Analysis of Beowulf: Conflicts between Religious Beliefs and Actions of Characters

Although Beowulf was written after the Anglo-Saxons were slowly converted to Christianity, their old Pagan traditions still had great residual influences and made Beowulf an integration of pagan heroic ideals and Christian beliefs. Despite of gradually accepted Christian beliefs at that time, the opposite pagan Germanic actions emerge throughout Beowulf. Particularly, Christian values of God’s judgment, humility and eternal rewards conflicts with characters’ actions of making judgments by vengeance, proudly boasting and pursuing secular rewards.

The mortal makes judgments due to vengeance violates Christian beliefs of judgment by merciful God. For instance, at the celebration at Heorot after Beowulf defeating Grendel, Beowulf says, Grendel, “like a man outlawed for wickedness, he must await the mighty judgment of God in majesty” (134). But later, after recognizing Grendel’s corpse, “Beowulf cut the corpse’s head off” furiously (148). Beowulf’s own words demonstrate his Christian beliefs that it is God who makes judgments of Grendel, Beowulf’s enemy. However, Beowulf’s ensuing action of decapitating Grendel indicates that it is Beowulf himself who decides the outcome and doom of Grendel. Therefore, the Christian belief that God judges the mortal, including the enemies, contradicts to Beowulf’s action that indicates the right of heroes to take revenge and judge their enemies.

Furthermore, Christian ideals of humility and mighty God contradict to individual boasts. For example, at another celebration at Heorot after Beowult defeats Grendel’s mother, he says, “if God had not helped me, the outcome would have been quick and fatal” (150). But, previously, as Beowulf encounters the Danish watchmen when arriving at the coast, he proudly boasts about his great lineage and former heroic triumphs. And during the first feast at Heorot, Beowulf again formally boasts himself. The quotation here indicates that Beowulf attributes his heroic deed and victory to the mighty Christian God. In the contrary, his frequent actions of boasts show little about Christian typical humility but pagan heroic pride. Therefore, the Christian belief of humility and that all mightiness belongs to God stands in contrast to the action of proudly boasting oneself.

Finally, Christian idea of eternal rewards stands in contrast to worldly pursuits in reality. For instance, at the celebration at Hoerot for Beowulf’s successful fights against Grendel’s mother, Hrothgar speaks to Beowulf, “Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part, eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride. For a brief while your strength is in bloom but it fades quickly” (152). Hoerot’s words demonstrate that life is fleeting and people should pursue eternal rewards instead of worldly ones. Meantime, Hrothgar gives Beowulf significant amount of worldly rewards for his defeats of Grendel’s mother, indicating that it’s right to reward worldly treasure to honor heroic deeds. As a result, the Christian belief of pursuits for eternal rewards contradicts to giving secular rewards as accumulation of honor.

In all, characters’ pagan ideal actions of making judgments by vengeance, frequent boast and pursuit for worldly rewards violates their Christian beliefs of judgment by God, humility and pursuit for eternal rewards, resulting in undeniable conflicts between newly accepted Christian beliefs and traditional pagan actions.

 

Works Cited

Martin Puchner. Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. 3nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012

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