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; herefore, 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 blow that bit deep into her neck-bone and severed it entirely. (67. 1557-1575) It is important to note that the narrator is careful to place the resourcefulness indirectly in the hands of God.
Prior in the passage, when Beowulf’s chainmail saves him from being crushed, the narrator adds “holy God decided the victory” (67. 1553-1554) making whatever happens next strictly Gods will and not attributable to Beowulf. However, Beowulf is able to take credit for another trait central to Christianity, Forgiveness. In fact, the scene in which Beowulf exemplifies this is almost a text book of “turn the other cheek”. Upon Beowulf’s arrival to Heorot, Unferth is quick to criticize Beowulf, who is reputed to be the strongest and best warrior in the world.
Unferth brings up a time in which Beowulf lost a swimming race. He reminds Unferth that he had to fight off a whole litany of sea monsters and still finished, to which Unferth replies that if he really were the strongest, he still would have won. Unferth extends an olive branch before Beowulf leaves to fight Grendels mother. Unferth gives him a sword, Hrunting, which “… had never failed the hand of anyone who hefted it in battle…” (65. 1460-1461). As we know the sword it totally ineffective but because of God’s will Beowulf survives.
When he surfaces and returns to Heorot, he recants the events that unfolded, but instead of throwing the sword at Unferth and telling him it was garbage he states simply “Although Hrunting is hard-edged,/ I could never bring it to bear in battle” (69. 1659-1660). Despite earlier suffering what would have been considered a great insult by Unferth, Beowulf takes the proverbial high road and turns the other cheek by essentially overlooking the fact that the sword is the only thing that failed him in his battle with Grendels mother. Another Christian trait that we see in Beowulf is that of Generosity.
He first exhibits this trait within the first passage of the story. Upon his departure for Denmark: He announced his plan to sail the swan’s road and seek out that king, the famous prince who needed defenders. nobody tried to keep him from going, no elder denied him, dear as he was to them. (38. 199-203) Her we see Beowulf embarking on a journey in which he easily could not have survived the trip simply because Hrothgar needed help. This show how selfless Beowulf is and the fact that this is included within the first passage is very deliberate as it serves to set the tone for the rest of the story.
Essentially this is the first impression that the reader gets of Beowulf so naturally the author sought to make it a good one. Also the author includes a bit of foreshadowing within this quote. By including the line “no elder denied him, dear as he was to them. ” This shows his importance to the Geats even before he has become king. This seems to indicate that he had some predisposed inclination for greatness. Essentially the author is telling us that Beowulf will be more important to the Geats in the future than he already is. Beowulf’s life ends on a very similar note.
When he slays the dragon at the end of the story he is also mortally wounded. Upon Wiglaf bringing him the treasure that the dragon had so fiercely guarded Beowulf says: To the everlasting Lord of all, to the King of Glory, I give thanks that I behold this treasure here in front of me, that I have been allowed to leave me people so well-endowed on the day that I die (92 2794- 2798) Again reinforcing the notion of his generosity, as Beowulf lays on his deathbed, the first thing he does is give thanks to God that he is able to help his people so greatly even on the day of his death.
This is also included to bolster the notion of Beowulf’s unparalleled greatness, that even though he has been killed in battle he was an old man and still was able to benefit his people, basically that even in death he is still helping the Geats. The last trait that we can see in Beowulf is something that cannot be directly attributed to either of the warring ideologies within this text. In fact it is something much more modern than that. Often times when we are discussing leadership, primarily in an athletic setting, the term “it” comes up, Beowulf has “it”. It” is something that by its very nature defies description. Many call it swagger, which may be the most appropriate description of it within this context. Upon Beowulf’s arrival in Denmark, the sentry stops the crew of Geats as they unload the boat full of armor and weapons. Beowulf explains their business, to which the sentry replies: Anyone with gumption and a sharp mid will take the measure of two things: what’s said and what’s done. I believe what you have told me, that you are a troop loyal to our king. So come ahead with your arms and your gear, and I will guide you.
What’s more, I’ll order my own comrades on their word of honor to watch your boat down there on the strand. (40. 286-295) Instead of performing his proper duty as a sentry, the man simply lets them through at their word. He recognizes the greatness of Beowulf as if it were emblazoned across his forehead. This is typical of epics written at the time. The hero would simply exude his heroics and wear it like a cologne so that no matter where he went it would be instantly apparent who he was and what he stood for. Beowulf is a great example of how external forces can shape the literature within a set time.
The conflict within society at the time this was written was between the old pagan religion and the upcoming Christianity. As the author struggled with this personally it is reflected within the epic. However, instead of one side losing out the author takes the best of both worlds and has them represented within this character who through his own admission was the greatest man in the world. By doing this the author allows proponents of either side to point to Beowulf and say see how great someone can be if they follow our religion.
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