The following pages will contrast two distinct critical lines regarding Beowulf, each well-defended and seemingly mutually excluding each otherAuth3 . The first treats the poem insistently as a Christian epic proclaiming the new faith over a barbaric society in Auth4 which the old ways are fading putting a new and revolutionary Christian context into a heroic form of a cultural hero who possesses traits from the barbaric past overcome by the civilizing advent of a culture that has no need of a mead-hall which is in the end Auth5 turned to ashes as Beowulf himselfAuth6 . As we shall see, some go very far in this direction alluding to sophisticated Christian philosophical and theological texts of the Roman Empire making Auth7 the mead-hall rather like Augustine’s City Auth8 of God and the poem in Old English a form of hagiography celebrating the life and martyrdom of a Christian saint.
Another line of criticism tends to admit the Christian elements, but returned to earth and to the primitive tribe in political and social transition away from the system of sharing and collectivity represented by the mead-hall. In this approach Auth9 the Christian nature of Beowulf is found to be true,Auth10 but irrelevant. There is instead a good deal of male-bonding of tribal societies with its recitation, bragging, sharing and the complete absence of universality characteristic of Christianity. This is a time of looting and destruction depicted where other people are threatened and in turn threaten and eventually destroy Beowulf’s own people, the Geats, when the hero is no longer present to protect them. Both views will be studied with an eye to resolving the two lines, Christian vs. political/ social in the belief that it is the first stirring of the Christian view had challenged and eventually brought about the destruction of the society centered on the mead-hall. Beowulf records that moment of transition, as this essay seeks to demonstrate.
The essay will turn first to the argument that Beowulf is in its essence a dogmatically Christian poem replete with symbolism of the universal church in a previously tribal society. A highly critical stance is taken toward such assertions that the poem in its material and tribal component stands symbolically for the teachings of the Church and the Holy Bible. At the same time, those who study Beowulf in its political/ sociological, that is materialist references to a particular place and time, need to take into account numerous Christian references , for instance identifying Grendel with the outcast tribe of Cain. That is why an attempt at the synthesis of the two lines will be made at the conclusion of this essay centered on the mead hall Auth11 as a controlling and continuing theme.Auth12
Heorot, an enormous, gold-laden mead-hall where Hrothgar rules was built on war and conquest, when its glittering hoard was attacked by the monster Grendel, a descent of the race of Cain, Beowulf of the Geats travels to Heorot and kills both the monster and the monster’s mother seeking vengeanceAuth13 . Beowulf pursues her to her underworld, slays her to return home, King of the Geats. Some fifty years later, Beowulf’s Geats are attacked by a dragon. Beowulf fights and loses to the dragon in combat, just as his tribe, left without its hero, loses its mead hall Auth14 to the ravaging Swedes. (Alexander, 1973)
Told in this way, we have a fairly typical heroic tale from Homer’s heroes to “Casey Jones”. Yet, when studied symbolically, a Christian theme emerges including “imagery of the primordial Creation, surrounded by water, the sun and the moon as lights for land dwellers, the branches and leaves ornamenting the ,Auth15 regions of the earth, and all living creatures.” There is in this an effort to situate a mead-hall in the context of cosmic religious forces, like Auth16 Christianity with universal implications, indeed
a ritual repetition by man of the work of heaven….a hierophantic act, a manifestation of the sacred in the world of men, metaphorically identifiable with the Creation of the world itself. The hall, the throne, and the good king can all be seen as images of the divine power that gives protection and significance to human life. (LeeAuth17
Edward Irving Jr.(1997) in “Christian and Pagan Elements in Beowulf” calls attention to the fact that Beowulf is overwhelmingly studied as a poem in which Christianity triumphs to the extent that it is an entirely Christian poem of saintliness in which the destruction of the mead-hall, defeat in battle and death from an evil dragon constitutes “a Christian composing for a Christian audience” (177). It is an inspirational poem condemning, for instance, the Danes for their worship of the old gods which are, it is underlined, entirely absent from the post-heathen, mead-hall brotherhood of Beowulf. His achievement is credited as a victory of good over evil in a God against Satan transcendental, not historical, event allowing in a Christian context a defeat of the hero-as-martyr, with the end of the mead-hall society to be depicted as a victory, even martyrdom of a saint in the Christian genre. “Hagiography is not history”, the essay concludes (7).
Alvin A Lee (1972) in “Heorot and the Guest-Hall of Eden: symbolic metaphor and the design of Beowulf” reads the mead hall itself as a holy enclosure walled off against the evil that comes out of the ground in the form of unnatural monsters identified with the offspring of Cain and source of evil on earth excluded from the mead-hall and what are at least metaphorically the heavenly treasures, however much they may appear as earthly wealth. This is reinforced by identifying even the most primitive of symbols with the purity and transcendence of the new Christian belief which fills the old symbolic forms with material referenced in the Bible and very sophisticated Christian scholarship.
