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Author's Note

My intention with this essay is to illumine some of the Christian themes in the early medieval saga Beowulf. It is by no means exhaustive.

Christian Themes in ''Beowulf''

1)

Crowning monument of medieval literature, the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf stands as the benchmark of epic adventures. Credited with influencing such authors as J.R.R Tolkien, the poem represents the early medieval European world which has descended to us today in cultural icons such as King Arthur and The Lord of the Rings. But Beowulf offers more than a smashing adventure. Woven through the poem is an iconoclastic blend of Christianity and paganism, an aspect of the early Middle Ages often overlooked or oversimplified. From beginning to end the saga includes many references to God, or at least a supreme Deity. In the character of the hero Beowulf we find an imperfect allusion to the character of Christ. However, paganism still lurks in the Anglo-Saxon culture of feuds and practical fatalism. Beowulf represents a complex blend of Christianity and paganism for a purpose: it reminds us of the hopelessness of humanity to solve its problems by itself.

The most striking example of Christian influence in the poem is in Beowulf himself. He functions as a protector in the saga, delivering his nation and others from powerful evils at risk to himself, much as Jesus Christ did. Several times the author does link Beowulf’s pugnacity to his desire for glory and reward in addition to his moral obligation to protect his kin and subjects, as we find him boasting before he fights the dragon, “I pursue this fight for the glory of winning” (line 2513). However, his motive can still align with Christ, who for his unequalled conquest of death also received glory and reward. The crucial point of analysis lies in Beowulf’s recognition of God as the giver of his strength and the master of his achievements. According to the poem, “Beowulf was mindful of his mighty strength, the wondrous gifts God had showered on him: he relied for help on the Lord of all” (line 1270). This quote reinforces Beowulf’s likeness to Christ. Like Beowulf, Christians must recognize that God gives them gifts to use not for their own glory but for His. During the darkest times of the poem, Beowulf always turns up to remind us of Christ’s example.

2)

Though Beowulf the hero certainly offers the shiniest glimpse of Christianity, Beowulf the poem also includes a checkered pattern of references to God throughout its storyline. Amidst the confusion and warfare of Anglo-Saxon England, good kings and warriors (or those set up as such) always pray to God for strength or deliverance and thank God for their triumphs. As the scene opens on Beowulf landing on Hrothgar’s territory after an ocean journey, he and his soldiers “thanked God for that easy crossing on a calm sea” (line 228). Even for the weather they thank God, not to mention for Beowulf’s victory over Grendel. “First and foremost, let the Almighty Father be thanked” is the first utterance from King Hrothgar after Beowulf rids him of the monster (line 927-928). And Beowulf’s last words as he dies are “to the Everlasting Lord of All, to the King of Glory, I give thanks” (line 2794-2795). These statements of gratitude deny classification as trite expressions – their originators meant them for a purpose. On a larger scale the author of Beowulf had a purpose for attributing so many references to God to his poem’s heroes, for he uses their example to preach his own message, jumping in on the story here and there with sayings such as “Past and present, God’s will prevails” (line 1059), or “Almighty God rules over mankind and always has” (line 701-702). How these few Vikings and Saxons learned of God when their nations as a whole did not know of Him yet opens up debate and most likely rests simply in the contrivances of the author. However, in their deference to God they advance the Christian side of the epic.

Unfortunately, Beowulf also displays a pagan theme which, though not as prominent as its previously-discussed counterpart, still surfaces in many aspects of the Anglo-Saxon culture. Fate rears its head most noticeably: it is ascribed regularly to events in the poem where God receives no mention. Even Beowulf, though knowing how well he could fare against Grendel, leaves the outcome of the conflict to fate: “Fate goes ever as fate must” (line 455). Coming from the most Christian character of the story, this quote surprises the reader, who then continues on to once again find Beowulf saying “fate spares the man it has not already marked” (line 573). The characters likely do not understand the dichotomy between fate and the existence of God, a fact which taints the Christian-ness they otherwise succeed in displaying. Additionally, the characters wade through feuds and wars which destroy the stability of the tribes or nations involved. Theirs is a world of vengeance and not of forgiveness, which shows that Christianity truly has not yet had an influence upon the cultural lifestyle at large. In portraying Anglo-Saxon England thus, the author stays true to historical fact. But these pagan motifs prohibit Beowulf from being accurately classified as a Christian story.

Beowulf stands as the benchmark of medieval literature because it not only entertains but also blends the antitheses of Christianity and paganism which typified the time period. Often, ascribing either Christianity or paganism alone to the Middle Ages proves difficult because the era fits neither classification entirely. But the author of Beowulf mastered this antithetical blend for a greater purpose than either historical accuracy or hair-raising adventure. Like the Old Testament writers, the Beowulf poet frames a message of coming salvation. In Beowulf we see a nation – the nation of England – which drifts between paganism and Christianity as did the nation of Israel. When a Moses or Samuel or David – in our case, a Beowulf or Hrothgar – enters the scene, the people awaken and flourish in peace and prosperity. Yet when the hero departs, they lapse back into darkness. In darkness does the author end his saga, but his message is one of hope. According to the historian Gregory of Tours, Beowulf ends only a few years before the Anglo-Saxons first received the Gospel. Thus, Beowulf, in its swashbuckling, sword-clashing way, leaves us with the sunset only to give us a glimpse of the coming sunrise.

Literature Poetry Religion

Works Cited

Greenblatt, John, et al. Norton Anthology of English Literature, 8th ed. Norton and Company, 2006.

Wilson, Douglas, and Fischer, G.Tyler. Omnibus II: Church Fathers Through the Reformation. Veritas Press, 2005.


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