Christianity and paganism appear alongside each other in the poem of Beowulf. The relationship in the text between these two seemingly incompatible belief systems.
The poem of Beowulf is unique in being composed in a period of history roughly placed between paganism and Christianity. As a logical reflection of this context, the content of the poem contains elements of both creeds. However, it is obscure in both content and context where the essence of the poem can be placed between these two seemingly incompatible beliefs systems. In this essay, I will address this obscurity, where it is found in content by forming an argument from allegorical evidence, namely Grendel’s origin and Beowulf’s death. And on the other in regard to the context as justified by Christian scholastic tradition. By both of these points, I will argue the poem is a fundamentally Christian text, or at the very least, that a purely pagan reading of the poem is not valid.
Firstly, I wish to pre-emptively validify the inherent obscurity necessary for forming allegorical comparisons from textual evidence within the scholastic context. Much of the Christian literary tradition as practised by monastic communities were influenced by Augustinian literary theory. Much of Augustine’s literary theory was contained within De doctrina Christiana, which, according to Huppe, provides the basic program for a Christian culture, and is a work mentioned numerous times by Old English scholastics such as Bede, Alcuin, and Rabanus (3). In this work, Augustine argued that “the Bible was divinely ordained to be obscure, in order to prevent slackening of attention when the intellect was not strenuously engaged” (Augustine). This is what Marrou, elaborating on Augustine, has called Gymnastique Intellectuale – a process considered an essential part of the mind moving toward divine truth (Marrou 58). This argument was used in the justification by Augustine for the contradictions between the Old and New Testament.
This is an important fact to note when justifying our own journey into the textual obscurity of Beowulf, which is caused in one regard by its exclusive reference to the Old Testament (OT). To the suspicions of some, the poet makes no mention of any cross, Christ or in fact any doctrinal points (Moorman, 1963). However, this suspicion is undermined by the fact that the OT itself contains no Christians and like Beowulf is rife with slaughters, intrigues, and a warrior-like ethos. For example, the narrator describing the “god cyning” of Sheild Sheafson, renowned as “the scourge of many tribes… rampaging among foes” (Heaney 3). However, this comparison begs the question of why exactly the poem contains parallels to the OT and for what purpose. The poet, Cain argues, deliberately parallels the pagan Germanic past with the pre-Christian world of the OT with the aim of demonstrating the prefiguration of the Christian world, just as it was demonstrated in the world of the old dispensation of the Hebrews (2). This is again supported in De doctrina Christiana, where Augustine justifies his own adoption of the ideas of the pagan philosopher Plato into Christian theology by the logic that “those who happen to be true and consistent with our faith should not cause alarm, but be claimed for our own use, as it were from owners who have no right to them” (Augustine 233). This approach to the literary exegesis of Greek texts can also be applied to Scandinavian texts and form the justification for an allegorical reading. And with this in this mind, we can now view the infamous letter by Alcuin, that included the line: “What does Ingeld have to do with Christ?” in a different light (Alcuin and Alcot). Frequently used as evidence against an essentially Christian reading of Beowulf, it now appears that although this quote demonstrates a conflict within the church, it also implicitly confirms the existence of this approach to pagan literature. In regard to the conflict, we have the voice of Alcuin and those echoing him calling for sole reliance on divinely authored truths of the Biblical texts and, on the other, those swayed by Augustine’s influential works on hermeneutics. As we cannot determine by context where the poet stands between these two stances (due to contextual obscurity) we must delineate from content. Of which the strongest examples are the allegorical parallels of the origin of Grendel, as well as the death of Beowulf and subsequent destruction of the Geats.
