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Allusion in Beowulf

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.

Allusion Examples in Beowulf:


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"The kindred of Cain..."   (II)

The poet alludes to the biblical story of Cain and Abel, in which the wicked Cain kills his brother and is thus expelled by God from human society. The story states that all of Cain’s descendants also became outcasts and eventually monsters. The poet establishes Grendel as a kinsman of Cain, supporting the idea that he is partly human. This allusion thus applies a Christian lens to pagan lore by viewing such monsters and “ill-favored creatures” as products of Cain’s sin.

"winsome wold..."   (II)

Derived from the Old English “wald,” the noun “wold” refers to forest or wooded upland. The “winsome wold” refers to all the land of the earth, “encircled” as it is by water. This duality between land and sea directly resembles the Christian creation story laid out in the opening passages of the biblical book of Genesis.

"Weird hath offcast them to the clutches of Grendel...."   (VIII)

Recall that “Weird” (or Wyrd) refers to personal destiny, or fate. Here, Hrothgar personifies Weird by making it perform the action in the sentence. This personification implicitly draws on Norse mythology, in which Weird was often conceptualized as a goddess. The people that Grendel has killed died because of the forces of destiny, not because of individual choice. By personifying Weird, Hrothgar (and the poet) create a dichotomy between God and Weird, or Christian faith and Pagan destiny. While Weird sent the men to “the clutches of Grendel,” God has the power to stop Grendel from killing Hrothgar.

"Since Hama off bore the Brosingmen's necklace,..."   (XIX)

To better describe the gifts bestowed upon Beowulf to his audience, the poet alludes to the tale of Hama, a heroic character in Germanic legend. Hama entered the castle of King Eormenric, a very oppressive Goth leader, and stole a priceless gold necklace, once thought to have belonged to the Norse goddess Freyja. In order to escape Eormenric's vengeance, Hama spent the rest of his life in the safety of a monastery.

"mindful of vengeance           For the death of her son..."   (XX)

The poet briefly retells the story of Grendel, likely to remind his audience, and includes evidence that Grendel and his mother were once human. Grendel's mother's desire for revenge also represents a human, rather than beastial, trait. Christian translators inserted the notion that Grendel and his mother are descended from Cain, a biblical figure who slew his brother, Abel. This not only associates them with humanity but also with monsters and sin.

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