Study Guide

Beowulf Religion

Advertisement - Guide continues below


Lines 1-300

Afterwards a boy-child was sent to Shield,
a cub in the yard, a comfort sent
by God to that nation. He knew what they had tholed,
the long times and troubles they'd come through
without a leader; so the Lord of Life,
the glorious Almighty, made this man renowned. (12-17)

Throughout Beowulf, whenever any great men manage to achieve heroic feats, the narrator will be careful to attribute their prowess to God's favor and divine plan.

These were hard times, heart-breaking
for the prince of the Shieldings; powerful counsellors,
the highest in the land, would lend advice,
plotting how best the bold defenders
might resist and beat off sudden attacks.
Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed
offerings to idols, swore oaths
that the killer of souls might come to their aid
and save the people. That was their way,
their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts
they remembered hell. (170-180)

The narrator of the poem admits, with some discomfort and distaste, that the 5th or 6th century Danes engage in pagan religious practices. It's one of the only times when we really notice the disconnect between the Christian Anglo-Saxons who are telling the story and the pagan characters in the story.

Grendel was the name of this grim demon
haunting the marches, marauding round the heath
and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time
in misery among the banished monsters,
Cain's clan, whom the creator had outlawed
and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel
the Eternal Lord had exacted a price:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward. (102-114)

It's no accident that the only Biblical story specifically referred to in Beowulf is the tale of Cain and Abel, two brothers who took part in a murderous feud. In medieval Scandinavia, tribe against tribe and clan against clan often came down to fratricidal combat. Grendel represents the ultimate evil in this culture because he's the descendant of a man who killed his brother. Another villain of the poem, Unferth, is also condemned by the narrator because he killed his brothers.

The Almighty Judge
of good deeds and bad, the Lord God,
Head of the Heavens and High King of the World,
was unknown to them. Oh, cursed is he
who in time of trouble had to thrust his soul
into the fire's embrace, forfeiting help;
he has nowhere to turn. But blessed is he
who after death can approach the Lord
and find friendship in the Father's embrace. (180-188)

The narrator admits that he feels sorry for the pagan ancestors of the Anglo-Saxons, who didn't have the opportunity to turn to a Christian God for help. There's some condescension in this admission, of course, but also a genuine sorrow.

Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man's beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth
a gleaming plain girdled with waters;
in His splendour He set the sun and the moon
to be earth's lamplight, lanterns for men,
and filled the broad lap of the world
with branches and leaves; and quickened life
in every other thing that moved. (86-98)

Grendel's demonic nature is rubbed the wrong way by a bard's recitation of the story of Creation. Notice that this description of the creation of the world is an unusual mishmash of pagan and Christian imagery, reminding us of the complex religious background of the poem – told by Christians, but about pagans.

Lines 607-914

But the Lord was weaving
a victory on His war-loom for the Weather-Geats. (696-697)

In this image, the poet unites the Christian God with pagan imagery – the loom of fate, on which men's lives are woven. Weaving, spinning, and threads were common metaphors for life and fate in Scandinavian culture. By adopting these traditional pagan images, but using them in a Christian context, the poet tries to negotiate between the two religious perspectives.

Lines 1232-1496

The monster wrenched and wrestled with him
but Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength,
the wondrous gifts God had showered on him:
He relied for help on the Lord of All,
on His care and favour. So he overcame the foe,
brought down the hell-brute. (1269-1274)

The poet is careful not to give Beowulf all the credit for his victory against Grendel; if God hadn't wanted Beowulf to win, he reminds us, then he wouldn't win. In this context, religious faith means being willing to downplay your own abilities – or at least to be a little more humble and a little less boastful.

Lines 1497-1812

Hrothgar spoke; he examined the hilt,
the relic of old times. It was engraved all over
and showed how war first came into the world
and the flood destroyed the tribe of giants.
They suffered a terrible severance from the Lord;
the Almighty made the waters rise,
drowned them in the deluge for retribution. (1687-1693)

When the poet describes the engraved hilt of the sword that Beowulf brings up from Grendel's mother's lair, it's a strange mixture of pagan legend – a tribe of giants – and Christian story – the great flood. (Of course, sometimes critics interpret one of the kinds of angels in Genesis to be like giants, but that's probably not what's going on in this passage.)

"It is a great wonder
how Almighty God in His magnificence
favours our race with rank and scope
and the gift of wisdom; His sway is wide.
Sometimes he allows the mind of a man
of distinguished birth to follow its bent,
grants him fulfillment and felicity on earth
and forts to command in his own country." (1724-1731)

The poet hammers home that every fate is ordained by God. If a king rules his people well and consistently, it's not necessarily because he's skilled, but because God has allowed his skills to flourish.

Lines 2101-2396

It threw the hero
into deep anguish and darkened his mood:
the wise man thought he must have thwarted
ancient ordinance of the eternal Lord,
broken His commandment. (2327-2331)

Beowulf assumes that his downfall is a punishment for breaking divine law, not just bad luck. In this world, everything seems to be extremely significant, and God appears to manage every detail of human life.

This is a premium product

Tired of ads?

Join today and never see them again.

Please Wait...