Beowulf

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Christianity and Paganism Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Family and Tribe Theme Icon
Good Warriors and Good Kings Theme Icon
Fame, Pride, and Shame Theme Icon
Repetition and Change Theme Icon
Christianity and Paganism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Beowulf, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Christianity and Paganism Theme Icon

Because of its complicated origin, Beowulf has elements of both pagan Germanic culture and Christianity. The story of Beowulf probably originated as an oral tradition sometime in the 7th century. But the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf was written in the 11th century by Christian scribes, who either inserted the Christian overtones to the story, or were working from a manuscript set down by previous Christians who added the Christian elements. Suffice it to say that the resulting Beowulf is like a pagan story wrapped in Christianity. This results in some strange inconsistencies. For instance, the narrator of the poem describes Hrothgar at one point as a pagan who does not know of the true God, and yet all the characters, including Hrothgar, constantly thank God for their good fortune. In addition, the pagan concept of fate becomes rather hopelessly confused with God's will, so that sometimes Beowulf (and the narrator) seems to believe he can affect fate through his courage, while at others either Beowulf or the narrator attributes his success solely to God's favor. As you read Beowulf, keep on the lookout for the ways that Christianity and paganism interact in the poem.

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Christianity and Paganism Quotes in Beowulf

Below you will find the important quotes in Beowulf related to the theme of Christianity and Paganism.
Grendel Attacks (Lines 86–193) Quotes
Till the monster stirred, that demon, that fiend
Grendel who haunted the moors, the wild
Marshes, and made his home in a hell.
Not hell but hell on earth.
He was spawned in that slime
Of Cain, murderous creatures banished
By God, punished forever for the crime
Of Abel's death.
Related Characters: Grendel
Page Number: 101-108
Explanation and Analysis:

After the speaker of the poem describes Heorot, the hall of the king Hrothgar, he moves to the darkness outside of the grand hall, where the fiendish creature Grendel lurks. Grendel is meant to be the opposite of a warrior; his "home" is "hell on earth," and he is alone, instead of enmeshed in a greater community. Grendel is described as a supernatural monster, instead of a human, but Grendel also supposedly descends from the Biblical sinner Cain -- a man who revealed the malice inherent in each human character. This contradiction between Grendel's supernatural and human natures introduces the way that paganism and Christianity conflict and overlap in this narrative. In general Beowulf appears to be a pagan story with an often conflicting layer of Christianity added on later.

On another level, the idea that Grendel is a monster because of his ancestor also seems extremely unfair, though this fits in with the values of much of the ancient world. Grendel is a victim of fate--he cannot change his nature, because he was born (and divinely cursed) with it.

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A Feast at Heorot (Lines 491–701) Quotes
Grendel is no braver, no stronger
Than I am! I could kill him with my sword; I shall not,
Easy as it would be. This fiend is a bold
And famous fighter, but his claws and teeth...
Beating at my sword blade, would be helpless. I will meet him
With my hands empty-unless his heart
Fails him, seeing a soldier waiting
Weaponless, unafraid. Let God in His wisdom
Extend His hand where He wills, reward
Whom he chooses!
Related Characters: Beowulf (speaker), Grendel
Page Number: 677-687
Explanation and Analysis:
After detailing his past successes, such as his accomplishment of defeating Breca during their swimming match, Beowulf continues his speeches by predicting his imminent victory against Grendel. Here, Beowulf engages in the sometimes difficult process of proclaiming his superior nature without boasting excessively and displaying pride. He avoids this appearance of pride by alluding to the Christian God, asking Him to help whom He will and "reward / Whom he chooses." Beowulf implicitly suggests that his future success would partially derive from God's intervention, which implies that Beowulf's past victories might also be a product of the divine will. At the same time, Beowulf is also claiming that his own strength and courage are so great that he doesn't even need a sword to defeat Grendel.
Grendel’s Mother (Lines 1251–1407) Quotes
She'd brooded on her loss, misery had brewed
In her heart, that female horror, Grendel's
Mother, living in the murky cold lake
Assigned her since Cain had killed his only
Brother, slain his father's son
With an angry sword.
Related Characters: Grendel's Mother
Page Number: 1258-1263
Explanation and Analysis:

After Beowulf kills Grendel, the audience learns that Grendel's Mother is a living, monstrous being whose home is inside a "murky cold lake," a fittingly grotesque lair. She seems to be slightly more human than Grendel at first; she, perhaps rightfully, seeks vengeance for her son's murder. Yet, she is "female," and women in Anglo-Saxon society were supposed to be "peace-weavers," not warriors. Grendel's martial impulse makes her a "female horror," a perversion and opposite of Anglo-Saxon femininity. Like her son, though, Grendel's Mother is also associated with Biblical malice; her home was "assigned her since Cain had killed his only / Brother." She is both a pagan monster and an antagonist made to fit vaguely into the Christian tradition.

New Celebration (Lines 1640–1912) Quotes
All-knowing God
Must have sent you such words; nothing so wise
From a warrior so young has ever reached
These ancient ears...If your lord,
Hrethel's son, is slain by a spear,
Or falls sick and dies...I say that the Geats
Could do no better, find no man better
Suited to be king, keeper of warriors
and their treasure, than you..., beloved Beowulf.
Related Characters: Hrothgar (speaker), Beowulf, Hrethel
Page Number: 1841-1854
Explanation and Analysis:

Hrothgar praises Beowulf after the hero defeats Grendel and Grendel's mother and before he becomes king of his own land. Here Hrothgar references Beowulf's wisdom -- a kingly trait, which suggests that Beowulf might function well as a mediator between a people and God. Hrothgar then more directly advocates for Beowulf to become king of his own land, that of the Geats. With this praise, Hrothgar begins to foster diplomatic relations between his kingdom and Beowulf's. Hrothgar has many roles in his relationship to Beowulf; he adopts fatherly roles, he generously rewards Beowulf as one of his own warriors, and here he suggests that Beowulf is somewhat of an equal to himself. 

Beowulf and Wiglaf (Lines 2711–2845) Quotes
My days
Have gone by as fate willed,...
As I knew how, swearing no unholy oaths,
Seeking no lying wars. I can leave
This life happy; I can die, here,
Knowing the Lord of all life has never
Watched me wash my sword in blood
Born of my own family.
Related Characters: Beowulf (speaker)
Page Number: 2735-2743
Explanation and Analysis:

Beowulf's boasting before he faces the dragon turns out to be mostly in vain; the dragon does indeed defeat the elderly Beowulf, the man who has already transformed from warrior into king. Yet Beowulf does not die with shame. He attributes all events of his life (and perhaps even his death) to the favor of fate and of the Christian God ("the Lord of all life"). Although Beowulf does ultimately fall in battle (while killing his enemy), his reputation is not besmirched by any vices other than weakness and age; no "unholy oaths," "lying wars," or familial violence can be attributed to Beowulf. Beowulf displayed Christian virtue throughout his life, and he seems to imply that this virtue might be more significant than his martial prowess.