Christian Influence on Beowulf and The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki
In Beowulf the Christian influence is revealed through approximately 70 passages in which the form of expression or the thought suggests Christian usage or doctrine (Blackburn 3); The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki is in its own way infused with Christian values even though it preserves remnants of the cult of Odin.
The Christian element seems to be too deeply interwoven in the text of Beowulf for us to suppose that it is due to additions made by scribes at a time when the poem had come to be written down. The Christian element had to be included by the original poet or by minstrels who recited it in later times. The extent to which the Christian element is present varies in different parts of the poem, from about ten percent in the first part to much less than that throughout the rest of the poem. The Christian element is about equally distributed between the speeches and the narrative.
Christian missionaries to Britain in the early centuries took many words belonging to heathen beliefs and practices and adopted them into the church (Blackburn 3). For example, Hel was at one time the goddess of the world of the dead; Catholic missionaries used Hell to indicate the place of the dead, later of the damned. Likewise with words such as Yule, Easter, God, haelend, nergend, drihten, metod, frea; the latter ones have fallen from usage. We see these words used in Beowulf as well as other Anglo-Saxon poetry.
The theology which appears in the Christian allusions in Beowulf is very vague and indefinete: there is no mention of Christ, the saints, miracles, Mary His Mother, specific doctrines of the church, martyrs of the church, the New Testament (there may be one possible brief exception), rites or ceremonies of the church, the cross or the Crucifixion, the Holy Ghost, angels, or Saviour. E. Talbot Donaldson says: “Yet 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.” (Bloom 1). The minstrels who introduced the Christian element probably had but a vague knowledge of Christianity, much of it probably coming from other poets who were Christian, like Caedmon, who is mentioned in Bede’s The Ecclesiastical History of the English People (215-18). Caedmon’s Hymn has but few lines extant:
. . . the power of the Creator, the profound mind
of the glorious Father, who fashioned the beginning
of every wonder, the eternal Lord.
For the children of men he made first
heaven as a roof, the holy Creator. . . .(Alexander 6)
The Christian references in Beowulf include four allusions to Genesis, including the Creation, Cain and Abel and the Flood. There are dozens of references to God in the Christian sense, plus other epithets for God: lord, father, creator, ruler, almighty, ruler of men, ruler of glory, shepherd of glory, king of glory, guider of the heavens, ruler of victories, king of victories (Chadwick 24).
While the poet’s reflections and characters’ statements are mostly Christian, the customs and ceremonies, on the other hand, are almost entirely heathen/pagan (Ward v1,ch3,s3,n17): At the beginning of the poem, there is the account of the pagan funeral rites of Scyld Scefing, and at the close of the poem we see the heathen rites of burial for Beowulf himself, including cremation, deposition of treasures and armor, etc. with the corpse in the burial mound overlooking the sea. Including such heathen rites enables the poet to “communicate his Christian vision of pagan heroic life.”(Bloom 2). Earlier in the poem, the Danes, when under extreme pressure from Grendel, reverted to pagan Satan-worship:
At times they prepared sacrifice in temples,
war-idol offerings, said the old words aloud,
that the great soul-slayer might bring some comfort
in their country’s disaster. Such was their custom,
the hope of the heathen; they remembered Hell
in their deepest thoughts. They knew not the Lord,
the Judge of our deeds, were ignorant of God,
knew not how to worship our Protector above,
the King of Glory (175ff)
The above offering at the pagan shrines is sort of a mystery, coming as it does on the heels of the scop’s singing the Story of Creation in Hrothgar’s court, and of Hrothgar’s very Christian sentiments expressed various times. The logical explanation is that the poem was originally a pagan work which was revised by Christian minstrels in order to better suit their clientelle which were Christian in increasing numbers.
When Queen Wealhtheow enters the Heorot hall, some of her first words “gave thanks to God.” That night, after everyone had gone to bed, except the hero: “And the Geatish man trusted completely in his proud strength and the favor of God.” Beowulf pondered: “and then almighty God, the Lord wise and holy, will give war-glory to whichever side He thinks the right.” Thus the hero expressed total reliance on God – which in the Christian scheme of things is the way it is supposed to be. He is truly a Christian hero at this stage of the poem. Beowulf the hero is quite Christian in his statements and in the poet’s reflections about him. As he is resting in Heorot on that fateful night of Grendel’s visit, God is on center stage:
But the Lord had granted
the men of the Weders comfort and help,
a weaving of war-luck, that they overcame
their enemy entirely, by one man’s strength,
by his own powers. It is a known truth
that mighty God has ruled mankind
throughout far time (696ff)
And following the hero’s victory over the monster:
The Lord then ruled
all the race of men, as He still does now (1057ff)
These passages illustrate one scholar’s interpretation: “The Beowulf poet, too, makes his heroes refer again and again to the power and providence of a single God, and he takes Beowulf’s victory as a sign that ‘God has always ruled mankind, as he still does’” (Frank 58). But despite the Christian gloss Beowulf still uses boar images on his helmet, still wanted cremation. In the following passage God’s power and providence are highlighted early-on in the poem, with the story of King Scyld Scefing, who later goes through the pagan ritual of ship-burial:
he grew under heaven, prospered in honors
until every last one of the bordering nations
beyond the whale-road had to heed him,
pay him tribute. He was a good king!
