Beowulf, Arrogance, and Christianity.

According to M.H. Abrams, an epic poem “is a long verse narrative on a serious subject, told in a formal and elevated style, and centered on a heroic or quasi-divine figure on whose actions depends the fate of a tribe, a nation, or the human race” (107). Beowulf fits these criteria and can therefore be labeled an epic poem. It can be further classified as a “traditional epic” because it is a “written version of what had originally been [an] oral poem about a tribal or national hero during a warlike age” (107).  As both definitions relay, a single hero is fundamental to the formation of an epic, and a certain heroic code accompanies this hero. And while Beowulf is written within a pagan frameset, its hero still reflects traditional Christian values. An initial reading my lead the reader to suspect that Beowulf contradicts Christianity, but the poem alludes to God and wyrd and does not reference pagan deities (Greenblatt 37). Also, the many references to God hint to a monotheistic religion instead of a pagan pantheon. For example, before the first fight with Grendel, Beowulf asked, “may the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side he sees fit” (Greenblatt 55). This is only one of many times when allusions are made to God or Lord.  Additionally, there are many similarities between Beowulf and Christ. Beowulf’s speech before the fight, and especially the above line, is similar to Jesus praying in Gethsemane and asking for the Lord’s will to be done. While he often displays much hubris, ultimately his strength, cunning, and bravery, all elements of the heroic code, save Hrothgar’s kingdom. In other words, Beowulf is the only person capable of acting as a savior to these people.  Beowulf himself realizes this, saying “This fight is not yours,” again much like Christ realizing the role he had to play in redeeming humanity (95). And ultimately Beowulf sacrifices his life for his people’s safety, further support that Beowulf can be identified as a Christ-figure.
It seems, though, that the author creates many parallels between Christ and Beowulf, he or she also makes Beowulf’s humanity obvious, perhaps setting him up as an example of the dangers of arrogance.  Christ’s perfection is contrasted by Beowulf’s humanity, which leads him to make several unwise decisions because he is overconfident in his strength. Wiglaf speaks to this when he says, “Often when one man follows his own will many are hurt. This happened to us. Nothing we advised could ever convince the prince we loved, our land’s guardian, not to vex the custodian of the gold” (106). Even if the dragon was defeated, Beowulf’s actions did not, at least in Wiglaf’s opinion, better the people because they lost their beloved leader.  While these characteristics of pride and a refusal to listen do not align with Christian values, the author is obviously denouncing them, not espousing them, so it seems that ultimately the author is communicating Christian values.
In conclusion, the elements that make Beowulf an epic poem might seem to contradict Christianity. The idea that a single hero can save people through violence and revenge initially seems contrary to Jesus’ ministry of peace and love. However, when one realizes the overarching story pattern, the similarities between the hero archetype and Jesus, and the ways in which the author highlights Beowulf’s mistakes, it becomes clear that there is not, in fact, tension between Christianity and the values championed in Beowulf.  


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