The Use of Magic in Medieval Literature Essay

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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
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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 Hrothgar and Beowulf is a monotheistic one, although the Danes pray at "heathen shrines" out of desperation. Beowulf invokes the blessing of the "Lord", but follows the old Germanic codes of revenge. Despite these inconsistencies, the poem considers the magical beings "heathens" and "demons". The concept of magic being a pagan tradition(and it is) is one…