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Garrett muses on the Christian elements of ‘Beowulf’ a poem both striking and simple.
“Alone in the history of the “epic,” Beowulf takes place in the “real,” tangible, recognizable world. Not in Heaven, Albion, or Middle Earth. That, in fact, is part of the point of Beowulf. Its author(s) want us to see its setting and characters and situations as real, as actually happening. And yet the magic is there – in Grendel, in Beowulf himself – in the capacity to find a redeeming reply to a superhuman evil, a transcendent answer to the void.” – Stephen R. Donaldsen, Epic Fantasy and the Modern World.
What does a 9th-century English poem have to tell us about the Faith?
A while back I wrote two articles musing on two terms used in fiction – ‘epic’ and ‘fantasy’, and how we may be able to use these concepts to understand and articulate our own spiritual journeys and struggles. In his essay quoted above, Donaldsen also outlines the history and development of the English epic. As all the examples he gives – the anonymously written Beowulf, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King and lastly, J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of The Rings – are born of the Western Christian tradition, I think it will be fruitful to go through these epics individually and see what lessons we can draw from them.
I do recommend reading my two earlier articles first, but if you’d prefer to go ahead and read this article first, here’s a summary of the two concepts I’m basing this article on: fantasy refers to a form of fiction where the characters inner struggles (anger, desire for power, etc.) are presented as externalised evils to be overcome (e.g. The Dark Lord, The Evil Organization, etc.). By overcoming (or failing to overcome) the external evil, the protagonist is truly attempting to overcome their own failings and weaknesses. Epic writing, on the other hand, is concerned with the big questions of life: What are we put on this world for? How should we live our lives? These two concepts do overlap somewhat and are often tackled together.
So armed with that bit of info, let’s take a look at the first of the epics – The Beowulf.
Strip the Beowulf poem of its references to other historical events and side details, and it is a refreshingly simple tale of good versus evil, with very clear-cut good guys and bad guys. The plot goes as follows:
A terrible creature named Grendel, a descendant of Cain (yes, that Cain) terrorizes the mead-hall of the King of Denmark. Hearing of this, the warrior Beowulf of Geatland (modern-day Sweden) sets off with his companions in order to save the Danes from this threat. On the night of his arrival, Beowulf boasts that he will not use weapons or armor in his battle with Grendel, trusting in both his strength and in God’s providence to carry him to victory.
That night, Beowulf lies in wait for Grendel when the beast enters the mead-hall. With his superior strength, he overpowers the monster and tears off its arm, leaving Grendel to run away and die. Though he is celebrated as a hero, that very night the mead-hall comes under attack again, and the Danes realize that they have drawn the wrath of a more terrible creature: Grendel’s Mother.
Beowulf again volunteers to slay the creature. This time he must enter the creature’s underwater lair in order to slay it, and when he engages Grendel’s Mother in combat, the magic sword that he brought with him, Hrunting, proves ineffective. When all seems lost, Beowulf spies another magic sword lying in the lair and uses it to slay Grendel’s Mother.
Having saved Denmark from these threats, Beowulf returns home to Geatland, and in time he becomes a great and mighty king in his own right. One day, a dragon awakens and terrorizes his people. Beowulf goes to face the dragon, but all his men save one are too scared to follow him. He slays the dragon, but dies in the process. The narrative thus ends with Beowulf’s funeral and a call for other heroes to rise up and take his place.
“Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
Nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
To hear the din of the loud banquet
Every day in the hall, the harp being struck
And the clear song of a skilled poet
Telling with mastery of man’s beginnings,
How the Almighty had made the earth”
– Beowulf, lines 86-92
While the Beowulf poem tells of wild and fantastical things such as monster-slaying, the story uses actual historical figures and settings as a backdrop for its events. This actually caused a lot of head-scratching among critics, who didn’t know what to make of this pseudo-historical element of the text. Critics would continue to be confused until an Oxford don, one Professor John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, provided a satisfying explanation:
“The monsters had been the foes of the gods, the captains of men, and within Time the monsters would win. […] Now the heroic figures, the men of old, [heroes under heaven], remained and still fought on until defeat. For the monsters do not depart, whether the gods go or come. A Christian was (and is) still like his forefathers a mortal hemmed in a hostile world.” – J.R.R. Tolkien, Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics
Tolkien argued that the inclusion of this fantastic tale in a historical setting made it very clear that there is a supernatural element to real life that is in many ways more important than dead historical kings. The poet who wrote Beowulf was trying to negotiate an understanding between the old pagan ways of thinking and the new Christian Faith they had received. In the old Nordic beliefs, the gods eventually would lose and be slain by their enemies, leading to the end of the world. The poet thus saw a connection between this and the ability of evil in the Christian worldview to triumph at least temporarily – perhaps he called to mind the suffering of Christ on the Cross. This can be seen in the poems description of some of the Danes who relapse into their old pagan practices:
“Oh, cursed is he
Who in time of trouble had to thrust his soul
In the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help;
He has nowhere to turn. But blessed is he
Who after death can approach the Lord
And find friendship in the Father’s embrace.”
