Figures of Evil in Old English Poetry

Hortus Deliciarum - HellFigures of Evil in Old English Poetry

Joyce Hill

Leeds Studies in English: n.s. 8, (1975), 5-19.


One of the ways, according to the Church Fathers, in which those guilty of mortal sin manifested their spiritual corruption was in their perverted imitation of the good. Their motivation for this behaviour was envy, and pride in their own worth. Satan imitated God, but subsequent sinners imitated Satan himself, and if unrepent- ant, earned for themselves the same fate as him: a state of ever- lasting exile and perpetual banishment from God’s sight. Anglo-Saxon poets followed Christian tradition in presenting Satan, Adam and Eve, and Cain in varying degrees as imitators, and the Beowulf poet added a fifth in Grendel.

In the first section the treatment of biblical figures is examined to show that although the poets conformed closely to the Christian tradition, they were yet able to convey the nature of the sinners’ perversion with great vividness through their exploitation of the secular topoi of comitatus and exile, these they used as least in part, to describe respectively the community of heaven and the sinner’s state of perpetual banishment. In the second section it is shown how the epithet “deapscua”, describing Grendel in Beowulf 160, is probably derived from texts dealing with the Christian concept of the imitative sinner-exile; thus the imitative characteristics of Grendel the exile are manifestations of his spiritual corruption, as in the case of the biblical figures.

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