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Cain’s Fratricide:  Original Violence as ‘Original Sin’ in  Beowulf

Horace Jeffery Hodges

Korea University, 2007

Scholars have often questioned whether or not Beowulf expresses anything  specifically Christian since it nowhere explicitly mentions Christ or cites the New Testament. The influential literary critic Harold Bloom, for example, has wondered how there can be Christianity without either of these two features (Bloom, “Introduction,”). In these doubts, he was merely echoing those of E. Talbot Donaldson, who held that “there is no reference to the New Testament— to Christ and His Sacrifice which are the real bases of Christianity in any intelligible sense of the term” (Donaldson, “Overview,” 98). As I have previously shown, however, these two objections fail. For instance, lacking in the Old Testament but consistent with the New Testament are such expressions as “suffer punishment in hell” (in helle . . . werhðo dreogan) and “the great Judgment” (miclan dómes) (Donaldson, “Text,” 11: 588-589; 17: 978) as well as such epithets of Satan applied to the monster Grendel as “feond mancynnes [‘enemy of mankind’], Godes andsaca [‘God’s enemy’], feond on helle [‘the devil in hell’], helle haefta [‘the hell-slave’]” (Klaeber 104). Moreover, I have given strong reasons to interpret the hero Beowulf as an antetype of Christ (Hodges, “Praeparatio Evangelium”). I therefore hold that we must not only acknowledge the poet as a Christian but also conclude that Christian themes pervade the poem. However, we can wonder about the poet’s orthodoxy, for his poem appears to treat as the original sin not Adam and Eve’s fall in eating from the tree of knowledge, which goes utterly unmentioned, but Cain’s primeval fratricide in killing his brother Abel, for from this murder comes all manner of evil in the world as well as the central moral problem thematized in Beowulf: kinslaying.

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