Spirituality in "Beowulf"

Essay, 2011

8 Pages


Spirituality in Beowulf

In the text Beowulf, there exist three separate strands of mutually reinforcing religious thought which have been developed as a result of the various contextual forces influencing the text throughout its history. These three strands, Myth, Paganism, and Christianity are all present in three distinctly different interpretations of the storyline of Beowulf, and were not written into the text with deliberate intent by the multiple composers; rather, they represent the spirituality of each of the separate societies and cultures which were their geneses. As a result of this stratification of the three separate strata, highly conflicting and different ideas are present in each interpretation of the text. Within each interpretation there are several distinct ideas which are promoted by that specific interpretation, and which are separate from the other layers of the text. This results from the three different contextual influences on each layer of the text, which are the influence of universal folklore morphology on the Mythical interpretation, the influence of Paganism from the Scandinavian Dark Ages on the Pagan interpretation, and the influence of Christianity from early Anglo-Saxon England on the Christian interpretation.

The Mythical interpretation is the most basic of the three interpretations of the text, and distils the text down to its origins in folklore, prior to its transcription with considerable alteration by its composer in the 7th – 10th centuries[1]. However as David Barnes states, the ideas and events which form the structural basis for the text can be analysed as a separate interpretation distinct from the later interpolations of a separate composer[2].

The original work in this area was done Friedrich Panzer. He analysed over two hundred forms of a folktale for which he coined the name of ‘The Bear’s Son’[3], and the ‘Thor type dragon story’[4]. He argued that Beowulf was a derivative of these two common themes, based on particular similarities between and other traditional tales of Scandinavian folklore such as Grettissaga and Hrólfsaga[5]. The strong similarities between Beowulf and these other texts gives credence to the Mythical interpretation, This promotes the idea of a common underlying structure to folklore, representative of a recurring universal theme in human literature.

While the original analysis by Friedrich Panzer is the seminal work in the area of folktale interpretation of Beowulf[6], David Barnes has also applied Vladimir Propp’s theory of folktale morphology to Beowulf with a considerably deeper analysis of the structure of the text[7]. In his

analysis, Barnes identifies the Proppian ‘function’ of each of the elements of the narrative. He concludes that by this metric, Beowulf also follows the pattern of a folktale that is consistent with Propp’s folktale morphology. Each of the elements described by Propp is present in the correct order for a standard folktale[8], strengthening the notion that Beowulf is in fact based on standard, near universal literary tropes.

It can thus be concluded from these analyses of Beowulf, that the text has a consistent grounding in folklore, or Myth, which establishes certain key elements of the narrative. This interpretation is separate from the later Pagan and Christian interpolations of the text, as these two interpretations introduce distinct and unrelated spiritual ideas into the text. Each of these ideas is relatively homiletic, while the Mythical interpretation is more universal in its spiritual outlook, as established through the use of Proppian analysis earlier and the distillation by Panzer of the key similarities within Beowulf to other similar texts. The key theme within the Mythical interpretation is the notion of heroism within human society, and while the later interpolations may build upon this theme, they also attempt to use it to represent far broader and more homiletic ideals, rather than with the intention of representing it as an idea in its own right. This verifies the thesis of multiple, disparate strands of interpretation.


[1] Heaney, Seamus 1999, Beowulf, Faber and Faber Limited, England, p. ix.

[2] Barnes, Daniel 1970, 'Folktale Morphology and the Structure of Beowulf', Speculum, vol. 45, no. 3, July, Medieval Academy of America, United States, pp. 416-434.

[3] Rosenberg, Bruce 1975, 'Folktale Morphology and the Structure of "Beowulf": A Counterproposal', Journal of the Institute of Folklore, vol. 11, no. 3, March, Indiana University Press, United States, pp. 199-209, Rosenberg summarises Panzer’s description as :

The Hero is of supernatural origin or strength, usually the son of a ‘bear’.

He comes to a haunted house in the words, and a monster punishes his companions for trespassing.

The Hero defeats the monster, which flees back to its lair.

The Hero goes to the monster’s lair in the lower word and defeats him and often a stronger adversary there.

The Hero brings back treasure as a result of his victory.

[4] Sedgefield, W J 1911, The Modern Language Review, vol. 6, no. 1, January, Modern Humanities Research Organisation, United States, pp. 128-131.

[5] Op. cit. Barnes p. 416

[6] Ibid. p. 416

[7] Ibid. pp. 419-431, Barnes’ full analysis is too detailed to cite here in its entirety, but the main Proppian functions that Barnes identifies are in the First Move: V Delivery, VII Complicity, VIII Villainy, IX Mediation, XII First Function of the Donor, XIII Hero’s Reaction, XVI Struggle, XVIII Victory, XIX Lack Liquidated, XXI Pursuit; in the Second Move: VIII Villainy, XI, Departure, XIV Provision, XV Translocation, XVI Struggle, XVIII Victory, XIX Lack Liquidated, XX Return, XXIII Unrecognised Arrival, XXVII Recognition, XXXI Wedding; and in the Third Move: I Absence, II Interdiction, III Violation, V Delivery, VIII Villainy, IX Mediation, X Counteraction, XI Departure, XV Translocation, XVI Struggle, XVII Branding, XVIII Victory, XIX Lack Liquidated, XX Return, XXIX Transfiguration. Barnes’ division of the text into three sections is important for identifying separate interpolations of the storyline, as mentioned later.

[8] Ibid. p. 434

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Spirituality in "Beowulf"
Knox Grammar School
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Damian Morris (Author), 2011, Spirituality in "Beowulf", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/171025


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