Christianity and the Beowulf Poet

Satisfactory Essays
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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