Tracing the Gospel in Beowulf

In his essay “On Gargoyles,” G.K. Chesterton claimed that the medieval grotesque—the gothic architecture with its gargoyles and strangely misshapen beasts—was the pinnacle of man’s artistic achievement. He contrasted the gothic grotesque with the clean and symmetric architecture of the classical period, claiming that while the pagans “summoned godlike things to worship their god,” the Christians of the Middle Ages “summoned all things to worship theirs, dwarfs and pelicans, monkeys and madmen.” While the Greeks only admitted perfect things to worship their gods, the medieval Christians admitted all imperfect things to worship theirs. Given the right eyes, what once seemed repulsive and distorted takes on a new form as the deeper truth of Christianity emerges from the faces of monsters and dragons.

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Of all the literary epics, the medieval epic Beowulf might be the least read and least accessible. Compared to the clean symmetry and logic of the Greek and Roman epics of Homer and Virgil, Beowulf seems strange and grotesque. It is full of foreign kennings like whale-road, word-hoard, and raven-harvest. It is a world ravaged by strange monsters as old as man himself, a world dark and brooding and cold. It is a world marked not by the hospitality of the Greeks or the piety of the Romans, but by mistrust and blood-feuds and fear. Their years are marked by winters, and death is the only constant.

It is little wonder that such a strange world seems inaccessible and difficult to understand. And yet Beowulf in many ways is superior to the Greek and Roman epics, for in its grotesque it stands thoroughly Christian in its orientation, precisely because it might be the most human story ever told. Although the legend hails from pre-Christian Scandinavia, the story as told by the Christian Anglo-Saxon scribe is shaped by a deep and abiding Christian metanarrative. While it has been fiercely debated whether or not Beowulf is a Christian poem or even contains Christian themes—something my students regularly struggle with as they wrestle with the dark events of the poem—a deeper understanding of the structure and themes of the narrative uncover a profound Christian thread that weaves together the cycles of violence, heroism, and death. Although strange and pagan on its surface—like the gargoyles and beasts of the medieval grotesque—at its core, Beowulf tells the Gospel story in a way that leaves us longing for the return of Christ and deliverance from this weary world of winter and mourning.

Beowulf is a cyclical narrative, tied together by three episodes that share a common structure, a metanarrative cycle. Each of these three sub-narratives follows the same basic pattern: peace, evil enters, failure, despair, hero enters, hope, victory, peace. Very quickly, the metanarrative of Scripture emerges from this structure: the Garden of Eden, the entrance of Satan, the failure of Adam, the despair of humanity, the entrance of Christ, the hope given to the world, the victory of Christ, and finally the peace established in the new heavens and new earth. Whether or not the Beowulf poet originally conceived of the poem to reflect the Gospel narrative, Beowulf nonetheless embodies this story in its own unique way, a story that is fundamentally the truest story ever told, a story imprinted upon the minds and hearts of every human ever born whether they’ve heard it explicitly or not.

In Beowulf’s first cycle, evil enters in the form of Grendel: a demon from Cain’s murderous clan. As Grendel enters the peaceful halls of Heorot, the peace is broken and the monster begins a 12-year reign of violence. The Danish king Hrothgar fails to protect his men, and Grendel functionally becomes the new king of the Danes as every evening he returns to Heorot to steal and kill and destroy. The throne is left empty, and the people despair that they will ever be freed from this hell-beast. Enter Beowulf, a Geat from across the swan’s-road, come to rescue the Danes and restore Hrothgar to his throne. Beowulf’s entrance brings hope of deliverance, a hope that is quickly realized when he defeats Grendel in hand-to-hand combat. Beowulf restores a temporary peace, and the people celebrate with mead and songs and stories. But quickly the cycle begins again as Grendel’s mother returns to avenge her son and exact a blood-price. In this second cycle, which culminates in her defeat at the hands of Beowulf in an epic underwater struggle, the result is the same: the hero conquers, and peace is again restored.

Of course, pitched in this way Beowulf reflects the story we all know, love, and have heard repeated in many stories throughout the Western canon. It’s the story of the hero who conquers the enemy and rescues the people, the good that triumphs over evil and restores things back to the way they should be. What makes the metanarrative of Beowful unique is its third cycle. The third episode, which fails to complete the metanarrative cycle, bespeaks most profoundly the Gospel story in the time between the advents.

In this last story within the story, Beowulf has been reigning over the Geats for forty years and the land enjoys its peace. But then a dragon, the great primordial serpent, begins to ravage the villages. Against the better advice of his men and armed with a weak band of thanes, the old and weary Beowulf seeks to reclaim his former glory by defeating this final monster. With the help of Wiglaf—the only brave warrior of Beowulf’s once trusty thanes—Beowulf defeats the dragon, but at the cost of his own life. And with the death of the king comes not peace, but despair, for the Swedes surround the Geat people, and Beowulf cannot rescue them. The story ends with the wailing of a Geat woman who realizes that there is no peace from the evil and no hero coming to rescue them.

With Beowulf’s abrupt and sober ending, the Gospel grotesque comes into view. For in this story, the Geats are left in the same place as the readers of Beowulf, still stuck in the cycle of violence and death, longing for the entrance of a greater hero to defeat the evil that took the shape of the monsters and the dragon and the surrounding Swedes. Beowulf is not the final answer for the Geats, because he is only a man and subject to the same death and the same sins of pride and self-reliance. But his heroism point to the work of a greater Hero who has won a preliminary victory over the serpent, evil, and death. And Beowulf’s death reminds us that there is a rescue still to be made, a deliverance still to be wrought, a victory still to be claimed, and a peace still to be established when the king returns to once and for all sit on his throne and defeat Satan, sin, and death. And there will be mead and songs and tales of the greatest story ever told. A story at once glorious and grotesque, beautiful and brutal.

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