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Beowulf, Apocalypse, and Iconography

Zacharias P. Thundy, Northern Michigan University

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The recent tragic confrontation in Waco, Texas, between the Branch Davidians of David Koresh and the FBI once again underscores the influence of the Book of Apocalypse on the belief and value system of the Christians. Not long ago, the crisis in the Persian Gulf area also evoked the apocalyptic image of the Battle of Armageddon, with war with Iraq as the igniting spark. Popular evangelical preachers in Christian, Jewish, and even Buddhist circles talked about the gulf crisis as part of the fulfillment of scriptural--Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist--prophecies.[1] Suddenly doomsday books like Centuries (1555) (the prophecies of Nostradamus), Hal Lindsey's The Late Great Planet Earth and John. F. Walvoord's Armageddon, Oil, and the Middle East Crisis became best sellers. Pat Robertson in the novel The End of the Age writes of events leading to the Second Coming Christ where a meteor strikes Los Angeles and the Antichrist slips into the White House. In Frank Perretti's The Oath a scientist battles with sin in the form of a fire-breathing dragon--topping the Publishers Weekly's best-seller list of religious books in September, 95.[2] The following religious videos also dwell on the apocalyptic theme: Early Warning, The Mark of the New World Order, The Midnight Cry, Patmos, A Distant Thunder, Image of the Beast, The Prodigal Planet, The Return, and A Thief in the Night.

From a historical point of view, one finds this phenomenon not surprising at all for Christianity. Calamities like war, famine, and pestilence had off and on inspired popular literature that espoused apocalyptic themes in medieval England. For instance, Wulfstan preached during the Danish invasion in 1014: "Dear brethren, know the truth that the world is hastening to its end...Due to the sins of mankind, ...things will get worse before the coming of the Antichrist" (Sermo Lupi 5-7).[3] William Langland's fourteenth-century Piers Plowman is also an apocalyptic work. There are several references to the end of the world in the works of Chaucer.[4] Then as now, the most important question regarding prophecies is whether they have already been fulfilled in the New Testament or yet to be fulfilled in the future. Mainline Protestantism and earlier Medieval Catholicism by and large held/hold the view that the prophecies have been fulfilled, while many evangelicals and fundamentalists contend that the end is near.[5] This same consideration is important in the study of apocalypticism in Old English literature.

The overall objective of this paper is to show that the old English Beowulf belongs also to the genre known as apocalyptic literature. Since Beowulf, as most critics admit today, is a poem with a good deal of Christian allusions, biblical references, patristic resonances, and much eschatology, it is not illogical to place it in the Jewish-Christian-medieval apocalyptic tradition in which the poet lived and worked. The scope of the paper is as follows: (1) a brief discussion of apocalyptic literature, (2) a very brief survey of apocalyptic elements in the Old English tradition in general, (3) a not-so-brief study of apocalyptic motifs in Beowulf, (4) a digression on Rome as an allegory of evil in early Christian tradition, (5) the argument for the derivation of the dragon of Beowulf from the dragon of the Apocalypse, (6) a short discussion of the historiography of the Beowulf-poet vis-à-vis Bede, and (7) Beowulf and iconography--with music and visual images from pre-eleventh-century Apocalypse manuscripts and Apocalypse-commentaries.

Apocalyptic Literature

Apocalyptic [literature] is derived from the apocalypse ("Revelation") made to Apostle John in the last book of the New Testament. This literary genre, which is characterized by supernatural visions, prophecies, and eschatology, is found in Hebrew literature--canonical and pseudepigraphical--like The Book of Daniel, 1 and 2 Enoch, 4 Ezra, 2 and 3 Baruch, Jubilees, The Apocalypse of Abraham, The Sibylline Oracles, and the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs; many Gnostic works also pertain to this genre. These books are preserved in Ethiopic, Latin, Aramaic, and Slavonic manuscripts. The Aramaic 1 Enoch--an eighth-century fragment of I Enoch exists in England--is found among the Dead Sea Scrolls, dating perhaps to the first century C..E. or even earlier. Though the genre languished in the Jewish milieu after the Destruction of Jerusalem (70 C. E), it flourished in the Christian tradition through the Middle Ages.

Apocalyptic literature is narrative, revelatory writing characterized by a focus on eschatology. Most of the biblical apocalyptic books contain mysterious revelations of hell and/or heaven mediated by messengers or angels; some apocalyptic works also talk about cosmic transformation and the judgment of the dead.[6]

Apocalypses are of two kinds: (1) historical apocalypses and (2) visionary apocalypses.

The historical apocalypses, like the Book of Daniel and the New Testament Apocalypse of John "are concerned with great historical crises. History is often divided into a set number of periods, and the course of history is 'prophesied' from the time of the supposed author down to the actual time of composition. The period before the end is marked by catastrophic upheavals. Salvation may include the restoration of the land of Israel, but the emphasis is on a transition to a radically different world order" (Collins 35). 

In visionary Apocalypses, the visionary, guided by angel(s) ascends through the several heavens or the abodes of the dead like in 4 Ezra. The best medieval example of this type is Dante's Commedia. This paper is concerned primarily with historical apocalypses only, and the typical apocalyptic work discussed here is the Apocalypse of John, which underlies the apocalyptic thinking of the author of Beowulf.

To clarify the nature of apocalyptic works, it is worth indicating the contents of the biblical Apocalypse. The outline of the Book of Apocalypse is given in 1: 19: "Write what thou hast seen and what is and what will be hereafter"--The past is the present; the present was also future; the future was actually the past; it is like day and night: one precedes and follows the other as in the riddle of the chicken and egg. On the whole, the Apocalypse is the record of a vision, written in seven letters to the churches of Asia Minor on their present state and the revelation of future events. Three times does the author dwell on the eschatological period or the last days (6:1 - 8:1; 8:2 - l4:20; 15:1 - 22:5). Though the seer predicts in detail the events of the last times, all calculations of End are missing, for the three and a half years, 42 months or 1260 days (11:2 ff; 12:6,14; 13:5) is a stereotypical apocalyptic number with no chronological interest. The author's aim is not only to strengthen the faith of the Christians in hard times but also to elicit audience support for some of his ideas and interpretations of historical events. For instance, he wants to reawaken the hope in an imminent parousia or second coming (1:1-3; 3:11; 16:15; 22:7, 10, 17, 21), which is more intense than in the Synoptic apocalypse of Mark 13. Many prophecies contained in this second-century work are about historical events that have already taken place. Thus in the vaticinium ex eventu (prophecy made after the event has already taken place) in 17:3-11, verse 10 predicts the short reign of Titus and verse 11 points to Domitian as the eighth king and as Nero redivivus. Domitian is also referred to in the description of the beast from the pit (11:7; 17:8) or from the sea (13:1-10, 18).

Apocalypse dwells on dualism in the notion that heaven and earth must pass away to usher in the new heaven and the new earth (20:11; 19:6 ff; 21:1), in the opposition between the Christian Church and the pagan power, between Christ and Satan (12-14). The author is very careful to point out the inevitability of the End events, the dissolution of the world, and the conquest of Satan (16:17-21; 19:11-20:15). 

The biblical author also unites the End-events and End-figures with the present. For instance, he identifies the eschatological Antichrist with the emperor Domitian (12:17-13: 10, 18; 17:3-11). We do not know whether he identifies the False Prophet (16:3) with a contemporary, but he combines the Devil, Antichrist, and the False Prophet into a Satanic trinity (12; 16:13). Rome appears under several figures: the beast, the dragon, and the prostitute.

