When people think of the ancient world before written history, most get the image of a world of barbarians engaging in terrible pagan beliefs systems and fighting against evil supernatural forces that seem strangely more prevalent than they are today. This characterization might be the legacy of a highly Christian later society imposing its judgments and misunderstandings upon the earlier age that left no adequate voice to defend itself. However, there are a few ancient texts still in existence, such as the epic poem Beowulf, that capture a sense of the oral tradition and the stories that were important to this earlier period. Beowulf was first written down sometime around 1000 AD, but there is evidence that the poem had been transferred through oral tradition for centuries prior to its transmission to the monks who preserved it in written form.
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Whether these ideas were imposed upon the text by the Christian scribes, who copied it into the written form or were inherently a part of the text, a close examination of the poem reveals that the Old Heroic Code may have had a great deal more in common with the Christian ideals than is commonly thought. Throughout the poem, the behavior of the main characters demonstrates there was already a clear distinction being made between the concepts of barbarism and civility, morality and immorality, well before the advent of Christianity. Characters who embody the ideals of civility include Beowulf, as a character learning civility, and Hrothgar as the mentor, demonstrating for Beowulf and others what true civility should look like.
Other characters, such as Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon, illustrate the forces of evil and barbarism that were still loose in the world. The importance of this epic is not only in its technical achievements but also in its revelations as comparing these characters as to what makes some good and others evil reveal how the Old Code as represented in Beowulf’s society acts as a foundation for the Christian messages that replaced it.
The structure and development of Beowulf reveal a sophisticated level of thought and the poem a significant work. The context of the work, being the oldest known epic poem composed in English, is enough to make the work significant. However, the unique way in which the work developed over unknown years’ worth of oral tradition and then transcribed by Christian monks into written form reduces our ability to use the work as definitive evidence that the concepts of Christianity simply evolved from the tenets of the Old Code.
Any analysis of the work must acknowledge that the written form preserved today may have been significantly altered as the story progressed, introducing an intentional connection between one belief system to another as a means of encouraging conversion of new and old generations. The story we know today may be as much fabrication to the authentic society as the 22nd century’s belief that the 20th century had a rare breed of talking mice would be to today’s Mickey Mouse generation. According to Ogilvy and Baker (1983), the earliest known manuscript for the poem was recorded in 1563 as being among the possessions of Laurence Nowell. Nowell dedicated much of his time and wealth working to preserve early manuscripts of the church from the country’s dissolution of the Catholic monasteries. Known as the Vitellius text, the manuscript had no history to it, and it is unknown how many translations or transcriptions the text might have undergone prior to this 1563 copy being recorded. “We have no way of knowing how many copyings occurred between the original manuscript of the poem and the Vitellius text. There may have been only one, or there may have been three or four. Even single copying would be enough to produce a considerable number of errors” (Ogilvy & Baker, 1983: 6). Copied by hand sometimes by poorly educated scribes with a talent for mimicking shapes working in dimly-lit monasteries in exhausting conditions, each time the poem was written introduced a tremendous margin for error. These issues are then increased as the text is translated into modern English for students’ understanding. In spite of these problems, the concept of the content of the poem remains relatively true to the text as it was handed down, given these issues.
