Though the epic poem Beowulf was written before the year 1000, long before Edmund Spenser and William Shakespeare, it embodies great beauty of style and displays fine craftsmanship by the unknown author. It is odd that one of the world’s greatest classics—certainly the greatest of its time—should have no known author. Nevertheless, identity and quality have no correlation. Beowulf cannot be disputed as one of the greatest contributions to English literature; it displays incredible relevance to all times and all peoples. The Geats and the Danes of the story as peoples are little remembered, but we can see ourselves in them. After examining the allegorical nature of this classic, I will examine a particular example and its application to us.
All throughout Beowulf, our minds wonder, “Did he mean for this to mean—” or “Could he be referring to—” Some have compared Beowulf to David. Beowulf, like the biblical figure, began humbly; as the text explains, “had been poorly regarded / for a long time” (Lines 2183-2184).
Following Beowulf’s adventures in Sweden, the hero reigns prosperously for 50 years in his native Geatland (Denmark) before battling a dragon angered by the theft of a single cup. Beowulf’s immense pride forbids him from fighting with assistance, therefore the 10(?) thanes which accompanied him do little during the beginning of the struggle. Nevertheless, as the struggle began to run against Beowulf, Wiglaf, a young noble, reminded the others of their duty. They do not move. Wiglaf’s following call to the Geat shirkers is a call to every Christian. The following are relevant excerpts from lines 2631-2660:
“I remember that time when mead was flowing,Though the poet may not have intended this passage to be interpreted allegorically, the passage nevertheless remains a potent illustration applicable to the Christian walk. Are there not many chosen by Christ who forsake Him when dangers loom? Continually in the Scriptures, Christians are exhorted to be faithful. One example may be found in I Corinthians 4:1-2: “This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. Moreover, it is required of stewards that they be found trustworthy.” (ESV)
how we pledged loyalty to our lord in the hall,
promised our ring-giver we would be worth our price,
make good the gift of war-gear
[...] “He picked us out
from the army deliberately, honoured us and judged us
fit for this action, made me these lavish gifts—
[...] “And now, although
he wanted this challenge to be one he’d face
by himself alone—the shepherd of our land,
a man unequalled in the quest for glory
and a name for daring—now the day has come
when this lord we serve needs sound men
to give him their support. Let us go to him,
help our leader through the hot flame
and dread of the fire. As God is my witness,
I would rather my body were robed in the same
burning blaze as my gold-giver’s body
than go back home bearing arms.
That is unthinkable, unless we have first
slain the foe and defended the life
of the prince of the Weather-Geats. I well know
the things he has done for us deserve better.”
Perhaps more applicable are Christ’s words Revelation 2:10: “ ‘Do not fear any of those things which you are about to suffer. Indeed, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison, that you may be tested, and you will have tribulation ten days. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life.’ ”
May we second Wiglaf’s bold proclamation: “As God is my witness, / I would rather my body were robed in the same / burning blaze as my gold-giver’s body / than go back home bearing arms.” Echos of martyrdom and persecution—Christians may not cease in faithfulness.
Humorist Josh Billings (1818-1885) gives a prime analogy of our situation: “Consider the postage stamp: its usefulness consists in the ability to stick to one thing until it gets there.” Indeed, we are to pledge our fealty to God, act upon it, and stick it out until we get there.
Perhaps the best way to sum all up is through the provision of a rarely sung fifth verse of “Who is on the Lord’s Side?”:
Chosen to be soldiers, in an alien land,
Chosen, called, and faithful, for our Captain’s band,
In the service royal, let us not grow cold;
Let us be right loyal, noble, true and bold.
Master, Thou wilt keep us, by Thy grace divine,
Always on the Lord’s side—Savior, always Thine!
Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney
"Who Is On The Lord's Side?", The Cyber Hymnal
Persecution quotes, Christian Quoting