The book contains also the interesting idea of the interregnum, of the 1,000-year reign on earth taking place between the parousia and dissolution of the world. During this time the Devil, once bound and then loosed, leads Gog and Magog (the powers of the world) to the final struggle against the Holy City; but finally he is conquered and cast into the lake of fire (20:1-10). 

Apocalypticism in Old English Literature

On Old English apocalypticism three observations are worth making: (1) The eschatological apocalypse is a familiar theme in the works of Anglo-Saxon writers from Bede to Wulfstan. The Harrowing of Hell, Christ III, Judgment Day I and II, The Wanderer, The Seafarer, Elene, Phoenix, The Dream of the Rood, The Soul's Address to the Body, Vercelli Homilies, The Blickling Homilies, and the sermons of Aelfric and Wulfstan are replete with apocalyptic ideas. Hugh Keenan and Graham D. Caie have discussed at some length apocalypticism in all Old English poetry. The Old English works dwell on aspects of the apocalypse such as the end of the world, cosmic and human-made cataclysms, degeneration of humankind, multiplication of evil, Anti-christ, and the release of demons into the world. (2) Most of these apocalyptic works belong to the category of the historical apocalypse. What is characteristic of the historicism of the apocalypse is the linking of the present and future. As the Book of Apocalypse puts it, "Now write what you see, what is and what is to take place hereafter" (1:19). Martin Green writes:

"The hour is coming and now is": although it is found in the least apocalyptic of all the Gospels, no phrase more aptly sums up the apocalyptic sense of the urgent present than this one. The paradoxical language of this formulation establishes a link between the "now" of the present with the "then" of the future; and since the future expectation is one which has been anticipated through history, the present is linked also with the "then" of the past. This linking is what Kermode calls concord--the present is brought into significant relationship with the past and future. Looked at another way, the paradox transforms the apocalyptic moment, a moment in which the past and future are left to impinge relentlessly, and, perhaps more important, a moment when the future is felt to be fulfilled in the present. (505)

Apart from its historical preoccupation with the present, an Old English work like Beowulf, shares some structural features with the Book of Apocalypse. It is that the ring-structure or the envelope-structure of Beowulf with its scops/seers and numeric symbolism should remind us not only of Homer but also of this book of the New Testament. In fact, the Apocalypse of John is marked by various literary indicators such as the repetition of formulaic phrases like "I saw" and "I heard" and by such literary devices, besides ring composition, as intercalations, interlocking, and digressions. So far, critics have failed to notice the influence of the Apocalypse on the structural devices of the Old English poem though they have carefully identified the ring structure of Beowulf. Ring structure consists in the presentation of the ideas, words, or lines of the first coda (a.b.c.) in an inverted order in the second coda (c.b.a.). John Niles writes:

In organizing the narrative of Beowulf, the poet relied heavily on ring composition, a chiastic design in which the last element in a series in some way echoes the first, the next to the last the second, and so on. Often the series centers on a single kernel, which may serve as the key element, so that the design as a whole may be thought of as an ABC ... X ... CBA pattern capable of indefinite expansion. Ring composition has been shown to be a basic structuring device in early Greek literature, the Old Testament Jacob cycle, Old French epic poetry, and traditional British balladry. ("Ring Composition" 924)

The careful textual analyses of scholars like A. C. Bartlett, Constance B. Hieatt, J. O. Beaty, David R. Howlett, John Niles and H. Ward Tonsfeldt have pointed out that Beowulf poet repeats phrases, words, and themes according to the ring or envelope structural pattern. However, they all fail to explain how this structural technique originated in Old English poetry. In this article let me suggest that it is the biblical book of the Apocalypse that seems to provide the Old English poet the inspiration for employing the ring device, besides some of the main ideas of the poem, as I shall show below.[7] 

Apocalyptic Motifs in Beowulf 

Though Beowulf contains apocalyptic elements from beginning to end, the most important apocalyptic element of Beowulf, I suggest, is the poet's historicizing of the biblical monsters in his characterization of Grendel, his mother, and the dragon. This said, let me add the following caveat: Beowulf, like all imaginative literature and apocalyptic works, is full of cruces and ambiguities. For instance, on the one hand, early in the poem we read that the Danes in their dire necessity pray at heathen temples, invoking the devil for aid: "Such was their custom, the hope of the heathens; they thought of hell in their hearts; they knew not the Lord, the Judge of deeds, they knew not the Lord God, nor could they praise the Protector of the Heavens, the Ruler of Glory" (Beowulf: 175-188). On the other hand, Hrothgar and Wealhtheow constantly pray to the Christian God, whom they are supposed not to know, according to the lines cited above![8] The poem's seemingly intended ambiguities are the very reason why we critics keep delivering papers and writing books and articles in our attempt at understanding the monsters and critics of the poem. Further, as explained below, in Beowulf and in the Book of Apocalypse, identity between symbols and realities, between allegories and their significations is ambiguous and imperfect.

A few scholars have pointed out eschatological elements in the poem. John D. Niles writes: "Although God's final judgment of humankind is affirmed by only a few verses (977b-979, 3069a, perhaps 2741a and 3083b), the prospect of judgment is implicitly present throughout the poem. Similarly, the reality of Christ's incarnation is also implicit--in fact, it is never mentioned" (192). The last things are alluded to in Beowulf's seeking out "the judgment of the righteous," (2820), in Scyld's going "into the Lord's keeping" (27b), in Hrethel's finding God's light (2469-70), and in Heremod's, Unferth's, and Grendel's suffering torments in hell (Niles, 193). Also, the "lament of the last survivor" (2247-66), the father's lament (2444-62a), Hrothgar's speech (1700-84) and the messenger's prophecy (3014b-27) contain eschatological dimensions.[9] Edward Risden has explored more thoroughly the apocalyptic elements in Beowulf than all the other scholars in his very informative Beasts of Time: Apocalyptic Beowulf.[10] But more needs to be done.

The main concern in this paper is with the monsters of Beowulf, who are related not only archetypally but also genetically, to the monsters of Apocalypse. According to Martin Green, Grendel "fits the paradigm of the apocalyptic beasts in general terms. He is the enemy of men and God (godes andsaca); he is associated with apostasy....In other words, like the apocalyptic beasts, Grendel becomes a physical projection of the world in a state of imminent collapse; and it is this level of symbolism that gives to Beowulf's battle against him its intensity and urgency" (515). Green, like all critics before and after, refuse to dwell on the allegorical element of apocalyptic beasts and instead talk about symbols and archetypes. Margaret Goldsmith, who also links the Beowulfian monsters to the beasts of Apocalypse, sees rather only the moral sense of the patristic tradition which associates the dragon to concupiscence. Irving sees the dragon strictly in terms of the heroic values of the poem. Calder rejects the association of the dragon and the apocalyptic beast and sees it as elemental force of evil unleashed in the universe, totally beyond and separate from the merely petty evils of aggression and revenge symbolized in the Grendel tribe. In general, most critics follow the nineteenth-century mythological interpretation of Müllenhoff, who suggests that the monsters of Beowulf represent the hostile North Sea, and Beowulf represents a helpful divinity who fights off successive assaults of the sea on the low-lying coasts in the spring (Thundy, "Meaning" 18). The Christian interpreters would change this primitive myth into a battle between Christ and the Devil; Tolkien also favors the mythological school and talk about the Grendel-Beowulf fight in the Augustinian spirit as a "struggle between good and evil" (Thundy, 18). Since the time of Tolkien, critics have more or less unanimously accepted the mythological or archetypal interpretation of the monsters of Beowulf as the authentic interpretation.

