When a person thinks of Old English, he or she likely cannot help but think of the most popular piece of literature of that language’s time, the legendary Beowulf. In fact, if that same person were to search for discussions on Old English, he or she would find many academic articles covering a variety of theories concerning Beowulf. One can agree that this poem is often under scrutiny; these discussions cover everything from the allegorical meaning of Beowulf to the monsters’ roles. A very popular discussion explores the purpose of using both Anglo-Saxon paganism and Christian themes in Beowulf since they are often contradicting in morals and nature. Some scholars dedicate their observations to the thought that Christianity is a fluid, cohesive part of the poem (Fisher 171-172), while others argue that Christianity is just an incoherent concept that was inserted into the poem to appease the beliefs of the poem’s scribes and that the story of Beowulf originated far before Christianity infiltrated the Anglo-Saxons (Moorman, “The Essential” 5). Even still, others argue that these two concepts coexist in a unified manner and that this unification is appropriate for the time, as scholars writing the poem were Christian and writing to a Christian audience, although the people still took pride in their Germanic, pagan history.
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Another relatively common argument concerning Beowulf is the question of whether it is an epic or a tragedy. Some argue that Beowulf is an epic poem because the main character, Beowulf, exemplifies the characteristics of an epic hero, and the ending is just a tragic component in a poem that reeks of epic quality. Greenfield, in his article “Beowulf and Epic Tragedy,” even goes on to make a distinction between what an epic tragedy is versus a dramatic tragedy (91-105). He differentiates these two concepts by focusing on how the hero falls, stating, “
I argue that these two very different discussions are interconnected. Beowulf uses both Christian and pagan elements to create a paradoxical paradigm in which the characters cannot successfully abide by these competing concepts. Therefore, regardless of whether they abide consistently by pagan expectations or Christian expectations that shape the story, or even if they try to abide by both simultaneously, they are hypocritical, which becomes their tragic flaw in a sense, and they are damned to destruction or tragic fate. In order to fully understand this concept, though, it is appropriate to revisit each theory individually beforehand.
The first concept is that Christianity is a cohesive element of Beowulf. Fisher argues in his article “The Trials of the Epic Hero in Beowulf ” that Beowulf’s trials are a test displaying the “basic struggle between the divine, the natural, and the demonic within the field of the hero’s experience.…
One has to ask, then, how characters in Beowulf can possibly be successful if they are asked to be proud, revengeful, and pay monetary amounts when they kill, while at the same time they are also supposed to be forgiving, humble, and ashamed of their killings.
Unfortunately, this scenario makes it rather difficult for all the characters found in Beowulf, including the title character. Paganism and Germanic tribal beliefs centered on the concept of comitatus and wergild which demanded that deaths of kin were avenged, or the perpetrator paid wergild as compensation for these deaths. Revenge and bribery are completely contradictory elements to Christianity, which centers on forgiveness and penitential atonement. Germanic tribes also sought to achieve lōf or fame; they were very prideful and often boasted of their accomplishments. Again, this concept is in complete opposition to Christianity. In Beowulf, “The relationship between heroes, monsters, and gods can be said to experience a sea change…if we realize that the important pagan virtue of pride has become the principle vice for Christianity” (Asma B14). In Christianity, pride is seen as one of the seven deadly sins; Christian followers should remain humble and not boastful, and in biblical stories, monsters are often seen as possessing hubris (B14). However, in Beowulf, killing monsters is Beowulf’s job, and he is celebrated for doing so. In the pagan realm, victory is celebrated in the current life; in Christianity, it is celebrated in the afterlife (B14). So how should Beowulf act when he slays Grendel?
One has to ask, then, how characters in Beowulf can possibly be successful if they are asked to be proud, revengeful, and pay monetary amounts when they kill, while at the same time they are also supposed to be forgiving, humble, and ashamed of their killings. They cannot act successfully within these contradicting demands, creating a paradoxical paradigm. To abide by one is to neglect the other, resulting in a damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t situation. The characters are bound to choose one over the other even though the plot holds them to both standards, consequently forcing them to be hypocritical.
According to the pagan expectations, Unferth has committed a crime against the comitatus, and according to the concept of comitatus, the Danes should avenge Unferth’s brothers’ deaths, or Unferth should pay wergild. But Unferth is a Dane, so if the Danes avenge his brothers’ deaths, they will also disobey the law of comitatus. The Danes, and Germanic tribes for that matter, have no answer for fratricide (Reinhard 371). The Danes do not reprimand Unferth, nor does Unferth pay wergild, but instead he “sits at the foot of the Danish throne” (371). This solution, or lack thereof, suggests that the Danes are not living by the expectations of pagan rule. One could argue that the Danes are acting more Christianly by forgiving Unferth for his mishaps. Unfortunately, the Danes are not abiding by the Christian rule either; Christians have an answer for fratricide. According to the story of Cain and Abel, Cain is banished by God after He finds out Cain killed his brother Abel. The Danes do not banish Unferth, though. Hence, they are acting hypocritically. They uphold these expectations when Grendel kills Danes, but Unferth is not punished.
