GoodVersus Evil in Beowulf
In the epic heroic poem Beowulf, the interplay between Scandinavianculture and Christianity is widely highlighted. These two sets ofbeliefs demand different sets of values and world views as revealedby the poem. This different is evident in the description ofBeowulf’s plan to rid Heorot of Grendel where he says
“hand-to-hand/is how it shall be, a life-and-death/ fight with the fiend.Whichever one death fells/ must deem it a just judgment byGod. (lines 438-441).
Based on this quote,it is evident that Scandinavian culture and Christianity as twocompeting world views that also highlight the concept of good versusevil as discussed below.
The Beowulf narrative clearly comes from a background of Christianand pagan society. On one hand, there are strong Christian beliefshighlighted throughout the text. For instance, in the excerptconsidered in this case, Beowulf acknowledges the will of God or asupreme being in control of all life and happening on earth byserving the ultimate judgment. Beowulf says, “Whichever one deathfells/ must deem it a just judgment by God” (lines 440-441). Again,Grendel is described as a demon that descended from the cursed Cain’sbloodline. Cain was cursed by God after murdering his brother Abel, astory that corroborates with Christian beliefs as told in the Bible(Benson 1967). This would this mean that the author acknowledgesChristian beliefs.
On the other hand, there are strong indications of pagan beliefswhere vengeance is deemed as the greatest accomplishment and a meansof providing justice for those who feel wronged. In this case,Beowulf felt the need to fight Grendel and deliver his city asopposed to praying for God’s intervention. Again, the presence ofdragons in the narration relates with Scandinavian mythology that didnot acknowledge God but instead worshipped many gods. As such, thegood versus evil issue as captured by the poem tells of new religiousconvictions, Christianity, winning over old pagan beliefs. Based onthis, Benson (1967 p. 195) labels Beowulf as a poem told by aChristian poet from a “historical perspective”. Thus, the authoracknowledges that there were two systems of beliefs at the time withthe author depicting the pagan beliefs losing to Christianitygradually.
Accordingly, Christianity and believers including Beowulf arepresented as the embodiment of good and there are several villainswho embody the evil. The conflict between good and evil is alsoexplored from religious perspectives. In the case of Beowulf, heascribes to the Pagan Scandinavian beliefs that placed emphasis onstrength, courage, and loyalty in warriors. Throughout the poem,there are numerous cases of warriors’ boastings which were alsoperpetuated by tales praising their heroics. However, Beowulf doesnot count solely on his strengths or bravery in confronting Grendelbut rather attributes the outcome to the will of God. Thus, bothPaganism and Christianity are applied simultaneously in certainincidences to draw comparisons. In the case of confronting Grendel,it is clear that Christianity is depicted as the stronger religionand the good one. Again, the inclusion of the story of Cain and Abelreinforces the central conflict of good versus evil in the poem. Inthe Christian story, Cain killed his brother Abel because of jealousyand God avenged the death of Abel by cursing Cain and hisdescendants. This would suggest that God is good and protects thegood people from evil. As such, the Pagan heroic view would count onBeowulf’s strengths while the Christian view would count on God.Thus, the incidence captures conflicting religious views as to whatwas the determinant of the outcome of the fight.
God is depicted as a merciful and loving god in the poem. Through hismercy and love, He granted life to all living things and has dominionover the earth and the heavens. There are numerous references to hismercies and attributes such as the “Lord of Life" (16),"Almighty God" (701), "the Ruler of Heaven"(1555). On the contrary, the dragon, serpentine creatures, andGrendel and her mother are representative of evil. All thesecreatures seek death and destruction on human beings. The Mead hallsare also representative of life and warmth. They not only provideresting places for warriors returning from war but they also act assafe havens and icons of the people’s unity. The dark and seas andunderwater dragon’s den represents evil and death.
The poem heavily insinuates about the imposition of Christianity onScandinavian and Germanic folklore as the concepts of Christianityand folklore are intertwined. From the poem, phrase above, it isclear that despite Beowulf’s bravery and courage as required of himby the Scandinavian culture was inferior to the will of God.According to Harris (2000), this incidence alone marks the death ofthe heroic culture or the pagan beliefs that are considered evil inthe face of Christianity. The author was thus in support ofChristianity.
The human race presented in the poem represents the good on earth.The people are depicted as peace-loving and people who celebratetheir culture, king and warriors in different ways. Some tales andsongs were composed in praise of some brave warriors as required ofDanish culture. On the contrary, various monsters in the poem arerepresentative of evil and always seek destruction and harm to thepeople. These monsters including Grendel and his mother, the dragon,the serpent-like creatures in the lake, and other sea monsters allrepresent what is evil and a threat to the good. In order to preservethe good, the evil must be fought by all means. Grendel causesdestruction of society and even destroys the mead hall at Hrothgar.The mead hall is an icon of the people’s unity and culture. Beowulfis also an allegory for Jesus Christ. He sacrifices his ambitions andyouth to deliver his people from Grendel. He even descends to theMarsh to the dragon Den in the same way Jesus descended to theunknown for three days in the tomb after his crucifixion (Greenblatt,et. al., 2012). The allegories clearly tell the Christian storywithin the Germanic mythology.
From the discussionabove, it is clear that the Beowulf has major religious and culturalintonations. It tells the interactions of Christianity with theScandinavian and Germanic culture. In different ways, Christianity isrevealed as the better and winning option while the Scandinavian andGermanic cultures are depicted as losing. As such, it can be arguedthat Beowulf was written as Christian poem dressed in Scandinavianmythology to suit the Middle Ages audience where Christianity isdepicted as the good winning over the evil pagan beliefs.
Benson, Larry(1967). "The Pagan Coloring of Beowulf," In Creed, R.(ed.). Old English Poetry:
Fifteen Essays.Providence, RI: Brown University Press,193-213.
Greenblatt, S., etal. (Eds.) (2012). The Norton anthology of English literature,9th ed., Vol.1.
New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. Harris, J.(2000). Beowulf as Epic. Oral Tradition, 15(1) 159-169.