Beowulf and The Return of the King
From the first sight, the Bible, Beowulf and The Return of the King might seem like three entirely different books, separated not only by genre and method of presentation, but also by the time itself. Nevertheless, if one is to look closely at the structure of the books and at the covered topics, it is possible to distinguish quite a few similarities. Christian motives and the influence of the Bible are evident throughout the storylines of both Beowulf and The Return of the King and are displayed via the deeds of the characters, regardless of the fact that societies and events described in the books had no Christian background.
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Many consider the Bible, the collection of sacred texts, the most influential book of all. The oldest manuscripts date back to the fourth century, and since that time this book was translated to many languages and has spread throughout the entire world. The vast range of canons presented in the book is often reflected throughout history and literature. The important thing about the Bible is that its influence is not limited strictly to the ones that consider this book sacred. In order to fully understand and analyze the influence of this book on Beowulf and The Return of the King, it is important to distinguish the main themes, motives and symbols that appear in the Bible.
The themes covered in the Bible include the discussion of the problem of evil. Throughout the book, there is a contextual discussion of what exactly is the ultimate good or the ultimate evil. In the book, God is the main good and all-powerful protagonist, and Satan is the antagonist that nonetheless brings the balance to the world. It is obvious, that it is not possible to solve the problem of good and evil because the one cannot exist without the other. The New Testament sends a clear message of loving each other and being good to each other, because this is the best way to live one’s life (Walvoord and Chafer 90). The Bible sends a clear message that the evil amongst humans comes from their bad actions and poor judgment, not from God’s malice. Even though God in the Bible is almighty, he is not the one to get involved in the lives of humans – he is more an observer that is grieved by the misfortunes that humans bring upon themselves (Walvoord and Chafer 76). Only when there is a severe need of interruption, God helps or displays his dissatisfaction or disappointment, but humans are often shown as the ones to reject God’s help. One more theme that is presented throughout the Bible is the redemption. God is the one to bring justice and mercy, and if one wants to be forgiven, he or she will be able to get the redemption and be forgiven. Sometimes, there is a third party that appears as a mediator betwixt God and the wrongdoers. In addition, the theme of power of one’s faith is also vivid throughout the book.
According to the Bible, faith is not only a strong and resilient belief in the one true God, but also an unwavering obedience to his will. The ones that keep true to their faith even through the most difficult times are the ones that will be saved. If one betrays his or her faith, they will feel the punishment and will suffer eventually. The resilient faith is necessary for entering the God’s kingdom after the Judgment day. One more major theme presented in the Bible is the personage of the savior – the one that will come to help the ones in need and might even sacrifice his or her life in order to save the unfortunate. The savior is not present on each page of the book and his appearance might sometimes be completely unexpected. However, there is always hope that even at the worst of times, there is someone to take care of things.
Beowulf is a well-known Old English epic poem that is set in Scandinavia and is one of the oldest literary works known to mankind. It is considered one of the most important compositions dating back to the 8th century Old English literature. The author of the poem remains unknown, and the poem itself was not studied up until the end of the 18th century. The events of Beowulf are set in the 5th century and revolve around the protagonist – Beowulf, who is a hero of Scandinavian Geats and comes to help the king of Danes who is being attacked by a monster named Grendel. After defeating the monster, Beowulf is attacked by the Grendel’s mother and defeats her; then, he returns to Geatland in Sweden. Later in the poem, he becomes the king of the Geats. In fifty years, he defeats a dragon and is seriously injured in the battle. After he passes away, he is buried in Geatland. It is considered that the poem is composed based on Scandinavian and Old English legends and myths as well as influenced by Christianity. Beyond doubt, Beowulf is a manifestation of many ideals of the time reflecting the beliefs of the people that were already Christianized but still remembered and respected the pagan traditions. Regardless of the fact, that Beowulf encloses many pagan motives, the influence of Christianity is still rather strong creating a very peculiar spiritual atmosphere.
