“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’.