Allusions in Beowulf


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While the characters in the tale were pagan during the oral storytelling of Beowulf, the scribes and translators included many allusions to tales from the Christian biblical tradition. Notable are the comparison's of Grendel and his mother to Cain, the first murderer, from whom many evil creatures are said to have risen.

Allusions in Beowulf Allusions

Biblical References
Cain and Abel (99-114, 1260-1268)

Mythological References
Sigemund the Dragon-Slayer (Note: in Beowulf, the famous dragon-slayer is called Sigemund, but in Norse mythology Sigemund is just the father of the famous dragon-slayer, who is called Sigurd. If you're curious to know more you can read the Volsung Saga.) (873-914)

The Saga of Finn (1062-1158)

An Introduction to Allusions in Beowulf



The Oxford English Dictionary defines allusion as “an implied, indirect, or passing reference to a person or thing” or “any reference to someone or something”. When it comes to literature, however, it becomes a difficult task to avoid accidentally falling into affective and intentional fallacies when exploring whether or not certain words, phrases, or narratives are meant by the author to be distinct and relevant allusions to particular people or events. In works such as Beowulf, moreover, the task of pointing out allusions and understanding their meaning becomes even more difficult due to the obscurity of their context and cultural situations. Nevertheless, what I aim to explore are some allusions to elements present in Old Norse literature which are readily available to us in the text: elements which we may assume to have been passed down to Beowulf’s author(s) through the culture of the Danelaw.

The Scyldings

One of the most notable of these allusions is that of the Scyldings. A prominent family not only in Beowulf, their stories also appear in Snorra Edda (Snorri Sturluson’s Prose Edda) and Hrólfs saga kraka (The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki). In the Edda, Skjöldur (Scyld Scefing), the founder of the Skjöldungar (Scyldings), is portrayed as a descendant of the god Óðinn himself. The legends of his descendants are recorded in Beowulf and Hrólfs saga kraka. Being slightly different in perspective to Beowulf, the focus of Hrólfs saga kraka is more so on Hroðgar’s nephew Hrólfur than on himself. Both narratives however include a troll-like being terrorising the halls at nightfall and a hero that comes and eradicates such threats.

Eotenas ond ylfe and gĂ­gantas

J.R.R. Tolkien notes in lines 112-113 the author’s use of two culturally different etymological sources to describe the race of Grendel and the descendants of Cain. On the one hand, Tolkien observes the use of gígantas in line 113 as a word borrowed from the Latin version of the Bible. On the other hand, he marks the words eotenas and ylfe in line 112 as distinctly Norse, coming from the words jötnar (giants) and álfar (elves). These words not only depict the author’s blending of pagan and Christian elements into the story of Beowulf, but as cultural allusions they furthermore offer a twofold perspective on Grendel’s background as a fiend – that is, he not only is an enemy of the Christians, being a descendant of Cain and the giants, but also at the sight of the pagan heroes he is considered an outcast of the Norse gods and humanity.

Wæls and Sigemund

The bard in Hroðgar’s hall recounts the story of Sigemund the dragon-slayer in lines 883-915 as words of praise, encouragement, and admonition to Beowulf. Similar narratives can be found in the Snorra Edda and the Völsunga Saga where Völsungur’s (Wæl’s) descendant Sigurður slays a dragon and takes possession of a treasure hoard. Placing these narratives in the context of Beowulf allows its author to portray ironies foreshadowing Beowulf’s death, but also comparative praise, as Sigurður is and will ever be remembered in Northern legend as Fáfnisbani – the slayer of the dragon Fáfnir – after his death.

Thus allusions such as these allow us to understand more comprehensively the story of Beowulf. They give the text particular shades which reflect dramatic ironies that are not always obvious when the allusions are missed. And although many of these allusions and possibly the text itself are rendered obscure to us as modern audiences, their importance to the Anglo-Saxon audience as antiquarian reflections and contemporary innovations should never be understated, wont as the Anglo-Saxons would have been to do so.





Works Consulted:

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000. Print.

Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: Harper Collins Publishers, 2014. Print.

— . The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin Publishers, 1983. Print.

Allusions in Beowulf

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Old Testament Allusions in Beowulf



Throughout literature, many writers have alluded to stories in the Bible. Whether it’s from the Old Testament or the New Testament, writers have paid references to Biblical stories. In literary analysis, this is called an allusion. The Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary defines an allusion as a reference, especially a covert, or indirect one (37). In the case of Beowulf, the allusion is referring to instances in the Bible. The specific references are to stories told in the Old Testament. During the time period of the poet of Beowulf, there were many Anglo-Saxon pagans.

