“A Critical Examination of Christianity in Beowulf” (by Xenia Stoll)

christianity-in-beowulf

Beowulf is a heroic elegiac poem, which appears to be a summary of Anglo-Saxon beliefs and ideals. Beowulf was written after pagan Anglo-Saxony was Christianized, however the Pagan lifestyle, the concept and belief was still existing in the daily life of the people.

The legend of Beowulf is a collection of pagan topics and ideals, but there are obvious influences by Christianity as well. Pagan heroic concepts met the Christian theme of the good and the evil, God’s will and forgiveness of sin. Throughout the whole poem one can notice references which are related to God, to the Christian philosophy and faith as well as to old Hebrew ideologies. In this essay I will discuss how and where in the poem one can find significant similarities between God and Beowulf, God and Hrothgar as well as between Jesus Christ and Beowulf.

First there need to be an introduction into Britain’s religious history. This will make it more simple to face the clear presence of Christian ideas, and it will also help to see the many parts of the poem which are influenced by pagan faith and culture. By using biblical references it will be even easier to extract the presence of Christianity in this pagan poem.  The main part are comparisons between God and Beowulf, God and Hrothgar, Beowulf and Jesus Christ. The final part allows to summarize the similarities and helps to remember that in the end pagan stories are oral and sentences could have changed over the years.

Anglo-Saxons before Christianity

By paying attention to the obvious coexistence of heroic pagan ideals and Christian believes in Beowulf, we first have to consider the reason for the rise of Christianity in Britain.

Before Anglo-Saxons ruled the country under Germanic paganism, the Britains were controlled under Celtic faith.

At the end of the 6th century the Christian Church conversed the Anglo-Saxons. Before the arrival of St Augustine, pagans believed and praised at many gods. In their understanding the moon, the sun, the sea as well as the wind and many other pagan gods were equal rulers of their lives and therefore need to be worshiped. But the Christian conversion was not as successful as the missionary’s planned it to be: It took over a hundred years until completed, up to the 7th century.  

Christian missionary started in 597 when the Roman Pope sent forty monks to Britain to convert the Anglo-Saxons. The landed in Kent, which became the first kingdom in Anglo-Saxon to be converted. In the capital of Kent – Canterbury- the first church was built and the Archbishop became Head of the Church of England. From there the Christian faith spread all over Britain.

The Anglo-Saxon nobles and kings accepted Christianity first. The reason is as easy as obvious; Paganism forced the Anglo-Saxons to live under a primitive system. All men were equal and there was no oppression of man by man. Therefore the tribal society had no obedience to serve a king. But when feudal relations started to rise, the pagan faith was of no use for the kings and landlords. They were in need for a religion where farmers would procure about order of society. They needed a religion which would teach them that the land and power belonged to the king and the lords and therefore the farmers had to work for their masters. This system was established by the faith in God.

Christianity served the kings and noblemen as a weapon to talk the poor people to obey their masters. The only hope they would return for their obedience and patience was eternal happiness after death. Anglo-Saxon kings were the first who began to establish the new faith in Britain. But because people were used to their old gods, they returned back to their old faith very quickly. Their old religion represented freedom for the poor farmers. Pagans knew that the new religion would only favour the landlords. Therefore they resisted a Christian conversion stubbornly.

The new religion brought a lot of new and important changes into Anglo-Saxon life. With the faith came new built churches all over the country. Hoping for a change in terms of their favour, kings and noblemen gifted land to bishops and monasteries and allowed them to collect dues from the citizen.

With the new Christian faith came the culture as well. Monks introduced their Roman traditions and ideals to the pagans, as well as books and new languages such as Latin or Greek.

The Christian Church had a remarkable influence on the Anglo-Saxons’ thoughts and acts. Every aspect of the daily life  as well as important events were controlled by the new religion.  Because of that, noblemen and kings took the Church’s power and used it for their feudal system. The equality of social pagan tribes was gone (Dodwell, S. 1-5).