A son was born him, a glorious heir,
young in the courtyards, whom God had sent
to comfort his people, -well had He seen
the sinful distress they suffered earlier,
leaderless for long. Therefore the Life-lord,
the Ruler of glory, granted earthly honor:
Beow was famed (8ff)
God is the all-powerful One who grants this earthly honor of awesome strength that Scyld, Beow, Healfdene, Hygelac, Ongontheow, Hengest, Hrothgar, and others shared in. This idea continues:
Then Hrothgar was given victory in battle (64).
Again the provident God. From Heorot Hrothgar would:
he would share out
among young and old all God had given him,
except common land and the lives of men (71ff)
Heorot gave joy to the people with its scop narrating “how the Almighty had made the earth,” the “life He created, in each of the species,” “until a certain one began to do evil, an enemy from Hell,” a descendant of Cain. So God’s antithesis is in Grendel and his mother and their “home in the darkness.” Ater killing more than 60 Dane warriors, Grendel “grieved not at all for his wicked deeds – was too deep in sin;” many awful sins against mankind, the solitary fiend often committed;” “he knew not His love.” So God in this poem, besides providence and power, also stands for: avoiding sin, and loving.
The Christian and pagan are juxtaposed in lines 477-478 as Hrothgar elaborates on the Grendel situation to Beowulf:
The ranks in my hall,
my men, are less; fate [wyrd]swept them off
in Grendel’s terror. Yet God may easily
stop the mad deeds of the foolhardy ravager (476ff)
To find causation for evil in a pagan source [wyrd], and to admit that God could counter the evil if He chooses – may be quite Christian in its outlook. In the following passage the reader sees God once again juxtaposed with wyrd when the hero narrates what follows after his killing of nine sea-beasts, in lines 569ff.:
Light came from the east,
God’s bright beacon, and the seas calmed,
till I saw at last the sea-cliffs, headlands,
the windy shore. So fate [wyrd] often saves
an undoomed man when his courage holds.
God stood alongside the hero in his monster combats, even providing a magic sword against the mother, and in his feud settlements. But towards the end of the epic, when Beowulf was confronted with the ravaging of the kingdom by the fire-dragon, the hero relied mostly on his pride and on his own proven record of accomplishment, and less on God – and so he paid a fatal price. Beowulf basically deserted his powerful, provident God and relied on himself – a very unchristian thing to do.
of King Hrolf Kraki
is an Iceland saga representing 1000 years of oral traditions prior to the 1300’s when it was written. “In the view of fourteenth-century Scandinavians, the Christian God was the only true god of victory” (Byock xxxi). This may not be all that obvious to the reader of The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki because there are so many elements preserved from the cult of Odin that they tend to overwhelm the reader and make him think that this simply has to be a pagan prose work. Many of the women in the work are capable of various spells, encantations, curses, rune magic, and other forms of magic or sorcery; some of the male characters have these abilities too. In the narration of the basic storyline I will include some Christian and some pagan elements.
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki begins with King Frodi murdering his brother, King Halfdan, and grabbing his kingdom. Halfdan’s two sons, Helgi and Hroar, escape with the help of Vifil, who was “well versed in the arts of old magic” (01). Frodi uses the aid of sorceresses and soothsayers, and later sorcerers, to find the two sons, but to no avail because of the more poerful magic or charm of Vifil. vifil lives on an island where he hides Helgi and Hroar, and feels that the “air and paths are alive with magic, and powerful spirits have visited the island” (3). On such a day when Vifil felt the power of sorceresses trying to penetrate the secret of his island, he advised Helgi and Hroar to remain in the underbrush and not show themselves.
