Such then was their custom, the hope of heathens; in their hearts They bore hell, they knew not the Creator, the Judge of all deeds—neither acknowledged the Lord, nor knew how to praise the Protector of Heaven, the Ruler of Glory.
The poet introduces Christian doctrine very early in the poem, when Hrothgar and his noble Danes are desperate to rid themselves of the monster Grendel. The custom to which the poet refers is praying for help in heathen temples. The poet is acknowledging that the characters have pagan values, while also suggesting that true hope comes from God. As the story progresses, the audience will encounter more and more instances of heroes acknowledging the Lord and praising the Ruler of Glory.
For it is wondrous to say how the mighty God, through magnanimous spirit, gives out as gifts to the kin of men their wisdom, lands and rulership. He is lord of all things.
Hrothgar is speaking to Beowulf after the hero has killed not only Grendel but also Grendel’s mother, thus saving Hrothgar’s kingdom twice. Hrothgar has already lavished praise and treasure on the hero and claimed him as a son. Now Hrothgar offers praise to God as well. Hrothgar’s words of praise suggest his confidence that his own rulership and inherited lands are signs of God’s favor.
I wish to give thanks, speaking such words as I may, to the almighty Ruler, the King crowned with glory, the eternal Lord, for these riches I look on here by the barrow, that I have been blessed to acquire for my dear people, before the time of my passing.
Beowulf is speaking these words as he nears the end of his life, after he has defeated the fiery dragon who guarded an ancient hoard of treasure. His praise of God reflects Christian values. But his words are also an incantation. Near the end of the poem the poet reveals that, because of an ancient spell, Beowulf would have been condemned to hell if he had not named God as the source of the treasure. Here and throughout the poem, the poet uses pagan story elements to convey a Christian message.
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