Why Beowulf is a Work of Christian Propaganda
?Why “Beowulf” is a Work of Christian Propaganda If “Beowulf” was set in pagan times in a pagan area, then why does it seem like a Christian poem? The history of the “Beowulf” manuscript is quite interesting, and once we have researched the past a bit, we can see how and why the poem was altered from its original state. We know that “Beowulf” was originally a pagan poem due to the time frame and location in which it was written (Chickering).
The numerous mentions of “God” and biblical allusions allow the reader to see how an originally pagan poem was transformed into the “Beowulf” that we know today. “Beowulf” is a work of Christian propaganda, scribed by monks in an attempt to blend paganism with Christianity in order to Christianize early 1000’s England. We know that Beowulf and the other characters in the poem would have followed the pagan religion due to the time period and setting. According to Chickering, “Beowulf” could have taken place between 650AD and 850AD.
This leaves a fairly large gap in time, but Higham and Ryan mention in The Anglo-Saxon World that there is a belief that the setting of “Beowulf” dates back to the time before conversion to Christianity in Britain (384). Assuming the original author of the poem intended to keep the story historically accurate, we again ask ourselves the question: How and why was “Beowulf” altered? Throughout “Beowulf”, the reader finds multiple biblical allusions in what originally appears to be a pagan poem. The first major allusion is to the book of Genesis in the Bible.
In Genesis (1:1-6), God is said to have made the earth and heavens, then light, then land, etc; Telling with mastery of man’s beginnings, How the Almighty had made the earth A gleaming plain girdled with waters; In His splendor He set the sun and the moon To be earth’s lamplight, lanterns for men; (Beowulf 91-95). Another biblical allusion we see is when the monster Grendel is introduced and is said to be part of, “Cain’s clan,” (Beowulf 106).
A third biblical allusion is to the story of “Noah and the Ark”. In lines 1690-1694, the “great flood” that God brought on to rid the earth of evil is referenced as Hrothgar is examining the hilt of the sword that Beowulf killed Grendel’s mother with. The biblical allusions are not as plentiful as the mentions of God and they are also solely from the Old Testament, leading the reader to the conclusion that the scribes changed the pagan, multiple god mentions into singular God mentions, and threw in a few biblical allusions to help the poem blend Christianity and paganism.
The scribes chose to blend pagan mentions with biblical and Christian allusions in order to make a smoother (and sneakier) transition from paganism to Christianity. In addition to the biblical allusions in “Beowulf”, praises to the “Almighty God”, “the Lord”, “Heavenly Shepherd”, and “the Almighty Father” are prominent throughout the poem. For instance, “And may the Divine Lord / in His wisdom grant the glory of victory / to whichever side He sees fit,” (685-687). Beowulf and other characters would have thanked one of their many gods (if they thanked them at all) because they were pagan.
Mentions of one God are heavy and most of the time unnecessary, leading the reader to the conclusion that the mentions were added into the poem. According to Chickering, “Beowulf” was transcribed around the year 1000AD in West Saxon (the area around and including present-day England). During this time, King Alfred claimed that the pagans that lived in Britain as well as Britain’s lack of Christian faith were to blame for the Viking invasions. The king started a “regeneration” in which his goals were to reignite the Christian faith and lifestyle in England, and to reinstate the beliefs of the Benedictine monastery (Williams).
This “regeneration” of the Christian faith is the reason that “Beowulf” was transformed by monks into a Christian poem. This Christianization was an attempt to move pagans towards the faith that the king wanted them to follow and was done by blending the poem rather than outright making a different poem altogether. Examples of this blending can be seen in lines 626-627 of “Beowulf”, “…and thanked God for granting her wish / that a deliverer she could believe in would arrive,” showing that the original pagan poem might have mentioned multiple Gods or a specific pagan God.
However, by never specifically mentioning Christ or Jesus, and only using biblical allusions from the Old Testament, the scribes were able to more subtly blend the two religions. In addition to the time period of the poem, a few other clues show us “Beowulf’s” pagan origins. The main pagan reference in the poem is Beowulf’s funeral pyre at the conclusion, “The Geat people built a pyre for Beowulf, / stacked and decked it until it stood foursquare,” (lines 3137-3138). The Catholic religion strongly suggests that its followers do not practice cremation (Bishops of New York State). Since Christianity was he ultimate goal, and the religion of England at the time was Catholic (Williams), if “Beowulf” was altered completely from its original state, the monk scribes would have likely had Beowulf buried or entombed. However, the monks chose to leave the funeral pyre in the conclusion. This is another example of how the monks blended the two religions together in order to make a more subtle transition from paganism to Christianity through Christian propaganda. Paganism and Christianity were blended in the poem “Beowulf” by Christian monks as a means of propaganda for the Christian church.
In the 1100’s, the pope made a decree that stated everyone must follow the Catholic religion in England (Williams). Before this decree, Christianity (more specifically Catholicism) was only a goal of King Albert’s regeneration plan. This is why Christian propaganda was important to King Albert and why “Beowulf” was altered from its original form. “Beowulf” is a work of Christian propaganda, scribed by monks in an attempt to blend paganism with Christianity in order to Christianize early 1000’s England. Works Cited Chickering, Howell D. “”Wyrd” and Natural Christianity. ” Beowulf: A Dual-language Edition.
Garden City, NY: Anchor, 1977. N. pag. Print. Dolan, Timothy M. , Most Rev. , Howard J. Hubbard, Most Rev. , Nicholas DiMarzio, Most Rev. , Edward U. Kmiec, Most Rev. , Terry R. LaValley, Most Rev. , Matthew H. Clark, Most Rev. , William F. Murphy, Most Rev. , and Robert J. Cunningham, Most Rev. Catholic Teaching on Cremation. New York: New York State Catholic Conference, 2010. Print. Higham, N. J. , and Martin J. Ryan. “Sources and Issues: Beowulf. ” The Anglo-Saxon World. New York: Yale UP, 2013. 382-86. Print. Williams, Ann. “Portrait of Britain: AD 1000. ” History Today 1 Nov. 2005: n. pag. HIstory Today. Web. 10 Mar. 2014. .