Victorious Pagan Beliefs
British poet Percy Bysshe Shelley once remarked that “Revenge is the naked idol of the worship of a semi-barbarous age.” Though not referring to Old English poetry, Shelley’s acclamation is illustrated in the epic poem Beowulf, a heroic expedition written anonymously sometime after 520 AD. Composed during the tumultuous time of emergence of Germanic tribe rule over Christian England, Beowulf combines ideals from both cultures in an explication of moral standards.
In his article, “Beowulf: The Archetype Enters History”, Jeffrey Helterman asserts that the Old English epic “has caused almost every critic to assume that the poem is ‘something more’ than a narrative of heroic adventures and Germanic history” (1). This “something more” that Helterman refers to is the conglomeration of Pagan standards and Christian morals throughout the lengthy text. During the Middle Ages, “much of the Christian poetry is also cast in the heroic mode: although the Anglo-Saxons adapted themselves readily to the ideals of Christianity, they did not do so without adapting Christianity to their own heroic ideal” (David 5). Though Beowulf successfully merges Pagan and Christian beliefs, it is the Germanic heroic code that resonates triumphant within the poem, particularly in association with revenge.
Beowulf encompasses a perpetual cycle of vengeance, a direct contrast to traditional Christian beliefs of forgiveness. Though characters in the epic often pray to God before battle and offer thanks after, the societal values portrayed in the piece propose a stronger connection to the Germanic heroic code, rather than the creed of Christian principles. Grendal attacks Heorot, spawning Beowulf’s drive to avenge Hrothgar’s great hall. In retribution, Grendal’s mother assails Heorot, “brooded on her wrongs” (Beowulf 60). Lines 1276 through 1278 of the poem reveal that “now his mother/had sallied forth on a savage journey, /grief-racked and ravenous, desperate for revenge” (60). Her attack on the mead hall again proliferates Beowulf’s inner drive for revenge, resulting in her death.
Though the cycle of vengeance is quieted for fifty years, a thief awakens it by stealing a cup from the dragon’s hoard. As Helterman points out, this fugitive is “a nameless anybody, and his presence implies that there is always someone involved in the web of vengeance” (19). The dragon’s “loss of the vessel made him long to hit back” and “he hurtled forth in a fiery blaze” (Beowulf 81-2). Once again, the heroic Beowulf seeks vengeance, ultimately leading to his own demise. The destructive wheel of revenge that embodies the backbone of the poem is a direct polarity to God’s denouncement of revenge in the holy book of Leviticus: “Don’t seek vengeance. Don’t bear a grudge; but love your neighbor as yourself, for I am Jehovah” (Brown 88). Though the poem contains Christian overlays, the unending circle of revenge clearly indicates that Pagan ideology prevails over evangelical morals.
The intrinsic conflict between “the heroic code and a religion that teaches that we should ‘forgive those who trespass against us’” (David 5) leaves paganistic theories elevated above Christian ethics, and this is depicted throughout the text from Beowulf’s own words and actions. In lines 1384 and 1385, before Beowulf seeks Grendal’s mother for battle, the heroic warrior tells Hrothgar, “Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better/to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning” (63). Yet Ecclesiastes confirms that there is indeed “time to mourn” (Brown 446), leaving the hero’s words of wisdom to overshadow the word of God.
Although Beowulf and Lord Hrothgar are often pictured as morally adroit and spiritual characters, “they fully espouse and frequently affirm the values of Germanic heroic poetry” (David 30). Once again, Christianity ranks second to Pagan standards, as seen in Beowulf’s actions. He searches for Grendal’s mother, “determined to take revenge” (Beowulf 66). In the case of the dragon, Beowulf “took eleven comrades and went in a rage to reconnoiter” (Beowulf 83). Yet in the book of Deuteronomy, the Lord tells the people of Israel that “Vengeance is mine, and I decree the punishment of all her enemies” (Brown 151). In Hebrews 10:30, God proclaims, “Justice belongs to me; I will repay them” (Brown 837). Though Beowulf claims God aided his success in battle, his words and actions contradict the Christian ethical code. The poet interweaves Christianity into the hero’s journey, yet through Beowulf’s words and actions, his Pagan pedigree far outranks his Christian reverence.
No reader of Beowulf can deny the combination of Pagan mores with Christianity in the poem. It is broadly accepted that Beowulf “is the work of a single poet who was a Christian, and that his poem reflects well-established Christian tradition” (David 29). When examined more closely, however, it is strikingly apparent that the molding of Germanic codes with Christian ethics lends higher merit to the Pagan values of the time.
Beowulf. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Alfred David. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2000. 32-99.
Brown, Timothy, ed. The Living Bible. Springfield: Tyndale House, 1971.
David, Alfred, ed. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 2000.
Helterman, Jeffrey. “Beowulf: The Achetype Enters History.” ELH 35 (1968): 1-24.