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After analyzing the symbolic structure of Beowulf, one is able to observe a picture of people still adjusting to the process of Christianization and trying to establish their own identity. One peculiar thing about Beowulf is that the characters lived in a period when Christianity was not that spread throughout the country, and they often behaved in a way that is rather different from the one, expected from a Christian. However, they mention the Christian God quite often, for example: “They thanked God for that easy crossing on a calm sea” (Beowulf 227- 228). This particular passage showing the crossing of the sea can be considered an attempt of the author to make the reader think about how almighty God is, and how the events in a person’s life depend upon the will of God. What is more, this might have been an author’s method of convincing the pagan readers (or listeners) of the poem to leave behind their old beliefs and to welcome Christianity. However, the pagan and Christian motives appear alongside on the pages of Beowulf. At the beginning of the poem, one can see the description of the Scyld ship burial, and the funeral of Beowulf is not a Christian one.
However, regardless of the fact that sometimes the religious motives expressed in Beowulf seem to be rather a hybrid of pagan and Christian ones, throughout the story, there are many elements of the Christian philosophy. For example, the idea that God’s protection is inevitable for one’s survival. In the story, Beowulf calls God his protector several times, and the reader has a sense of God looking over Beowulf’s shoulder. However, one can clearly see that Beowulf has earned the God’s benevolence by being true to himself, by his honesty and courage – all the values that Christianity appraises. Before starting his fight with Grendel, Beowulf states “And many the Divine Lord in His wisdom grant the glory of victory to whichever side He sees fit” (Beowulf 685-687). Thus, one can conclude that Beowulf believes that his faith in god will assist him through the battle, but if he is to be defeated, it would be not God’s fault.
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Out of the previously stated, one can derive one Christian motif in Beowulf – the belief that all the goods, like success and wealth, come from God. For example, talking about the sword that he saw in the cave, protagonist states “But the Lord of Men allowed me to behold – for he often helps the unbefriended – an ancient sword shinning on the wall” (Beowulf 1661-1663), acknowledging it as nothing less than God’s gift. What is more, when there is a mention of Heremod, a king who became a victim of his own pride, the line goes “Even though God Almighty had made him eminent and powerful and marked him from the start for a happy life …, change happened, he grew bloodthirsty, gave no more rings to honor the Danes” (Beowulf 1716-1720). This shows the reader that the wealth and happiness are given through the grace of God, and that one looses them because of their own misdeeds. This is a clear reference to the Bible – a belief that all the earthly possessions are no more than an illusion, and that the true power lies only with God. Moreover, there are many times when characters of the poem clearly state that all the earthly goods should be shared and accepted with humility and imply that one’s greed might in fact imprecate one’s doom. This is almost the replica of the Bible’s commandment to ‘not covet.’ Finally, in Beowulf, the life is called a gift of God, and the human body is a loan from God – making an allusion to the Biblical story of man creation.
The plot of Beowulf is filled with references to the Bible that sometimes might even seem to be out of place; they were probably used by the unknown author to promote biblical values to the listeners and/or the readers of the poem. For example, Grendel and his mother are referenced to as descendants of Cain, a ‘Cain’s clan’, with parallels betwixt them and history behind the Cain’s deed and its consequences. What is more, in Beowulf, there is a reference to the Great Flood: “And the flood destroyed the tribe of giants. They suffered a terrible severance from the Lord; the Almighty made the waters rise, drowned them in the deluge for retribution” (Beowulf 1690-1693). This was made in reference to the creators of the great sword suggesting that they were descendants of those, who caused God to start the Great Flood, or perhaps of Cain himself.
