Beowulf: Pagan or Christian?
The classic epic tale Beowulf is a masterpiece that stands out in the literature of the past. Many characters in the poem struggle to define their religion at the time because Christianity was recently introduced in their Anglo-Saxon communities. Among them all, the main character Beowulf showed the most indecisiveness. In his words and actions, Beowulf embodies both Christian and Anglo-Saxon ideals; however, they reveal him to be more of a Christian than a pagan. Through the eyes of many reading this poem, they would have guessed Beowulf to be more of a pagan; but, there are many more examples of Christianity than paganism.
The basis of Anglo-Saxon paganism narrows down to two main ideals: fame and fate. Many natives of non-Christian belief believe in fame as a way to earn their title in the world. This was shown in Beowulf’s attitude and speech only a few times. He showed some underlying beliefs in fame; such as, “I am old, now, / But I will fight again, seek fame still, / If the dragon hiding in his tower dares / To face me” (625-628), where Beowulf described wanting fame from every victory he accomplished. Although this occurred, Beowulf spoke of God more frequently than a force of fame.
Another ideal Beowulf spoke about was the belief in fate. Fate was what Anglo-Saxons believed was the plan for their life, instead of believing in God’s plan for them. Beowulf does mention fate when he describes the reason why he fights enemies, “Fate saves / The living when they drive away death by themselves” (305-306 pkt). Both of these ideas refer to the background that Beowulf grew up in, a non-Christian environment. They do not, however, meet the degree of which Christianity occurs in this novel. Even with Beowulf’s pagan background, his actions of Christianity overtake his demeanor and attitude.
The Christianity of Beowulf is first exhibited with his voyage to the Danes kingdom. He is called there because of the terrible monster that is stalking and killing the Danes’ people. Since Christians are usually characterized as people who help those in need, Beowulf displays Christianity when he goes to help others by killing Grendel. Even though it may seem like he is pursuing this monster for fame, Beowulf wants nothing more than to save these innocent people from Grendel and stop the murders, adding on to his Christian standing.
When Beowulf first began acquiring his victories, he seemed to have a boastful attitude. Although, as he grew wiser that vanity turned into a humble approach. Humbleness, a highly Christian characteristic, was seen when Beowulf did not attempt to brag about his victory of slaying Grendel’s mother. He even credits the victory to God by stating, “The fight would have ended straightaway if God had not guarded me”. This explains how Beowulf turns toward more Christian ideals throughout the book and away from the old paganism.
However, his words truly speak louder than his actions when it comes to showing his Christian identity. While his actions may see the degree of Christianity on a characteristic level, Beowulf’s words display just how frequently God is mentioned in his everyday life. Beowulf refers to God in many aspects throughout the novel. One of the first and most important references occurs when he talks about his upcoming fight with Grendel. Beowulf talks about the lack of fear he possesses for Grendel while speaking with Hrothgar.
He applies this fearlessness to his belief that God will determine what will happen: “my hands / Alone shall fight for me, struggle for life / Against the monster. God must decide who will be given to death’s cold grip” (267-270). Even stating that he needs no weapon, Beowulf is convinced that God has given him his gift of strength and will help him win the battle. This assumption is largely due to the Christian influence being brought upon him. Another prominent Christian reference is Beowulf’s death scene. As he is taking his last few breaths, he takes time out to pray to the Lord.
A normal thing for many religious people to do, Beowulf looks back on his life and thanks God for all the goodness he has received. He even accredits Him for all the wealth he has acquired: “For this, this gold, these jewels. I thank / Our Father in Heaven. Ruler of the Earth– / For all of this. that His grace has given me,” (816-818). In this final phrase of his life, Beowulf reiterates the basis of Christian life; the Lord is all the goodness in the world around us. In Beowulf, the novel, the ideals of Christianity and the pagan beliefs of the Anglo-Saxon decedents combine together and both are seen in each character.
Beowulf, the main personality in the poem, shares this combination but has a distinct lean towards the Christian side. Even with the presence of fate and fame reflected in Beowulf, the frequency of paganism in his life cannot compare to that of Christianity. His actions show how he utilizes the classic Christian qualities and his words tell the reader how prominent God is in his life. Paganism may run deep in the Anglo-Saxon roots, but Christianity has made an everlasting impression on them.