Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Warrior-King

The epic of Beowulf is paradoxical in its outlook, being a story steeped in pagan culture but seen through a Christian worldview. The narrator often interjects spiritual analysis, bringing to light the unseen hand of God in the events that are taking place. Phrases such as “God-cursed” (Beo. 711), “sent / by God” (13-14), and “Lord of Men” (1661) reference the Judeo-Christian God in the context of a Germanic battle-epic. Especially vivid among these Christian images is that of a God of battle. Speaking of Beowulf’s coming victory over Grendel, the demon-monster, the poet says:
But the Lord was weaving
a victory on His war-loom for the Weather-Geats.
Through the strength of one they all prevailed;
they would crush their enemy and come through
in triumph and gladness. The truth is clear:
Almighty God rules over mankind
and always has (696-702).
These lines in particular deserve more careful analysis, both for their Old Testament imagery and for their picture of redemption.

The most powerful theistic image in Beowulf, exemplified in these lines, is that of God Almighty as the Warrior-King. This theme, particular to the Old Testament, refers to God as “The LORD of hosts” (KJV, Ps 24:10), “King of Glory” (Ps 24:8), and “the LORD mighty in battle” (Ps 24:8). Beowulf depicts the scene of battle as the result of God’s work on a cosmic loom, with each person or event a thread that combines with the others to produce “a victory…for Weather-Geats” (Beo. 697). Hearkening back to the days when God’s presence was judged by success in war, the poet makes the direct connection between the hand of God and the outcome of Beowulf’s battles. The seemingly compartmentalized way in which the warrior refers to God as a God of war, and not as a God of peace or love, is shown by the term “war-loom” (697). Besides being a dramatic portrait of an omniscient decider and an excellent example of the poet’s wordsmithing, this phrase reflects the concept of a God Who turns the tide of combat and will fight His peoples’ battles (KJV, 2Chr 32:8).

The second reference to the work of God in these lines is the more obscure. The Weather-Geats, in this case, can be considered to represent the people of God—at least, God is on their side. It follows, then, that their savior and hero, Beowulf, is in a way a type of Christ. It is through his strength “they all prevailed” (Beo. 698), even as “by the obedience of one [Christ] shall many be made righteous” (KJV, Ro 5:19). God promised Adam and Eve that “her seed…[would] bruise thy [Satan’s] head” (Gen 3:15). The poet alludes to this promise of a Savior in Genesis with the words “they would crush their enemy” (Beo. 699). Of course, the victors in any case, whether it be battle or redemption, would “return…with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads” (KJV, Is 35:10).

The unique atmosphere of Beowulf allows the parallels between itself and the Christian God to come alive. The primal Warrior-King God of the Old Testament is the same God invoked by Beowulf’s poet, but in a more heathen setting. This heroic epic is informed and given depth by the Christian God and a Christian worldview.

4 Comments:

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9:43 AM, August 31, 2005  
Blogger Jeffrey J. Stables said...

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4:09 PM, September 02, 2005  
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12:12 AM, September 03, 2005  
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