Undoubtedly Grendel is an archetype of evil and malevolence and a figure of the devil, but he is also an allegory in the context of Germanic political history. If he is a historical allegory--I refrain from calling Grendel an individual person--, then he must be identifiable by a referent in a literary text and in historical time.

The Beowulfian monsters in their physical and moral and allegorical nature are patterned after the monsters of the Book of Apocalypse. In other words, their textual existence is derived, to a great extent, from the Apocalypse, and they are human and demonic at the same time,without at the same denying the genealogical descent of these literary monsters also from the Irish, Nordic, Latin, and other traditions.[11] Indeed, the similarities betwaeen the Beowulfian monsters and the apocalyptic monsters, which are brutish, human-like, and diabolical all at the same time, are remarkably striking.

Grendel is not just an anthropophagous, misanthropic animal; he has anthropomorphic characteristics as well. On three occasions Grendel is referred to as a man (wer 105, 352; rinc 720; guma (1682); as Lars Malmberg (241-3) points out, Grendel is not just an ordinary human enemy who engages in honest combat to redress a right violated; he rules in heorot where he has no rights; he does not care to follow the Germanic law of wergild, which implies that he follows some other law.[12] Grendel's mother is also human; as the poet says, she draws her sword and strikes Beowulf (1515 ff.).

Grendel is associated with the devil, as Greenfield has suggested, on account of the formulaic link between him and the other exiled devils.[13] Like the devil, Grendel bears God's anger and is godes andsaca (786, 1682). There are ten occurrences of godes andsaca in Old English poetry, and six of these refer to Lucifer and his fellow demons (Malmberg, 241-242).

Other epithets of Grendel that make him demonic are feond mancynnes (164, 1276) and ealdgewinna (1776). These two expressions are literal translations of Latin phrases for the devil: hostis humani generis, which in Vespasian Hymns becomes feond mennesces cynnes (13.4) and hostis antiquus (Malmberg, 242). The reference to Grendel as helle hæfta(n) (785), as captive in hell, is the English translation for the Latin captivus inferni found in Blickling Homily 7(PL 39: 2061), which is another important demonic characteristic pertinent to the apocalyptic tradition, where the Beast is a captive in Hell. Further, the poet's clear identification of Grendel as a spirit from hell (helle gæst 1274) and as wergan gæstes (1747)--translation of malignus spiritus (Gregory, Moralia, PL 56: 113)-- tells us more about the demonic dimensions of this apocalyptic monster. As Malmberg (243) suggests, we must talk about Grendel not simply as a hellish fiend but as a fiend in hell (feond on helle) (101). Most readers also readily recognize that the account of Grendel's lair is similar to the description of hell in Blickling Homily 17, which is based on the visionary apocalyptic work of Visio Pauli.

Though the "spirituality" of Grendel as a demonic figure would place him in the biblical world from the time of the Fall of the Angels, during the time of creation, during the time of Adam and Cain, during the time of the Noachic Flood, and to the end of the world, the physicality of Grendel places him at a certain place and point in time; the numerous historical references and allusions place Grendel not only in Europe but also in historical time. Heusler, Klaeber, and others place the dates of Hrothgar, Halga, Hrothulf, and the other historical figures of the epic in the fifth century, the period of Germanic migrations in Europe (Klaeber, Beowulf, xxxi). At least one of the events mentioned in the poem, the disastrous Frankish raid of Hygelac, is considered by most historians, since the days of Grundtvig, as a real event taking place in the sixth century (Klaeber, xlv). According to R. W. Chambers, Grundtvig's identification of Chochilaicus with Hygelac "is the most important discovery ever made in the study of Beowulf, and the foundation of our belief in the historic character of its episodes" (4).

According to early Christian writers, in the fifth century Antichrist was still at work. The major sinister power, the evil force, that threatened the existence of the Germanic nations in the fifth century was imperial Rome; it was not the Huns, for they were already a remnant at that time and somewhat friendly, though still treacherous, toward the Germanic nations--that is what Hunferth and Hunlafing seem to indicate. I feel like suggesting here that Beowulf is like the thirteenth-century Nibelungenlied. The latter historicized in epic form the conflicts among the Germanic tribes and the Huns without much deep emotional involvement. Indeed, the Old Norse Volsungasaga is seems like Beowulf, in the sense that it, too, allegorizes the conflict between Rome and the Germanic nations; in this saga, for instance, Sigurd's (Siegfried's) killing of the she-wolf--in Beowulf, Sigurd kills a dragon--allegorizes the victory of Germania over Rome which is represented by the she-wolf that suckled Romulus and Remus. I do not imply that the Old English poet and the other German writers were trying to give vent to their hatred toward Rome or the Huns when they wrote these epics; they were rather like Virgil when he wrote the Aeneid; Virgil does not display any strong animosity toward the Greeks in his epic. In other words, poets could write national epics on ancient conflicts without being emotionally involved or without taking sides in the conflict or without having to admit that emotional conflict was still important at the time they wrote their poems. Therefore, it is not necessary to establish the thesis that the Old English poet was still smarting under Roman persecution when he wrote the poem about the conflict between Germania and Roma.

Was it feasible for the Old English poet to portray Rome as the diabolical, apocalyptic, cannibalistic, vampirish, detestable, abominable, hellish, satanic fiend Grendel? Though modern readers tend to identify Rome with Virgil, Livy, Horace, Ovid, and Gregory the Great to talk about Rome as the great Satan, the early Germanic peoples could talk about imperial Rome and her blood-thirsty legions that destroyed the Jerusalem Temple, that executed Jesus Christ, that massacred countless innocents, that traded in blond English boys in the Roman market place as hideous and devilish. The Romans robbed the Germanic peoples of their land, destroyed their homes, killed their men, just as Grendel did, over a period of some four hundred years. It is important to point out that there are a few allusions to the language and culture of Rome in the poem. Dorothy Whitelock has already called our attention to the poet's use of gigant-giant (113, 1562, 1690--a Latin loan-word), candel (1572--Latin candela), forscrifan (106--from the Latin proscribere, and most significantly to the word non (1600)--from the Latin word nona meaning church service at the ninth hour (5-6). Then there is the common word beor as in beor-scealc ("beer-drinker," 1240), beorsele ("beer hall," 482, 492, 1094); beor is not a native Germanic word even though it is a popular Germanic drink; it is a sixth-century monastic loan word from the Vulgar Latin biber. The Roman roads are mentioned in stræt wæs stanfah ("The highway gleamed with bright stones, 320); the hall of Hrothgar (724-25) has the tesellated floor of the Roman buildings, according to Klaeber, Gummere, and Stanley (Thundy, "Meaning"19). Grendel, as the Romans desecrated the Temple of Jerusalem, would also lay hands on Heorot. Beowulf, like Christ, would later cleanse the temple; Grendel's grasp in Heorot, even though it was placed there by Beowulf himself (830-36), is ironically like the abomination of desolation set up by the Romans in the Jerusalem Temple (Matt 14: 15).

Rome as an Allegory of Evil in Early Christianity

Did the poet have any literary precedent to portray Rome as the apocalyptic monster? The answer is yes.[14] In the literary tradition of the historical apocalypse, which the Christian author of Beowulf inherited, Rome is presented as a hideous apocalyptic monster--morally and literally.

