The Beowulf manuscript, commonly known as Beowulf, is an Old English epic poem of 3182 lines about the Scandinavian hero Beowulf, legendary king of the Geats of Sweden. It was written by an anonymous poet in Anglo-Saxon England sometime between the early eighth century and about 1000 C.E. (the approximate date of its only surviving manuscript, which is part of the Nowell Codex in the British Library). It is set much earlier, in pre-Christian Scandinavia during the fifth or sixth century.
The poem has two main parts. In the first (ll. 1–2199), Beowulf arrives from Geatland to help Hrothgar, king of the Danes, whose mead hall, called Heorot, is being attacked by the wilderness monster Grendel. Beowulf kills Grendel with his bare hands, and then kills Grendel’s unnamed mother with an ancient sword he finds in her underwater lair. The second part of the poem (ll. 2200–3182) takes place in Geatland 50 years later, when Beowulf, now king of the Geats, slays and is slain by a great dragon that had been terrorizing his people.
Although the story is set in pre-Christian Scandinavia, its poet narrator is steeped in Christian tradition. Thus, while the language of the characters in the story reflects their “pagan” worldview and cosmology, the poet often describes and explains actions and events in biblical terms.
It is not at all clear, however, what elements of biblical discourse in what forms were available to the poet. In fact, there is no evidence that the word “bible” was used in Anglo-Saxon England (although the Latin bibliotheca, “library,” was), and single volumes of the whole biblical canon were very rare (Biggs, 1998, pp. 128–129). Most literate people encountered biblical texts not in the context of a whole Bible but in smaller manuscripts (e.g., Psalters and Gospel books) that were Old English translations from the Latin Vulgate Bible and other Latin biblical collections and commentaries. Such translations, moreover, varied widely. Catherine A. M. Clarke’s overview of the biblical poems found in the Junius Manuscript (Genesis A, Genesis B, Exodus, Daniel, and Christ and Satan) provides a good sense of the variety of biblical material that might have been familiar to the Beowulf poet:
"All these poems deal with biblical material and include biblical narratives. Yet there are also marked differences across their treatments of biblical texts. While some poems and passages are relatively close to biblical content and chronology, others draw together episodes from across biblical Books [sic] and radically transform their scriptural material. Throughout all the works in the codex, the text of the Vulgate Bible meets vernacular sources, traditions, and idioms. …" (2012, p. 66)
Paraphrases, glosses, summaries, expansions, expositions, and extended commentaries were all part of what circulated as biblical literature. Distinctions between “the text” and “its reception” would have been impossible as people encountered all these varied scriptural discourses in the forms of sermons, songs, and liturgical and literary performances.
In terms of biblical influences on other nonbiblical literature, moreover, biblical images and themes were often integrated with Anglo-Saxon literary traditions of heroism, so that “biblical texts and images emerge transformed by the idioms of vernacular poetry and the traditions of the Germanic warrior ethos” (Clarke, 2012, p. 63).
In light of this Anglo-Saxon literary fascination with heroic warriors and their battles, it may not be so surprising that Beowulf ’s engagement with biblical discourse is primarily vis-à-vis its monsters: the Grendelkin (Grendel and his mother) in the first part of the poem, who are described as descendants of Cain in Genesis; and the dragon in the second part, who is described in terms of biblical dragons and other monsters, especially the diabolical dragon thrown down by the archangel Michael in Revelation 12. In the process of developing its monsters in biblical terms, moreover, the poem also develops another connection with biblical theology, namely, a deep, unsettling tension between cosmological and sociological order and chaos. The biblical monsters in Beowulf are what biblical scholars call chaos monsters—personifications of other-worldly forces that persist on the edges of the familiar and the known, always threatening to break through and return creation to chaos. The struggles of the hero Beowulf and his comrades to defeat these monsters is also a struggle, framed in biblical terms, to maintain order against chaos, in the world and in society (Beal and Linafelt, 2003).
