The heroic tale, Beowulf, has withstood the test of time as one of the oldest and most renowned tales of the Anglo-Saxon era. Although ambiguity surrounds its date of creation, it seems to have originated around the late tenth to early eleventh century. Despite having been written in a different time, the unknown authors writing style has stood out, rendering Beowulf an ageless tale. The author utilizes a plethora of literary devices as a means to heighten and dramatize the scenes within. As a result, one is beckoned to the gates of the tale, and once within, readers will find themselves in Scandinavia were the heroic Beowulf of the Geats stands as a protector of Hrothgar from the evil monsters that have terrorized the townsfolk for several years. The author leaves one to ponder whether this story is to be taken at face value as a “good versus evil theme,” or if perhaps the story holds a more profound meaning than what appears on the surface. From the beginning of the poem, the author gives way to a tale that depicts the clash of unspoken Christian and pagan views as not only an external drama of defiance but also as the internal turmoil left to resonate within the reader.
Beowulf’s author employs imagery as well as effective literary devices to shine a light on the evil that lurks within the town, a malevolence which then spawns into psychical embodiment in arguably the most thought-provoking antagonist of the entire poem, Grendel. Grendel’s monstrous presence is unparalleled compared to other poems of the time, and the author employs heavily powerful words to describe him: he is a “fiend out of hell” with “claw-scale and spur” and to add to cryptic nature of his character, his movements are described as one with “swooping” motions or movement. These visions now withstanding, Grendel is not explicitly described one way or another and appears to be an amorphous mixture of what the mind creates, and with this, the author is allowing the reader to conjure up what they feel is fitting for a beast in their mind. With this imagery in place, the author opens with powerful alliteration in the form of consonance with the first line of stanza 88, “Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,” and does this by pairing words like “powerful” and “prowler” along with “demon” and “dark.” The author chose this method as a means to heighten Grendel’s presence. When one envisions a prowler, the offender is slinky, slick and often unseen; but sticking this thought with the word “powerful” makes Grendel all the more dynamic and dominant. The author compellingly evokes Grendel’s “scales,” eerily similar to the serpent in Genesis 3 that leads Adam and Eve to commit the first sin. This seems to be a way to entangle Grendel’s presence in a biblical context and indeed casts him as he truly is- evil.
Interestingly, the author deploys further use of literary devices to describe Grendel and his disdain for spiritual or Christian views. With lines 87 to 88, “…It harrowed him to hear the din of the loud banquet hall…telling with mastery of man’s beginnings…” the author allows the reader to unearth the root of Grendel’s problem- Christianity. In addition, lines 88 to 91 allow the reader to delve deeper into the dark world Grendel embodies and brings to light his true discontent. In this scene, Grendel has such disdain for the towns-people praising the Lord that, in subsequent lines, he attacks those within the mead-hall without warning. The mead hall is symbolic of the triumphs, jubilance, and all things good as it was a commonplace of gathering for the people of the town. The author chooses synonyms of noise such as “din” and “loud,” and, with these redundancies, emphasizes Grendel’s perception of the hall as an abhorrent place. Consonance makes another appearance with “mastery” and “man’s beginnings” as a way to interweave man and Christianity, emphasizing their connection. Since humanity and Christianity are seen as a representative of one another, Grendel, therefore, must represent paganist views as he loathes the sound creeping from the halls. The passage of lines 86 to 98, with phrases such as “the Almighty had made earth…” and “He [God] set the sun and the moon…” sets out to show, not only with grandiose tone, but in magnificent imagery, the contrast between two symbolic views. The author paints Christianity beautifully, speaking of Creation and how the basis of life with the “sun and moon” are made through Him while Grendel is described as a “scaly” outcast, a descendant of Cain, banished by God himself.