It is true that St. Paul presents Rome in a favorable light and exhorts Christians to give Rome her due because political rulers receive their authority from God (Rom. 12-13). St. Paul would also counsel the Christians: "Bless those who persecute you" (Rom. 12: 14); the implication is that God in His turn will prosecute the the persecutor to avenge the persecuted (Rom. 12: 19). However, other contemporary Jewish and Christian writings (1 Peter, 2 Esdras, and the Book of Sibylline Oracles) present Rome in a negative light. The most anti-Roman Christian text is the Book of Apocalypse. It is the moral and theological view of this Christian text that underlies the Beowulf-poet's sub-human, demonic portrayal of the Grendelkin as images of the Roman Empire as well as his ethics of the desire for vengeance on one's enemies.

Obviously, Beowulf's desire to avenge the death of his kinsmen does not conform to the spirit of the Sermon on the Mount, where Christians are urged not only to avoid murder but also anger ( Matt. 5: 21-26). Neither Beowulf nor the Book of the Apocalypse shows the Old Testament Ezra's concern for the multitude which will be damned (2 Esdras 7: 45-48, 62-69). Rather, the Christian Apocalypse entreats God to avenge the blood of the saints (6:9-11). The angel over the water does not preach and practice non-violence but the law of revenge or vindication. The Christian author says that those who shed the blood of the saints and prophets will be given blood to drink, because "they deserve it!" (16: 4-7). Grendel's drinking of blood and eating of human flesh is to be seen as punishment in the light of this passage; this act makes Grendel look detestable and deserving of punishment like Rome , the Prostitute of the Apocalypse, for she is portrayed as drunk with the blood of the saints and prophets and of all who have been slain on the earth (17:16; 18:24). The poet also gloats over the fall of these fiends, especially when he gives all the gory details of the battle between her and Beowulf (1384-89). All this makes sense because the story is told in the spirit of the Christian work of Apocalypse. Further, Grendel's mother is patterned after the prostitute of Apocalypse who was made naked and defenseless, her flesh burned up and devoured by fire. Indeed, all this happened, as in Beowulf, to fulfill God's purpose (17:17).

Is the prostitute of the Apocalypse, for example, an allegory of Rome? Jewish and Christian apocalyptic writings assimilate Rome, the destroyer of Jerusalem, to Babylon, the early destroyer of the Holy City. In chapter 16, God makes Babylon "drink the cup of the fury of his wrath" (16:19); in chapter 17, the city of Rome is personified as a prostitute with whom the kings of the earth have prostituted themselves (17: 1-2); she is clothed in gold and surrounded by a treasure and holds a golden cup (17:4). In Beowulf, the poet transfers the treasure and golden cup to the dragon, though there is reference to treasures in Grendel's abode as well--incidentally, Beowulf did not take any treasures, except the hilt of the melted sword, from Grendel's house; like Beowulf, Alaric did not plunder Rome and take treasures away with him. The inference that the prostitute is Rome can be seen from the facts that she is seated on seven hills (17:9) and that she has dominion over the kings of the earth (17:18).

As in Beowulf, the Prostitute of the Apocalypse is found in the company of the Beast, which also represents Rome (17:10-11), and the Beast's ten horns represent ten Roman emperors; in other words, the book of the Apocalypse allegorizes Rome in several ways: as the Beast from the sea, as the Beast from the earth, as the ten horns of the Beast, and as the Prostitute. Obviously, there is no one-to-one correspondence between image and reality in the biblical work; rather, it seems that the biblical author is employing different allegories to represent the same reality in order to achieve a more intense effect. It is the same technique that the author of Beowulf is utilizing in the poem: he, too, uses the allegories of Grendel, Grendel's dam, and the dragon to signify the Roman empire, the historic manifestation of evil or the devil.

As mentioned earlier, the Apocalypse is deeply embedded in the compositional structure of Beowulf; in particular, the following similarities between Beowulf and the Apocalypse are worth mentioning:

The apocalyptic Beast is allowed to exercise power for a certain period of time ( 42 months--13:5), and Grendel for twelve years (147); Rome, the Beast, enjoyed universal power and divine worship: "Over every tribe and people and tongue and nation" (13:7); "all who dwell on earth worship the "Beast" (13:8); likewise, Grendel is associated with divine honors--in the sense that the Danes "vowed holy sacrifices to honor the shrines of idols and and prayed aloud that the Destroyer of Souls might render them aid against the calamities of their nation. Such was their custom; such was the hope of the heathen" (175-79). That the Germanic peoples in Grendel faced a human force or an imperial power is evident in the following passage: "Grendel had long waged war on Hrothgar... a conflict which had no end. No peace did he wish with any man of the Danish host, nor was he willing to ... offer blood-money in settlement; nor need any counselors there expect compensation in bright gold from the slayer's hand" (151-58); in fact, Anti-Christ/Beast is depicted as being generous toward his clients in the distribution of gifts (13: 11-18). In chapter 19, the apocalyptic beast is captured after the battle between him and the Word of God by the armies of heaven; the beast is then thrown alive into the lake of fire (19:20); likewise, when Grendel is dispatched to his fiery lake abode (fyr on flode, l366), he is alive. In both works, the monsters are identified with Satan (12-13); in both works there is also reference to an interregnum: In Beowulf, there is the period of prosperity between the death of Grendel and the start of the attacks of the dragon while in the Apocalypse there is the anticipation of the messianic millennium (20:1-6). In both works, after the introductory part we find three acts: (1) The first act of the eschatological drama (5:1- 11:4): the events which introduce the decisive struggle between God and Satan; in Beowulf, it is the Beowulf-Grendel struggle (2) The second act of the eschatological drama: the decisive struggle between God and Satan for the possession of "the kingdom of this world" (11: 15 - 20:15); in Beowulf, it is the battle between Beowulf and Grendel's mother. (3) The third act of the eschatological drama (21:1 - 22:5): the eternal kingdom of God with the heavenly Jerusalem as its center upon a new earth; in Beowulf, it is the battle between Beowulf and the dragon; earlier in the poem the re-establishment of Heorot, free from the depredations of the Grendelkin, seems to correspond better with the descent of the Heavenly Jerusalem. In the biblical work, there are two accounts of the fall of Satan (12:9-12; 20:2-3); Beowulf also recounts the twin fall of the Roman empire in the stories of the defeat of Grendel and his mother.; the fall-metaphor finds its best Beowulfian expression in the fall of the dragon, which was dropped off the cliff (3131-3). As in the Apocalypse, the Beast/Grendel receives a mortal wound in the Old English poem. In both works, there are doublets and interpolations.

The Beowulfian identification of the Grendelkin with the apocalyptic beasts and Rome finds support not only in the Book of the Apocalypse but also in the early medieval exegeses of the Apocalypse. Briefly stated, the anti-Roman reading of Apocalypse was fairly well known among Christian exegetes. For example, Ireneus (second half of the second century) sees the Roman empire in the Beast of the Sea of the Apocalypse, without mentioning Rome by name; however, he attributes the mysterious number 666, which indicates the name of the Beast, to Latinus since the Latins currently hold imperial power.(Adversus Haereses 5.30.3). Hippolytus of Rome (third century) does not hesitate to identify unequivocally the beast of Daniel with Rome (Refutation of Heresies 25, 28,33); later on, he refers to the Second Beast of the Apocalypse 13 as Antichrist, who would be a Roman emperor (49). Like Ireneus, Hippolytus, too, thinks that the number 666 stands for Latinus (50)--incidentally, Grendel's name appears on line 666 of the poem. The Latin Christian poet Commodian (dated anywhere from the mid-third to the mid-fifth century), enraged by the persecution of the Christians by imperial Rome, became a convinced chiliast (Instructions i: 44) and wrote a fervent anti-Roman poem in the tradition of the Book of the Apocalypse. He taught that there would be two Antichrists--a revived Nero in the West who would be killed by the final Antichrist arising from Persia (Song of the Two Peoples 933-935; McGinn 23). The Latin Church Father Tertullian, who himself was persecuted, had no hesitation whatsoever in calling Rome a devil and the Babylon of the Apocalypse (Adversus Judaeos 94; Paschoud 49). The Latin Fathers--Cyprian, Victorinus, and Lactantius--, who, too, were persecuted, see one of the caesars as Antichrist and Rome as the Prostitute of the Apocalypse (Paschoud 55-57).

