Salvation in Literature

Salvation in Literature

The contrasting views of salvation throughout Anglo-Saxon and Middle English literature serves as a reflection of each era’s understanding of God’s relationship with man. The Anglo-Saxon idea of salvation is rooted in its understanding of the earthly, physical aspects of this world. God’s relationship to man is seen in relation to a liege lord’s relationship with his hall’s thanes, as described in the Beowulf text. The hero, Beowulf, is an Anglo-Saxon depiction of a “saved” man. In contrast, Chaucer’s General Prologue provides the reader with a view that has shifted from a salvation understood not in this physical world, but one that is highly out-of-reach and mysterious to men. This view invites the characters of the General Prologue to engage in a type of passive-faith salvation, a relationship with God separate from their way of life, however aware of their sin they might be. With these two views, it is possible to categorize the Anglo-Saxon view of salvation as legalistic, or salvation by works, and the Middle English view of salvation as antinomianism, or salvation by grace, apart from works.

The Anglo-Saxon hero gives the reader a clear vision of the understanding of legalistic salvation. The hero’s identity is founded in his ability to claim participation in a mead hall, descending from a long line of esteemed ancestors. The very essence of such identity is rooted in this physical world. This essence of identity is contrasted with the description in “The Wife’s Lament,” where the heroine wanders the earth separated from her husband’s mead hall. She claims, “Endlessly I have suffered the wretchedness of exile” (102). With the lack of a mead hall comes the lack of identity for the Anglo...

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... some way adhere that “blessed is he / who after death can approach the Lord / and find friendship in the Father’s embrace” (Beowulf, lines 186-188). However different each era of literature designates man’s way of approach to God, nevertheless, the promise is the same: either by works and right living, or by grace alone apart from action, blessed is he who acknowledges the everlasting presence of God in the created world.

The characters in both Anglo-Saxon and Middle English literature rightly portray this attitude, within the context of their era’s differing views toward salvation. In light of these two eras, it is necessary to glean a certain balance of views, striving to blend each position into a happy medium: one that is neither completely separate from God’s grace, but one that does not allow the individual to elapse into a state of apathetic wantonness.
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