Symbolism in Beowulf
Beowulf’s Christian Imagery Despite its age and seeming isolation, the Beowulf poet seems to have beenfamiliar with the Christian religion and its symbols. Although the epic poem is our oldest known English poem, with the first manuscript of the previously oral poem finally being written down in 1000 AD, its history pre-dates this period by an unknown number of years. Perhaps because it was written by scribes, who were most likely associated with the church, it gained its Christian concepts or perhaps these symbols from the Old Testament were present in the poem beforehand. In the epic poem, Beowulf and Grendel emerge as symbols of Jesus Christ and Satan respectively.
The concept of Beowulf standing in as a symbol of Jesus is perhaps most evident in his three battles against evil, which seem to parallel Jesus’ three battles against sin as a man, against evil as a priest and against the devil in hell. His first battle is against Grendel. Nearing death, Grendel realizes that he, “once the afflictor of men, tormentor of their days—[knew] what it meant to feud with the Almighty God” (Beowulf 490-492), identifying Beowulf as an early Jesus figure, God made flesh. Although Grendel’s mother seems to have the advantage in Beowulf’s next battle, the Beowulf poet again suggests divine origins, “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). When Beowulf wins the battle, he sees a divine light descending from the heavens. The poet describes the light “As though burning in that hall, and as bright as heavens own cradle, lit in the sky”(647-648). The Anglo-Saxons believed that “life was a struggle against insuperable odds and that a man’s wyrd or lot would be what it would be” (Chickering 269), which is often seen in the poem as recognition of God’s predetermination. Beowulf’s final battle is against the dragon. As Beowulf faces the dragon, which could also be perceived as the strength of God’s will to which Beowulf is finally forced to submit. “[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).
While the poet presents Beowulf as an example of goodness and light, Grendel is seen to represent evil and darkness thanks to the darkness of his birth and his relationship to Cain. “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 brought confusion and fear to the people of the village, causing them to stray from 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). Grendel’s cave matches the depictions of hell found in the Bible containing a “…lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death” (Revelation 20:14). This further associates him with the personality of the devil.
There are many other symbols in the story that seem to suggest the Christian tradition. Questions remain regarding whether these connotations were originally part of the story, suggesting a pre-Christian society with many of the same ideals and divine associations, or if these connections were made by the scribes who were writing the story down, seeing in it a correlation with their own mythology and making the necessary changes to make these connections more obvious. Whether originally Christian or not, the poem presents an epic battle of good against evil, with good winning out in the end.
Beowulf. Elements in Literature. Austin, TX: Holt, Rhinehart, and Winston, 1997.
Bolton, W.F. The New History of Literature: The Middle Ages. New York: Peter Bedrick Books, 1986.
Chickering, Harold D. Jr. Beowulf: A Dual Language Edition. New York: Doubleday, 1977, 267-277.
The Student Bible. New International Version. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1996.