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The Use Of Magic In Medieval Literature

2839 words - 11 pages

The Use of Magic in Medieval Literature

The concept of magic and magical creatures has been around for a long time, however, in the time period ranging from Beowulf to Malory's Arthur, there has been an evolution in attitudes and the consequent treatment of magic in medieval literature. The discussion of magic involves not only the disparity between Christian and pagan tradition but also of gender roles, most notably in the Arthurian mythos. Beowulf, Marie De France's Bisclavret and Lanval, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Sit Thomas Malory's Le Morte D'Arthur involve the concept of magic and magical creatures and consequently, illustrate the treatment of magic of their time.

In Beowulf, the idea of magic is one that is feared and unworldly. It is definitely not an aspect of normal, "courtly" life. Grendel and his mother are both magical beings, and it is quite obvious that they are clearly not the protagonists of the story. Magic was a symbol of power, whether of class or of strength, and Grendel and his mother fit into the latter category. Grendel also poses a challenge to the power of the ruling class. His only target is Hrothgar's great hall - "It was easy then to meet with a man shifting himself to a safer distance to bed in the bothies, for who could be blind to the evidence of his eyes, the obviousness of the hall-watcher's hate?" - apparently, the rest of the land is quite safe from "demons" such as Grendel(Beowulf 35). Grendel's immunity against weapons and armour emphasizes the challenge further.

In pitting Beowulf against Grendel, the poem also suggests that the only way to destroy magic is with itself. It can be assumed that Beowulf possesses some sort of supernatural strength, although he not blatantly referred to as "magical". For that matter, neither is Grendel, though it is mentioned that he has a "charm" against weapons and armour. In a sense, in order to defeat Grendel, Beowulf must revert to his original, untainted and supernatural self. He casts away the trappings of ordinary man and when he faces Grendel, it is magic versus magic. This concept is repeated when Beowulf faces Grendel's mother. He can only defeat her with the help of a magical sword. This suggests the idea that magic is powerful and far greater than ordinary man.

Despite this however, the poem makes it fairly clear Beowulf is still considered "man", and a stellar one at that. He is the "prince of goodness" and "the men who of all men was foremost and strongest in the days of this life"(46, 48). Any magical or supernatural abilities that Beowulf may have are irrelevant - Beowulf is human, Grendel, his mother and the dragon are not. Unlike Arthur, who has the help of Merlin, Beowulf is a more primitive, "man", character - he has to rely mostly on his own strength and wit to defeat the magical creatures. Beowulf pits man against magic more than in later medieval writings. The poem is an odd mix of pagan and christian tradition; the religion of...

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