Casting Grendel as a descendant of Cain brings Grendel’s character to the forefront of the story and into the reality of the readers world. By portraying the monster in a biblical setting this further proves his ties to paganist views and how his character is symbolic of a more than sinister role only held in regard to the story. In the Book of Genesis, Adam and Eve bore two sons, Cain and Abel. Cain then murders his brother as God preferred Abel’s work over his. The fact that Abel died defenseless parallels Grendel’s actions when he snuck into the mead hall killing the defenseless guardsmen as they slept: “grabbed thirty men from their resting places and rushed to his lair…” (lines 122-123). Being from the linage of Cain, Grendel possesses direct genealogy to the origin of evil, which the author associates with the paganist world surrounding the mead hall. This thought trickles then floods into the story (99-104):
So times were pleasant for the people there
until finally one, a fiend out of hell,
began to work his evil in the world.
Grendel was the name of this grim demon
Caesura is utilized in such a way between “finally one” and “a fiend” as to land on the insidiousness that is lurking in the grass. The authors compelling dynamic of further alliteration with the four words mentioned only adds to the cause. The stanza above starts expansively with the “pleasant” and “people” to only narrow down to the root of evil within the town which is now referred to as “the world.” The stanza seems to have been styled in this fashion to convey Grendel as perhaps not a being confined to a physical form, but a more of a poison that infects those around them. The significance of the last line is perhaps of utmost importance. Grendel’s name is the first word of the last line, and within that stanza, is one of two words capitalized which only adds to the monumental stance as a character. The creature’s monstrous nature is reinforced by ending the same line with the word “demon.” Grendel is named as the demon from which came from hell to spread his evil in this world and to damage any good, or Christian views one may hold.
As a unit, Beowulf has an overall notable struggle with two distinct views of religion taking place with battle after battle between the heroic Beowulf and the monsters within the pages. Throughout the story, Beowulf upholds all good-Christian values as being a selfless leader as he slays the monsters for the greater good of those around him. With Beowulf’s epic battle with Grendel, the author uses phenomenal imagery to depict the scene with lines 816 to 817, “…Sinews split/ and the bone-lapping’s burst.” The alliteration dramatizes the scene with “Sinews split” and then the kenning added to the “bone-lapping’s burst” takes imagery further. To add, the author implores the use of onomatopoeia with the sounds of splitting flesh and bursting bones left to resonate within the reader. With this, Grendel is broken, which personifies the paganist views of the time and leaves one to ponder whether this is the end of paganism and the new beginning for Christianity. Perhaps Christian values and morals are to overtake what has been a long-standing way of life.
Overall, Beowulf, embodies the struggle of the late tenth and early eleventh century with this poem to showcase the religious battle on a grandiose scale for those to ponder and carry within them as this originally was an oral tale told. During the height of this tale, recited as entertainment or perhaps of deeper value, the author utilized an accented meter that emphasized the words and meanings within. While helpful for those reciting it to others, it truly allows the one on the receiving end of the words to be cascaded and immersed in a new world and to apply these thoughts to their own life’s. What the author does not do, is outright describe any of the monsters which allowed the listener to perhaps relate to and morph the antagonists to fit the bad in their lives whether it is a tangible figure or not. Christianity is personified through Beowulf and with this, all of the concepts that religion embodies: goodness, morality, a sense of character, and selflessness. Grendel is symbolic of paganism as he detests any and all things good, and in this case is Christianity.
The clash between Beowulf and Grendel was epic, and although Grendel perished, Beowulf met his demise slaying the last monster. Ironically, Beowulf perishes from the bite of a serpent like dragon by way of poison. Ill thoughts act just as the poison that ended Beowulf did, oftentimes these thoughts are slow and not apparent, but the result is still the same- a bad ending. Perhaps the ongoing battle between religions should not be viewed as a good versus evil, but more of a what is morally right regardless of what one faces. With this tale, the author depicts a battle of epic proportions, but truly, the authors want was for one to internalize and use this story as a bible in of itself. Written as a eulogy to Beowulf, one must heed his tale and realize that temptation is always lurking and regardless of which side you are on, death is just that- the end.
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