Beowulf: Pagan or Christian?

Beowulf: Pagan or Christian?

Beowulf: Pagan or Christian? Beowulf is the first important work of English literature. It is composed around 700 A. D. by an unknown poet (Greenblatt, 36), after the Anglo-Saxons were Christianized. The manuscript of the poem was seriously damaged in a fire; so several lines and words have been lost from the poem. One of the significant issues of this poem is whether or not it is a Pagan or Christian poem. Although the poem appears to have many Christian elements, it has roots in a Pagan past. The Christian and Pagan elements in Beowulf are a matter of debate for years.

Most critics agree on the fact that Beowulf is the work of a single Christian poet. There are critics who consider it a Pagan poem, but there are also critics who think it is a Christian poem. Articles from Moorman and Blackburn and a close reading of poem will be used to support the idea that although Beowulf may contain references to Christianity it is a work of Pagan poetry. Beowulf is a poem that has to be placed in a historical context for a better understanding. Beowulf existed in oral tradition for many years before it was written down. Therefore, is the Beowulf with witch the first Anglo-Saxon audiences were familiar with robably different from how it is known nowadays. The poem probably already existed before the conversion of the Anglo-Saxons into Christianity. Many things could have happened to the narrative during the process of diffusion. Blackburn writes three possible hypotheses in his article “The Christian Coloring in the Beowulf”. The first one is that the Christian poet used stories, which already existed. The second one is that “the tales had already been versified and were in poetical form before they were used by the author”. The last one is that the author was heathen, but that a Christian poet changed it later (205). There are so many theories about Beowulf, but hypothesize is the only thing historians can do, because there is not much evidence. Blackburn, however, concludes at the end of his article from the evidence he obtained from his study that “the Beowulf once existed as a whole without the Christian allusions”. This means that the original poem was Pagan. The Christian elements were added later. The poet sees the Pagan characters through a Christian perspective. Beowulf is very different compared to Christian poems from the Old English eriod. Charles Moorman compares Beowulf to Andreas and Judith. In this poem there is a strong heroic character like in Beowulf. Moorman points out that “the difference between Beowulf and these poems is ultimately more qualitative than quantitative: it is not so much a matter of more or less Christian coloration, or even of more or less specifically Christian subject matter, but one of point of view, of language and dictions and, especially, of tone” (4). The endings of the poems are not the only difference. Although there are Christian elements in the poem, it has a not Christian view of life.

There are no Christian references like other Christian poems from the time. There are no angles or saints. The center of the culture in Beowulf is not the church, as in most Christian poems, but rather the mead-hall. Most people see the word God in the poem as a reference to the Christian God. However, nothing clearly describes a Christian God. The word God is not proof of the Christianity of the poem. They can also refer to a Pagan God, which is changed into a Christian God by the composer of the poem. The only biblical reference in Beowulf is Cain, which could easily have been added later.

Jesus’ name does not appear once in the poem. Even Beowulf’s own belief is not clear. It is not clear if he beliefs in a Christian God. It is only certain that he believes in a higher power. There is also a reference to fate that everything is destined, and if God wants it to happen it will happen. However, the concept of fate already existed in Anglo-Saxon Paganism. The following passage from the poem the narrator admits that the Danes are involved in pagan religious practices Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed offerings to idols, swore oaths that the killer of souls might come to their aid nd save the people. That was their way, their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts they remembered hell (175-180). It is one of the only times when the difference between the Christian narrator and the pagan characters is really explicit. It is clear that the narrator disapproves of the Pagan activities of the Danes. The Almighty Judge of good deeds and bad, the Lord God, Head of the Heavens and High King of the World, was unknown to them. Oh, cursed is he who in time of trouble had to thrust his soul in the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help; he has nowhere to turn.

But blessed is he who after death can approach the Lord and find friendship in the Father’s embrace (180-188). In this passage the narrator feels sorry for the characters in the poem, because they didn’t have a Christian God for help. It is clear, therefore, that Beowulf is originally a Pagan poem. Since it existed in an oral tradition before it was written down it probably changed. The poet added Christian elements and wrote the Pagan poem from a Christian perspective. Beowulf is very different compared to Christian poems from the time. Besides some Christian elements, which could asily have been added later, there are no explicit Christian references. Works Cited “Beowulf”. Trans. Seamus Heaney. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. New York: Norton, 2012. Print. Blackburn, F. A. “The Christian Coloring in the Beowulf. ” Modern Language Association, 1879. 205-225. Web. 16 Feb. 2014. Greenblatt, Stephen. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 9th ed. New York: Norton, 2012. 36-39. Print. Moorman, Charles. “The Essential Paganism of Beowulf”. Modern Language Quarterly, 1967. Web. 16 Feb. 2014.