One of the most written about topics and still uncertain topics in Beowulf is the topic of the Pagan and Christian elements found throughout the poem. While I tend to believe in the former, one of the main questions has been, as posed by F.A. Blackburn: Does a Christian, who used old lays in his material, compose the poem? Or is it a heathen, either from old stories or from old lays, and at a later date revised by a Christian? Again, it seems to me that a Christian poet wrote Beowulf-it is too consistent to be otherwise. What the poet appears to be doing is taking familiar pagan stories (or at least stories which are pagan is style), and embedding in them Christian elements.
What evidence is there that the Beowulf poet is doing what is described above? There is quite a lot of evidence. One of the most obvious features is the occasional insertion of Judeo-Christian consequences/behavior after or during pagan-like behavior. For example, when the poet describes the people’s natural reaction to Grendel’s attacks, he writes that “Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed / offerings to idols, swore oaths / that the killer of souls might come to their aid / and save the people […]” (175-178). Then, a couple of lines afterwards, I believe the poet removes himself from the role of “narrator” and takes on the role of “Christian” when he warns, “[…]
Oh, cursed is he / who in time of trouble has to thrust his soul / in the fire’s embrace, forfeiting help; / he has nowhere to turn. But blessed is he / who after death can approach the Lord / and find friendship in the Father’s embrace” (183-188). Another noticeable passage is found soon after Beowulf’s final boast, before fighting Grendel. Here, we find another instance where the poet puts on hold the role of “poet” and take on the role of “Christian” when he states, “[…] The truth is clear: / Almightily God rules over mankind / and always has” (700-702).
While the two above examples are pretty clear examples of how the poet used paganism and Christianity in juxtaposition to produce a strong effect on the reader, there are other, more implicit ways in which he is able to give this predominately pagan culture a Christian education. In a sense, the poet is using the pagan setting and culture (e.g. the traditional Anglo-Saxon warriors, the formal boasts, etc.) as a Trojan horse of Christian thought. For example, Beowulf is, by the means of his time, a traditional Anglo-Saxon warrior. For example, he gives formal boasts about defeating Grendel, and later Grendel’s mother, thereby pledging him to carry out his remarks (See the note for line 482).
In a similar fashion, Hrothgar is a typical Anglo-Saxon king, establishing himself as a proper ruler and successful warrior. He is just with his people, and as the poet remarks that, “[…] Behavior that is admired / is the path to power among people everywhere” (24-25). Furthermore, on a smaller scale, the behavior of Queen Wealhtheow, the formalities of the lookout on the coast and Wulfgar, and various other details help establish the pagan setting, which would have been familiar to a reader of the poet’s era.
While the Beowulf poet takes great care to not make the poem too alienating to the reader, he also carefully and inherently embeds Christian ideas, and at times does so quite bluntly (See two above examples, second paragraph). He does so in a few ways, one of them being the behavior of the main characters. This is a very delicate feat, since as I mentioned above, he has already set out to have them appear pagan in character and behavior. However, what he, in my opinion masterfully, does is to create what Thomas D. Hill refers to as a “Noachite perspective.” In other words, Hill defines Hrothgar and Beowulf “as Noahchites, that is, as gentiles who share the religious heritage and knowledge of Noah and his sons without having access to the revealed knowledge of God which is granted to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob […]” (Hill, 202).
This definition surely has some support, since time after time we see Hrothgar and Beowulf’s behavior as Christian. For example, very often they thank God when things well in battle, and even acknowledge that if things do not go favorably, it must be the will of God, as would any devout, faithful Christian. For example, when Beowulf is going to fight Grendel, he tells his fellow Geats that he will face Grendel unarmed and “[…] may the Divine Lord / in His wisdom grant the glory of victory / to whichever side He sees fit” (685-687). Hence, he is reinforcing what the poet boldly states before, and which I have already quoted above-i.e. that ” […] the truth is clear: / Almightily God rules over mankind / and always has” (700-702).
Aside from making their behavior Christian, it seems to me that the poet also structures Hrothgar and Beowulf’s lives and destinies in a holy fashion. For example, Hrothgar is a very God-like character. We read early on that after having been successful in war, “friends, and kinsmen flocked to his ranks / young followers, a force grew / to be a mighty army. So his mind turned / to hall-building […]” (64-67). And what does the hall, Heorot, represent? It is a place where celebration of life, merry mead drinking, and feast take place.
It is a hall where Hrothgar generously entertains his heroes and where he ” […] would dispense / his God-given goods to young and old” (71-72). This, at least to me, seems God like. God builds Heaven to reward those who believe in Him, and from Heaven seems to rule over mankind (this is from common belief, or at least what I believe is common belief-I myself am agnostic, so do not know too much).
As we learn soon after Heorot is built, Grendel attacks it. And what does Hrothgar do? Again, in a very Christian attitude, he accepts outside help-i.e. Beowulf’s. We can see a few strong parallels between Beowulf and Christ. Both Beowulf and Christ are champions of righteousness and want peace. For example, when news of Grendel’s attacks reaches Geatland, ” […] he announced his plan: / to sail the swan’s road and seek out that king, / the famous prince who needed defenders” (199-201). Furthermore, when he finally reaches the Heorot, he emotionally requests that Hrothgar allow him to purify Heorot. Skipping ahead to the Dragon scene, we see that again, Beowulf displays Christ-like behavior. He sacrifices himself to take to the Dragon’s life and protect his people from future attacks, much like Jesus Christ dies at the cross for the salvation of humanity.
At this point, if not earlier, one must begin to wonder: why is the Beowulf poet taking so much care in creating this Trojan horse? Well, as Hill states, ” it is clear that a reflective Anglo-Saxon must have been aware that the roots of his nation and culture were pagan and Germanic and that Christianity was a relatively recent innovation” (Hill, 199). That is, Christianity was still too new of a concept for any reader of the Beowulf poet’s time to simply accept Christianity, no questions asked, would have been highly unlikely.
Therefore, the poet had to find a way to teach his fellow citizens Christianity, but not in such a shocking fashion. Therefore, what I believe he did is offer the Anglo-Saxons two versions of the same end-i.e. Christian teachings. One is when he asserts himself with such bold statements as the ones mentioned above. The other is when he is taking the pagan heroes of the story, and interweaves Christian behavior into them.
The former is much too foreign and frightening of an idea, so the readers flock to the latter idea. However, in doing so, they are still being molded into Christians, or at least being introduced to Christian behavior. Consider the following analogy, nicely constructed by my GSI Jeremy Ecke: If you want to have a child take some medication he/she does not want to take, you offer him/her two choices. One is the medication and the other is, for example, the medication implanted into a piece of chocolate. The child will most likely take the chocolate, but in doing so, will also take the medication.
While the argument above seems to have some validation, there are some questions that are still open, as well as some problems. For example, while I made an argument that the poet is Christian writing though a pagan prism, I did not refute the other theory, which again is that the poet is a heathen, and that a later time a Christian scribe gave it a Christian flavor. This is not likely (at least I do not believe) but it is still a theory.
Secondly, while it is fairly clear that the Beowulf poet is carefully weaving Christianity into this poem, it seems to me that he is not really asserting any Christian doctrine. It seems that he is simply showing the reader how ought Christians behave, rather than why. While I believe this may be due to taking a more cautious approach (i.e. continuing the above analogy: giving them their medication in small dosages rather than the entire prescription at once), this is still something that can be explored further.