The Danes choose the Christian-like route and forgive these killers, but they hold Grendel to the pagan expectations and do not forgive him. They are not consistent, thus they are hypocritical in their expectations.
Another example of fratricide is seen in the relationship between Hrothulf and Hrothgar’s sons. Wealhtheow is worried about Hrothulf, so she talks to Hrothgar about Beowulf and says, “They tell me that you are going to treat this heroic fighting-man as your son.…
Fratricide can be seen even before Hrothgar and his children. During one of the many digressions in the poem, we learn of a man named Heremod who ruled the Danes long before Hrothgar. He is described as one who “took no pleasure in the happiness, but in the death and destruction of the Danes.…
The Geats are no better. A reader sees the theme of fratricide extend to this tribe with the story of Haethcyn and Herebeald. Beowulf tells a story about these two, saying:
For Haethcyn struck down his friend and liege with an arrow from his bow. He missed his aim and shot his brother Herebeald. One brother killed the other with a bloodstained shaft! This was an inexpiable accident, and a heartrending crime; for whatever happened, Herebeald must die unavenged. (Beowulf 84)
Haethcyn, for whatever reason, kills his brother, and just like the Danes, the Geats handle the situation the same way. They do not avenge Herebeald, though later Beowulf avenges Heardred’s death (Beowulf 83). Therefore, the Geats, just like the Danes, are hypocritical. They do not hold their own accountable to the comitatus and act more Christianly towards them, but they understand when others outside their own tribe remain true to the comitatus.
The Danes and the Geats are not the only tribes that are forced to be hypocritical; Grendel is caught in the paradoxical paradigm as well. Grendel is said to have been a descendent of Cain, therefore, he is banished (Beowulf 29). Grendel, although originally not a committer of fratricide, is punished for his ancestor’s mistake. This anger and suffering boils into jealousy, and Grendel avenges himself by essentially destroying the people who continue to enforce this unfair retribution. Even though no one was killed in Grendel’s “tribe” originally, Grendel is forced to live a life of expulsion that he did not cause. This is the reason for his attack; he is following an inner sense of comitatus . Unfortunately, that is not how it is seen from the Danes’ point of view. When Grendel kills many of the Danes, he does not truly fulfill all the aspects of the pagan beliefs, as he does not pay wergild for those he kills. He also does not follow Christian beliefs because he does not feel remorse for his actions. As Reinhard puts it, “
The combination of the Christian and pagan expectations creating an environment the characters cannot live by also leads the characters to tragic fates.
What is even more interesting is that if we assume Grendel is a direct descendant of Cain, then Grendel is kin to the Anglo-Saxons, especially if they believe they are all God’s children. So should we not consider the killing of Grendel as a form of fratricide? As Phillips describes it, “
The pattern of inconsistencies continues. By killing Grendel, Beowulf commits a crime against the comitatus of the monster tribe. In the vicious cycle of comitatus, the monsters have every right to avenge Grendel’s death, or Beowulf should pay wergild. The incident with Grendel’s mother shows the true hypocrisy of Beowulf. Beowulf is somewhat forgiving of Unferth and his fratricide; he does not take action, but assumes God will handle this sin (Beowulf 40). However, when Grendel commits a similar sin, Beowulf seeks revenge. It is acceptable for him to do this, and the Danes accept this as a noble pursuit. When Grendel’s mother does the same thing and avenges Grendel’s death, the Danes are not so forgiving. They see her too as a monster, even though she is simply abiding by the same pagan beliefs by which they are abiding. Beowulf does not pay wergild to Grendel’s mother for her son’s death, and Grendel’s mother does not pay wergild for the life she took as compensation for her son’s death. Yet, even though Beowulf’s and Grendel’s mother’s actions are the same, Beowulf is seen as the hero and Grendel’s mother, the villain.
A similar situation develops between the dragon and Beowulf. Some scholars argue that the dragon is hoarding the treasure it guards, and that it represents greed (Kahrl 195). One of the Geats steals from its treasure, and so it wreaks havoc on the Geat tribe. The poet tries to justify the stolen cup by saying, “The man who so provoked the Worm did not violate its treasure willfully or on purpose, but through sheer necessity” (Beowulf 79). Even so, this act goes against Christian doctrine. Beowulf does not see this act as such, though, and does not commit to Christian expectations in this case, even though he earlier acts Christianly towards Unferth when Unferth insults him. But one could speculate that he has a political agenda in impressing Hrothgar, and killing Unferth would jeopardize that agenda, so one has to question what his intentions are in being forgiving to Unferth’s insults. Of course, the dragon has committed a crime against the Geat comitatus, and so Beowulf must avenge his tribe’s deaths. Beowulf chooses to follow the rules of the pagan doctrine and does not take into consideration the wrong that is done to the dragon beforehand; he only looks at the fact that the dragon burns down his property and kills his people. He has different expectations for Unferth than for the dragon and thus is a hypocrite because in one situation he acts like a Christian and in the other he acts like a pagan.
From the very start, the poet creates a situation in which the characters cannot survive. If they choose to live by one belief system, they are neglecting the other.
