paganism was a constant threat against which preachers railed and Christian’s kings and their retinues fought. When the Beowulf-poet sets out to show how admirable and at times even exemplary his people’s non-Christians ancestors could be, he must be very careful not to appear to be encouraging a return to the dark ways of Germanic heathendom. He must celebrate the nobility of Beowulf and Hrothgar and Wiglaf without endorsing their religious beliefs, with any intelligent Anglo-Saxons would have known to be Germanic paganism.

The poet achieves this resolution of conflicting Imperatives with delicacy of selection and carefully controlled emphasis. First, he makes clear that his own faith is strongly Christian. He speaks of the true God and of the devil, and he alludes specifically to biblical events such as the Flood, the Last Judgement and Cain’s slaying of Abel. The characters in the poem, on the other hand, never allude to Christian lore, for this information was not available to them. Instead they indulge in known pagan practices, such as cremation of the dead, the reading of omens and the burial of lavish grave goods with their dead- all practices sternly and often forbidden by Christian Anglo Saxon writers. In one passage near the beginning of the poem we are explicitly told that the Danes in Hrothgar's kingdom worshiped at heathen shrines, not knowing that the idols they venerated were the work of the (Christian) Devil. Such an overt allusion to the paganism of the poem’s character could not be emphasized too much, however, for a Christian Anglo-Saxon audience would feel uncomfortable lending their sympathies to characters- even heroes- who are prominently portrayed as heathens.

At times they use the word ‘god’, but we have to remember that this word, then as now, was a generic term for any deity as well as a term which in a specialized sense, could be used to refer to the Christian God. Editors and translators of Beowulf in the past have done a disservice to readers by capitalising the first letter of these terms, whenever they occur, implying that they always refer to the Christian God. Thus they make it appear as if heathens are alluding to a Christian Deity they could never have known.

The original manuscript of Beowulf never capitalises the initial letter of these terms; the custom of honouring the Christian Deity in this way was introduced much later than the Anglo Saxon period. The modern reader of Beowulf is well advised to ignore the editors’ capitalisations of the initial letter of the words meaning ‘god’, and to allow the context to determine whether allusion is being made to the Christian Deity or to some vaguely convinced Pagan god. The poet is clear in his mind as to the religious state of his heroic characters; They were as yet deprived of the revolution that missionaries in later centuries would bring to the English. When they speak of a deity, it can only be a deity such as their pre-Christian wits conceived it. The poet is not presenting them as Christians, a misrepresentation, which would have seemed absurd to any intelligent Anglo-Saxon. It is worth labouring this point, because it is central to what would seem to be a major purpose in the writing of the poem.

The poet is living among a Christian people whose ancestors are known to have been Pagan. Christian teachers among the Anglo-Saxons often urged that the forefathers of the nation should be forgotten precisely because they had been ignorant of Christian revelation and therefore were beyond salvation.

At the same time, there may be a certain discreet questioning of the harsher side of Christian teaching. After having his sensibilities trained for 3182 lines of poetry to revere the character and achievement of Beowulf, a reader must wonder a little at the justice of a creed that insists that such a paragon of heroic virtue, through no fault of his own, must be consigned to eternal damnation. Any such questioning, as this, is suggested with utmost subtlety and without any implication that the poet was anything but a devout Christian. But he was a Christian whose pietas before the deeds of the men of old could only lead him to ponder deeply and at times to wonder- perhaps a little dangerously.


Read also: 🔎

👉 Beowulf, as a heroic epic poem

👉 Anglo-Saxon Elegy or Old English Lyric Poetry

👉 Anglo Saxon Christian Poetry or Religious Poetry

Post a Comment