Christianity and the Beowulf Poet

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Christianity and the Beowulf Poet

In my initial study of Beowulf it seemed to me that the Christian references in it were overlaid onto the essentially pagan tale that makes up the bulk of the poem. So I innocently decided to investigate this incongruity as the topic of this paper. And so I found myself smack-dab in the middle of an argument that has evidently raged for the last one hundred years or so. I found sources that ran the gamut from the position that Beowulf was a quintessentially Germanic pagan work that had been corrupted by some revisionist monastic scribe (Mooreman 1967), to the assertion that the author intentionally created a Christian allegory along the lines of Book 1 of The Faerie Queen (McNamee 1960). I have chosen the middle ground in formulating my thesis, which after further study of the text and a wide range of criticism seems to make the most sense. The author of Beowulf is indeed the author of those Christian passages, but his intention is less to proselytize than to demonstrate that Christianity and his audience's Germanic heritage were not incompatible.

We know that eighth century Anglo-Saxon poets relied upon their native Germanic traditions and techniques to shape even overtly Christian poetry (i.e. The Dream of the Rood) and so it was with the Beowulf poet. The tales of Beowulf were already ancient legend when the poet began his work (whenever that was; dating the poem seems to be another of those old controversies with dates ranging from the 7th to the 11th centuries). The author skillfully uses this material to construct an entertaining tale while at the same time attempting to reconcile the concepts of the pagan wyrd (fate) and dom (renown or worth) with the Christian concepts of grace and final judgement. So it is that we have a poem that is overwhelmingly a pagan story, suffused with the old Germanic warrior culture ethos, yet sprinkled with many loosely Christian comments and a few explicitly Christian passages. However, it should be noted that while we refer to these passages as Christian, no reference to Christ is to be found within the poem.
The first of the Christian passages occurs when we are introduced to Grendal: God had condemned them as kin of Cain. The Eternal Lord avenged the murder in which he slew Abel.

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Cain had no pleasure in that feud, but He banished him far from mankind, the Ruler, for that misdeed. From him sprang all bad breeds, trolls, elves and monsters - likewise the giants who for a long time strove with God: He paid them their reward for that.

With this passage, the poet explains Grendal and indeed an entire pantheon of Germanic bogie-men in a Christian mythological context and he does so in a way that adds to the effectiveness of Grendal as a monster, especially to a Christian audience. The author then continually describes Grendal as a descendant of Cain and states "he was at war with God" as an explanation of the monster's hatred of mankind. Thus the audience is instructed that the evil that is in the world works against God and man as opposed to the indifferent working of wyrd.

The next passage is the most likely to be an addendum at least in part to the original work. The passage has even acquired a name - the Christian Excursus - since it seems such a departure from the general tone of the poem (Irving 1997). At times they vowed sacrifices at heathen temples, with their words prayed that the soul-slayer (Satan) would give help for the distress of the people. Such was their custom, the hope of heathens; in their spirits they thought of Hell, they knew not the Ruler, the Judge of Deeds, they recognized not the Lord God, nor indeed did they know how to praise the Protector of Heaven, the glorious King. Woe is him who in terrible trouble must thrust his soul into the fire's embrace, hope for no comfort, not expect change. Well is the man who after his death day may seek the Lord and find peace in the embrace of the Father.

I find the first part of the passage to be entirely in keeping with the poet's explication of the Germanic past in terms of his Christian present. But when we reach "Woe is him…" the rest of the passage is a jarring departure from the style and structure of a poem that generally leaves any moralizing that is to be done to the characters themselves. I find it easy to imagine the monk-scribe whom is unable to restrain himself from adding a homily when he encounters such an open discussion of pagan worship.

The last Christian passage I will discuss was called by Tolkien (1936) "Hrothgar's Sermon". Since it runs for more than 40 lines, I will refrain from quoting it in total, but will examine some of its aspects. Just prior to this speech, Hrothgar has bestowed great praise and blessings upon Beowulf for his victory over the Grendal family. With this "sermon" Hrothgar maintains that "It is a wonder to say how in his great spirit mighty God gives wisdom to mankind, land and earlship - He possesses power over all things." He then warns Beowulf against the sins of pride and covetousness and advises him to "choose better, eternal gains" and thanks " the Ruler, the Eternal Lord" for deliverance from Grendal. Hrothgar is by far the most monotheistic of the characters in Beowulf. As an old man, he serves as the wise counter-point to the young Beowulf who clearly puts more faith in his strength and prowess than in the blessings of Providence ("Fate often saves an undoomed man when his courage is good."-Beowulf). Hrothgar, however, always credits good fortune and success to the good will of the Lord. As the story progresses into Beowulf's own kingship and old age in Geatland (wherever that may be, another controversy), we see him move toward Hrothgar's position. When he is informed of the destruction of his own hall by the dragon, Beowulf fears that he has somehow "bitterly offended the Ruler, the Eternal Lord, against old law."

It seems to me that the Christian elements in Beowulf are so integrated into the work as to be largely inseparable. While it is possible that some of the Christian references in the poem are expanded due to "scribal editing" during the production of successive manuscripts, it is the original author who is responsible for the vast majority of those references. Here the poet produced a work that takes pride in his Germanic heritage and explains that while the ancestors of legend may have been unsaved heathens, they were good men all the same.

Bibliography:

Donaldson, E. T. Beowulf Translation The Norton Anthology. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1966 Mooreman, Charles. 1967. "The Essential Paganism of Beowulf." MLQ 28: 3-18

McNamee, Maurice B. 1960. "Beowulf - An Allegory of Salvation?" JEGP 59: 190-207

Tolkien, J. R. R. 1936. "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." PBA 22: 245-295


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