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The pagan element in Beowulf

Generically Beowulf belonged to epic of growth or popular epic or folk epic and its action takes place in a part of ancient Germania or Teutonic society, conceived by an anonymous poet. This generalises Beowulf as a pagan narrative. Most critics are of the opinion that pagan elements abound in Beowulf. Its materials are drawn from tales composed before the conversion of the Angles and Saxons to Christianity.The critics who uphold the view that Beowulf is a pagan narrative opine that the references of Christ, Virgin Mary, The Cross and the Saints are totally absent in Beowulf. They also suggest that Wyrd or fate has been used in the poem as the blind and inexorable destiny and the pagans or the heathens had their strong faith in it. Myth-making and believing in it is a practice in paganism. From this angle of vision Grendel is the death-bringing winter of the myth to wrestle with Beowulf, the life-bringing summer. Grendel and his mother may also be represented as the personification of the North sea. Beowulf repulses their onslaughts and checks the inundations of the sea in the Spring. Paganism conceives a note of melancholy and despair. Beowulf retains this element. The poet of Beowulf strikes a note of grief and sadness throughout the poem. Hrothgar is in deep despair regarding Grendels's killing of his nobles every night in the Hall Heorat. A gloomy atmosphere looms over his kingdom. The protagonists seem to say,
                                             "Even the latter end of joy is woe".


Beowulf as a pagan narrative

Pagan concept of nothingness is also dominant in Beowulf. The hero Beowulf succeeded in defeating the dragon, no doubt, but he himself is mortally wounded. He wins the covered treasure, but this is buried with him. The hoarding of wealth and treasures is of use to none and this heightens the sense of futility. Legouis and Cazamian uphold the view that Beowulf embodies the pagan concept of nothingness of life to a great extent. 'The poem is a glorification of bold enterprise, leaves a bitter taste, or at least an impression of universal melancholy' leading to nothingness of life. It makes life seem sad and all efforts in vain. The atmosphere of Beowulf is melancholy. So is nature. The trees are frost-bound, the moors and deserts are dreary. The blood -stained lake presents a dismal scene. There is on room for laughter and levity. All these are elements of paganism.

Other signs of paganism are worshipping deity for help, cremation of dead body instead of burial etc. Horthgar's people turned to their idols for help in their dire need. A Hnaef's funeral, cremation and not burial was in vogue. Aeschere's body was devoured by Grendel's mother, and could not, therefore, be cremated or burnt. Even the body of Beowulf was cremated and the description goes like; 'The warriors began to rouse on the barrow the greatest of funeral fires; the wood-reek mounted up dark above the smoking glow, the crackling flame, mingled with the cry of weeping -the tumult of winds ceased -until it had consumed the body, hot to the heart'. Believing in omens and superstitions was in practice in paganism. As Beowulf, the beloved of the Geats, had planned to sail for Denmark (Danes) to have an encounter with Grendel, his well-wishers were anxiously watching the omens.

Believing in fate is another attribute of paganism. In Beowulf 'Wyrd' stands for fate which means the blind and inexorable force, pitted against which man is totally helpless. In line 455 Beowulf says. 'Fate goes ever as it must' . It is 'Wyrd' which is responsible for the death of Beowulf. His friends advised him not to have an encounter with the Dragon but Beowulf stuck to his fate and invited his death. Wiglaf, the faithful lieutenant of Beowulf, complained; 'Fate was too hard which drew the people's king thither.

Thus it can safely be concluded by saying that Beowulf overtly abounds in pagan elements and covertly though a very thin element of Christianity may be traced out in the first national epic of England..


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