Christian Terminology in Beowulf

Beowulf is a story with plenty aspects of Christian philosophy. Beowulf himself only survives because of God’s protection. Throughout the poem you get told  that God is the provider of all earthly gifts, for which you have to be grateful and also unselfish. At first it seems that Beowulf and Hrothgar as well as their tribes are Christians. Beowulf is part of the Geats society.

As well as Hrothgar’s tribe the Danes, they are all from Southern Scandinavia. Both leaders of their societies seem to accept God’s dominance and ascendancy in numerous occasions.  Nevertheless, there are a lot of pagan-heroic motives in the poem as well, which shows the ongoing conflict with Christian ideals during that period of Britain’s history. There is always an inner battle going on in Beowulf: Pagan Pride vs. Christian Humanity. Being a selfish hero vs. a restrained helper.

Throughout the poem Christian philosophy can be found and various speeches.

Then what he has long held

seems too little; angry-minded,

he covets, never proudly giving

gold rings, and he forgets

and neglects the future

state because God the Ruler

of Glory has given him

a great deal of honors.

In the end it comes to pass

that the body, on loan,

declines, falls fated. Another,

who recklessly dispenses

treasure, one who does not

hold it in terror, seizes

the warrior’s ancient possessions.

Beloved Beowulf, best of warriors,

protect yourself against that

wickedness and choose better,

eternal councils. Do not heed

arrogance, famous champion! (15.8.)

Hrothgar points out the power and strength of God. The elderly king of the Danes is a wise man, who tries so teach and prepare Beowulf for his battle with Grendel. In the poems course Beowulf seems to adopt more and more of Hrothgar’s Christian philosophy (Bjork 286).

As Beowulf arrives at Hrothgar’s coast, the answer (why he came there) he gives the danish king is very objective (14.2.). He nicely gives information about himself without mentioning any prophecy. It is the king of the Danes himself who puts Beowulf into the context of God and a upcoming prophecy (6.3.).

He is also the one who always links God and Beowulf together. In his eyes Beowulf is a godsend bless and protector of his kingdom:

Hrothgar, standing on the steps,

seeing the golden roof

and Grendel’s hand, spoke:

“For this sight I give

thanks to the Almighty.

I have suffered much

from Grendel’s scourge.

God, the glorious protector,

works wonder after wonder.(5.1)

In his long speech are plenty references towards God and the link between the Lord and Beowulf. The more time Beowulf spends with Hrothgar, the more often the leader of the Geats talks about God and uses Christian philosophy.

Hrothgar is also the one who appoints Beowulf as his legitimate successor. Apparently Hrothgar acts as Beowulf’s spiritual leader during the first and second section of the poem. In the third and last part of the pagan legend’s story, Beowulf himself serves as an influencer of Christian faith and ideas. Interestingly the amount of Christian influence by Beowulf himself is rising parallel with the story plot. This might be a hint on the ongoing rise of Christianity among the actual British due that time.

As time goes by, the British people get used more and more to the Christian faith and traditions in order to lose the old pagan rituals. As already mentioned, Christian faith was openly reinforced by kings and noblemen. Hrothgar used to speak a lot about God and God’s will and his power. Hrothgar’s danish society is very unit and strong. He seems to be a wealthy king, who is interested in keeping up the feudal system. Therefore the Christian religion would be of huge interest for him. He passes his sovereign style down to Beowulf, who adapts it straight away.

Beowulf as Christ or God and Grendel as Satan?

Thinking about the many references in terms of Christ, one can see true parallels between Christ and Beowulf. Both are sons of mighty kings (Beowulf is often called as  son of Ecgtheow, such as people call Christ, son of God). Both are send out to help people in suffer. Both are facing the evil and fight for the right. Therefore might Christ be represented by Beowulf? Maybe the Anglo-Saxon narrator created a pagan like version of God’s son?

