Friday, March 30, 2012

Beowulf: Religion & Society

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Throughout the story, references to Christianity and pagan beliefs are made. The pagan elements are evident in Beowulf’s superhuman personifications. Beowulf is depicted as a superhero, and he takes it upon himself to save the Danes from Grendel. In his battle with the monster, he opts no to use weapons, but to rely on super strenth. During the fight, Beowulf’s strength takes over and he wrestles with Grendel until he ‘superhumanly’ rips the monster’s arm off. He also is very superhuman during the battle with Grendel’s mother. When Beowulf realizes that Unferth’s sword is useless against the monster’s thick skin, he grabs the giant’s sword, and slashes through the body. Lastly, the super strengths are shown during the battle with the dragon. By this time, Beowulf is an old man. During the fight, both Beowulf and the dragon are wounded, but Beowulf manages to get in the final blow and kill the dragon before he, himself, dies.

Besides the pagan beliefs of the possibility of superhuman strengths, pagan beliefs about immortality are also evident in the poem. Another very non-Christian belief at the time was cremation. At the end of the story, Beowulf’s body is taken to the hot-bone house where he is cremated and then buried. But many argue that Christian overtones dominate.

Many of the characters in Beowulf exhibit Christian characteristics. Beowulf has a Christ-like behavior in his humility and charity. During the first appearance of Beowulf in the story, he gives Wulfgar extra armor for protection. He humility is exercised when he says, “Almighty God rules over mankind and always has.” Beowulf is also like a savior in that he, like Jesus, saves the Danes from their suffering. Grendel is referred to in the story as being a descendant of Cain. He is the image of a man fallen from grace through sin, and is jealous of the happiness and joy other people endure. Grendel is jealous of the people at Heorot, while Satan is jealous of the happiness of the Garden of Eden. Grenel is also referred to in the poem as “the guardian of sins.” The dragon represents malice, greed, and destruction. Satan is often portrayed in the same sense. Beowulf’s fight with the dragon is an acknowledgment of Christ’s sacrifice of dying for his people.

The author was very effective in combining the pagan and Christian ideas throughout the poem. I assume this was done to appeal to all types of readers. But in doing this, the author was able to give us, the reader, an idea of what is was to be a hero at that time.

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In contrast to focusing on the religious aspects and theory, examples of society at that time were nicely portrayed throughout the story. Many of the characters in the story were defined by status, as many people are now. But at the time the story was written, a character’s importance, as well as wealth and status, were measured not only in financial terms, but was measured also in honor and accomplishments. I believe honor has been forgotten in today’s society. Many celebrities and other famous people have no honor at all. But Hrothgar was entitled honor and fame because of his ability to lead the people in battle, taking minimal casualties. This shows Hrothgar’s compassion for the innocent, and his appreciation for life. Beowulf earned his honor from the Danes when he defeated Grendel. But Beowulf’s honor was so great he was raised to the level of a hero in the eyes of the Danes. Grendel, on the other hand, has no honor because he is an evil killer.

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