The pagans are people not subscribing to any of the major religions of the world. At this time, the new religion of Christianity also came about in this region. Religion, therefore, is taught through stories, such as those of the Old Testament. The Beowulf poet incorporates Old Testament allusions in order to teach the Anglo-Saxon pagans about the new religion. The first Biblical allusion told in the epic poem is about Cain. Cain was a character in the Old Testament who committed the first murder. He had grown so jealous of his brother that he murdered him.
In the Judeo-Christian world, he represents the first real evil act committed by man against another man. This is alluded to by the story of the Grendel monster. For many years, the Grendel monster terrorized the people of Herot. He came in and killed the inhabitants by slashing and even eating some of them. This act is much like the act that Cain committed and therefore Grendels actions can be traced back to Cain. Grendel is a descendant of Cain because he committed the same act of murder. The Grendel monster also did not have a very promising life. His life contained no positive outlooks.

He lived in his abode only to go out of it to kill and plunder for treasure. These living conditions help establish a reason for his killings. He still committed these acts against man and became evil for them. Grendel can also be linked to Cain by the fact that it tells that the Grendel monster, which was originally a Scandinavian troll, represents evil and darkness (Tuso104). Since he represents evil, Grendel can be linked to the Old Testament, just like that of Cain. The Old Testament allusion of Cain is told through the Grendel monster. A second allusion that the poet of Beowulf told about is the allusion to David and Goliath.
The story of David and Goliath is an easy one. David was a very small man who was of no match to Goliath. Goliath, on the other hand, was a giant and was almost unbeatable. David went against this great opponent and triumphed even with his impossible odds. Then, as a trophy of some sort, David cut the head off Goliath and kept it. This story is alluded to in the poem through the story of the She-Monster. The She-Monster is Grendels mother as well. After learning that her son was killed by the mighty Beowulf, she decides to enact revenge on Beowulf.

But Beowulf acts first by searching for the She-Monster. He finds her underwater lair, where she also has been hoarding treasure together. Beowulf uses the sword he was given; yet it fails him. Thus, against all odds, Beowulf still struggles against the giant She-Monster and continues to fight. Beowulf eventually triumphs over the great beast and decides to prove to the people that he killed the creature. He grabs a sword and cuts the head off the She-Monster. This story line resembles much of the story line of David and Goliath. The allusion of the She-Monster comes in two close parts.
Both allusions are to the same story of David and Goliath. The first is when Beowulf loses his sword and has to fight against incredible odds. This is much like David fighting against Goliath. Both Beowulf and David fought against an almost invincible foe and triumphed. The second allusion is the decapitation of the She-Monster. The She-Monster and Goliath were both killed in the same method: decapitation. Since the story of the She-Monster and the story of David and Goliath resemble each other, its safe to say that the poet alludes to the Old Testament.

The next allusion differs from the earlier two. The poet of Beowulf uses this following allusion to show the relationship of the devil: mans greatest foe. This allusion started in the Genesis chapter with the tale of Adam and Eve. In the Garden of Eden, there was mans perfect world. There were no worries of any kind at all and no problems. It was a literal Utopia. There was only one conflict that the two human inhabitants of Eden had to worry about: the tree of knowledge. The serpent, who was also Satan, eventually persuades Eve to eat from the tree: then, she convinces Adam as well.
This eating of the apple was Satans first real act of evil and leads to mans downfall from Eden. This story is the first showing of the serpent in the Old Testament. The dragon, in the final battle of Beowulf, is an allusion to the serpent. The dragon represents evil for all mankind. The author of this poem alluded to the story of the Garden of Edens serpent. The dragon is the greatest foe that Beowulf ever faces. Since Beowulf was one of the greatest of mankind, then the dragon can be led to represent Satan or the serpent. Also, the visualization of the dragon being a member of the serpent or reptile family also alludes to the serpent.

The dragon is also “mans greatest foe in a monster form” (Carey 49). This would lead the reader to believe that the dragon is alluding to the serpent from the Garden of Eden. By this logic, the two are related. The story of the dragon alludes to the serpent from the Garden of Eden in the Old Testament. The last and final set of allusions that the poet of Beowulf told about is of God. The poet told so much of how humble the human race was to the all-powerful Lord. The poet told of how God was the Lord of the Universe and creator of all. In the beginning of the epic poem, it tells of the construction of Herot.
This construction can also be alluding to the creation of the world. Also, the Old Testament tells the reader that God is the Creator of the Universe. Throughout the entire poem, God is also referenced or alluded to in this same fashion. This allusion is the poet’s way of showing the Anglo-Saxon pagans more about God. Literature over the ages has taught a variety of lessons. These lessons can be anything from a simple moral or to something greater. In the epic poem Beowulf, this lesson is a little more dramatic. Beowulf is a poem of great teaching importance.

This epic poem began at the start of a new country and laid the groundwork for its religious upbringing. The Anglo-Saxon pagans inhabited the area, in which the poem was written. These pagans knew nothing of the new religion of Christianity or any other form of it. Consequently, the poet decided to write the epic poem for this country and use allusions from the Bible to help its influence. These allusions are from the Old Testament and tell the tales of Cain, David and Goliath, the serpent and the Almighty Lord. Through use of allusions, the poet of Beowulf taught the pagans the way of the new religion.

Allusions in Beowulf

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