We can see that the poet builds on the old belief of Ragnarok – though defeat might happen now, there is hope of a final victory. This would in turn inform Tolkien’s own rather grim yet hopeful worldview, but we’ll get to that when we cover The Lord of The Rings. Tolkien also noted that in the Beowulf poem, the word that we translate as ‘Lord’, as in referring to God, is more accurately rendered ‘Captain’ or ‘Chieftain’. The author of Beowulf thus paints a picture of spiritual warfare, where men and women must choose to side with their Captain in facing evil as represented by the monsters, whether that evil lurks out in the physical world or in the hearts of men.
Reliance on God’s Grace
“And the Geat placed complete trust
In his strength of limb and the Lord’s favor.
He began to remove his iron breast-mail,
took off the helmet and handed his attendant
The patterned sword, a smith’s masterpiece” – Beowulf
With an awareness of spiritual warfare must also come a trust in God’s grace. Beowulf’s decision to face Grendel bare-handed may come across to some like the boasting of an arrogant braggart, but it also shows his trust that God will help him overcome his trials, and that God’s help is better than any of the formidable weapons and armor he has brought with him. Rather than trust in these arms, Beowulf seems to be obeying the words of Saint Paul:
“That is why you must rely on God’s armour, or you will not be able to put up any resistance when the worst happens, or have enough resources to hold your ground.” – Ephesians 6:13
Beowulf shows that to fight and win in spiritual battles, one must rely on and cooperate with God. He moves with the Holy Spirit, which is, as we shall see when we look at Paradise Lost, an element sorely missing from Milton’s opus and which renders his human characters rather one-dimensional and lacking in agency.
When we move with God, we find ourselves more empowered to deal with life’s struggles. It is not through our own strengths or possessions that we overcome our inner demons, but only by God’s grace do we receive healing.
At the time of this writing, I find myself with a lot of things to ponder and contemplate about. Having made more friends from different walks of life, I find myself a little overwhelmed at just how much moral relativism has seeped into the life of the average person, and how I may be speaking a completely different moral language than another person. And just as Grendel was maddened by the sound of harps, my new friends sometimes shake their heads at my ‘quaint Catholic beliefs’ on matters like chastity and other moral issues.
That is why I feel that the Beowulf story speaks to me. The narrative trusts in God’s greater plan, and moves from that trust to make a call for a life of heroic virtue here on Earth, in order to build God’s kingdom where we are. Whenever I feel lost or confused, I like to think back to this poem, and it’s call for me to be, as Tolkien put it, also a ‘Hero under Heaven’.
Greg talks about the life of Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati and how living according to the Gospel need not always be as difficult as we think it is.
Honestly, it seems that a very popular question to ask amongst Catholics was: who’s your favorite saint? For me, I’m always stumped by this question. I don’t think I’ve ever had a FAVORITE saint. But I have had different saints whose lives and view on God have spoken to me throughout the different periods of my life. And to answer this question, I turn to someone whose life has been inspiring me greatly in this current period of my life: Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. (I know he’s not exactly a saint but he’s probably in Heaven and praying for us so it still counts ok!)
Blessed Pier was born in Turin into a wealthy family. Though an average student, Frassati was known among his peers for his devotion and piety. He developed a deep spiritual life which he never hesitated to share with his friends. The Holy Eucharist and the Blessed Virgin were the two poles of his world of prayer. Mountain climbing was one of his favorite sports. Outings in the mountains became opportunities for his apostolic work. He never lost the chance to lead his friends to Mass, to the reading of Scripture, and to praying the rosary.
He was also dedicated to works of social action, charity, prayer and community. He was involved with Catholic youth and student groups, the Apostleship of Prayer, Catholic Action, and was a third order Dominican. He would often say, “Charity is not enough; we need social reform.” He helped establish a newspaper entitled Momento, whose principles were based on Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical: Rerum Novarum (Of New Things). He was strongly anti-fascist and did little to hide his political views.
Frassati donated most or all of his money to people he saw as more “needy” than him, and as a result, he became accustomed to giving his train-fare to the poor and running back home or riding in third class.