Before introducing Grendel, the poet includes a reference to the Christian view of creation from the book of Genesis. He describes “how the Almighty had made the earth a gleaming plain girdled with waters” which as well as being necessary to foreshadow Grendel’s lineage to Cain, is also necessary if we accept an exegetic reading of Beowulf that functions as an Anglo-Saxon prefiguring of the Christian world (Heaney 5). However, these elements may be dismissed as an example of, what Blackburn called, the “Christian Colouring” of the poem – an insertion of Christian elements into an essentially heathen poem (Blackburn 2). But with further investigation into the nature of Grendel, we find parallels to Cain in the monster’s characterial impetus. Grendel’s grievance is an envy of the prosperity of Heorot, enraged “to hear the din of the loud banquet every day in the hall” as was Cain’s grievance envy of his brother’s prosperity (5). This envy motivates his actions throughout his entire role in the poem without any deviation, and hence could not be considered superficial. In relation to Cain and Abel, it is also worth noting the disdain the poet takes against fratricide, a disdain that Beowulf pours upon Unferth for killing his “own kith and kin” (20). As much as this could be argued to be a Christian example of ethics, it could equally be claimed to be pre-Christian. Rather than simply leave this in obscurity, however, I would argue in lieu of the process of gymnastique intellectuale that we could propose this obscurity as an intentional inclination for the poet to allow room for both belief systems to co-exist, especially in the points they explicitly agree upon. To elaborate, if we take the poem to be hypothetically Christian in essence, it is extraordinary the fondness with which the poet portrays paganism – describing mild examples of pagan traditions, such as simple “offerings to shrines” and Germanic funeral rituals. If the poet wished to display the pagans as wholly unlikeable and incompatible to Christianity it would not be outside of the reality to portray human sacrifice and endlessly perpetuating blood feuds (Adam et al 200). Instead, it appears we have a compassionate retrospect by a Christian poet who feels pity for his ancestor “who in time of trouble has to thrust his soul in the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help; he has nowhere to turn” (188). In imbuing the work with this intentional obscurity the poet has avoided reducing his art to mere propaganda.
The synthesis between paganism and Christianity, as allowed by this textual obscurity, creates a far more powerful Christian narrative to the Anglo-Saxon populous than a simple sermon. A particularly tempting synthesis to make is between Beowulf and the figure of Christ. His descent into the mere to battle Grendel’s dam has been argued to be a parallel to Christ’s descent into hell to battle the devil (Mews). However, there seems to be a superficiality surrounding these comparisons. But through the lens of Augustinian literary theory, we can find a far more persuasive framework for exegesis. Instead of being a Christ-like figure, we can instead read Beowulf as a figure that lives through a “typos of Christ”, like David of the OT. David differs significantly in character and action to Christ but who, nonetheless, we can say shadows the coming of Christ and has a concurrent belief in the Christian God through Yahweh, however where Beowulf differs to David (and thus to Christ) is his reliance on the Heroic Germanic ethos (Cain 8). Beowulf holds close to this ethos throughout the poem, but as is inevitable if we consider the poem to be essentially Christian the synthesis falls apart, it fails him and results in his death and the destruction of his people. In a twist of irony, Beowulf’s sacrifice to defeat the dragon shadows Christ’s own passion to save his own people. And in what greater way could the poet reveal the essence of the poem in a demonstration of Christian action (that can only go as far as typos) as divorced by Christian thought and belief (understood as logos) which for Beowulf has been substituted for heroic ethos, which has him sacrifice himself not for love but because he was “keenest to win fame” as the poet chooses to remember him in the last line (Heaney 99). This, I believe, is a sentiment that proves the essence of the poem is Christian and renders allegorical evidence in the contrary as redundant in their use as ingredients to this final synthesis.
To conclude, from allegorical evidence as justified by scholastic literary theory we can determine the poem to be essential Christian. I will posit that if a detractor argued that allegorical evidence is not valid evidence to determine the poem to be essentially Christian, I would add that the same principle must be held to claims of the poem’s essential paganism. In other words, we must decide whether the poem is essentially Christian as argued or, in mutual destruction, merely make the same common ground conclusion that Tolkien wrote of the poem: (final universal chorus of all voices) it is worth studying (4).
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Alcuin of York, Letter to Higbald, trans. by S. Allott, Alcuin of York. York. 1974.
Blackburn, F. A. The Christian Coloring in the Beowulf. PMLA, vol. 12, no. 2, 1897, pp. 205–225.
Cain, C. Beowulf, the Old Testament, and the Regula Fidei. Renascence, 49(4), 1997 pp.227-240.
Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf. Faber And Faber, 1999.
Huppe, B. Doctrine and Poetry. Augustine’s Influence on Old English Poetry. Modern Language Notes, 75(7), 1959, pp.602.
Mews, C. Christianity and the Poem. ATS2271 Beowulf: An interdisciplinary approach. Monash University Clayton, Class lecture, 2019.
Moorman, C. The Essential Paganism of Beowulf. Modern Language Quarterly, 28(1), 1967, pp.3-18.
Tolkien, J R. R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. London: Oxford University Press, 1963.