The anti-Roman attitude of the early Christian writers underwent, however, a significant change with the conversion of Constantine and the the Christianization of the empire in the fourth century. Eusebius of Caesarea, Jerome and Augustine rejected the anti-Roman interpretation of the biblical Apocalypse (McGinn 25-27). Augustine, for instance, without denying the theological veracity of the coming of the Antichrist, refused to calculate the time of the advent of Antichrist or to read the signs of the final consummation; he understood apocalyptic symbolism in terms of the constant struggle between the forces of good and evil within the Church in every age. Hence the prophecies of the Apocalypse do not refer to any particular catastrophe but to the end of all history, and the time of that no one can know (McGinn 26-27).

Mainline Christianity since the time of Augustine has officially taught the Augustinian interpretation of the Apocalypse. This does not mean that all medieval writers necessarily rejected the anti-Roman interpretation of the Book of the Apocalypse. For instance, Beatus of Liebana's influential eighth-century Commentary of the Apocalypse identified the apocalyptic Beasts with the Rome: "Et vidi, inquit, ascendentem bestiam de abysmo...regum regonorum, id est, Romanorum...formosus in gentibus, id est, fortis in exercitibus"(VI:7). This implies, however, that medieval Christian writers could not overtly proclaim their anti-Roman interpretation of Apocalypse, like identifying the whore of Babylon with Rome--Reformers would later identify the pope with the prostitute!--, for fear of official censure by the Church, which favored Augustine's allegorical interpretation of the Apocalypse; they had to exercise caution and employ ambiguous expressions when they treated controversial topics.

The Allegory of the Dragon

As mentioned above, in the Book of the Apocalypse, Rome is represented by several allegories: the beast of the land, the beast from the sea, the harlot, Babylon, and the dragon.[15] The Beowulf-poet also manipulates the dragon allegory to represent Rome, but his dragon represents not Rome, pure and simple, but a hostile area of the (former) Roman empire, the Romanized Britain or the Roman-British .[16]

There is increasing consensus among critics--against Tolkien's views--that the dragon is "a different sort of creature from the Grendel tribe" (Gang 6) and that among the innumerable dragon stories "there is probably not one which we can declare to be really identical with that of Beowulf" (Chambers 97). Of course, nobody denies that the dragon is like the Germanic worm that dwells in a barrow and guards treasure. He does not symbolize evil like Grendel of the devilish brood of Cain; he is merely provoked to deeds of slaughter and destruction. The dragon, unlike, Grendel, is given no clear ancestry, no companion; he is not an ellorgæst (807), though an attorsceatha (2839); he is autochthonous; he is kind of ageless (wintrum frod, 2277); he has been keeping the treasure for a long time (2277-78); the messenger in the poem thinks that the dragon belongs where he dwells: "We could not give our beloved prince ... the good advice not to attack the guardian of the gold, but let him lie where he had been so long and remain in his own abode till the world's end" (3079-83). Though the dragon is not God's foe--it is good to remember that the British people were already Christians in the fifth century--, yet he is the enemy of the Geatish nation (theodsceatha, 2278, 2688); therefore, a confrontation is bound take place between the shepherd of the kingdom (rices herde, 3080) and the kingdom's enemy(theodsceatha), who is mindful of past enmity (fæhtha gemyndig, 2689). Therefore, there are several reasons for Beowulf's taking up of arms against the dragon: defense of the country, vengeance, and punishment: "With his live coals the fiery dragon had utterly destroyed all the coastline and nation's impregnable fortress, the stronghold of that region; the warlike king, the prince of the Wederas, planned to take revenge on him for this" (2333-36).

Though the dragon is in many ways different from Grendel, he is in some ways very much like Grendel: he too hates the Geats and humbles them (2318-19); he, too, harms the Geats and even destroys the royal hall of Beowulf (2325-26), while Grendel is not allowed to approach Hrothgar's gifstol (168-169). The dragon, like Grendel (166-167), is also a ruler of the land only during dark nights (2210-11). Both have "heathen" associations: Grendel is heathen (852, 986); the dragon, though not called "heathen" specifically by the poet, guards, however, the treasure of the heathen (2276-77, 2216).[17]

The poet indicates the quasi-indigenous character of the dragon by saying that he has guarded the treasure for some three hundred years (2278-79); in other words, he is not merely a foreign force like Grendel-Rome nor an intruder like the thief from the Germanic kingdom (2214-25). By limiting the dragon's presence on the British soil to three hundred years, the poet seems to suggest that the British themselves came from elsewhere as the Anglo-Saxons came from Europe. .By means of the image of the thief intruding into the dragon's barrow, the poet seems to suggest that the Angl-Saxons themselves are intruders who stole Britain from the Celts. Further, the poet describes rather ambiguously the dragon's barrow as a natural cave (2529-40; stanclofu, 2540; under earnanæs, 3031; stanbeorh steapne, 2213).unknown even to the elders of the Geatish nation (2214). That is why the thief is asked to show the way to the dragon's barrow (2406-10). So the dragon had been there long before the time of Beowulf and his elders, living in a barrow, not far from the home of Beowulf. On the other hand, the poet also says that the barrow was man-made, alluding to the fortifications like the Antonine Wall and Hadrian's Wall left behind by the Romans, for holding treasures:

A barrow stood ready on open ground by the water's waves; it had been newly built by the headland, and secured by arts that made it hard to enter. Into this the keeper of the rings bore great heaps of princely treasures and plated gold ... and spoke but few words: "O earth, guard now what earls have owned, now that heroes cannot! Indeed, it was from you that noble men once won it. Death ... has carried off every single man of my race." (2241-51)

This passage, I would like to believe, means that, after the departure of the Romans, the British inherited their culture and traditions. The poet further refers to the Roman-British association by alluding to the construction of the barrow: "Then the noble hero went, pondering deeply, to a seat by the wall [Roman fortification?] and seated himself. he looked on the work of giants, seeing how the age-old earthen dwelling held the rocky arches (stanbogan) within it their columns (stapulum)" (2715-19; also 2545). According to Klaeber, "stanbogan seems to refer to a primitive vaulting such as is met with in ... Irish stone graves" (219); the arches also point to the specific Roman art of vault-building.

Historically speaking, at the time of the Germanic invasion in the fifth century the British were thoroughly Romanized in their names, dress, arts, language, literature, legends, genealogy, folklore, and political administration. If Gildas is right, the British, who considered themselves Romans, even appealed to Aetius the Roman minister in 446 for help. In this connection, it is of some interest to note that the greatest British hero of literary fame, Arthur, who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons, has a Roman name (Arturus) just as his mentor Merlin bears the name Ambrosius!

