Beowulf – Critical Review
I believe Beowulf was written with an Anglo-Saxon foundation, but there was an attempt at relating Christian beliefs to the Anglo-Saxon ways. The main character of the poem, Beowulf, is portrayed as an Anglo-Saxon warrior. Beowulf’s values and the way that other characters in the poem acted were also primarily Anglo-Saxon. The traditions of Beowulf’s people support the Anglo-Saxons in several ways throughout the poem. On the other hand, there are many instances in the poem where it is easy to recognize the Christian themes that were included.
Beowulf is a great Anglo-Saxon hero in the poem and possesses several unexplained supernatural powers. From this, you can only assume that he is above humans and “normal” people. One explanation for Beowulf’s strength is that the Anglo-Saxon writer is relating Beowulf directly to the Great White Bear of the North, which is an Anglo-Saxon myth. Several details support this, including the breakdown of Beowulf’s name into the root language.
“Beo”, meaning bee, and “-wulf” meaning enemy support this because the “enemy” of the “bee” is the bear. Knew at once that nowhere on earth had he met a man whose hands were harder; his mind flooded with fear-but nothing could take his talons and himself from that tight hard grip. “(Beowulf pp. 46-47, ll. 751-755) This quote from the poem is referring to when Beowulf fought Grendel in Herot, and he holds Grendel in what seems like a “bear” hug, which supports Beowulf being the Great White Bear of the North. When Beowulf travels to Grendel’s home at the bottom of the lake he acts in a very Anglo-Saxon way.
After killing Grendel and his mother, he decapitated Grendel and brought his head as a souvenir to Herot. This action is very contradictory to Christian ways, but would be a normal act for an Anglo-Saxon warrior in war. In Beowulf’s war against the Franks in which he was the only survivor he supported Anglo-Saxon ways. “He had killed no less than thirty of the enemy in hand-to-hand conflict, one of them, the Frankish champion Daeghrefn, he slew with his bare hands. The poet informs us further that Beowulf was the only man on his side to survive the battle.
His own triumph over the enemy was so complete that, though his fellows all lay dead, he held the field alone and stripped from the bodies of the thirty men he had slain the armor to which his victory over them gave him honorable title. “(Malone p. 144) Beowulf acted as an Anglo-Saxon warrior in the way that they were very materialistic, and taking the armor and leaving one’s friends behind would be common in war. All the ways Beowulf acts in war situations throughout the poem are Anglo-Saxon and the author meant to portray him in this way.
Beowulf’s values in the poem and also the way in which the dragon and Grendel’s mom act reflect Anglo-Saxon attitudes. Prior to his death, Beowulf asked for a large tower to made on the coast so that people would never forget him after his death. “Wiglaf, go, quickly, find the dragon’s treasure: we’ve taken its life but its gold is ours, too. Hurry, bring me ancient silver, precious jewels, shining armor and gems, before I die. Death will be softer, leaving life and this people I’ve ruled so long, if I look at this last of all prizes. “(Beowulf p. 108 ll. 744-2751) Here Beowulf asks Wiglaf to bring treasure before his death, which shows Beowulf’s materialistic views. This supports the theory that Beowulf performed all of his actions for fame and glory, not charity.
Performing these actions for fame does not support Christian values at all and is more evidence on how Beowulf is primarily an Anglo-Saxon character. The dragon that Beowulf battles in the end of the poem shares with Grendel’s mom the fact that they both were getting revenge on their enemies. Each character was violated in one way or another, the dragon getting his gold cup stolen and Grendel’s mom defending her son.
According to Anglo-Saxon beliefs revenge is tolerable, and because neither of these characters acted first in battle, they were justified. However, if one were to look at Christian beliefs, revenge is not tolerable and neither the dragon or Grendel’s mom would be justified in their violent acts of revenge. Beowulf does have an attitude that differs between Christina values and Anglo-Saxon values. Depending on the situation, Beowulf will express one or the other. “Yet he makes Beowulf an admirable Christian except when Christianity and the warrior code conflict.
Then Christianity comes off a poor second-as it did with most Anglo-Saxons. “(“Chapter 4-The Anglo-Saxon View” p. 33) This is an example of the order that Beowulf’s priorities were set and also how his community influenced him to lean more towards the ways of Anglo-Saxons. The way the poem begins and ends with pagan funerals supports the poem being more Anglo-Saxon than it does Christian. “There can be no doubt that Beowulf’s cremation is a pagan rite. Unless Beowulf is a good deal older than most scholars believe, the funeral is a traditional archaism. (“The Anglo-Saxon View” p. 33)
The funeral in the beginning of the poem was for the Danes’ great king, Shild. The funeral at the end of the poem was held for Beowulf, the great king of the Geats. Each of these kings was buried with gold or had a monument built to be remembered by, which were traditions of the Anglo-Saxons. King Shild was brought much treasure to his death, “Next to that noble corpse they heaped up treasures, jeweled helmets, hooked swords and coats of mail, armor carried from the end of the earth. “(Beowulf p. 24 ll. 6-39) Beowulf was cremated at the end of the poem, surrounded by war gear, “A huge heap of wood was ready, hung around with helmets, and battle shields, and shining mail shirts, all as Beowulf had asked. “(Beowulf p. 120 ll. 3137-3140)
The poem ends in a tragedy, Beowulf dies and his men mourn him. This contradicts Christianity because according to the Bible, Jesus died, and then rose again to look over all mankind. These two stories are not parallel and this rejects the idea that the poem is primarily Christian. Beowulf is a warrior who dies as an Anglo-Saxon hero, but there is no evidence to show that he dies as a Christian hero.
Despite all of the evidence that the poem is totally Anglo-Saxon, there is a good deal of Christian references in the poem. There are many lines and situations that can be interpreted as Christian. “Our Holy Father has sent him as a sign of His grace, a mark of His favor, to help us defeat Grendel and end that terror. “(Beowulf p. 35 ll. 381-384) This is a very blatant reference to the Anglo-Saxons referring to the Christian God as their own. “There is no doubt whatever that the Beowulf-poet has gone out of his way to exclude all the old pagan gods from an active place in his poem.
The one referred to throughout by Hrothgar and Beowulf alike is the one, providential God of the Christians. “(McNamee p. 332) Another event in the poem that could be interpreted as Christian is when Beowulf travels to the lake of Grendel. Many symbols can be found here, such as the lake being hell, and after Beowulf kills Grendel’s mother it seems as though Heaven shines upon him. “Her body fell to the floor, lifeless, the sword was wet with her blood, and Beowulf rejoiced at the sight.
The brilliant light shone, suddenly, as though burning in that hall, and as bright as Heaven’s own candle, lit in the sky. (Beowulf p. 72 ll. 1567-1573) Another example of Christianity in the poem is the reason for Grendel terrorizing the Danes. He is not necessarily evil, but Grendel could actually be seen as a monster sent by God. “And, assuming a little different position, one notes that Grendel is the agent, not the enemy of God; he was sent to punish the Danes and the poet was only adding his touch of cunning subtlety when he said Godes yrre baer [he bore God’s anger]. “(Baum p. 358) This author is writing that Grendel is not evil, but he is actually good and was meant to torture the Danes for their behavior.
The many references to Christianity express the author’s inner Christianity and I believe that he was an Anglo-Saxon man originally, who was either converting to Christianity or was a converted Christian who was trying to promote Christianity by relating it to Anglo-Saxon ways. Overall Beowulf is a poem that can be interpreted in so many ways, and the author left that up to his readers. I have come to believe that the poem is primarily an Anglo-Saxon one, but I do not deny the idea that Christian vales, themes, and ways were added or included.