What is more, there are many biblical symbols in Beowulf. The character of Beowulf himself is very similar to the one of Christ – he is the savior of his people who gives up his life for them. One of the examples that support this statement is the fact that Beowulf and the Danes were eating supper before he went to fight with Grendel – a reference to Jesus’ last supper. “Men were drinking wine at that rare feast; how could they know fate, the grim shape of things to come” (Beowulf 1232-1234). This is because all the Danes believed that Beowulf was going to meet his fate during the battle. Just as it happened during Jesus’ crucifixion, Danes abandoned Beowulf after nine hours passed because they all thought he died; just as Jesus, Beowulf raised from the waters of the lake. After this happens, “The wide water, the waves and pools were no longer infested once the wandering fiend let go of her life and this unreliable world” (Beowulf 1620-1622) – an analogy of the process of baptism and soul being cleared before the God. The dragon that Beowulf defeated can be perceived as the Biblical devil that is often represented as a giant serpent. What is more, the occurrence of the dragon was perceived by Beowulf as God’s punishment “The wise man thought he must have thwarted ancient ordinance of the eternal Lord, broken His commandment” (Beowulf 2329-2331). One more analogy with the devil and the dragon is that just like Eve who has disobeyed God’s will and tasted the apple, a slave steals a goblet from the dragon’s lair and provokes dragon’s attempts to banish the Geats from Geatland. Another parallel that connects Jesus and Beowulf is that both of them had 12 followers who abandoned them in time of great need, and only one stayed to help, “No help or backing was to be had then from his high-born comrades; that hand-picked troop broke ranks and ran for their lives to the safety of the wood. But within one heart sorrow welled up: in a man of worth the claims of kinship cannot be denied” (Beowulf 2596-2601).
J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King, the third and the final part of the well-known Lord of the Rings trilogy, also shares many similarities with the Bible. When working on the series, J.R.R. Tolkien created and developed a different world with its own myths, beliefs and languages, and his work was influenced by the Christian philosophy as well. The author had stated
The Lord of the Rings is of course a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision. That is why I have not put in, or have cut out, practically all references to anything like ‘religion’, to cults or practices, in the imaginary world. For the religious element is absorbed into the story and the symbolism. (Kerry 207)
Here lies the first parallel betwixt Beowulf and The Return of the King – the implications of religion and biblical symbols that are not always clearly visible for the reader. Probably, the entire book can be summed up by a well-known quote from the Bible “Our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12).
However, there are more similarities than just the symbolic eternal struggle of the good and evil. Just like in Beowulf, in The Return of the King, there is a character of a savior, but unlike the epic poem, in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work, this character is represented throughout few others. First of all, there is Gandalf – the almighty wizard that was reborn from the dead and comes to the rescue whenever he is able to. Gandalf is a higher being that has been around since the beginning of time and is supposed to protect Earth from the evil. What is more, Frodo, who is still carrying the ring to the Mordor, might be a representation of the Jesus’ sufferings on his way to crucifixion. What is more, just like it was described in Beowulf and the Bible, Frodo, as one of the Jesus-like characters, is abandoned by everyone, and only followed by his one loyal friend Sam. There is also Smeagol – the one who pretends to be a loyal friend, just as Judas did, but betrays protagonist trying to prevent him from accomplishing the mission.
However, after analyzing The Return of the King, it can be concluded that in this book, the character of Aragorn is the closest to the one of Jesus. He is the one that just like Jesus follows the prophecy that has predetermined his life course before he was born. Aragorn’s travel through the Paths of the Dead reminds the Jesus’ descent into hell after dying on the cross and then appearing in a new image. This is also similar to Beowulf’s descent into the waters of the lake and returning as a winner, even though his followers thought he would die. What is more, in the book, there is a clear statement that “The hands of the king are the hands of a healer” (Tolkien 84). Thus, being able to heal the wounded in Minas Tirith with only a touch of his hand and a kiss, Aragorn is similar to Jesus.
There are also great similarities in the representation of evil in Beowulf and in The Return of the King – even though one understands the underlying message of the eternal biblical struggle of good and evil, the image of the latter is rather complex. What is more, the image of evil in J.R.R. Tolkien’s work is rather conflicting. Certain evil elements presented in the book are parts of the ultimate evil, whilst others are created via the hands of the inhabitants of Middle Earth. Thus, just like humans in the Bible, they are the ones that brought this evil upon themselves. Probably, the most vivid representation of malevolence in The Return of the King is Sauron. In the book, he is faceless and can take any form, though he is always observing his lands with the giant eye. Just like the biblical Devil, Sauron was once a higher being that turned evil and betrayed its creator. He is malicious and deceives people with different temptations, just as the Devil did. Unlike The Return of the King, in Beowulf, one cannot observe such clear image of evil, but rather sees three representations of it – Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon. The clearest similarity betwixt the representation of evil in both Bible and The Return of the King is that evil in this case comes from one’s behavior, preceding the physical force of evil that exists in the world. However, just like in Beowulf, the evil was defeated in The Return of the King “For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach” (Tolkien 118).