Besides architectural, historical, and archeological associations between Rome and Roman Britain, there are also mythological references to account for the kinship of the British with the Romans. Both the British and the Romans claim that they are descendants of Aeneas; Brutus, the great-grandson of Aeneas, who accidentally killed his brother Silvius with an arrow, came to Albion and established the New Troy at London. Brutus overcame all the giants of Britain except Gogmagog, the ancestor of the Scythian-Gothic-Geatish race; he spared Gogmagog for his friend Corineus to wrestle with. According to later British version of the story by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Corineus "heaved Gogmagog up on to his shoulders and running as fast he could ... hurried off to the nearby coast [Totnes, once a walled town, on the river Dart]. He clambered up to the top of a mighty cliff, shook himself free and hurled this deadly monster ... far out into the sea" (I:16). It is possible that the Beowulf-poet may have used this or a similar story to his purpose, to show how a Germanic hero defeated the British dragon and how his men "thrust the dragon over the cliff, letting the waves take the serpent and the floods the engulf the keeper of rich adornments" (3130-33)--this passage of reminiscent of the forced exile of the defeated British across the sea to Armorica. Similarly, the poet attributes arson and violence to the Romano-British dragon who tried to destroy the Germanic civilization by fire. It looks as if the writer has in mind the lamentations of Gildas who blames the Germanic invaders for unleashing a devouring conflagration on the British: "For the fire of vengeance on account of preceding crimes blazed from sea to sea, heaped up by the eastern band of sacrilegists, and, devastating all the nearest cities and lands, ceased not, being kindled until, consuming almost the whole surface of the island, it licked the western ocean with its red and savage tongue" (148). Indeed, the Anglo-Saxon poet seems to be responding to Gildas in Beowulf by depicting the British as a fire-breathing dragon. Another Anglo-Saxon poet, writing in the year 937 for the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle in the aftermath of the Battle of Brunanburh, expresses similar sentiments: "Never yet in the island before this, by what books tell us and our ancient sages, was a great slaughter of a host made by the edge of the sword, since the Angles and Saxons came hither from the east, invading Britain over the broad seas, and the proud assailants, warriors eager for glory, overcame the Britons and won a country" (Whitelock I: 201).

Further, symbolically speaking, the identification of the Beowulfian dragon with the British makes sense. The golden dragon was the personal standard of King Arthur and his father. Uther got his name Utherpendragon from the two golden dragons he made, one of which he bestowed on Winchester Cathedral while he carried the other round in wars, according to Geoffrey of Monmouth (VIII: 14). The poet's allusion to Hengest (1083, 1091,1127), the Anglo-Saxon invader of Britain, also seems to refer to the British-Germanic conflicts which underlie the dragon story.

The story, therefore, of Beowulf's fight against the dragon should be read as an important episode in the national epic of Anglo-Saxon England just as the defeat of the Grendelkin is to be viewed as the greatest event in the early history of Germania.[18]

The Old English poet's celebration of the victory of the Germanic people over Rome and of the English over the British in a national epic was perhaps inspired by the disintegration of the Roman empire and the establishment of the Carolingian empire. Likewise, it is quite possible that the Anglo-Saxon poet wrote and recited the dragon episode to celebrate the triumphs of King Athelstan and his father Edward the Elder over the British in the tenth century (Thundy, "Date" 108).[19] In this sense, the third part of Beowulf was composed like "The Battle of Brunanburh" to celebrate a victory in war as well as sing a dirge in honor of the fallen hero Edward the Elder who went to Chester in 924 to quell a riot by the Welshmen and who died at Farnon-on-Dee, a few days after his victory (Thundy, "Date" 110).

History vs. Epic: Bede vis-à-vis Beowulf 

Support for the historico-allegorical reading of Beowulf can be found in the Anglo-Saxon view of history informing Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum. Bede's History is a Christian replacement for the epic, whereas Beowulf is an epic replacement fro Augustine's City of God or of Bede's history of the English. Bede told Ceolwulf that in the new history the king would become acquainted with the actions and sayings of the renowned English men of the past (gestis siue dictis priorum, et maxime nostrae gentis, uirorum illustrium" (HE, preface). By discussing British and Roman history in the first chapters of his monumental work, Bede showed that the English nation had a new history, that they belonged to the British history, that they belonged to the Roman history and to the universal history of the Church. "He showed them that they blonged to Britain as much as Britain belonged to them, so that Bede's History properly ends, as it was begun, with Britain and the status universae Britanniae (V.23)."[20] It is emarkable that somewhat like the last part of Bewulf, the last but one chapter of Bede's History also celebrates the defeat of the British: "The Britons ... through innate hatred are adverse to the English nation ..., yet from both the divine and human power against them, they can in no way prevail as they desire.... They are also brought under subjection to the English" (HE V:23).

The Beowulf-poet recounts universal history from the beginning (in geardagum) to its fiery apocalyptic end with the Germania-Roma and Germania-Britannia conflicts sandwiched in between as the two most important periods in the history of the English people. Though both works praise the given constant of the victories of God, Bede emphatically celebrates the power of the Almighty as in Caedmon's Hymn (HE IV.24); Beowulf, on the other hand, stresses the attacks of the old enemy--Grendel, his mother, and the dragon--on the Germanic people; for example, "with the coming of Grendel, as the old enemy (eald gewinna--antiquus hostis) entered our hall, joy turned into grief (1775-76). While Bede's History dwells on God's triumph through the Church, Beowulf-history transcends the militant Church and fades into the misty end of universal history celebrated in the Apocalypse. While Bede's book describes the ecclesiastical history for the English, Beowulf narrates primarily the military history of the Germanic people in epic fashion, as Virgil had done it for the Romans in the Aeneid.

Beowulf and Iconography

The Beowulfian monsters appear to be literary copies of visual images from apocalyptic iconography. According to Bede's testimony, Benedict Biscop, the Abbot of Wearmouth, returning from his fifth journey to Rome (c. 680) brought with him a number of pictures to decorate his church of St. Peter; he adorned the north wall of the church with "images of the visions of the Apocalypse of St. John," which means that in the seventh century a cycle of Apocalypse pictures was procurable at Rome. Though the Wearmouth pictures have left no traces, the Roman tradition of the Apocalypse cycle has been preserved in several manuscripts dating before the eleventh century. They are the Trier, Cambrai, and Bamberg manuscripts supplemented by the Spanish manuscripts of the Apocalypse Commentary of Beatus of Liebana, written about 780. There are over thirty copies of the Spanish work, of which two of the oldest are now in the Pierpont Morgan Library. Bede also records that the themes of Apocalypse were among the subjects of Caedmon's poetry. Risden points out in his study that an Anglo-Saxon booklist of the mid-tenth century includes an entry Apocalypsin, which must be a commentary on the Apocalypse, probably Beatus' illustrated work (135). Since in all likelihood Beowulf was composed before 1100, the poet might have consulted the illuminated manuscripts of the Apocalypse. Several details in the portrayal of the monsters in Beowulf as well as several images in the poem can be illuminated by recourse especially to the Carolingian manuscript illuminations of Apocalypse, as shown below. It is not feasible to argue for the English poet's use of one particular illuminated mansucript of the Apocalypse; all the illuminated mansucripts present more or less the same details and artistic concepts in both the Roman and Iberian-North African apocalyptic traditions. Space and emory limitations prevent me from from reproducing many illustrations; the few given below are adequate enough to prove the thesis of this article.


The appropriate music that goes with the tone of the poem is both triumphal and somber. Certainly "Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus" recited at every mass is suitable to celebrate Beowulf's victory over Grendel and his genetrix:

The requiem music goes well with the dirge that accompanies the death and burial of Beowulf. Below, the text of "Dies Irae" is given in full with English translation.

Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus, Dominus Deus    Holy, holy, holy Lord God of hosts!        
Sabaoth! Pleni sunt coeli et terra         Heaven and earth are full of your glory!   
gloria tua! Hosanna in excelsis!           Hosanna in the highest! Blessed is he      
Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini!     who comes in the Lord's name! Hosanna in   
Hosanna in excelsis!                       the highest!


Dies Irae--Though found in manuscripts of the thirteenth century and ascribed to Thomas of Celano (thirteenth century) , the hymn antedates even the twelfth century, with many motifs drawn from earlier hymns such as the sixth-century Irish hymn "Altus Prosator." Gregory the Great (d. 604) is even considered to be the author of "dies irae" among others. The hymn is a summary of Christian eschatological teaching.

Dies irae, dies illa                    The day of wrath, that day                 
solvet saeculum in favilla,             shall consume the world in ashes,          
teste David cum sibylla.                as prophesied by David and the Sibyl.      
Quantus tremor est futurus,             How much trembling there shall be          
quando iudex est venturus               when the judge shall come                  
cuncta stricte discussurus.             to judge all things carefully.             

Tuba mirum spargens                     The trumpet, blowing its awful sound       
per sepulchra regionum                  across the graves of all lands,            
coget omnes ante tronum.                summons all before the throne.             
Mors stupebit et natura,                Death and nature shall be stunned          
cum resurget creatura                   when mankind arises                        
iudicanti responsura.                   to render account before the judge.        

Liber scriptus profertur                The written book shall be brought          
in quo totum continetur,                in which all is contained                  
unde mundus iudicetur.                  whereby the world shall be judged.         
Iudex ergo cum sedebit                  When the judge takes his seat,             
quidquid latet apparebit,               all that is hidden  shall be revealed;     
nihil inultum remabebit.                nothing shall remain unavenged.            

 Quid sum miser tunc dicturus,          What  shall I, a wretch, say then?         
quem patronum rogaturus                 To which protector shall I appeal          
cum vix  iustus sit securus?            when even the just man is barely safe?     

Rex tremendae maiestatis                King of awesome majesty,                   
qui salvandos salvas gratis,            who freely saves those to be saved,        
salva me, fors pietatis.                save me, fountain of pity.                 

Recordare, Iesu pie,                    Remember, gentle Jesus,                    
quod sum causa tuae viae,               that I am the reason for your sojourn,     
ne me perdas illa die.                  do not let me perish that day.             
Quaerens me sedisti lassus,             Seeking me, you sank down wearily,         
redemisti crucem passus;                You saved me by suffering on the cross.    
tantus labor non sit cassus.            Let not such suffering be in vain.         
Iuste Iudex ultionis,                   Righteous judge of vengeance,              
donum fac remissionis                   grant the grace of forgiveness             
ante diem rationis.                     before the day of reckoning.               

Ingemisco tamquam reus,                 I groan like the guilty one,               
culpa rubet vultus meus,                guilt reddens my face with shame,          
supplicanti parce, Deus.                O God, spare the supplicant.               
Qui Mariam absolvisti                   You, who pardoned Mary                     
et latronem exaudisti,                  and heard the good thief's prayer,         
mihi quoque spem dedisti.               give me hope.                              
Preces meae non sunt dignae,            My prayers are unworthy,                   
sed tu bonus fac benigne,               but you good one, kindly vouchsafe         
ne perenni cremer igne.                 that I may not burn in eternal fire.       
Inter oves locum praesta                Give me a place among the sheep            
et ab hoedis me sequestra,              and separate me from the goats,            
statuens in parte dextra.               placing me at your right hand.             

Confutatis maledictis,                  As the damned are routed                   
flammis acribus afflictis,              and consigned to searing flames,           
voca me cum benedictis.                 count me among the blessed.                
Oro supplex et acclinis,                Suppliant, I beg you,                      
cor contritum quasi cinis,              my heart crushed like ashes,               
gere curam mei finis.                   help me in my last hour.                   

Lacrimosa dies illa                     Oh, that day awash in tears!               
qua resurget ex favilla                 Then from the ashes shall arise            
iudicandus homo reus;                   the guilty man to be judged.               
huic ergo parce Deus.                   Oh, Lord, have mercy on him.               
Pie Iesu, Domine,                       Gentle Lord Jesus,                         
dona eis requiem.                       grant him rest.                            
Amen.                                   Amen.


Since Beowulf is an epic, it should have a theme similar to the themes of the Indo-European epics like the Iliad, the Aeneid, the Mahabharata, and the Ramayana, which celebrate primarily national struggles rather than individuals' heroic exploits. In addition, since the many events of Germanic history recorded in the Old English poem take place in the fifth century, the epic must be celebrating important events that took place in Europe at that time. The most important struggle the Germanic nations waged during that time was the war between Rome and themselves; the Germanic nations won victory over Rome and her empire when finally Alaric and his Visigoths sacked the city of Rome. The next important chapter in the national struggle of the Germanic Anglo-Saxons was their confrontation with the British and their costly victory over the British. For the literary creation of these historic struggles and victories, the poet employed the conventions not only of classical epics but also of the Christian book of the Apocalypse. In this work, which is the first Christian epic, the Christian author found appropriate allegories in the beast, Babylon, harlot, and dragon for representing the battle between Roma and Germania, between the English and the British. The poet historicized the apocalyptic vision and style just as the author of the Apocalypse had done before him and portrayed these struggles and victories against the backdrop of cosmic history as in Apocalypse. For the Anglo-Saxon poet the end does not come with the end of the Roman empire; for him the end might come with the fall of the dragon (2999-3027), which, too, shares many apocalyptic characteristics; but interestingly the Beowulfian dragon is not an allegory of the Roman empire but of the Romanized British. The English poet seems to have been influenced also by apocalyptic iconography.


1. According to the apocalyptic scenario of popular and traditional preachers, the Battle of Armageddon, named after Megiddo in northern Israel, will lead to the bloodiest war in human history and wipe out a third of the world's population, leading to the Second Coming of Jesus who will put an end to it and usher in a kingdom of peace on earth that will last for one thousand years. The ultra-Orthodox Hasidic sect known as Lubavitachers, believe that the Iraqi crisis will hasten the coming of the Messiah. Many Buddhists think that Bodhisatva Maitreya, who is probably the literary inspiration for the Paraclete of the Fourth Gospel, will probably come sooner than expected on account of the Gulf crisis.

2. Gustav Niehbur, "The Newest Christian Fiction Injects a Thrill Into Theology," New York Times, October 30, 95. p. A 1 and A 11.

3. "In English sources the nearness of the end is mentioned in charters [dated 929 and 962], ... in the Blickling Homilies X and XI ... and in Aelfric's writings.... No precise reference to the year 1000 in this connexion in English records is known" (Sermo Lupi 48).

4. See The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages, eds. Richard K. Emmerson and Bernard McGinn (Ithaca: Cornell, 1992).

5. In the case of apocalyptic beliefs, it is important to distinguish between the general and orthodox membership of a religion and the radical heretics, like the followers of Joachim of Fiore in medieval Christendom.

6. Seen from this perspective, non-Christian epics like the Odyssey and Iliad also contain apocalyptic motifs. Since the works of Hesiod, Homer, and Virgil influenced the Anglo-Saxon and other medieval writers of apocalyptic literature, we must include the classical works also among apocalyptic works.

