Beowulf, sleep, and judgment day
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When warriors fall asleep within Heorot’s decorated walls, they initiate a sequence of events that ultimately ends in slaughter and death. This pattern of sleep, attack, and death predictably appears in each of the monster episodes. Humans sleep and fall prey to an otherworld attacker, who eventually receives death as punishment. Interestingly, the roles of the characters are reversed in the dragon scene. Here, the dragon’s sleep exposes him to harm at the hands of a human, the thief, whose guilt is transferred to Beowulf. In this way, sleep designates the victims and the attackers, but it also helps the audience predict the judgment that will take place at the end of each episode. This judgment becomes specifically Christian when contextualized by other Anglo-Saxon accounts of sleep. As in these texts, sleep in Beowulf functions as a liminal zone connecting the world of the humans with an Otherworld. The intersection of these worlds in Beowulf follows the structural paradigm of the popular “Doomsday motif,” in which an angry Christ comes to earth to surprise a sleeping humanity. A study of the verbal and thematic similarities of Beowulf and Christ III best exemplifies this connection. Other mythographic traditions of Christian judgment within Anglo Saxon texts appear throughout Beowulf. Motifs of Christ’s second coming surround Grendel as he approaches Heorot, and his entrance echoes Christ’s harrowing of Hell. The fight in Grendel’s mother’s lair recalls redemption through water: Beowulf’s immersion represents baptism and the hilt of the sword which saves the Danish nation depicts the great Flood. Finally, the dragon’s fire and its resulting annihilation of a people, at least indirectly, resounds with apocalyptic undertones.
Hanchey, Ginger Fielder (2008). Beowulf, sleep, and judgment day. Master's thesis, Texas A&M University. Available electronically from