Religious Tension In “Beowulf”

Last Updated: 13 Oct 2020
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English 1001 Beowulf Essay The element of religious tension is common in Anglo-Saxon writings, but a pagan story with a Christian narrator is unusual. “Much of the poem’s narrative intervention reveals that the poet’s culture was different from that of his ancestors” and also that of his characters (Watson). There are many different perceptions to the reasons why the author wrote Beowulf. The best answer, in my opinion, was that the author was creating a magical and intriguing story that had an underlying theme to it.

Christianity was a newly introduced religion to the western Europeans at the time and I believe that someone would have written about it, or at least the conflicts that came with it. This is just a background in which time period the story was told, even more evidence to this interpretation is buried in the actual text. Though still an old pagan story, Beowulf was told by a Christian poet. People believe the epic Beowulf is a story full of pagan tradition. However, Beowulf is really a Christian-based story, in which Christianity prevails. Nature is accommodating; death and fate are controllable; man can reconcile with the world; and the main character, a hero and representative of good, triumphs over evil and does not fail in the end” (Perrello). The way the author incorporated many side notes, of what seemed to be other tales told at the time that may not have ever been saved like this one, was an amazing mystery for our present day historians to try and solve. The beginning of the story is where we find our first sign of Christianity, as the poem goes, “Afterward a boy-child was born to Shield, a cub in the yard, a comfort sent by God to that nation” (Beowulf 12-14).

This child was a blessing for this tribe and was the uprising of their downfall and this is where we see that first conflict between the Heroic Code and Christianity. Complete polar opposites are the two, favoring blood- shed and vengeance, family, and praising the king who led them into battle. Christianity on the other hand is all about showing one another kindness and grace. There must have been confusion when these tribes were first introduced to this way of life. But the more and more these stories of God were told, people’s lives changed and they started to be moved.

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It’s the idea of God being the creator of the earth that we see next, “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” (Beowulf 90-93). Aside from showing that God was creator of all earth, we find that repentance is taking place, “But blessed is he who after death can approach the Lord and find friendship in the Father’s embrace” (Beowulf 186-188). They were unfamiliar with the Lord and had their many other gods to go to, to seek help for different things.

Then they started seeking help from the Lord, who in return gives them calm waters to safely travel back home and the people are extremely grateful and moved by his presence in their lives. In the end, there was a great purpose behind the composition of this difficult and complex storyline. It was in a time of life where everything was done the people’s way. They were reluctant at first when hearing about God but soon saw what he was capable of and ended up following him. Beowulf's claim to kingship is a matter of his military prowess as much as it is by birth.

We also learn that what we consider virtues today were not considered at the time. Celibacy, or even monogamy was not of any interest to the Anglo Saxons. It was very acceptable for warriors to have relationships with multiple partners. Also, humility and modesty was seen as a flaw. Not only were heroes expected to be physically brave, strong, and victorious, they were expected to brag about it. A warrior was meant to succeed. Not only to win, but to triumph. The ideal was to have one's stories live on in epic poems, and the only way to assure that was to make sure people knew of one's deeds.

It also suggests a bit of the Anglo-Saxon structure. The fact that “the main action occurs in the Mead Hall, and that people sleep there, shows the importance of this central building” (Bloom). The Beowulf that we read today is unlike the Beowulf with which the first Anglo-Saxon audiences were familiar. Beowulf can be considered "one of the most compelling stories in the English language", and most certainly is considered the first English masterpiece to be written (Bloom). “Originally the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invaders experienced a large-scale conversion to Christianity at the end of the sixth century” (Perrello).

Beowulf is a hero, representing courage, concern for his own people as well as foreign people, and pride. However, this novel shows a lot of controversy. Beowulf is filled with Christian teachings, culture, and pagan tradition. The values of the Anglo-Saxons were mainly their faith and their success as a warrior. In Beowulf, warriors were expected to create a self-image of fame. Being a warrior required winning. You had to die an honorable death if you were the loser. Only the best warriors went to Valhalla. They always thought God was in control of fate and nobody can change it because all the decisions have been made.

The values of the Anglo-Saxon people didn’t vary along a wide range. They all believed in the same thing, thought the same thing, honored the same people, and stood for who they were as people. “Nature is accommodating, and the forces of death are controllable. Fate is neither blind, nor random in its choice of victims; rather, fate is likewise dependent on certain criteria, such as the character of the person whom is experiencing fate” (Johnson 18). Their destiny was chosen for them by God and there was nothing they could do to change that.

Beowulf follows the virtues most important to the Anglo-Saxon culture being as their religion, militaristic nature, and values. Beowulf is also a prime example of an Anglo-Saxon literary work. “The Anglo-Saxon era was defined by a heroic code found in the people of that culture” (Johnson 19). This was exemplified through qualities such as bravery, honor, and strength. In Beowulf, the character of Beowulf depicts an Anglo-Saxon warrior traveling lands and fighting fierce monsters to glorify himself and achieve his ultimate goal of fame. Works Cited “Beowulf”. The Norton Anthology: English Literature.

Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 8th Ed. New York: Norton, 2006. 26-97. Print Bloom, Harold. “Background to Beowulf”. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. Chelsea House Publishing, 2008. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. Johnson, David and Elaine Treharne, eds. Readings in Medieval Texts: Interpreting Old and Middle English Literature. NY: Oxford University Press, 2005. Perrello, Tony. “Religion in Beowulf”. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. McClinton- Temple. 2011. Web. 5 Feb. 2012. Watson, Robert. “Beowulf”. Bloom’s Literary Reference Online. The Facts on File Conpanion to British Poetry, 2009. Web. 4 Feb. 2012

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