In the Old Testament we can read in book Genesis about Jehovah’s battle with alienated Lucifer, such as Beowulf faced a fight with Grendel at Herot (Barnouw 28 f.). As well as Beowulf saves the Danes from Grendel, God frees the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt. Maybe the pagan narrator created a new heroic poem with elements of both, the Old and New Testament by using their motives and recreating them into their national style.

Mainly Beowulf is the prototype of the good. Grendel represents the evil, the poem describes him as one of God’s fated spirits among human race.

After Cain killed his brother,

his father’s son,

he went in guilt,

marked by murder,

fleeing the joys of men

to occupy the waste land.

There awoke many fated spirits,

Grendel being one,

that savage, hateful outcast.

At Herot he found a man

awake and ready for war.

The monster laid hold of him,

but Beowulf kept in mind his

strength, the precious gift

God had granted, and God gave

him help and support.

Thus Beowulf overcame that enemy,

subdued that hellish demon.

Then Grendel went,

the enemy of mankind,

deprived of joy,

seeking his death place. (12:6)

To safe the others the Lord gave the Danes his very own warrior to help and support: He send out Beowulf. And God kept helping him throughout various situations, such as he kept helping Jesus with spiritual strength.

In the New Testament we can find other references for God who sends out one of his helpers to save the humankind.

“For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” (John 3:17)

The similarities are obvious; you can see God as well as Jesus in Beowulf. Jesus was God’s gift to the failing people on earth. He was representing  God’s spirit, he was the one who announced the good news to the poor. He saved people through his spiritual, physical, mental and moral strength. He helped the poor and healed those who were sick. Jesus Christ suffered for other people’s fails and loses. He worked for love and caring, in fact Jesus Christ is love. But different than Beowulf, Christ suffered in silence and without any violence. Christ was not an armed warrior with a small army of arms bearing soldiers. Jesus Christ achieved power through his voice and his words. He was loyal and not selfish. And furthermore he was without sin. In Matthew 1:21 we are told that Jesus purpose on earth is to save us:

“She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

But a pagan hero could not be represented as a carrying and non violent saint. Beowulf is rough. He is manly. Beowulf is a warrior who has to murder the bad. Therefore is full of sin relating to the Bible. But he is also brave, loyal and courageous.

That prince ordered

an iron shield:

he knew for a fact

that the best wood,

the very best linden,

couldn’t help

against flame.(1.10.)

While Beowulf is having a fight with the Dragon, the pagan narrator calls him a prince. Obviously a prince has to be the son of a king. Is the narrator telling us that Beowulf is God’s son? Because it is God who Beowulf is asking for help.

In comparison with the Bible we can find in Isaiah 9:6 a reference that the new born child, called Jesus, is a prince of peace:

“For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”

Thinking about Christ’s moral standards, Beowulf differs in  judging everybody in terms of their behaviour (or example he judges Unfreth because he heard about Unferth’s history). Jesus does not judge anybody. Such as Christ Beowulf gave up his own life and wishes and to serve his duties: As a hero he needs to kill beasts. He fights Grendel and saves the Danes. As a king, he has to serve his nation. Beowulf  also keeps his promise to kill Grendal’s mother. He dies after fighting the dragon, therefore he gives up his live to his people. In each of the poems three parts, Beowulf has to fight against another monster. Every monster is challenging his (and the pagan) moral standards.

Then was the golden hilt,

the ancient work of giants,

given to the hand

of the aged warrior,

the gray war leader.

The possession of it,

the wondrous work of smiths,

passed, after the deaths

of demons, to the king of the Danes.

When the grim-hearted being,

God’s adversary, guilty of murder,

left this world,

and his mother also,

the hilt passed

into the power of the best

of the world’s kings

between the seas

who dealt out treasure

in the Northland. (12.8.)

Beowulf is aware of being a murderer. This strophe seems to be his own prophecy. A very typical idea of pagan philosophy: As well as the Hebrews, the pagans believed in a fulfilled prophecy (Maas Chapter 1).

So Beowulf spoke

of his sorrow

for Herebeald.

