Here is my British Literature paper for your viewing pleasure. If you care. Which you probably don’t. And that’s more than ok.
The Role of Christianity, Heroism, and Fate in Beowulf and Paradise Lost
The epic poem Beowulf, authored by an anonymous person, survives as the oldest epic in the Anglo-Saxon tradition and serves as an important influence for later literature. Beowulf, the epic hero, possesses the traits required of all heroes in the epic tradition: courage, wisdom, strength, honor, honesty, good oration, and strong leadership. Beowulf also falls victim to the same enemy of other tragic heroes – fate, or wyrd in the Anglo-Saxon language. By contrast, John Milton’s epic tragedy Paradise Lost presents a different view of heroism and epic. Milton’s tragic hero, be he Satan or Adam, does not possess all the typical qualities of an epic hero, nor does he share the typical downfall of an epic hero. Instead, Milton’s heroes fail in their execution of their own free will, not as a result of fate. As a result, the Christianity in both Beowulf and Paradise Lost appear to differ greatly from one another in their conceptualization of God and man, fate and free will, and true heroism. How and why do they differ, and can these differences be reconciled within the framework of orthodox Christianity?
Beowulf, the hero of the poem Beowulf, possesses many qualities typical of the traditional epic hero. The Geatish Beowulf leads his warriors to King Hrothgar’s realm of the Danes in order to save the land from the monstrous Grendel. In this instance, Beowulf demonstrates his heroism by traveling to a foreign land in order to defeat a monster attacking a foreign people. He illustrates his courage and willingness to do battle by volunteering for a conflict not his own. Because Beowulf’s men choose to follow him into battle in this foreign land, his heroic trait of good leadership is also exemplified. Furthermore, Beowulf already has a reputation as a fearsome warrior, which is necessary for an epic hero. He demonstrates this supremacy in his three confrontations against Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon. Beowulf characterizes his skills thusly:
I have suffered extremes
and avenged the Geats (their enemies brought it
upon themselves; I devastated them) (422-424).
Beowulf also exemplifies his heroic qualities in his sense of fair play and honor. Because Grendel uses no weapons in combat, Beowulf chooses not to use any either, thus establishing an equal playing field in a hand-to-hand combat situation. In his recitation of his swimming episode with Breca, Beowulf proves to Unferth and the other Danes that he is a physically strong man capable of swimming in heavy armor for multiple days and nights while slaying the sea creatures attempting to kill him (530-581). This incident also epitomizes Beowulf’s skill as a strong orator – another important epic quality. Beowulf is also a devout man who worships the Christian God. Before his confrontation with Grendel, Beowulf declares:
[U]narmed [Grendel] shall face me
if face me he dares. And may the Divine Lord
in His wisdom grant the glory of victory
to whichever side He sees fit (684-687).
Beowulf shares the aforementioned epic qualities with epic ancient Greek and Roman heroes such as Odysseus and Aeneas. Greek and Roman heroes worshipped a pantheon of pagan gods; Beowulf, in contrast, is monotheistic and worships the Christian God. Notably, however, Beowulf retains influences from such pagan thought, exemplified by the emphasis on the epic hero, who is characterized largely by pride or confidence. This notion contrasts with the Christian ideals of humility and servitude. Pagan influences also remain evident in the emphasis placed on the importance of heroic deeds in order to avoid punishment in the afterlife and the lack of a clear conceptualization of a heaven or place of reward for the honorable to go after death. In fact, Beowulf himself is not guaranteed a place in a “heaven” (if it exists):
Famous for his deeds
a warrior may be, but it remains a mystery
where his life will end, when he may no longer
dwell in the mead-hall among his own.
So it was with Beowulf, when he faced the cruelty
and cunning of the mound-guard. He himself was ignorant
of how his departure from the world would happen (3062-3068).
On the contrary, a hell or place of punishment does exist, and it claims Grendel’s “heathen soul” (851). Taken all together, these factors imply the author or transcriber of Beowulf possessed a rudimentary knowledge of Christianity, most likely of the Old Testament alone. In addition, the pagan influences in Beowulf suggest that some pagan ideology may have been maintained and colored the author’s understanding and interpretation of Christianity.
