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Christianity in Beowulf ; Is Beowulf is a Christian poem or not?

jeffspears 2 / -  
Sep 11, 2006   #1
As a math major, I'm not called on to write many essays. As such, my writing ability has gotten a bit rusty.

I have to write an essay on whether Beowulf is a Christian poem or not. Below is the rough draft. Any advice would be quite welcome. Please feel free to be as brutal as you wish, provided that it is backed with something constructive.


Christianity in Beowulf Essay

Beowulf is an epic poem that tells the story of Beowulf and his struggles to overcome three monstrous antagonists. Its origins lie in pagan Denmark. Brought to England by the Anglo-Saxons, it was later composed in a Christianized England. This would lead to many changes in the once purely pagan poem. While Beowulf may contain allusions to Christianity, it is at heart a work of pagan poetry.

The retributive society of Beowulf's setting is quite contrary to the message of the New Testament. Theirs is a society that values might and violence over what are considered Christian values. This is apparent from the very beginning of the poem: "There was Shield Sheafson, scourge of many tribes, a wrecker of mead-benches, rampaging among foes... That was one good king (32)." Obviously, this is not a society that values traits like mercy and pacifism. Churches, the center of Christian life, are conspicuously absent, as are priests. The center of their culture is not the church, but rather the mead-hall.

Many would point to the references to God within the text as proof of the "Christianity" of the poem. Yet nothing in these references explicitly describes a Christian god. They could have easily been references to a pagan deity and simply been changed to the Christian god upon being recorded. In fact, there is no mention of anything from the New Testament throughout the entire poem. Jesus' name does not appear and there is no mention of the Gospels. The only biblical reference found in Beowulf is in regards to Grendel's ancestry: "...Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts (35)." This makes the references to Christianity vague at best. Beowulf's own Christian beliefs could also be described as quite vague.

Beowulf has many traits that are considerably Christian. He is honorable, generous and fair. "Thus Beowulf bore himself with valor; he was formidable in battle yet behaved with honour and took no advantage; never cut down a comrade who was drunk, kept his temper and, warrior that he was, watched and controlled his God-sent strength and his outstanding natural powers (79)." However, he is also very proud. Throughout the poem, he boasts of his own prowess and successes. Even when facing the dragon, his pride gets the best of him: "Yet the prince of the rings was too proud to line up with a large army against the sky-plague. He had scant regard for the dragon as a threat, no dread at all of its courage or strength (82)." Aside from prayers to a higher power, Beowulf has no demonstrably Christian beliefs.

Clearly, the poem is not a Christian poem. It appears that many of what would be considered the Christian elements of the poem were not organic but changed upon its composition. Whether these elements were once pagan elements subverted by the Christian author or just added as an afterthought is unknown. Perhaps the author simply had too much love for the story he had grown up with to alter its message in any considerable way.

EF_Team2 1 / 1,709  
Sep 11, 2006   #2

You have written an excellent essay! While it is impressive and very nearly perfect, I have just a couple of small suggestions.

1) In the third paragraph, you have a sentence with slightly awkward wording. Consider changing "They could have easily been references to a pagan deity and simply been changed to the Christian god upon being recorded" to something like, "They could easily have been references to a pagan deity which were simply changed to reflect a Christian god upon being recorded."

2) Your last sentence, a speculation about the author's motives, seems to hang there on its own. You might want to beef up the ending a little by proposing another theory as well, or remove that sentence and wrap up with the sentence that comes just before it, perhaps adding some finality by using words such as "remains unknown" instead of "is unknown."

Please let me know if I can be of further help!

Sarah, EssayForum.com

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