The poem explicitly locates Grendel and his unnamed mother in biblical narrative, associating them with the accursed monsters who, the poet claims, descended from Cain, the son of Eve and Adam who, in Genesis 4, murders his brother Abel and is banished by God “east of Eden” (Gen 4:16):
Grendel this monster grim was called,march-riever mighty, in moorland living,in fen and fastness; fief of the giantsthe hapless wight a while had keptsince the Creator his exile doomed.On kin of Cain was the killing avengedby sovran God for slaughtered Abel.Ill fared his feud, and far was he driven,for the slaughter’s sake, from sight of men.Of Cain awoke all that woful breed,Etins and elves and evil-spirits,as well as the giants that warred with Godweary while… .
(ll. 102–114; Gummere translation. Line numbers changed to conform with standard manuscript editions here and throughout)
Grendel is thus introduced as a denizen of the uncivilized wild lands, where can be found giants, elves, and other monsters, all accursed descendants of Cain upon whom God avenges the murder of Abel. Later in the poem, after Beowulf kills Grendel and is hunting down his mother, the poet identifies both Grendelkin with this same monstrous company of Cain’s descendants:
… Grendel’s mother,monster of women, mourned her woe.She was doomed to dwell in the dreary waters,cold sea-courses, since Cain cut downwith edge of the sword his only brother,his father’s offspring: outlawed he fled,marked with murder, from men’s delightswarded the wilds.—There woke from himsuch fate-sent ghosts as Grendel… .
Clearly, the poet’s linking of the Grendelkin and other mythical monsters of the ancient pre-Christian world to Cain involves both less and more than the Vulgate Bible’s account of the story. On the one hand, the poet’s biblical account does not include God’s promise to protect Cain in his banishment, giving him a mark so that “whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance” (Gen 4:15). On the other hand, it assumes a vast genealogy of monsters from indigenous Scandinavian and/or Anglo-Saxon mythologies, “Etins and elves and evil-spirits, as well as the giants that warred with God,” all of whom, the poet says, are misbegotten from Cain (for an extensive discussion of Cain’s lineage, see Mellinkoff, 1979–1980).
As Alger Doane argues, the poet’s association of the Grendelkin with Cain’s kin may suggest knowledge of the Saxon Genesis (of which Genesis B was originally part). In that text, Cain’s lineage leads ultimately to Satan, and the Cain-versus-Abel story parallels the Antichrist-versus-Enoch story toward the end, with both Enoch and Abel as “martyrs to the Antichrist, son of Satan and descendent of Cain” (1991, p. 155). In this light, these diabolical kin of Cain in the first part of the Beowulf poem may be associated with the diabolical dragon in the second part (on which see below).
In addition to identifying the Grendelkin as descendants of Cain, the poem also links them, albeit indirectly, to the biblical legend of the Nephilim, the giant offspring of the “sons of God” and “daughters of men” mentioned immediately before the story of the flood (Gen 6:1–4; the flood narrative begins in 6:5). Toward the end of the first half of the poem, Beowulf slays Grendel’s mother with a sword that he finds in her armory, a “warriors’ heirloom / as the giants had wrought it” (ll. 1558–1559). When he returns victorious to Heorot, he presents the sword’s hilt (the blood of Grendel’s mother melted its blade) to King Hrothgar, who inspects it carefully and discovers its origins:
… the hilt he viewed,heirloom old, where was etched the riseof that far-off fight when the floods o’erwhelmed,raging waves, the race of giants(fearful their fate!), a folk estrangedfrom God Eternal: whence guerdon duein that waste of waters the Wielder paid them.
Here again, the poem builds a theology of monsters that goes well beyond the details of the Vulgate Bible’s narrative, explicitly linking the brief story of the Nephilim (Gen 6:1–4) to the flood narrative that follows (Gen 6:5—8:18). Here God’s intention in the flood was to rid the world of these monstrous giants, who were the first to bring war into the world (alluding, perhaps, to the biblical comment in Gen 6:4 that the Nephilim were the “mighty men” of ancient lore), and who were, along with other monsters, the accursed descendants of Cain (ll. 111–113).