Two characters in the poem, Hrothgar and Beowulf, are used to exemplify the values of the old heroic code of the Germanic tribes that had been a tradition for them. As it is revealed through them, the code placed significant value on personal characteristics such as physical strength and liege loyalty in warriors, expansive hospitality, and smooth political skill in leaders, as well as ascribed personal value to those who had presentable and respectable women within their households and refused to associate with anyone of questionable reputation (Tierney-Hynes 2000). This is how Hrothgar is presented to the reader from the beginning, establishing him as the example of the old code by which Beowulf will be able to judge himself later. Before he can accept Beowulf’s help in getting rid of Grendel, Hrothgar has to make it clear that Beowulf’s service is in honorable repayment of past deeds on behalf of Beowulf’s father. He says, “Great was the feud that your father set off when his hand struck down Heatholaf in death among the Wylfings. … I then settled the feud with fitting payment, sent to the Wylfings over the water’s back old things of beauty; against which I’d [I had] the oath of your father” (459-61; 470-72). By doing this, Hrothgar is able to accept Beowulf’s help according to the old code without losing any of his statuses due to his loss of physical ability as a result of age. This action reveals that it was considered unjust to refuse to allow debt of honor to be repaid. Just before Beowulf and the Geats depart from Heorot after slaying Grendel and his mother, Hrothgar warns Beowulf about the dangers of power such as greed and pride that were the cause of Hrothgar’s troubles. “Beloved Beowulf, best of warriors, resist this deadly taint, take what is better, your lasting profit. Put away arrogance, noble fighter! The noon of your strength shall last for a while now, but in a little time, sickness or a sword shall swipe it from you” (1758-63). This lesson sounds very much like the Christian warning to remain humble as it advises to take the path of the servant of men rather than the exalted lord. The concept of generosity and responsibility for fellow men is revealed as well in Hrothgar’s treatment of the people in his mead-hall. He understands that generosity to those who serve you is both a responsibility and a blessing bestowed by the gods.
While Hrothgar demonstrates from the beginning of the poem the example of the ideal Old Code follower, Beowulf emerges as an ideal in training, making the transition from the Old Code of Hrothgar to the Jesus figure of the new Christian beliefs. There is an obvious connection between Beowulf of the Old Code and Jesus of Christianity as Beowulf undergoes the three battles against evil. Beowulf must battle Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the evil dragon that carries him down into death with it. Jesus must battle against evil as a man, as a priest, and as a spirit as he is dragged into death with the enemy. The words used to describe these battles also tend to make this connection for the reader, as can be seen in Beowulf’s battle with Grendel. As Grendel is dying, the poet indicates his understanding, “once the afflictor of men, tormentor of their days—[knew] what it meant to feud with the Almighty God” (Beowulf 490-492). Grendel’s mother presents a much greater challenge to Beowulf, but this confrontation is again connected with godlike descriptions: “God, who sent him victory, gave judgment for truth and right, Ruler of Heavens, once Beowulf was back on his feet and fighting”(630-632) and celebrates Beowulf’s victory with a beam of divine light descending from the clouds. The poet describes the light “As though burning in that hall, and as bright as heavens own cradle, lit in the sky”(647-648). According to Chickering, part of the ancient Anglo-Saxon belief system was the understanding that “life was a struggle against insuperable odds and that a man’s wyrd or lot would be what it would be” (269), how one dealt with these issues, with strength, determination, and honor or by running away, would determine one’s worth in the eyes of his society. Translated into Christian terms, these behaviors indicated an acceptance or rejection of God’s predetermination for life and again were used as a measuring stick for individual worth in society. Beowulf faces the dragon in his final battle, finally being forced to submit to a will that is greater than his own, again suggesting a connection with Jesus. “[Beowulf’s] sacrificial death is not seen as tragic, but as the fitting end of a good (some would say ‘too good’) hero’s life” (Bolton 1). As Jesus died to save his people and to remove the permanent stain of sin from their shoulders, so Beowulf died to save his people and remove the permanent threat of danger from their lands.
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With Hrothgar and Beowulf representing good and attaining obvious connections to the Christian deities, characters such as Grendel, his mother, and the dragon all illustrate the kinds of evil and darkness brought into the world in Christian myth through the children of Cain. Perhaps the strongest Biblical reference linking Christian traditions with the poem can be found in the character of Grendel as he is said to have been “conceived by a pair of those monsters born of Cain, murderous creatures banished by God, punished forever for the crime of Abel’s death” (20-24). Grendel’s primary goal seems to be creating confusion and fear in the hearts and minds of the people of the village, thus causing them to be unfaithful to their liege lord Hrothgar and flee the area. From a Christian perspective, Grendel’s motives are to frighten true believers from the worship of God. “That demon, that fiend, Grendel, who haunted the moors, the wild marshes, and made his home in a hell, not hell but earth” (Beowulf 16-19). This hell that comprises Grendel’s home is described in Biblical terms as well, a “…lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death” (Revelation 20:14). However, the creature retains sympathy from the poet as Christian compassion is overlaid upon the unequivocal Old Code beliefs.