The corkscrew in all of these accounts is the last character who is trapped in this paradoxical paradigm, Grendel’s mother. All the other characters act based on selfish tendencies, choosing to abide by Christian expectations and pagan expectations separately when they are most convenient. Grendel’s mother is probably the only character who successfully tries to abide by both for selfless reasons. She is an ancestor of Cain as well, so she abides by the Christian expectations of fratricide; she willingly remains banished and keeps to herself. When her son dies, she avenges his death as the pagan laws prescribe, taking one life for the life of her son. After that, she goes back to her dwellings and wreaks no more havoc on the Dane tribe. Beowulf takes no time to go after Grendel’s mother, and whereas Beowulf is capable of killing Grendel with his bare hands, Grendel’s mother is harder to kill. Some have suggested this is the case because she is not monstrous; she is a tragic character caught in the middle of a feud she did not create nor of which she was a part. She cannot be killed with just bare hands because she is not as deserving of being killed. Basically, she did not kill just to kill (Moorman, “Beowulf” 67). Even still, she finds the same fate that the Danes, Geats, and Beowulf find: death.
The other discussion concerning Beowulf is the concept of whether this poem is an epic poem or a tragic poem. I argue that these two discussions: Christian and pagan expectations and the epic poem versus tragic poem question are interrelated. The combination of the Christian and pagan expectations creating an environment the characters cannot live by also leads the characters to tragic fates. After all, every character mentioned dies or is conquered. The poem suggests that the Geats and the Danes suffer tragic downfalls after the deaths of their kings, Beowulf is eventually conquered and killed by the dragon, and the monsters are killed by Beowulf. Greenfield argues that Beowulf is more an epic poem than a dramatic tragedy (91-105). His biggest support for this is that Beowulf is not an affirmation of defeat but is more aligned to the concept that there is no chance to achieve (101). This may be true, as all the characters are eventually defeated, and this concept is consistent with pagan perceptions that life does not get better and chaos reigns supreme.
However, Aristotle defines a tragedy as “an imitation not only of a complete action, but also of incidents arousing pity and fear” (57). He defines tragic heroes as needing to be consistent even if that means consistently inconsistent (59-60). Lastly, he also defines the tragic hero as one “whose misfortune, however, is brought upon him … by some error of judgement” (58). All of the characters mentioned—the Danes, the Geats, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and even Beowulf—can exemplify these definitions of tragedy. They all are pitied because the poet writes with contradicting themes that force them to live hypocritically and inconsistently. They cannot abide by both Christian and pagan doctrines; these implications suggest that Christianity and paganism cannot exist simultaneously. From the very start, the poet creates a situation in which the characters cannot survive. If they choose to live by one belief system, they are neglecting the other. Their flaws are inevitable because they are forced to choose. Their tragic flaws force them to become hypocritical, and eventually they all die as a result. Therefore, regardless of whether the poem was originally a pagan story or a Christian story, the poet writes a tragic story of right versus wrong, and the characters can do nothing but be both.
Aristotle. “Poetics.” Critical Theory Since Plato. 3rd ed. Eds. Hazard Adams and Leroy Searle. Boston, MA: Michael Rosenberg, 2005. 52-69. Print.
Asma, Stephen T. “Never Mind Grendel. Can Beowulf Conquer the 21st-Century Guilt Trip?.” Chronicles of Higher Education 54.15 (Dec. 2007): B14-B15. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.
Beowulf. Trans. David Wright. Bungay, England: Richard Clay & Company, Ltd., 1961. Print.
Fisher, Peter F. “The Trials of the Epic Hero in Beowulf.” PMLA 73.3 (Jun. 1958): 171-183. JSTOR. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Greenfield, Stanley B. “Beowulf and Epic Tragedy.” Comparative Literature 14.1 (1962): 91-105. JSTOR. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.
Hughes, Geoffrey. “Beowulf, Unferth and Hrunting: An Interpretation.” English Studies 58.5 (Oct. 1977): 385-395. Academic Search Complete. Web. 21 Nov. 2015.
Kahrl, Stanley J. “Feuds in Beowulf: A Tragic Necessity?.” Modern Philology 69.3 (Feb. 1972): 189-198. JSTOR. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
Moorman, Charles. “The Essential Paganism of Beowulf.” Modern Language Quarterly 28.1 (Mar. 1967): 3-18. Academic Search Complete. Web. 22 Nov. 2015.
—. “Beowulf.” Kings and Captains: Variations on a Heroic Theme. University Press of Kentucky, 1971. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2015.
Phillips, James. “In the Company of Predators: Beowulf and the Monstrous Descendants of Cain.” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 13.3 (Dec. 2008): 41-52. Academic Search Complete. Web. 25 Nov. 2015.
Reinhard, Ben. “Grendel and the Penitentials.” English Studies 94.4 (2013): 371-385. Academic Search Complete. Web. 20 Nov. 2015.
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Jaclyn E. Gingrich is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in English program. “Reading Beowulf: Paradoxical Paradigms” received the English Department’s Danny Ducker Graduate Merit Award in 2016.