Similarly to other epic heroes, Beowulf’s life is strongly influenced and controlled by fate, which is referenced numerous times throughout the epic. In fact, in traditional pagan epics, the events that color the lives of the heroes or lead to their downfalls are often portrayed as controlled or manipulated by the gods or the Fates. In essence, the true tragedy in these epics results from the epic hero’s lack of control over an event in his life or his ultimate demise. Following in this tradition, the conceptualization of death and fate in Beowulf is remarkably complex. Early in the epic, Beowulf, while recounting his swimming episode to Unferth, states, “Often, for undaunted courage, / fate spares the man it has not already marked” (572-573). This sentiment is echoed later in the poem when the scop claims that the grace of God may spare a man unmarked by fate (2291-2293). However, the scop also states:
But death is not easily
escaped from by anyone:
all of us with souls, earth-dwellers
and children of men, must make our way
to a destination already ordained
where the body, after the banqueting,
sleeps on its deathbed (1001-1007).
Though Beowulf, through his own courage and the grace of God, managed to escape death in his earlier conflicts against Grendel and Grendel’s mother, he cannot escape his fate when he faces the dragon. According to William Cooke in his article, “Beowulf, like all heroes, had had to meet an unforeseen fate” (210).
By this point in the epic, Beowulf’s fate lies outside of his control and choosing. In his article, Andrew Galloway writes, “[The Old English formula for dying]’s linguistic conservatism supports and even epitomizes the view that heroic choices are few and often fatal …death is precisely what a hero does not choose, although he may choose honor, which may entail dying” (198). In other words, a hero’s ability to determine his own fate is limited insofar as he remains a hero dedicated to honor, glory, and bravery. Theoretically, Beowulf could avoid his fated death if he chose not to battle the dragon; however, in so choosing, Beowulf would also lose his heroic status. This paradox results in the epic and somewhat tragic conflict between fate and free will and virtue and vice in Beowulf.
As a result, Beowulf presents a complex view of fate and God’s sovereignty. Some passages in the epic suggest that the two oppose one another, while others imply that God controls fate. This conflict most likely results from the merging of the older pagan influences of the Anglo-Saxon culture with the newer Christian religion. As aforementioned, evidence in Beowulf suggests that the author was familiar with the Old Testament of the Bible, which emphasizes God’s sovereignty and control over humanity and earthly matters. Furthermore, many pagan religions emphasize the concept of fate. In conclusion, the author of Beowulf appears to approach his understanding of the Christian God and His sovereignty through his understanding of certain pagan concepts like fate and heroism.
John Milton, the author of the epic tragedy Paradise Lost, views the interaction of fate and free will differently than the author of Beowulf, which is indicative of the culture in which Milton lived and worked. As an English Christian, paganism affected Milton’s theology far less than the Christianity represented in Beowulf. Contrary to Beowulf’s emphasis upon fate, Milton emphasizes the importance of free will, which impacts the portrayal of the epic hero, particularly concerning his control over his own choices and downfall. By these means, Milton attempts to “justify the ways of God to men” in Paradise Lost (26).
Many debate whether Milton intended Satan or Adam to be the hero of Paradise Lost. Either character, however, differs from the traditional pagan conceptualization of an epic hero. Satan, though a charismatic leader and excellent orator, possesses no virtuous and traditionally heroic qualities like courage, honesty, strength, or wisdom. Arguably, Satan does possess strength, but it manifests in “the unconquerable will” or stubbornness (Milton 104). He chooses to harden his heart against God, rebel, and remain in a state of unrepentant rebellion. Satan declares:
Yet not for those,
Nor what the potent victor in his rage
Can else inflict, do I repent or change (Milton 94-96).
In fact, these very acts demonstrate a deficit of wisdom on Satan’s part. As Adam instructs Eve later in the narrative:
Against his will he can receive no harm.
But God left the free will, for what obeys
Reason, is free, and reason he made right (Milton 350-352).
