Monday, October 20, 2014

"Beowulf": A Review

Listen. We have learned the song of the glory of the great kings of the Danes, how those princes did what was daring.

Never while in grade or high school would I have ever desired more assigned English classical reading. Certainly after having to read a number of Shakespearean greats along with other literary classics, the last thing I wanted to do in high school was read an ancient poem from the Middle Ages. However, when it comes to Beowulf, such adolescent conventional wisdom would have been wrong.

After watching a History Channel special on the story and a similar documentary on works that influenced J. R. R. Tolkien I became interested enough to go to my local library and read the epic poem for myself. I chose William Alfred's translation of the tale included in the book Medieval Epics which, in addition to Beowulf, includes three other ancient tales none of which I read or are familiar with.

The challenge in reviewing a classic like this centers around my status as an amateur fan of the poem. In other words, I always kept a copy of SparkNotes next to me for help. Needless to say, if you are looking for rare insight into a classic that scholars have poured over, debated, and dedicated entire thesis', disertations, and academic articles to, you've turned to the wrong place. However, as a pastor and theologian, a number of things stuck out to me worth sharing on this blog.

First, the story. The plot centers around three epic battles that Beowulf, a Geat, fights. He is an outsider who has heard that a demon is murdering innocent civilians of Hrothgar's kingdom. He comes as a hero[1] seeking glory for the avenging the Skyldings. The first villain is Grendel, a demon the anonymous author describes as a creature beyond salvation (14). No physical description of Grendel is ever given and the reader is left to their own imagination as to what he looks like.[2] Nonetheless, Grendel is a demonic being who merciless murders anyone and everyone (but the king) at the mead-hall where there is celebration. Singing and glad tidings seem to conjure up the vile beast, that devil to mankind (15).

Beowulf's first battle is with Grendel and he wins by severing the beasts arm. The victory over that hateful stalker (15) leads to more celebration until Grendel's mother, a descendent of Cain (she is not given a name), avenges her son's death. She too is vile, demonic, and merciless. Beowulf is absent during her rampage against the Skyldings, but seeks her out later for vengeance. The hero, as before, wins over the she-wolf (46).

The reader is left to assume that now that both mother and son are dead, the narrative is completed. Yet the story quickly skips fifty years and now Beowulf is king who is faced with one last challenge - a challenge that will lead to his death. This last battle is against a dragon who mortally wounds the hero before being killed himself.

The poem ends with the burial of the fallen king/hero. And that is the tale. But as a Christian, why it matters goes deeper than the mere plot.

The story is clearly written by a Christian - perhaps even a monk. There are countless allusions to  "God" and the "Lord God." Yet this is not a Christian tale. The story is actually pagan and the narrator at times makes that clear. Consider for example a few lines before the epic battle against Grendel:
From time to time at heathen sanctuaries, they came right out and promised blood-sacrifices, put into words the prayer that the Demon-Slayer should be of help to them int he face of this disaster striking at the whole people. Such was their religion, such was hope among the heathens. (15)
On the very next page, we are more clearly told that the Skyldings had no knowledge of the Lord God. (16) Many scholars, in my brief research, have highlighted this tension. As Britain was Christianized (if you will), many of the pagan stories of old were modified and it seems that the story of Beowulf went through the same revision.

So though it would be farce to suggest that Beowulf is Christian, there are certain themes in the story that medieval, and even modern, Christians can (and should) resonate with. Beowful, in essence, is portrayed not just as a hero who has won many battles, but as a slayer of demons and dragons. He is alien (Geatish) who comes to save a foreign people from the demons Grendel and his mother and eventually a hellish dragon. And he does so alone.

Near the end of the poem, the narrator tells us simply, yet profoundly from the Christian perspective, that after the death of the dragon that Now the serpent lies dead (74). That is the hope of the Christian story and the reference to Grendel's mother and Cain is by no means an accident. Beowulf is a fantasy that reflects the battle of the seeds narrative of Scripture from Genesis 3:15 to the end of Revelation. As a Christian pastor and theologian, this is why I love this tale so much. Though Beowulf is a flawed character who suffers death (an enemy he cannot defeat), his story is similar to that of Christ who comes as more than a hero, a Savior who conquers demons (see Mark 5:1-20) and the dragon - the serpent of old (Isaiah 27:1; Revelation 12:9; Revelation 20:2).

The poem, then, is not just great literature, it reminds us Christians why we live by hope. Our hope is not that a hero might come and protect us from one of many enemies, but that in the end, God Himself will conquer the enemies of death, depravity, and the dragon himself. That process began at the incarnation of Christ and will be finished at the parousia.

Come Lord Jesus quickly!

[1] In the movie, Hrothgar actually says that what they need is a hero.
[2] The connections between Beowulf and J.R.R. Tolkien's tales from Middle Earth are many. I will highlight only a few. First, Tolkien has written one of the most important scholarly articles on Beowulf called Beowful: The Monster & the Critics. Furthermore, the phrase "the lord of the rings" appears on page 65 of the book cited above. The Hobbit is a story about a dragon, just like Beowulf. Finally, some have suggested that Tolkien's schizophrenic character Gollum was inspired by Grendel. More could be added, but these stick out to me.
[2] We have clear evidence of this. In 797 AD, theologian Alcuin wrote a letter to Bishop Higbald of Lindisfarne questioning the interests among monks with pagan, heroic legends. He asked simply, What has Ingeld to do with Christ? Ingeld, interesting enough, is mentioned by name in Beowulf.

For more:
Clash of the Gods: Tolkien's Monsters Documentary
"The Fellowship of the Ring" by J. R. R. Tolkien: A Review 
"The Two Towers" by J.R.R. Tolkien: A Review
"The Return of the King" by J.R.R. Tolkien: A Review
An Encouraging Thought: Gandalf on Providence 
The Lord of the Rings Trilogy Dramatized Audio
"Beyond The Movie": A National Geographic Documentary on the Lord of the Rings
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