Beowulf

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In the classic epic Beowulf we follow the great hero from his time as a young boy to his final moments as King of the Geats. During this many traits of various characters are revealed to us, none however as in depth as what is revealed about the titular figure of Beowulf. This is done through a jumble of Pagan and Christian values that are being bounced between throughout the text. Many of his ‘softer’ virtues such as forgiveness, generosity and commitment, seem to stem primarily from the Christian values whereas his ‘harsher’ virtues such as bravery, resourcefulness, and determination seem to stem more from the Pagan/ Germanic values. This conflict stems directly from the era in which this epic was written. During a time when Christianity was still growing, people new to it were torn between this newfangled ideology and the old customs, a struggle that is persistent throughout Beowulf.

Shortly after our hero arrives he is brought before Hrothgar to explain his intentions. It is here that that the struggle between the two ideologies is apparent. Initially we are shown the Pagan notion of bravery and bravado. Beowulf says: I have heard moreover that the monster scorns

in his reckless way to use weapons;
therefore, to heighten Hygelac’s
fame and gladden his heart, I hereby renounce
sword and shelter of the broad shield,
the heavy war board: hand to hand is how it will be, a life and death fight with the fiend. (43. 443-440)
Although Beowulf tries to explain away his challenge, saying that he is doing it for Hygelac, it is apparent that this is this Pagan gusto shining through. One can almost see him pacing the hall delivering a rousing battle cry, as that is the intention. He wants to impress the Danes to the point where they have no choice but to let him do as he pleases. He even goes so far as to suggest use of such petty thing would be cowardly in such a situation by saying “I renounce… shelter of the broad shield…” By referring to it as a item that provides shelter as opposed to defense he makes the implication that it would be something to hide behind, making him a coward. In modern society we would see such talk as arrogant and would call them a blow hard. This would be the Christian beliefs that succeeded these Pagan ones showing up in our current society. In this Pagan culture these thing would have been seen as very good things; symbols of strength and confidence. Within the same scene we are also shown the Christian side of the equation. Just few lines below his dramatic upping of the ante, we are shown what in Christianity would be considered one of the highest virtues, Faith. Says Beowulf; “Whichever one death fells/ must deem it a just judgment by God”. (43. 440-41) Beowulf then proceeds to further demonize Grendel by detailing all the gruesome things that Grendel would do should he win, never addressing what the aftermath would be like in the event of his victory, keeping him humble. By endearing himself to God, and recognizing that he is ultimately at His mercy he is able to walk the middle ground between the two conflicting ideologies, he is both strong and confident, but at the same time humble and aware of his place, thus allowing himself to avoid alienating either of his potential audiences. This cunning can be traced back to the Pagan values he displays. This resourcefulness in fact comes to light later in the story. When Grendel is slain and slinks back to his lair his mother naturally comes back for revenge. So, Beowulf is dispatched to the murky depths where she hides. After a struggle in which his surefire blade fails him, Beowulf: “… saw a blade that boded well,

a sword in her armory, an ancient heirloom
from the days of giants, an ideal weapon,
one that any warrior would envy,
but so huge and heavy of itself
only Beowulf could wield it in a battle.
So the Shieldings hero hard pressed and enraged,
took a firm hold of the hilt and swung
the blade in an arc, a resolute...
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