In Milton’s opinion, God created everything, including mankind’s capacity for reason and knowledge; therefore, obedience to God is the truest expression of reason. In his article, Anthony Low writes, “Freedom (we think) we easily understand; obedience is harder to accept. Moreover, what Milton advocates is not forced but ‘willing obedience’” (351). Unfortunately, the demons could not willingly obey God. According to the demon Mammon:
This must be our task
In Heav’n, this our delight; how wearisome
Eternity so spent in worship paid
To whom we hate (Milton 244-249).
Satan and the demons, however, share the fatal flaw of pride with many traditional epic heroes. It is Satan’s pride that brings about his rebellion against God and his refusal to repent, preferring “Hard liberty before the easy yoke” (Milton 256). This pride and the actions resulting from it branch directly from Satan’s own freedom to choose; he is not destined by God or by fate to fall into sin.
Adam as the tragic hero may also be examined in a similar light; Milton presents him in a manner more in keeping with a traditional epic hero. As the first man and a sinless man, Adam is superior to all human beings who follow him. Milton describes them as, “Two of far nobler shape erect and tall / Godlike erect” (288-289). As such, he possesses all the virtuous qualities of mankind with none of the vices. Adam’s fall, like Satan’s, comes about through no fault of God’s. God did not create Adam with a sinful nature, nor did He predestine Adam to rebel and fall into sin. On the contrary, Adam’s downfall was precipitated entirely by his own free will, his own choice to sin in order not to be separated from Eve. When Eve presents the forbidden fruit to Adam after she partakes of it, Adam replies:
So forcible within my heart I feel
The bond of nature draw me to my own,
My own in thee, for what thou art is mine;
Our state cannot be severed, we are one,
One flesh; to lose thee were to lose myself (Milton 955-959).
Because Adam did not trust in God’s provision for a new wife and was blinded by love for Eve, he chose to join Eve in sin and rebellion despite knowing the consequences.
Even Milton’s portrayal of Adam as the epic hero differs significantly from the ideal of a hero presented in Beowulf and other pagan epics. Traditional heroic qualities associated with warfare are not emphasized in Paradise Lost, particularly for Adam who never engages in physical battle. Unlike Beowulf, Adam is not presented as a brave warrior or even exceptionally physically strong. Furthermore, the typical heroic quality of pride is largely lacking in Adam. By contrast, in Paradise Lost, the Christian virtue of humility is more widely praised. This shift to respecting humility indicates the pervasiveness of Christianity in the culture and the move away from pagan ideology.
Paradise Lost also differs from Beowulf in its presentation of God. Though God is sovereign, He does not strictly control the fate of mankind; rather, He allows them to have free will. With this free will, Satan and the other demons begin to view God as a tyrant, though they acknowledge God will “of his kingdom lose no part / by our revolt” (Milton 325-326). In order to retaliate against God, the demons decide to corrupt God’s new creations: humanity (Milton 362-370). When Satan tempts Adam and Eve into using their free will unwisely, he assumes he has won a great victory. On the contrary, God in His sovereignty already has a plan in place for the salvation of humanity. As a result, God’s omniscience and omnipotence do not rely on His ability to control humanity’s decisions; instead, they rely on God’s foreknowledge of these actions and decisions.
Therefore, the Christianity in Paradise Lost is influenced by the Old Testament, the New Testament, and the theories of past and contemporary theologians. As a result, Milton’s Christian theology is more fully formed than the Christianity in Beowulf. Milton presents a clear conceptualization of Heaven and Hell, separated from one another and from Earth (1035-1055). Milton also adds a unique caveat to the location of Hell; Satan discovers “myself am Hell” as a consequence of his rebellion against God (75). As in Beowulf, God is described as omniscient. In his article, Benjamin Myers writes, “The grace of salvation is not an afterthought, but a gift of God which precedes even the need for salvation” (66). However, unlike in Beowulf, God does not control the actions of mankind in order to achieve some fated outcome. “According to Paradise Lost, human freedom operates independently of the divine will to so great an extent that the divine knowledge of the future cannot even be described as ‘immutable.’ God’s knowledge is subject to and influenced by the free actions of those creatures to whom he has granted freedom,” declares Myers (79). Furthermore, the Christianity in Milton’s work provides humanity with some base moral guidelines as well as the promise of salvation. In conclusion, Milton’s Paradise Lost provides a more complete, holistic Christianity than the Christianity in Beowulf.
