Pagan/Christian Beliefs: How are the religious ideals of the Anglo-Saxons used in the epic? Where can readers see the blending of Pagan and Christian ideas? Which belief system is more dominant in the epic? The religious ideals of the Anglo-Saxons in the poem Beowulf are most clearly seen in the playing out of an epic struggle between the hero and the forces of evil…
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Near the beginning of the poem there is a vivid description of an epic poet at work, proclaiming great deeds to an assembled company in the feasting hall of a noble warrior. This context is very much the stuff of pagan society. Warriors are brave, handsome, and generous, while monsters lurk in dark caves and are ugly. The traditional pagan warrior values great treasures and wealth, and items like expensive drinking vessels or metal weapons are cited to underpin the nobility and worldly power of the main characters: “Swords have personalities, and names; servants of course have neither.” (Raffel, p. xi) Kings are expected to share their hard-won treasures with their people, and protect them from any harms. A hero lives on after death through the praise poems that are sung in feasting halls through generations. Pagan burial practices, which appear to linger in this Christian poem, are mentioned also: “They placed in the tomb both the torques and the jewels” (Alexander, line 3160). These aspects of the poem bring to life the traditional society of Anglo-Saxon England, still attached to the trappings of pagan wealth and status. There is some evidence also that the poet is turning also to a newer Christian message which moves beyond earthly things to a spiritual dimension. The story that the poet sings is not just a gory battle scene, but it has a decidedly Christian flavour “He told how, long ago, the Lord formed earth…” (Alexander, line 91). The narrative about the creation of the world with a description of the ocean, the moon and the sun, and “each kind of creature that creeps and moves” (Alexander, line 91) is clearly drawn from the first book of the Bible, both in the vocabulary used and the order of events described. This contrasts sharply with the Germanic creation, which started with giants being created out of vapour (Bloom, p. 82) and it shows that the audience is expected to be familiar with Christian as well as pagan religious beliefs. The figures of Grendel, and Grendel’s mother, bear many of the features of pagan mythical creatures such as superhuman size and strength. As the narrative progresses it becomes clear that Beowulf, the Christian hero, overcomes the pagan beasts. The epic struggle between Beowulf and Grendel mirrors both pagan dualism and the Christian doctrine of salvation through the Christ-like figure of Beowulf. At the end of the poem, Beowulf’s defeat at the hands of the dragon is not so much lamented as a tragedy, in the pagan way, but celebrated as a demonstration of Christ-like sacrifice, with a Christian resonance. He instructs his men to bury the treasure with him, which is a contrast to worldly traditions of passing wealth around to the kinsmen. Beowulf’s death teaches the survivors that spiritual treasures are worth more than gold, and that a ruler should be remembered for his kindness to his people, and not just for great deeds of valor and revenge. Perhaps the strongest indication of the Christian emphasis of the poem is the fact that the all-knowing and all-powerful Christian God is mentioned many times in the poem, often with heroic epithets such as or “Master of Heaven” (Alexander, line 931) “the Father…
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