One might think of a mead-hall as a place of drunkenness, bragging and very male exchanges more to be found in Homer than the Bible, but Lee argues otherwise for to him “Heorot is a sacred enclosure, thought of as towering upward, to ensure communication with the heavenly gift-throne and the Prince of life.” It is heaven on earth, “the celestial dryht that endures in oternum eternally” (Lee, 1972). This is hard to associate with the Christian doctrine and the contempt for earthly things characteristic of Christian teaching, especially in light of the kind of burial upon which anthropologists today reconstruct pre-Christian societies, almost always assuming that the “hoard” on which prestige depended reflects what the dead take with them to the other world in virtually every society which had, or even continues to have, as a burial practice. It is very hard to read the following burial as even remotely Christian when
the hero’s ashes are sealed in a great barrow; the rings, necklaces, and armor of the ancient treasure are returned to the earth, hidden again and useless to men. Twelve riders circle the mound, ritually containing the grief of the Geats: they eulogize the greatness and glory of their dead king, and they mourn his passing. (Lee ,1972)Auth18
Norma Kroll (1986) in “The Hero as a Keeper in Human Polity” places the events forcefully in its own time its tribal values, faith and political practices. In a sense, Kroll argues, the poem is a struggle between culture heroes of societies in which the hero has almost divine powers representing, protecting and promoting a hall which is literally the center of the world on the assumption, characteristic of such societies, that the Geats are the “true people” and all others are monsters of evil to be fought, destroyed and robbed to collect that hoard that lines the mead-hall with gold, as earthly not heavenly treasure, a belonging to that tribal , material collectivity that the hero defends. In that sense, the monsters like Grendel are heroes of their own societies standing for a social ideal of a different tribe equally dependent for its identification on cultural warriors for whom pitiless war and expressions of pride are accepted, even expect
Joseph E. Marshal (2010) in “Goldgyfan or Goldwlance: A Christian Apology for Beowulf and Treasure” reviews a principal challenge to a Christian mead-hall representing the City of God, a heaven on earth in which the consistent gold imagery is seen as a glimmering transcendental metaphor for the heavenly city which the Bible names the “New Jerusalem” shining with precious stones. A series of scholarly commentators cite the gift exchange that is an essential component of the mead hall along with its glittering treasures, as coming in the last analysis from plunder, whether that stolen by or from the dragon. It is, after all, the dragon’s stash as “hoard” that brings the culture hero out of retirement to risk his life for what in the end gets buried with him, surely suggesting that in that society, you really can take it with you. As Marshal sums up “Kemp Malone, E. G. Stanley, Margaret Goldsmith, Eugene J. Crook, and Alan Bliss”: “While commentators have recognized the important presence of gift-exchange in Beowulf, they invariably disagree about what treasure represents and how it functions within the poem, especially in the final one third of the poem (lines 2200 to 3182) where Beowulf eagerly exchanges his life for the dragon’s buried treasure.” (1)
John Halverson (1969) in “The World of Beowulf” gives a wonderful description of what went on at the mead-hall with warriors bragging, reciting heroic verses, drinking and carousing and above all distributing the kind of treasure which in the end gets buried with the culture-hero who fails in the end. Similarly, Dwight Conquergood (1981) in “Boasting in Anglo?Saxon England: Performance and the heroic ethos” returns us to a very male world of heroic bonding characterized by recitation of heroic, bloody deeds of plunder in the style of the traditional verse/recitation form of scop which expressed masculine male virtues of honor in battle and man-to-man relationship which characteristically excludes women far more than patriarchal Christianity.
We come then to the promised synthesis of seemingly mutually excluding Christian and pagan values in Beowulf. It will be remembered that the written text of the poem must have been recorded by monks who themselves may have been devoted to an earlier version of the text playing much the same role as Homer had played in his own time and in the later development of a sophisticated society in which what was heroic, even primitive, is raised to a higher symbolic and educational levels. It may be that the monks who brought into Christianity so much of the pagan world transformed from the Temple of Jupiter to the Vatican, for instance. It may be that there were in the monasteries where copies of Beowulf were painfully inscribed, those Anglo-Saxons who retained a fondness for the cultural epic that their ancestors may have recited for centuries. To the oral text recited generation after generation in the mead-hall were added the destruction of the mead-hall and the most basic Christian references to make it acceptable to a world in which the mead-hall and its heroes were no longer sharing earthly loot taken in bloody war. That, at least, is the synthesis this essay proposes.
Alexander, Michael transl. Beowulf . Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1973. Print.
Conquergood, Dwight. “Boasting in Anglo?Saxon England: Performance and the heroic ethos.”
Text and Performance Quarterly 1.2 (1981): 24-35. Print.
Halverson, John. “The World of Beowulf.” ELH 36.4 (1969): 593-608. Print.
Irving Jr., Edward B. “Christian and Pagan Elements.” A Beowulf Handbook. Ed. Robert E.
Bjork and John D. Niles. Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1997. 175–92. Print
Kroll, Norma. “Beowulf: The Hero as Keeper of Human Polity.” Modern Philology 84.2 (1986):
117 – 129. Print.
Lee, Alvin A. “Heorot and the Guest-Hall of Eden: symbolic metaphor and the design of
Beowulf.” The Guest-Hall of Eden: Four essays on the design of Old English
poetry (1972): 171-223. Rpt. in Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism
. Ed. Dennis Poupard and Jelena O. Krstovic. Vol. 1 Detroit: Gale Research, 1988.
Literature Resource Center. Web
Marshall, Joseph E. “Goldgyfan or Goldwlance: A Christian Apology for Beowulf and
Treasure.” Studies in Philology 107.1 (2010): 1-24. Web.
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