King Hrothgar’s great mead hall, Heorot, is also framed in biblical terms. Heralded as the noblest and most wonderful hall in the world (ll. 74–79), it represents not only the center of political order for the Danes, from which “to old and young / he [Hrothgar] would all allot that the Lord had sent him” (ll. 71–72), but also the center of creation, cosmic order, established over against the surrounding “desolate fens,” where the monstrous Grendelkin dwell. It is no accident, then, that it is precisely songs echoing the biblical account of the creation in Genesis 1 that kindle Grendel’s hatred for the place and its guests:
With envy and anger an evil spiritendured the dole in his dark abode,that he heard each day the din of revelhigh in the hall: there harps rang out,clear song of the singer. He sang who knewtales of the early time of man,how the Almighty made the earth,fairest fields enfolded by water,set, triumphant, sun and moonfor a light to lighten the land-dwellers,and braided bright the breast of earthwith limbs and leaves, made life for allof mortal beings that breathe and move.
As many have noted (e.g., Tolkien, 1936), the poem is usually careful to maintain a clear distinction between the poet’s Christian worldview and that of the pagan characters in the story. It is striking, then, to find this hymn to creation drawing from distinctly biblical imagery. Although it does not include every element of the six days of creation in Genesis 1, it does follow the same basic progression, from the separation of land from waters, to establishing lights to govern day and night, to vegetation, to animals (for a fuller reading, see Beal and Linafelt, 2003).
These echoes of Genesis 1, along with the identification of the Grendelkin with the offspring of Cain, have led some critics to see Heorot as a sort of Eden before the Fall, “a paradise without sin or sorrow before Grendel appears” (O’Donoghue, 1999, p. 110). The poem may suggest this image in the next three lines, which lead directly into the association of Grendel with Cain (quoted earlier): “So lived the clansmen in cheer and revel / a winsome life, till one began / to fashion evils, that field of hell” (ll. 99–101). The greater biblical emphasis, however, is on the contrast between the benevolent order of creation, represented by Heorot, and the threat to that order from the chaos monster Grendel, who lurks on the nether edges of this ordered world.
Although the poem gives no explicit genealogy for the dragon who plagues Beowulf and the Geats in the second half of the poem (ll. 2200–3182), it too draws, albeit less directly, on biblical narrative and imagery. Its ancientness, its chaotic menace to the population, its home in a fiery cave underground, and the fact that it is called both draca (“dragon”) and wyrm (“worm” or “serpent”) provide strong associations not only with those dragons that battle saints in numerous medieval hagiographies but also with their predecessor, the great dragon of the New Testament book of Revelation, “that great dragon, that ancient serpent who is the Devil and Satan” (Rev 12:9; Vulgate: “est draco ille magnus serpens antiquus qui vocatur Diabolus et Satanas”), who is defeated by the archangel Michael and ultimately thrown into the abyss of fire (on connections between the dragon of Revelation and its monstrous predecessors such as Leviathan in the Hebrew Bible and other Canaanite texts; see Beal, 2001, ch. 6).
Like the diabolical dragon in the book of Revelation, and like the Grendelkin, this dragon is a chaos monster that threatens God-given social and cosmological order. In this respect, its hoard of human treasures is revealing. Throughout the poem, a primary sign of human culture and artifice against the looming chaos all around is crafted metal, especially gold: rings, goblets, shields, armor, and swords. These objects are removed from the subterranean ground and worked into objects of exchange within the economy of human society. The leader and standard-bearer of the society is the one with the most gold, the “ring-giver” and builder, who creates culture out of and over against the dark, elemental subterranean that surrounds and threatens it. The dragon is roused precisely when part of its gold hoard is taken from its underground dwelling back into social currency. As was the case with Grendel, moreover, it responds by attacking the center of civilization and order, namely Beowulf’s house, “of buildings the best … that gift-throne of Geats” (ll. 2326–2327; Beal and Linafelt, 2003).
In Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues, Christine Rauer argues that an important but neglected aspect of the literary milieu of Beowulf is found in the “hagiographical cliché” of the Christian saint who slays a serpentine monster that has been terrorizing or persecuting a neighborhood or population (2000, p. 57). Rauer identifies many elements in Beowulf’s dragon fight that “represent utterly typical elements of a certain type of hagiographical dragon-fight,” including a destructive dragon; a collective journey to the dragon’s home led by a guide; the presence of companions during the fight; fearful and disloyal reactions from some of the companions; and a summoning of the dragon from its cave (p. 136).
Note that all of the elements of this stock motif are also present in the earlier conflict with the Grendelkin (except, of course, that they are not dragons). This parallel, along with the parallel in the Saxon Genesis of Cain-versus-Abel with Antichrist-versus-Enoch (as shown by Doane and discussed earlier), may suggests a subtle association of both the Grendelkin in the first part of the poem and the dragon in the second part with Satan and the Antichrist. The fact that Beowulf dies in the process of slaying the dragon would then associate him not only with the archangel Michael and postbiblical dragonslayer-saints, and not only with the saintly martyrs Abel and Enoch in the Saxon Genesis, but also with Christ himself. As Doane writes, “Like Christ he [Enoch in the Saxon Genesis] battles the forces of evil and wins by being sacrificed to them” (1991, p. 163). Perhaps the Beowulf poem is subtly suggesting the same with regard to its martyred hero.
The chaos monsters of Beowulf and their conflicts with cosmic and social order are drawn in biblical terms. Yet they are also kin to the elves and giants of pagan worlds centuries before they came into contact with the Bible or Christianity. They are monstrous hybrids. Yet, as J. R. R. Tolkien put it so well (1936, p. 269), “this is not due to mere confusion—it is rather an indication of the precise point at which an imagination, pondering old and new, was kindled. At this point new scripture and old tradition touched and ignited.”
[See also MEDIEVAL LITERATURE.]
- Beal, Timothy K. Religion and Its Monsters. New York: Routledge, 2001.
- Beal, Timothy. “Monsters.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Bible and Theology, edited by Samuel E. Balentine, pp. 107–112. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.
- Beal, Timothy, and Tod Linafelt. “Beowulf ’s Bible: The Monsters and the Biblical Critics.” In Relating to the Text: Interdisciplinary and Form-Critical Insights on the Bible, edited by Timothy J. Sandoval and Carleen Mandolfo, pp. 275–289. Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 384. London: Bloomsbury T&T Clark, 2003.
- Beowulf. Translated by Francis B. Gummere. Harvard Classics 49. New York: P. F. Collier, 1910.
- Biggs, Frederick M. “Bible in Old English Literature.” In Medieval England: An Encyclopedia, edited by Paul E. Szarmach, Teresa Tavormina, and Joel T. Rosenthal, pp. 128–129. New York: Garland, 1998.
- Clarke, Catherine A. M. “Old English Poetry.” In The Blackwell Companion to the Bible in English Literature, edited by Rebecca Lemon, Emma Mason, Jonathan Roberts, and Christopher Rowland, pp. 61–75. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.
- Doane, Alger N. The Anglo-Saxon Genesis: An Edition of the West Saxon Genesis B and the Old Saxon Vatican Genesis. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.
- Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf: A New Verse Translation. Bilingual ed. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000.
- Mellinkoff, Ruth. “Cain’s Monstrous Progeny in Beowulf.” Anglo-Saxon England 8 (1979): 143–162; and 9 (1980): 183–197.
- O’Donoghue, Heather. “Explanatory Notes.” In Beowulf: A Verse Translation by Kevin Crossley-Holland, pp. 108–124. Oxford World Classics. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999.
- Orchard, Andy. Pride and Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript. Cambridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 1995.
- Rauer, Christine. Beowulf and the Dragon: Parallels and Analogues. Cambridge, U.K.: D. S. Brewer, 2000.
- Robinson, Fred C. Beowulf and the Appositive Style. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245–295.