The epic Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf is one of the great classics of literature – and a ripping good story, with monsters, battles (including an underwater fight involving a magic sword), and a fantastic episode with a dragon that is ultimately re-imagined in JRR Tolkien’s wonderful novel The Hobbit.
Since Beowulf is one of the core texts in Great Works I, part of HBU’s undergraduate English survey, I thought it would be a good choice to explore here, as an example of a work well suited to literary apologetics. Beowulf is a work of great literature that is sufficiently distant from us in time and culture to shake us up and give us a new perspective on what it means to preach the Gospel in literature.
Beowulf dates to around the 8th century AD. We don’t know the name of the poet; indeed we don’t even know for sure if the poet composed the entire poem himself, or adapted and Christianized an existing, pagan oral poem. (For the record, I hold with the first theory, of original composition by a thoroughly Christian poet.) Loosely, the poem recounts the adventures of Beowulf, a young hero who comes to the rescue of the Danish king Hrothgar, whose people are being terrorized by the murderous attacks of the monstrous Grendel. Subsequently, Beowulf deals with Grendel’s mother and then, after the passage of much time, with a dragon.
There’s so much rich material in Beowulf that I hardly know where to begin, so I’ll just say this: the poem provides rich material for reflection on sin and virtue, with Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon serving as powerful images of envy, anger, and greed.
When I read Beowulf, I am reminded that within my heart lives a little Grendel; when I feel lonely, how easily that turns to envy. And Grendel shows that envy turns to violence, whether the violence is outward as in the poem, or inward in the form of vicious thoughts or self-loathing. And I recognize the wisdom of the Desert Fathers, who knew that the deadly thoughts, or what we call deadly sins, can only be successfully fought by the cultivation of the corresponding virtue, with God’s help. Just as Unferth in the poem redeems himself from his envy of Beowulf’s achievements by the generous act of giving Beowulf a sword to use in the fight with Grendel’s mother, so too I can turn away from envy by the acting out the virtue of kindness – having gentleness toward myself, acknowledging my own weakness, and toward those whom I love.
I’m also reminded of the danger of pride and the need for humility – a constant theme throughout the poem. Beowulf is not falsely humble: he recognizes and acknowledges that he has great gifts, and he uses them to do good work. I, too, can acknowledge that I have gifts, but like Beowulf I must always keep it very clearly in mind that these gifts come from God and are not my own. Beowulf keeps it real for me: he does pretty well with handling the temptation of pride, but he still slips up. He fails, and falls. And yet he’s still a hero.
For men, Beowulf has a particular value. The character of Beowulf is both virtuous and manly, which is a vision much needed today when our culture seems to send conflicting signals about manhood, including ambiguity about whether men are necessary at all, or about how men should behave toward women. Beowulf is confident, yet gracious; he is a man of action, and also one who freely shows his emotions.
In Beowulf, those attitudes of the heart that lead toward sin are shown for what they truly are: ugly, hateful, destructive things. And those attitudes of the heart that lead toward God are shown as attractive and desirable.
Beowulf shows that you can shout Christian truth loud and clear, even in a poem that never mentions the name of Christ, not even once. But even though the name of Christ doesn’t appear in the poem, I would say that the person of Christ certainly does: for Beowulf himself is a Christ-figure in many respects, for in the end we see that Beowulf lays down his life for his people.
A monster-fighting, sword-wielding Christ-figure? Now there’s an image of Christ that will resonate with different people, and on a totally different level, than “lowly Jesus, meek and mild” – and still be true to the Gospel. What a fruitful way to talk about virtue, and the imitation of Christ!
(Note: If you are inclined to read Beowulf, I heartily recommend the translation by Seamus Heaney. It’s the best one available by far – Heaney is a poet himself (of the highest caliber) and it shows; this is a vigorous, energetic, natural translation that avoids false archaisms yet retains the flavor of the original Old English. “Bilingual edition” just means that the original Old English appears on facing pages. The illustrated edition is a little more expensive but has amazing photographs that bring the Anglo-Saxon culture to life.)