Because Beowulf and Paradise Lost both contain Christian themes but present largely different views of Christianity, can the two works be reconciled within the realm of orthodox Christianity? Is the Christianity in Beowulf too “paganized” to be compatible with true Christianity? Though Beowulf is highly paganized, it can still be somewhat compatible with Milton’s depiction of Christianity when viewed in a certain manner. In essence, Beowulf’s Christianity does not contradict the Christianity in Paradise Lost; the Christianity in Beowulf merely presents an incomplete picture of Christianity.
As aforementioned, the theology in Beowulf presents an interesting amalgamation of pagan and Christian ideology. The reader, as a result, must learn to separate the influences from one another in order to achieve the clearest understanding of the work. Pagan influences are very clear in the depiction of the epic hero and strong warrior archetypes. However, there is also some basis in the Christian Old Testament to support the respect for those who are strong, bold warriors and leaders. Though the Jewish King David was the youngest of his brothers, God chose him to be a powerful warrior and strong king – qualities that were also respected in the pagan Anglo-Saxon society. Furthermore, pagan religions also emphasize the deities’ power over men and women. Individuals are subject to the will of the gods and fate. While this is certainly not a modern Christian idea, there is some evidence to support this type of thinking in the Old Testament, and the author of Beowulf may have seen this as an example of compatibility between the old paganism and the new Christianity. In the Old Testament, the Jewish tribes were for some time under a theocracy, a direct rule by God. As a result, it may have seemed to the author of Beowulf that God was directly controlling the lives of his people because of His direct action in their lives – an understandable conclusion from someone with a background in pagan ideology. In conclusion, when the reader can assess the influences of paganism and Old Testament Christianity in Beowulf, he or she is more able to view the Christianity presented in a more compatible way with the Christianity presented in Milton’s Paradise Lost.
While Beowulf presents a comparably incomplete view of Christianity, Milton’s Paradise Lost is characterized by a more complete understanding of Christian ideology. Christianity presents a type of hero different from the typical pagan hero and more in keeping with the example of the Christian New Testament’s Jesus Christ. Christ did not participate in physical conflict, was a humble servant, and was executed willingly despite his total innocence in life. These new qualities become the dominant characteristics of the heroic archetype in the Christian world. In addition, Christians viewed God as sovereign and powerful, but they also accepted the concept of humanity’s free will. Reading the Old Testament through this lens revealed that humanity always has the choice to obey or disobey God, even in the Old Testament theocracy. Admittedly, different Christian denominations varied on the emphasis they placed upon free will (then and now), but Milton was a staunch advocate of the importance of free will in Christianity. Milton believed humanity’s free will exempted God from blame for the existence of sin and evil – the idea around which he created Paradise Lost.
Taken together, Beowulf and Paradise Lost provide a fuller understanding of Christianity. By examining the development of Christianity from Beowulf to Paradise Lost, one sees the growth in size and cultural importance the religion experiences, as well as its effect on the cultures in which it exists. Christianity did not develop in a vacuum, and in some cases, was influenced by the pagan ideologies of recent converts. Beowulf serves as a wonderful example of this cultural transition from paganism to Christianity. Within this framework, the Christianity of Beowulf and Paradise Lost can be reconciled as orthodox Christianity despite their differences in epic heroism, the relationship between God and man, and fate and free will.
Cooke, William. “Who Cursed Whom, and When? The Cursing of the Hoard and Beowulf’s
Fate.” Medium Aevum 76.2 (2007): 207-21. Academic OneFile. Web. 18 Oct. 2012.
Galloway, Andrew. “Beowulf and the Varieties of Choice.” PMLA 105.2 Mar. (1990): 197-208. Web.
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Greenblatt, Stephen, et al, eds. Vol. A. Beowulf. 8th ed. New York: W.W. Norton & Company,
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Calvin in Paradise Lost.” The U. of North Carolina P. (1999): 348-65.
Academic OneFile. Web. 18 Oct. 2012.
Myers, Benjamin. “Predestination and Freedom in Milton’s Paradise Lost.” Scottish Journal of
Theology 59.1 (2006): 64-80. Academic OneFile. Web. 18 Oct. 2012.