Beowulf: Pagan or Christian?
Beowulf: Pagan or Christian? The present paper will discuss the issue of religion in the epic poem Beowulf. Given the fact that at the moment Beowulf was written there was a clash between Pagan and Christian beliefs in present-day England, the poem contains elements of both mentioned religions. The purpose of this paper is to prove that the surviving text of Beowulf represents an entire Christian piece, whose Pagan elements were used as a tool to persuade non-Christianised Anglo-Saxons into converting to Christianity. Hence, such added elements are part of the symbolism founding an Anglo-Saxon Christian community.
To begin with, in Beowulf the reader is given a vision of a barbarian society at its finest. Courage, prowess in war, loyalty and generosity are the qualities most forcefully portrayed. It is a society of chiefs and kings, a society of a clan spirit, in which the source of the lord’s power lies in his capacity to inspire friends, relations and foreigners to gather around him, lead them successfully through war and feed and reward them with princely gifts. Warriors fighting against monstrous creatures, such as trolls and dragons, are also depicted.
However, unlike the heroic-age figures in Beowulf, the poet is an Anglo-Saxon Christian. In order to fully understand this concept, some insight into history is necessary to gain. From the late sixth century and throughout the seventh century several missions to Christianize the different Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in England were sent, until the process officially concluded around the year 681AC. Still, Paganism hadn’t ceased to be a constant threat during the Anglo-Saxon period, since it couldn’t be denied that the recently converted Christians were no more than Anglo-Saxons who took pride in their Pagan heritage and forebears.
Given the mingled audience that the poet had to face in the eighth century, he tries to keep a balance between both religious beliefs. On the one hand, he indulges the Pagan characters in the epic in known heathen practices, such as cremation of the dead, the burial of lavish grave goods with their dead and the reading of omens. On the other hand, as it would be inappropriate to encourage heathendom, the poet makes it clear that the characters’ faith is strongly Christian, by speaking of the true God, the Devil and Hell, alluding to biblical events and avoiding the mentioning of specific Pagan gods.
This way, the Christian Anglo-Saxon audience wouldn’t be shocked and would be led to accept the new religious ideas, since the nation’s ancestors are being honoured without betraying contemporary Christian truth. Consequently, Tolkien states that “Beowulf is a […] product of the education that came in with Christianity” (1936: pp 20). In Beowulf “…we may observe not confusion, a half-hearted or a muddled business, but a fusion that has occurred at a given point of contact between old and new, a product of thought and deep emotion” (1936:pp 8).
This fusion gave Christian monks (the only literate people at that time) the unique chance to recover and use pre-Christian mythological stories for their own advantage. In his lecture, Tolkien talks about the literary use of pagan myths. Beowulf is not a ‘primitive’ poem; it is a late one, using the materials (then still plentiful) preserved from a day already changing and passing, a time that has now for ever vanished, swallowed in oblivion; using them for a new purpose (1936: pp 15).
The fact of including monsters as characters in the epic can also be argued to be an intelligent strategy of the poet so as to get Christianity to gain widespread acceptance among the recently converted. According to Tolkien, Anglo-Saxon people “could not, it was said, keep Scandinavian bogies and the Scriptures separate in their puzzled brains. The New Testament was beyond their comprehension” (1939: pp19) As the newly converted society found it hard to assimilate the concepts of Christendom, Germanic monsters with whom they would be familiarized were used in order to depict the Christian ideas of good and evil.
Having discussed the exploitation of the figures of monsters by Christianity with the purpose of expanding the concepts of the new religion in the Anglo-Saxon society, we may now refer to the Christian moral that the poem appears to convey. According to Brooke, this moral is applicable to a recently converted barbarian people, and represents the first steps in Christian heroism. He makes a remark on the fact that “Beowulf only kills dragons on the stage, and hardly any human beings off it” (1979: pp 48) Germanic legends and Germanic history were full of wars and blood-feuds.
Due to this, Brooke claims that the poet of Beowulf seems to communicate that “true heroism does not lie [in wars and blood-feud]. It may be that Beowulf is an allegory of a primitive kind, and that the meaning is that true heroism lies in fighting spiritual enemies, devils, not human beings. ” (1979: pp 49) This way, the famous Christian concept of good and evil emerges. Finally, it can also be discussed that the pagan elements used as tools to expand Christianity turned the epic into a text founding not just culture, but a Christian culture. Epic poems in general help their communities to create a sense of identity.
More than tales about the historical features of any culture, they are the ones which found culture. The genre of epic poem introduces a phase in the development of any cultural community. This phase is what Paquette calls “fase de territorializacion,” (2000: pp 57) which is a long process through which every community has to go in order to occupy, delimit and defend some territory. The epic poem’s purpose is to conclude this process of “territorializacion” on a symbolic level, “[captando] mejor que cualquier otra forma el instante original de la constitucion de una conciencia territorial. (2000: pp 59) Pretty much like epic poems help found a community’s identity, Beowulf helps the Anglo-Saxon community create a sense of Christian identity. All in all, it can be stated that Beowulf does not represent a Christian re-working of an originally pagan text, as it appears to be at first sight, but a clever device by means of which members of the clergy helped their religion take over and erase step by step all trace of the forerunning religious, non-Christian practices. Bibliography ? Brooke, Christopher. (1979) The Saxon and Norman Kings. London: Fontana?
Collins ? Paquette, Jean Marcel (2000) Definicion del genero en “Tipologie de sources du Moyen Age Occidental”. Buenos Aires: Secretaria de Publicaciones de la Facultad de Filosofia y Letras de la UBA, Ficha de catedra, pp. 51-67. ? Robinson, Fred C. (2000), “Beowulf” in The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge: CUP. ? Tolkien, J. R. R. (1936) Beowulf: the monsters and the critics. Proceedings of the British Academy in World Literature Criticism, Supplement 1-2: A Selection of Major Authors from Gale’s Literary Criticism Series, Polly Vedder