by Burton Raffel
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If you can imagine a Christian writing a poem about Aeneas, you have an idea of the epic Beowulf. The plot is based on pre-Christian Scandinavian legends, but the author of the poem (probably written in the eighth century) has attempted to “Christianize” his tale.
Some critics quibble about whether or not the author succeeds. E. Talbot Donaldson, the translator of our recommended edition, hastens to point out that all biblical allusions in this epic reference the Old Testament, and says that “readers may well feel that the poem achieves rather little of its emotional power through invocation of Christian values or of values that are consonant with Christian doctrine as we know it.”
I disagree. The reader of Beowulf should never lose sight of the type of hero in pagan epics like the Iliad or the Aeneid. Both Achilles and Aeneas are superheroes—that is, the gods have granted them so much ability (and so much magic armor) that it is entirely evident they will succeed. The mark of being favored by the gods, in pagan thought, is that you are the strongest and best-equipped.
Judaism and Christianity invert this idea. In the biblical view, we must be weak to be strong—because God manifests His strength in our weakness. The concept of the underdog, I would argue, is “invented” with David beating Goliath. In the pagan mind, Goliath must be favored by the gods, since he is enormous and enormously strong. This, however, only glorifies Goliath; God is better glorified by clearly manifesting His power in the arm of a little shepherd boy. The Christian view of heroism, then, is radically different than the pagan view: for the Christian, the most important quality of the hero is brokenness—a desire to be used by God coupled with an awareness that we can’t achieve the goal by our own power. Achilles has it all, which is precisely why he won’t be used by God—he doesn’t understand his radical dependence on God.
None of which is to argue that Beowulf is a whole-hearted underdog. We know that he is very strong, and that he can out-swim almost anyone—but there still persists an element of humility with him that jars followers of Achilles. Achilles is certain of victory, while Beowulf knows the outcome depends upon God. When he defeats Grendel, it is acknowledged that the battle belongs to the Lord: “Now through the Lord’s might a warrior has accomplished the deed that all of us with our skill could not perform.”
Such an idea would never occur to Achilles. For the careful teacher, Beowulf provides an excellent launching point for an extended discussion of brokenness and God’s will.
by Jeff Baldwin