7. I intend to show in a future article that the Old English poem has so many structural devices in common with the Apocalypse as well as the Gospel of John Some critical works that discuss the apocalyptic in Old English literature are the following: Graham D. Caie, The Judgment Day Theme in Old English Poetry (Copenhagen: Nova, 1976), Walter Deering, The Anglo-Saxon Poets on the Judgment Day (Halle, 1890), and Hugh Keenan, "The Apocalyptic Vision in Old English Poetry" (Diss. Tennessee 1968 (DAI 30 [1969], 1138A). Robert Finnegan, "The Gospel of Nicodemus and The Dream of the Rood 148b-156," NM 79 (1978), 11-20), Monika Brzezinski, "The Harrowing of Hell, the Last Judgment, and 'The Dream of the Rood' NM 89 (1988),252-265, Martin Green, "Man, Time, and Apocalypse in The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and Beowulf (JEGP, 74 (1975): 502-518), Roberta Bux Bosse and Norman D. Hinton, ""Cynewulf and the Apocalyptic Vision," Neuphilologische Mitteilungen 74 (1990): 279-293. I haven't come across any thorough study comparing the Apocalypse with Beowulf, however.

8. It is quite possible that both Hrothgar and Wealhtheow are Christians; the reason for this conjecture is that wealhtheow could mean not only "Welsh slave" but also "Roman." There were Roman Christians who were married to Germanic men, like Ethelberht of Kent, for example.

9. Hugh Keenan has a short chapter in his dissertation on the apocalyptic art of recapitulation as employed by the Beowulf-poet.

10. Edward L. Risden, Beasts of Time: Apocalyptic Beowulf (New York: Peter Lang), 1994. Risden finds three levels of apocalypticism in the poem: (1) societal, (2) personal, and (3) cosmological and connects it with Germanic apocalypticism found in the Old Norse Ragnarok.

11. Wayne Hanley's article "Grendel's Humanity Again" In Geardagum XI (June 1990), 6-13, contains the current bibliography on Grendel. The Literature is rather voluminous. I am grateful to Professor Raymond Tripp for calling my attention to his study.

12. In my forthcoming book Doomsday: Apocalypse, Antichrist, and the Anglo-Saxons, I shall deal with the issue of the other law ealde riht that the Dragon, the alter ego of Grendel, the figure of Antichrist follows.

13. "The Formulaic Expression of the Theme of 'Exile' in Anglo-Saxon Poetry," Speculum 30 (1955): 205. See also Fr. Klaeber, "Die christlichen Elementen im Beowulf," Anglia 35: 252.

14. For this section of the paper I am indebted to Adela Collins, "Oppression from Without; the Symbolization of Rome as Evil in Early Christianity," Concilium 200 (1988): 66-74.

15. I have discussed Grendel as an allegory of Rome extensively in my 1983 article published in Grey Friar.

16. In this context, I would like to suggest that the invasion of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons should be seen not only as a case of their going there to defend the British against the Scots and the Picts but also as an instance of the continued warfare between the Germanic nations and imperial Rome. The same theory, I think, mutatis mutandis is applicable in the case of the later invasion of England by the Normans--made up of the ousted British who settled down in Normandy and Brittany Armorica); in other words, the Norman invasion is not just a case of William attacking King Harold for breaking his oath; William and the British exiles of Armorica and Brittany had an ancestral right to repossessing England.

17. It is interesting to note that, while the Anglo-Saxons viewed the British as a dragon, the British viewed them as lions. Gildas (d. 570) writes in a style reminiscent of the style of the Beowulf-poet:

Then a brood of whelps, breaking forth from the lair of barbaric lioness ... borne in three ships ...under favorable sails, with omen and divinations wherein it was being foretold ...that for three hundred years [see Beowulf 2278-79] they should occupy the fatherland ... first infixed their terrible claws in the eastern part of the island. ... To whom the aforesaid mother (of the brood) ... sends a second and larger jail-gang of accomplices and curs, who ... attach themselves to their bastard comrades. Then the seed of iniquity ... sprouts in our soil" (Wade-Evans 147-48).

18. William Morris's The House Wolfings also dwells on the conflict between the Romans and the Goths; Morris perhaps picked up this story in the folklore of Victorian England. Thomas Shippey mentioned this to me in a private correspondence.

19. I have discussed this idea extensively in my "Beowulf: Date and Authorship," NM 87 (1986): 102-116.

20. J. N. Stephens, "Bede's Ecclesiastical History," History 62 (1977): 5.

Works Cited

  • Bartlett, A. C. The Larger Rhetorical Patterns in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, Columbia University Studies in English and Comparative Literature, No. 122 New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1935.
  • Beaty, J. O. "The Echo-Word in Beowulf with a Note on the Finnsburg Fragment," PMLA 49 (1934): 365-373.
  • Calder, Daniel G. "Setting and Ethos: The Pattern of Measure and Limit in Beowulf, SP 69 (1972): 35.
  • Chambers, R. W. Beowulf: An Introduction. Cambridge: Univ. Press, 1967.
  • Collins, John J. "Apocalyptic Literature," Harper's biblical Dictionary, ed. Paul J. Achtmeier. San Francisco: Harper, 1985.
  • Emmerson, Richard K. and Bernard McGinn. The Apocalypse in the Middle Ages. Ithaca: Cornell, 1992.
  • Garmonsway, et. al. Beowulf and Its Analogues. New York: Dutton, 1971.
  • Gang, T. M. "Approaches to Beowulf." RES 3 (1952):.6-12.
  • Gildas. De Excidio Britanniae in Wade-Evans, A. W. , trans. Nennius' History of Britons. London: Methuen, 1938.
  • Goldsmith, Margaret. "The Christian Theme of Beowulf." Medium Aevum 29 (1960): 81-101.
  • Green, Martin. "Man, Time, and Apocalypse in The Wanderer, The Seafarer, and Beowulf," JEGP 74 (1975): 502-518.
  • Hieatt, Constance B. "Envelope Patterns and the Structure of Beowulf," English Studies in Canada 1 (1975): 249-265.
  • Howlett, David. R. "Form and Genre in Beowulf," Studia Neophilologica 46 (1974): 309- 325.
  • Klaeber, Fr. Beowulf. Boston: Heath, 1950.
  • Malmberg, Lars. "Grendel and the Devil," NM 78 (1977): 241-243.
  • McGinn, Bernard. Visions of the End: Apocalyptic Tradition in the Middle Ages. New York: Columbia, 1979.
  • Nicholson, Lewis E. "The Literal Meaning and Symbolic Structure of Beowulf." Classica et Mediaevalia, 15 (1964): 151-201.
  • Niles, John D. Beowulf: The Poem and Its Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1983.
  • ---. "Ring Composition and the Structure of Beowulf," PMLA 94 (1979): 924- 935.
  • Paschoud, François. "La doctrine chrétienne et l'idéologie impériale romaine." in L'Apocalypse de Jean. Eds. R. Petraglio, et al. Geneva: Droz, 1979: 31-72.
  • Risden, Edward L. Beasts of Time: Apocalyptic Beowulf . New York: Peter Lang., 1994.
  • Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, ed. Dorothy Whitelock. New York: Appleton, 1966.
  • Thundy, Zacharias, P. "Beowulf: Date and Authorship," NM 87 (1986): 92-101.
  • ---. "Beowulf: Meaning, Method and Monsters," Greyfriar 24 (1983): 5- 34.
  • ---. "Doctrinal Influence of Jus Diaboli on Beowulf," Christian Scholar's Review 2 (1973):150-169.
  • Tonsfeldt, H. Ward "Ring Structure in Beowulf," Neophilologus 61 (1977): 443-452.
  • Whitelock, Dorothy. English Historical Documents, I Oxford: Clarendon, 1955.

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