Sometimes, in literature, what we read is not necessarily what it seems.
In this lesson, we’ll explore the epic poem ‘Beowulf,’ and look for instances of allegory. We’ll discuss what allegory is, why authors use it, and look at some examples from the epic poem.
Allegory is a type of writing that has hidden meanings, usually political or moral ones. In other words, it’s a poem or story that, if we read between the lines a bit, we can find a deeper meaning. Usually, authors accomplish this by having characters or objects in the story represent something else (a political movement, a religious idea, or a specific moral).Consider The Wizard of Oz. In this story, we have three allegorical characters: the lion, the scarecrow, and the tin-man.
The lion represents cowardice; the scarecrow, a character with no brains, represents the agricultural past of the United States; and the tin-man, essentially a robot, represents the future of technology. We can read this story and enjoy a fun adventure, but we can also interpret it to have a different meaning about the political climate of the United States.
Allegory in Beowulf
Beowulf was passed down in the oral tradition, meaning, at first, it was a story people told each other.
Between the 8th and 11th centuries in England, it was finally written down. However, it was set in Scandinavia, and the story takes place around the 6th century. It’s commonly accepted that Beowulf began as a pagan tale.
Over time, it was altered to include undertones of Christianity. By looking at it in this light, we can see several allegories of Christianity in Beowulf’s adventures.Beowulf is what we call an epic poem. This is a very long piece of poetry that usually tells a fairly serious story. Typically, it focuses on an intense and, well, epic fight between the forces of good and evil.Beowulf is an amazingly heroic pagan warrior. He fights on behalf of his people, but he also wants to be famous.
Through the course of his journey he fights three epic battles. The first is against Grendel, a monster who attacks the king of the Danes, Hrothgar. Beowulf kills him with his bare hands. This makes Grendel’s mother pretty angry, and leads our hero to his next battle. Beowulf fights her in her underwater lair and, after a struggle, successfully kills her. The third and final battle is fifty years later, when Beowulf is king. This time, one of his slaves stole a goblet from a dragon and Beowulf has to slay the dragon before it destroys his whole kingdom in an act of revenge.
In the end, Beowulf dies, but is remembered as the world’s greatest warrior.
Grendel, through his mother, is a descendant of Cain. Cain, the son of Adam and Eve, killed his brother Abel and is considered to be the first true instance of evil in the Christian faith. Because he is a direct descendant of such a bad guy, Grendel can be seen as an allegory of evil.
By defeating him, Beowulf is defeating the concept of evil itself.
Grendel’s mother, often portrayed as a monster with features that could be seen as pretty and feminine, is an allegory for the original sin, when Eve first convinced Adam to betray God. By defeating Grendel’s mother, Beowulf is overcoming sin and temptation.
The dragon Beowulf fights is a really bad villain. Not only does he hoard a ton of treasure, he has also destroyed much of the land and killed many innocent people all because someone stole one, single goblet from him. He embodies several of the cardinal sins in Christianity (wrath, gluttony, pride) sins that Satan embodies. Therefore, the dragon can be seen as an allegory of Satan.
This brings us to the last allegorical character: Beowulf himself. Beowulf is an allegory for God or Christ. He protects the land and it’s inhabitants, just as God does in the Christian faith.
He opposes all that is evil and embodies all that is good, much like Christ. Finally, Beowulf is ultimately sacrificed in order to save the innocent people he is trying to protect, again, just like Christ.
What’s the Point of Allegory?
Why do you suppose authors use allegory rather than just be straight and clear with their stories? Why not just come out and say Beowulf is Christ, Grendel is Cain, and the dragon is Satan? Well, because that wouldn’t be as entertaining for as many people, would it? Think back to our example of The Wizard of Oz. If the author of that story just presented commentary on agriculture, technology, and cowardice, do you think it would be nearly as enjoyable as the fun little story of Dorothy trying to get back to Kansas? Probably not!Authors use allegory to present a lesson, moral, or political agenda through an engaging story. By being allegorical, the author of Beowulf, and other stories like it, can write an awesome tale that is not only entertaining, but sheds light on deeper issues; they can entertain and inform.
In Beowulf, we not only get an awesome story about a warrior fighting monsters and saving the day, we can interpret it as a discussion on Christianity. Pretty cool, right?
Beowulf is an epic poem, or a very long piece of poetry that tells a serious story. It’s also an allegory, which is a type of writing that contains hidden meanings. At first, this poem was passed down using the oral tradition, which means it was first simply told to people and only written down after many years of sharing and interpretation. This is how it went from a pagan story to an allegory for Christianity.Beowulf is allegorical because the main characters represent specific ideas or entities from the Christian faith.
Grendel, for example, is an allegory for Cain, while Grendel’s mother represents Original Sin. The dragon Beowulf fights in his final battle represents Satan. But, perhaps the most interesting allegory is Beowulf himself, who can be seen to represent God or Christ.