He could not

for that murder

seek revenge,

though the doer

was not dear to him. (12.10)

Not just did Beowulf knew his own prophecy (Hrothgar told him), he furthermore self fulfilled it. With God as his commander Beowulf put all of his trust into the Lord’s given orders (Cavill 18). He also follows Hrothgar’s advices almost blindly. Hrothgar’s wisdom helps Beowulf to face the upcoming monster.

His spirit, his heart,

grew blood thirsty.

He gave no rings

to Danes who pursued glory.

Joyless he went on,

struggling on as a long-lasting

affliction. Learn from this

and understand manly virtues.(12.8.)

In this case Hrothgar represents Beowulf’s spiritual leader. Being an old and wise king, Hrothgar advices Beowulf the lessons of Christian faith. He stresses out that God’s grace and the wealth he increases in his followers life, has to be shared among all. Hrothgar represents God, who was a spiritual leader to Jesus. Jesus had to stand up for his beliefs and philosophy all the time. Christ died for our sins and the reliefs of our souls.

After his battle with Grendel’s mother, the new king of the Danes attests this, but he also is aware of the Christian idea that God’s protection and lead has to be earned (Orchard 139 f.). Especially in Catholic faith, a true Christian has to pay his duty and serve as a good and noble man to earn the right to be able to go to heaven after death. The same philosophy can be found here. A real warrior needs to show pride, strength, courage, leadership and honesty before he can count on God’s protection.

When Beowulf dies, his funeral was again a mixture of pagan traditions and Christian philosophy. Dead Christian’s has to be buried in graves, just like Jesus. The dead body has to return to the original source: the earth. Pagans on the other hand thought that  the soul of the dead is only on a journey to another place. Therefore they inserted human goods and materials next to the body, so that the soul has its own belongings when it enters the new place.

Beside him lay

cups and pitchers,

dishes and swords

eaten through with rust

as if the earth had embraced

them a thousand winters.

That was a hoard

of great power,

that gold

ancient men

had encircled with a spell

so that no man

could touch it,

unless God himself,

the great Truth-King,

gave leave

to whichever man

seemed fit to Him (18:12)

 

In the end Beowulf dies in a battle to save his people. Such as Jesus died for the humankind (Cavill 22).

The legend of Beowulf offers plenty of lines and speeches with biblical references. Most of them are said by the king of the Danes, Hrothgar. The similarities between the protagonist Beowulf and Jesus Christ cannot be denied. But maybe it is just a pagan-heroic poem seen through Christian-Latin eyes. Fact is that pagan culture and traditions various in many different aspects and there are no written work to refer on or look up at, which makes it hard to tell if there was not a single God or a God-like Lord in the pagan believe. Otherwise there is no evidence that during the last hundred years the poem was not rewritten to serve the favour of Christian faith. In the end this is Beowulf’s beauty: The mystery about its origin.

Bibliography

The following work is based on the translation of “Beowulf” by Dr. David Breeden, found on http://www.lnstar.com/literature/beowulf/

“The Adventures of Beowulf.” The Adventures of Beowulf. Web. 01 Dec. 2016.

Andersson, Theodore Murdock., and Robert E. Bjork. A Beowulf Handbook. Exeter: U of Exeter, 1997. Print.

Barnouw, Adriaan Jacob. Anglo-Saxon Christian Poetry: An Address. Philadelphia: R. West, 1977. Print.

“Bible Hub: Search, Read, Study the Bible in Many Languages.” Bible Hub: Search, Read, Study the Bible in Many Languages. Web. 01 Dec. 2016.

Cavill, Paul. The Christian Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England: Approaches to Current Scholarship and Teaching. Suffolk: D.S. Brewer, 2004. Print.

Dodwell, C. R. Anglo-Saxon Art: A New Perspective. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1982. Print.

Maas, A.J. Christ in Type and Prophecy. New York: Benziger, 1893. Print.

Orchard, Andy. A Critical Companion to Beowulf. Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer, 2003. Print.

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