When Frodi invited Jarl Saevil to feast with his friends at the royal court, Helgi and Hroar snuck into the celebration concealed with hooded tops. Unfortunately, Frodi had scheduled a seeress to sit on a trance platform and do her thing in case some of the guests might provide him clues as to the whereabouts of the two young men. The seeress tells Frodi that they are sitting in front of the fireplace (7), but she warns Helgi and Hroar simultaneously to flee because she is in sympathy with them. In other words, her Christian sense of right and wrong prevails. When the boys flee, Frodi dispatches his killers after them. But other sympathetic Christian types put stumbling blocks in the way of the pursuers, like turning out all the lights (candles?), so that the boys escape to the forest. Then they visit the boys in the woods and help them to plan the downfall of the evil King Frodi.
When Frodi pleaded for mercy while his court was on fire and burning down around him, Helgi was a symbol of Christian justice and not of Christian mercy. He let the evil king die, saying “Now you must pay for your actions” (10). In this episode, the shining Christian example may have been given by Sigrid, the mother of Helgi and Hroar, who was still living in her dead husband/king’s palace. She voluntarily chose not to leave the court and to be burned to death, perhaps in protest at the violent, though just, actions of her sons. With the passing of Frodi, Helgi ascended to the throne of Denmark.
Hroar settled down in marriage with Ogn in England – a very Christian existence. On the other hand, Helgi wanted fame and importance. So he tried to force a famous, pagan queen to marry him, Queen Olof. She was closer to Odin than to God and used a sleep-thorn to put the king to sleep, and then she manipulated him and his men. In revenge, Helgi appealed to the queen’s well-known greed for precious treasure, and thus trapped her and forced her to sleep with him. The child resulting from this was disowned by Queen Olof, and left to live with a peasant family (15). The theme of greed and its ultimate outcome of unhappiness is not only indicated here with the Queen Olga episode, but further illustrated with the Jarl Hrok incident.
Hrok’s mother taught him to be greedy, and to ask King Helgi for a third of the Danish kingdom, or for a precious ring in payment for the serices rendered Helgi and Hroar as a lad by Hrok’s father. Hrok through lying, persuaded Hroar to show him the ring, which Hrok quickly snatched and threw into the sea, wishing noone to have it if he himself couldn’t. Later he feuded with King Hroar and killed him and asked for Hroar’s wife. Hrok’s unchristian cruelty and expansionist designs caused Helgi to amass an army and wipe out Hrok’s warriors and disable Hrok so that he could never fight again. The moral of the incident is this: greed and cruelty cause pain to the unchristian type.
Another story regarding King Helgi illustrates how goodness is rewarded. After his wife had left and he was depressed, Helgi was sleeping by himself in a small shed one wintry, cold night when a faint knock sounded on his door (21). Thinking it unkingly (unchristian) to allow anyone to remain outside in such cold, he opened the door and saw an ugly beggar-woman in rags standing there. She asked if she could spend the night out of the cold, for she was in rags. The king was repulsed at the sight of her, but considered it the right thing to do to give the beggar lodging for the evening. He allowed her to sleep right next to his bed on the floor. Later in the night he glanced over at her; and instead of a beggar-woman he saw the most beautiful woman he had ever laid eyes on. This woman brought happiness to him – because he exercised his Christian charity in letting her share his warm quarters.
The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki mentions the name of God, and equivalent epithets, very seldom. The Christian lesson is gotten across by means of illustrating virtue through stories. As the end of the saga approaches, and we see King Hrolf and Bodvar Biarki battling it out with Queen Skuld and King Hjorvard, the tide of battle turns against the former. Hrolf and Bodvar and their forces are annihilated and the heroes die. And the author pauses to reflect: “Human strength cannot withstand such fiendish power, unless the strength of God is employed against it. That alone stood between you and victory, King Hrolf. . . you had no knowledge of your Creator” (78). And as was stated earlier regarding Beowulf’s demise, it’s unchristian not to rely on God for your strength.
In Beowulf the Christian influence
is revealed through many passages; in The Saga of King Hrolf Kraki there is used a totally different literary technique to convey the worth of Christian values.
Alexander, Michael, translator. The Earliest English Poems. New York: Penguin Books, 1991.
Blackburn, F.A.. “The Christian Coloring in the Beowulf.” In An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, edited by Lewis E. Nicholson. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963.
Bloom, Harold. “Introduction.” In Modern Critical Interpretations: Beowulf, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Chadwick, H. Munro. “The Heroic Age.” In An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism, edited by Lewis E. Nicholson. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1963.
Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.
Frank, Roberta. “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History.” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Ward & Trent, et al. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1907–21; New York: Bartleby.com, 2000