Frassati died in 1925 of poliomyelitis. His family expected Turin’s elite and political figures and many of his friends to be at his funeral. They were surprised, however, to find the streets of the city were lined with a multitude of mourners who were unknown to his family — the poor and the needy whom he had served so unselfishly. 
What really gets me was that Blessed Pier life didn’t have extraordinary miracles like some saints. Neither was his life one of a great conversion to God (like St Paul or St Augustine) or even one of a life that was given to God through consecration as a religious. In fact, some might say that his life seems reminiscent of some of our own. Sure, his charity towards those in need and his great devotion to God were traits that (rightly so) inspires me as I read about him. However, what I really got from him was how it reminded me of John 17:14-18, more specifically verses 16 and 18:
They do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world. (John 17:16)
As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. (John 17:18)
What a paradox! It’s the common Christian adage of “in this world but not of the world”. How can we be sent to this world and be in it and yet, not be of the world? It’s a question of subtlety. See, for me right now, it’s a question of how can I continue to bring glory to God without denying my secular role? In short, how can I live my life in such a way that in all I do, I echo God even if I do not loudhailer His Name? For me, this question strikes a core in me because at times, it is so difficult to remember God in all that you do, let alone even echo Him. And yet, Blessed Pier was able to bring God, not just to his friends but also to the people he meets whom he may not know intimately. More importantly, he never stopped being part of the world. He never forgot that his first duty was as a student, studying something that wasn’t grand or world-changing but to be a mining engineer so that he could “serve Christ better among the miners”. I used to be quite skeptical about how I, as a scientist, could bring Christ to others. Easy enough for careers with social interactions at the forefront of their jobs. However, Blessed Pier showed me that at wherever I am, whatever I am meant to do, God is always there and there will always be opportunities to glorify God and to bring Christ to others.
“Do small things with great love”. A common quote of Mother Teresa’s which I think Blessed Pier Giorgio, though living before Mother Teresa, exemplified with his life. His life was a life of doing small things but always with Love Himself at the center of it all. I sometimes wonder if there are fruits of my time here on Earth. At times, God graces me to be able to witness the buds and at times, the fruits. Mostly, it can be hard to see. Likewise, it might have been hard for Blessed Pier to not be able to see the fruits that he has grown for God. And yet, he stuck to it till the end, even tending to the needy while already on his deathbed. The fruits were plenty indeed and the multitude of people that appeared for his funeral was a clear sign of all the people whose lives have been made better through the charity and love of Blessed Pier Giorgio. At the end of the day, the message that I’ve taken away from Pier Giorgio is that I don’t have to be called to be a religious or even an influential person to be able to bring Christ to others and to grow into the saint I was created to be. All I need is to be aware of the opportunities in my own journey where I can continue to radiate out God’s Love to others and to take that bold step to be Christ in my own way to the people around me.
 Retrieved and paraphrased from: https://frassatiusa.org/frassati-biography and http://www.catholic.org/saints/saint.php?saint_id=6994
I think every Christmas, apart from the Holy Family, another dominant figure plays an important role in the festivities, particularly that of popular culture: Santa Claus. Most of us already know that this popular red-faced and jolly character was inspired by the figure of St Nicholas, a bishop in the city of Myra. Aside from stories of his compassion and generosity (with said stories becoming the basis of the generous and compassionate nature of good old Santa Claus), many of us (me included) know little else of his life. As I read up more about the life of St Nicholas, he struck me as someone who was very different from the Santa Claus of popular culture. While many of his legends stemmed around his propensity to help those who needed help, his fierce devotion to God was what ran counter to the Santa Claus we all know. This was a man unafraid of his faith, a man who was willing to defend his faith and his brothers and sisters despite any circumstances.
Garrett writes a letter to Francis of Assisi, his patron saint.
Dear Francis of Assisi,
Greetings, my patron saint! I believe this letter is long overdue. We’ve already had a long and interesting correspondence across the span of 800 years (and my comparatively shorter 25 years). You’ve definitely had a very strong influence in shaping my faith when I was younger, and your example continues to inspire me in various ways.
I think my first encounter with you was as a teenager reading Carlo Carretto’s fantastic book I, Francis. In this book, Carretto addressed the reader with your voice, giving an introduction to your life and thought. What I really took away from reading that book was your joy and appreciation for God’s other creations. At the time, I was struggling a lot with the question of how to make people see the beauty of the faith when it seemed as if no one was interested or had other things preoccupying their time. Thus, when I read your story, and learned about how you were so willing to be a fool for Christ in order to get people to pay attention and hopefully open their eyes to consider higher things. So when it was time to pick a confirmation name, for me the obvious choice was, of course, Francis.