Beowulf is an intensely spiritual work, which fuses Christian themes with pagan myth. Beowulf himself is a hero who can inspire us for our spiritual journeys in life, and teach us spiritual truths.
The poet sees the world as troubled by monsters—sin—with few powerful enough to stop them. Grendel represents the sin of hate or blood-lust, as his “glee was demonic, picturing the mayhem: before morning he would rip life from limb and devour them, feed on their flesh” (730-733). The dragon represents greed, because all has done is to “guard heathen gold/ through age-long vigils” (2276-2277). Just as the dragon terrorizes many, so does greed afflict many in our world. That the heroic Beowulf can triumph over Grendel and the dragon, and thus hatred and greed, provides hope that we too can be heroic and conquer our sins. The medieval world of Beowulf, however, is darker than simply being able to triumph over evil and sin. Grendel may be a descendant of “Cain’s clan” (106), but we are all descendants of Adam. The poem ends on a dark note, with grim forebodings of enemy tribes attacking, leaving the Geats, Beowulf’s people, “in the path of exile/ they shall walk bereft, bowed under woe” (3018-3019). The Geats, serving as a metaphor for humanity, show that we too are in a sort of exile from our home with God from before the fall. We too now are bereft and bowed under woe, in a land of sin (and this is all the more true from the point of view of a monk from the “Dark Ages,” where the sinfulness and depravity of humanity was more emphasized than today). In addition, even if Grendel is dead, there are plenty more “banished monsters,/ Cain’s clan” (105-106) to trouble people.
However, there is a still hope. Beowulf, if not quite a Christ-figure himself, at least serves as a reminder of Christ and a model of virtue to follow. As Beowulf goes to slay the dragon, he “added a thirteenth to their number” (2407). Subtracting Beowulf himself leaves twelve followers, calling to mind the twelve Apostles and Christ. Beowulf dies fighting against the dragon, a representation of sin, and defeats it but is himself killed—certainly at the very least the poet calling our mind to Jesus and His actions. In life, Beowulf was “the man most gracious and fair-minded,/ kindest to his people” (3181-3182). Beowulf fights against the dragon “for the glory of winning” (2514), not for gold or power. Indeed, “Beowulf’s gaze at the gold treasure/ when he first saw it had not been selfish” (3074-3075), and he never tried to obtain power by overthrowing the king even though he was stronger. Instead, he introduces himself as having “allegiance to Lord Hygelac” (261). Beowulf was a servant, when he could have been a master. He appreciated gold and its beauty, but did not revolve his life around it. Even though Beowulf has enormous power and strength, he never seems to give into pride. Instead, Beowulf relies on God for his success, as, after journeying to Denmark, he “thanked God/ for that easy crossing on a calm sea” (227-228). For all his power and heroism, Beowulf cannot control the weather, and so shows a reliance on God for his success. In his fight with Grendel’s mother, Beowulf and she are about equal, and in the end “holy God decided the victory” (1553-1554). Hrothgar says that Beowulf’s victory over Grendel only came “with the Lord’s assistance” (939). If even the best among us (Beowulf) needs God for victory, how much more so do we need the help of God to gain victory over sin.
Thus we can see that Beowulf provides a way forward in the dark world. Beowulf’s exemplary life is model for others. Beowulf’s death-wish was to have a Barrow be built so that crews could have a reference from which to navigate “as they steer/ ships across the wide and shrouded waters” (2807-2808). It would serve as “a marker that sailors could see from far away” (3158). Among the rocky cliffs of the sea and the rocky cliffs of life, Beowulf’s barrow and his life serve as a guide to reach the safety of shore or heaven. We, the sailors at sea, can see the right path to take by Beowulf’s barrow and metaphorically his life. It may not necessarily be a pretty life, as we are still in exile and even the greatest among us can die, while people like Unferth live, but by following Beowulf’s example and with God’s help we can “choose… the better part,/ eternal rewards” (1759-1760).
Dominic Lamantia is a sophomore in the Georgetown University College . He is the Inside Guard of the Georgetown Knights of Columbus