“We are no longer in a genuine pagan atmosphere … The settlement has been softened and purified” (Klaeber cited in Chapman, 1956: 334). Although it is necessary for Grendel to die because of his sins, compassion wins the scene as Grendel’s death is sincerely mourned.
Although she is not given such blatant references, Grendel’s mother is also a child of Cain and more powerfully hideous than her son.
She has special abilities, such as being able to exist above and below water, but she is limited in her abilities as a woman should be in both Old Code and Christian traditions. Her insistence upon revenge, even though Grendel deserved his death, necessitates her own death as a sinner. “Grendel’s mother undertakes her venture in no spirit of pride or anger but under the necessity of revenge. Melancholy desperation about both monsters in their actions against the hero arouses pity despite the moral polarities” (Chapman 334).
This idea is emphasized as Beowulf discovers the severed head on the lakeshore and the contamination of the water supply, indicating both her inherent evil and her inability to change this aspect of her being. Despite her good fight, there is never any hope that Grendel’s mother will succeed in her efforts at revenge because she is breaking all the rules. Under the Old Code, a woman is never able to overcome a man’s power although she is forced to try. Under the Christian code, a woman is expected to forgive and be compassionate as well as be passive and submissive. Even though the Old Code might have given her some strength because she is behaving appropriately in seeking revenge against the man who murdered her son, the fact that the Old Code was being replaced by the Christian ideals necessitates her defeat.
The dragon is the foe that finally gives Beowulf his hero status. However, just as it is Jesus’ triumph over the devil that achieves his status, a connection is made through the use of monster symbols, symbols that people can associate with good and evil. Christians have almost always associated the idea of the dragon with the idea of everything evil and corrupt.
“Christians thought of dragons as a symbol of sin, and they are often represented as crushed under the feet of saints and martyrs, symbolizing the triumph of Christianity over paganism” (Feldman 1997). Understood from the perspective of the Old Code, dragons were dishonorable because they plundered others’ lands and hoarded their treasure in a miserly fashion.
When the dragon awakens and begins to terrorize the countryside after a goblet was taken from him, Beowulf understands this as a sign from God that he has strayed from his duty of becoming idle and proud. This again demonstrates the combination of Old Code and new Christianity. The Old Code is brought out as it becomes necessary for Beowulf, despite his age, to ride out and confront the beast because he has not accumulated favors among the younger generations, while the Christian code is reinforced in need for the lord to bring down the devil.
While there remain numerous questions regarding just how much of the Beowulf story is a reflection of the original culture, there are a number of connections drawn between the old ways and the new that had to have had some validity to the culture at the time the surviving manuscript was copied. The significance of the story is in understanding how the myths of the past were able to reflect, either sincerely or artificially, Christian connections for the future. Under either code, Hrothgar and Beowulf illustrate the importance of generosity, loyalty, bravery, honor, and morality. Under either code, Grendel, his mother, and the dragon represent forces of evil and destruction. Whether originally intended or not, the poem preserves the idea of an epic battle of good against evil that paves the way for the new ideas of the Christian codes.
Alexander, M. (Trans.). Beowulf. London: Penguin Books, 1973.
Bolton, W.F. The New History of Literature: The Middle Ages. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1986.
Chapman, Robert L. “Alas, Poor Grendel.” College English. Vol. 17, N. 6, (March 1956): 334-337.
Chickering, Harold D. Jr. Beowulf: A Dual Language Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1977, 267-277.
Feldman, Gina and James Sigona. “Beowulf: The Final Moments.” Research Web Page for Interdisciplinary Course: INT296. New York: Pace University, 1997.
Ogilvy, J.D.A. & Baker, Donald C. Reading Beowulf: An Introduction to the Poem, Its Background and Its Style. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983.
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The Student Bible. New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.
Tierney-Hynes, Rebecca A. “The Heroic Ethos: Reality and Representation.” (2000). Web.