We have argued that the theological thesis of Beowulf is an indictment of the human condition. The monsters of the narrative are mirrors before our souls. The human characters of the story are just as greedy (dragon-like) and violent (Grendel-like) as the beasts Beowulf must slay. Therefore the desperation of Hrothgar and his people is ours.
This sort of honesty about who we are is why the Beatitudes requires the sinners to confess our spiritual bankruptcy which leads naturally to tears (see Matthew 5:3-4). The same is evident in the story. People are desperate and afraid. This is why a hero is needed.
Beowulf is that hero.
The poem describes Beowulf in almost godlike terms. He has the strength of multiple men as he takes on Grendel. He miraculously survives the battle (and swims back) in Grendel’s mother’s hall. But Beowulf is more than a hero – he is a savior. We might even consider him to be a type of Christ. In my original review of Beowulf (which I wrote after my first reading of the text) I made this point. There I wrote:
So though it would be farce to suggest that Beowulf is Christian, there are certain themes in the story that medieval, and even modern, Christians can (and should) resonate with. Beowful, in essence, is portrayed not just as a hero who has won many battles, but as a slayer of demons and dragons. He is alien (Geatish) who comes to save a foreign people from the demons Grendel and his mother and eventually a hellish dragon. And he does so alone.
Near the end of the poem, the narrator tells us simply, yet profoundly from the Christian perspective, that after the death of the dragon that Now the serpent lies dead (74). That is the hope of the Christian story and the reference to Grendel’s mother and Cain is by no means an accident. Beowulf is a fantasy that reflects the battle of the seeds narrative of Scripture from Genesis 3:15 to the end of Revelation. As a Christian pastor and theologian, this is why I love this tale so much. Though Beowulf is a flawed character who suffers death (an enemy he cannot defeat), his story is similar to that of Christ who comes as more than a hero, a Savior who conquers demons (see Mark 5:1-20) and the dragon – the serpent of old (Isaiah 27:1; Revelation 12:9; Revelation 20:2).
The poem, then, is not just great literature, it reminds us Christians why we live by hope. Our hope is not that a hero might come and protect us from one of many enemies, but that in the end, God Himself will conquer the enemies of death, depravity, and the dragon himself. That process began at the incarnation of Christ and will be finished at the parousia.
Come Lord Jesus quickly!
Scripture is basically the story of how Christ slays the dragon and overcomes human depravity through a war he fights alone. I believe the original writer(s)/editor(s) were aware of this and purposely drew parallels to make this point.
There is one glaring weakness to this thesis and it is an important one: Beowulf dies. After the slaying of the dragon Beowulf slowly fades vainly grasping some of his hoarded gold – much of which he is buried with. This leads naturally to the Wiglaf’s concluding dirge. Beowulf is not a fairy tale that ends with a “happily ever after.” it concludes with a hopeless pessimistic tone. The great Beowulf was their best hope, yet he was not good enough.
This pessimism is on purpose and should remind one of the Old Testament where there are many types of Christs – from Adam to Abel to Abraham to Melchizedek to Isaac to Jacob to Joseph to Moses to Aaron to Joshua to Boaz to Samuel to David to Jonah to Daniel to Esther. All of them are types of Christ, but they are weak types. Most are described in unflattering ways – Noah’s drunkedness and Moses’s rage come immediately to mind. At their deaths the hope their lives created is lost – will the vanity of life and death ever be replaced with hope?
The answer is given in the incarnation of Christ – a true and better Adam and David. Jesus accomplishes what the patriarchs, the prophets, and the priests could not. And we should add here, He accomplishes what not even Beowulf could – final and ultimate victory.
Here again I return to Doug Wilson’s thesis that Beowulf is a “shrewd apologetic.” The story ends on a negative note without a sequel because we already know what happens. It was not a dragon slayer they needed, but a Savior – Christ who is King. He came through the traveling ministry of missionaries and monks who told them something about a manger and a cross. As a result, tales of monsters and demons became no more and people no longer needed men like Beowulf again. They had finally found what they were longing for all along.