Vengeance and Revenge in BeowulfThe oldest of the great lengthy poems written in English and perhaps the lone survivor of a genre of Anglo-Saxon epics, Beowulf, was written by an unknown Christian author at a date that is only estimated. Even so, it is a remarkable narrative story in which the poet reinvigorates the heroic language, style, and values of Germanic oral poetry. He intertwines a number of themes including good and evil, youth and old age, paganism and Christianity and the heroic ideal code, into his principal narrative and numerous digressions and episodes; all of which were extremely important to his audience at the time.
Vengeance, part of the heroic code, was regarded differently by the two distinct religions. Christianity teaches to forgive those who trespass against us, whereas in the pagan world, revenge is typical and not considered an evil act. In Beowulf, the ancient German proverb “revenge does not long remain unrevenged” is strictly adhered to and verifies that revenge is part of pagan tradition.
Two human relationships were deeply significant to the Germanic society. The most important, the relationship between the warrior and his lord was based on a common trust and respect. The warrior vows loyalty to his lord and serves and defends him and in turn the lord takes care of the warrior and rewards him lavishly for his valour. The second human relationship was between kinsmen. As Baker and Ogilvy suggest, a special form of loyalty was involved in the blood feud. (P.107) If one of his kinsmen had been slain, a man had an ethical obligation either to kill the slayer or to exact the payment of wergild in compensation. The price was determined upon the rank or social status of the victim.
. . view was “an eye for an eye,” if a man kills your kinsmen you exact revenge. On the contrary, the Christian view was more like as Mohandas Gandhi said “An eye for eye only ends up making the whole world blind.” Christians believed God would inevitability do what is right and would rather turn the other cheek then have it result in more blood and murder. Throughout the poem, the poet strives to accommodate these two sets of values. Though he is Christian, he cannot negate the fundamental pagan values of the narrative story. Works Cited and Consulted: Abrams, M.H., ed. Beowulf: The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001. Baker, Donald C. and J.D.A. Ogilvy. Reading Beowulf. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1983. Earl, James W. Thinking About Beowulf. Stanford: Stanford University Press: 1994.
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