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Rather interesting parallel can be made betwixt the ring in The Return of the King and the image of a sin in the Bible. Throughout the book, it is obvious that the ring is the one thing that a lot of characters want to possess, and it is hard for one to give it up. However, if a person yields to the ring, his or her mind and spirit will be enslaved and eventually destroyed. Once again, the ring was made by Sauron, who is a depiction of Satan in the books, and this is a clear parallel with the notion stated in the Bible that Satan is the source of sin in the world. Frodo, as the Jesus-like figure, selflessly carries the ring to its destruction willing to give up his life for the wellbeing of the others. He says, “It is my burden, and no one else can bear it. It is too late now, Sam dear. You can't help me in that way again” (Tolkien 129). The question of biblical redemption is also a vivid one in The Return of the King – putting aside Aragorn’s healing powers, the characters in the book often are able to extend mercy to others even at the cost of the possible risks and sufferings. It is possible to observe that just as the Bible, The Return of the King teaches to love and be merciful to each other. For example, Gandalf often offers redemption to Saruman – a fallen wizard who turned evil. Even during their last meeting Gandalf states, “and I see no hope in your journey. But will you scorn our help? For we offer it to you” (Tolkien 162). This way, the author shows the reader the importance of one’s free will showing that evil deeds are one’s choice, nothing more. Furthermore, the numerous acts of offering redemption to others show the biblical trust in truth and justice of one’s fate.
From the first glance, it might seem to be a rather hard task – to compare the Bible, Beowulf and The Return of the King because these three books were written in different times. However, if to look closely, there are a lot of similarities between them, and it might even seem that they are mirroring each other in certain way. Surely, the Bible, as the oldest book of the above-mentioned, has influenced the themes and motives of both Beowulf and The Return of the King. These literary works are stories of the eternal struggle of good and evil in the world raising and answering questions of what is the nature of these notions and of their parallel existence. One of the main characters presented in the Bible is the savior – a person who comes to help people and is even willing to sacrifice the life for them. However, whilst in Beowulf the protagonist is clearly the one to help others, in the Bible and The Return of the King, there are a few characters of that kind. There is also the character that represents the ultimate evil, and here The Return of the King is more similar to the Bible because the image of Sauron is a clear reflection of the image of the Devil.
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What is more, Beowulf is closer to the Bible because it is filled with biblical references and clear Christian symbols. In The Return of the King, on the other hand, these references are not that obvious and do not lie on the surface. However, the Christian symbolism and values can be found in both Beowulf and The Return of the King – in the speeches, deeds and values of the characters. These books are in a way praises to a certain divine supremacy – in Beowulf, it is a Christian good, and in The Return of the King, it is the ultimate good that is able to change characters as well as their lives and brings hope even in the darkest of times. The reader can see that after suffering the reign of terror – for example, Grendel’s and Sauron’s – it is possible to turn to someone for help and battle the evil by the joint efforts. One more interesting parallel betwixt Beowulf and The Return of the King is that the characters of the book do not have a clearly stated Christian background, even though the influence of the Bible is rather vivid in these works.
To conclude, the biblical imagery, values and themes are clearly presented in Beowulf and The Return of the King via the descriptions, settings, speeches and deeds of the characters. The amount of existing parallels might be rather surprising for a reader, especially considering how different these literary works are. There is one clear message that these books send – the message of one’s strong faith and hope in something better to come. There is always a divine force, represented via different images in the Bible, Beowulf and The Return of the King, but it is always present and ready to assist in one way or another.