Beowulf: Christianity versus Paganism

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There is no doubt about the fact that Beowulf is more than a piece of ancient literature; it is a record of historical information about its epoch and the shift of civilization of the time. Because the poem is a unique mixture of Christian and pagan beliefs, it enables scholars to debate about whether this is a result of the author’s unique outlook or whether Christian layer was induced later. The research on the subject makes it possible to state that while the poem is based on an ancient pagan myth, it was created by an early Christian author, which accounts for the unique fusion of Christianity and paganism.

Beowulf is known to be part of oral Anglo-Saxon epic genre, before it was written down in early Middle Ages, presumably in the eighth century. It was clear that while the writer had to follow the basic plot inherited from his ancestors, he nevertheless could not help looking at it through the prism of his epoch. Moreover, when writing the poem, he appealed to his contemporaries who had a certain outlook and religious beliefs. It is not a secret that church was a powerful institution in Middle Ages, which affected the overall social ideology. Yet, because Beowulf was created in the early period of the epoch, Christianity had not reached the top of its power and influence. Because of this, references to pagan beliefs were not as severely censored or condemned. It would be rather true to say that the two set of believes existed in alignment, complementing each other. One can easily be a Christian while still having the roots in paganism, which is true about the author of the poem. The reason for this is that the territories were converted into Christianity in the seventh century, while the poem was written in the eighth century. This means that the time lapse is not that large for totally extinguishing pagan heritage: hence the author’s tolerance, though he is supposed to be a Christian monk. In many ways, he seems to be a typical product of his epoch, who has to reconcile these two sets of beliefs in his writing. However, he realized perfectly that some of the ideas of paganism and Christianity were contradictory and cannot be melted together. This is why he tries to take the position of a historian who tries to be fair and objective about paganism and yet remains a Christian.

To discuss the correlation of paganism and Christianity, it is worth looking at each of these two layers at the level of the plot, the characters and symbolism. The plot of the poem is quite universal, which deals with the global struggle between the good and the evil. Both elements are quite archetypal, and yet they are more typical for pre-Christian times. It resembles ancient myths and also the approach of Old Testament, where “eye for eye” concept was encouraged. So, when describing the opposition of Beowulf and the monster named Grendel, the author could refer to the epic struggle between angels and demons in the old Biblical scripts. Thus, from the perspective of early Christianity violence can be justified in case it is a virtuous struggle against the evil. This is why the poet ascribes purely demonic attributes to Grendel to imply that he has a devilish nature.

The fight between Grendel and Beowulf is an example of how the Christian and pagan approach is combined. As the author treats the situation as a Christian, he states that this struggle cannot be equal despite the visible power of Grendel because God’s power is higher. “Like a man outlawed for wickedness, he must await the mighty judgment of God in majesty”. (Beowulf 976-8) So, from this point of view Beowulf wins not because he is physically mightier but because he is a tool of God. This vision is reinforced by the author’s naming Grendel a descendant of Cain, which was obviously addressed to the Christian audience. However, despite the fact that the author tries to distance himself from the pagan perspective that the story has, he still keeps the essence of the old epic that must have been passed orally from one generation to another. This is why pre-Christian values are so visible in the text. Thus, for instance, though the author disapproves Grendel as a representative of the evil, he cannot help appreciating him as a warrior. Indeed, being a warrior and having a fair equal battle is an idea of worship of Anglo Saxon society. The author describes the battle in the following way:

Venturing closer,

his talon was raised to attack Beowulf

where he lay on the bed; he was bearing in

with open claw when the alert hero's

comeback and armlock forestalled him utterly.

The captain of evil discovered himself

in a handgrip harder than anything

he had ever encountered in any man

on the face of the earth. (Beowulf 744-752)

It is obvious that while Christians focus on the moral aspect of any battle, it was physical and spiritual power of warriors that was an aspect to admire for pagans. This is why the author focuses on their supernatural power and their bravery to underline that they are both strong warriors. Respect for one’s enemy is one of the major elements of warriors’ code, so Beowulf reveals that element in the course of narration. Besides, the stronger the opponent is, the more honorable and glorious the victory is, this is why it was so important to describe Beowulf defeating powerful creatures.

There are also different perspectives that determine the hero’s motivation to fight the monster. As a Christian, the narrator suggests that it is Beowulf’s moral duty to struggle with the evil, so he serves God and his people in this way. However, if one treats the story as a reflection of pagan society, there are other factors for Beowulf to do it. The first reason is quite simple: he is a warrior, and so he has to fight in order to confirm his status and win people’s respect. It would not be true to say that violence was worshiped but it was accepted as an honorable aspect of warriors’ lives. Besides, honor is a measure for violence, because motivation is considered to be important. Thus, for instance, Beowulf serves as a lord of King Hygelac but he does not attempt to take the thrown and does not participate in feuds after his death. Only when he wins people’s respect, he becomes a king. Besides, the theme of being devoted to one’s king is one of the key ones in the poem. So, at the beginning Beowulf starts fighting Grendel because he threatens King Hrothgar. In the same way he, as a king of Geats, feels that it is his duty to serve his people and protect them.

One of the clashes between Christianity and paganism is attitude to revenge. Thus, like most of his contemporaries, Beowulf follows the code which says that one has to answer any violence to keep one’s honor. “If one of his kinsmen had been slain, a man had a moral obligation either to kill the slayer or exact the payment in compensation” ( Abrams 30). Hence, after losing close people he chooses a path of revenge because it is a natural way of his epoch’s thinking. When telling this story, the Christian author regrets because his vision of the idea is different. Moreover, he describes feuds and violence in detail to demonstrate the wrongness of the old pagan values compared to Christianity. The end of the poem is also interesting in terms of opposition of the two ideologies. In fact, the death of Beowulf is more characteristic of a Christian martyr rather than of a pagan warrior, though he fights. From the pagan perspective, dying was not necessary at this point because Beowulf was a successful king who ensured welfare of his citizens. However, because Christianity is more focused on the afterlife and the spiritual aspect, Beowulf’s sacrifice looks more reasonable from this standpoint. He dies when killing a demon, which means that he makes a noble choice.  As researchers point out, some of the values of paganism “ can be seen as vices by Christianity: especially pride in the frank display of strength” (Bjork 180).

At the example of Beowulf, researchers have explored the way Christianity was introduced into Anglo-Saxon society. Thus, Paul Cavill pays some attention to the details of the plot that might be suggestive of Christian influence. Thus, for instance, he focuses on the role of fate as opposed to coincidence, as help on God’s part. So, it is suggested that Beowulf’s victory over Grendel cannot be analyzed in rational terms. Numerous descriptions of the two heroes’ strength dates back to ancient pre-Christian times, and audience would probably expect that demonstration of physical might. Besides, one had to be abhorred by the idea that one warrior (namely Grendel) would have treated the dead’s warriors body outrageously. There was no more horrible way for a warrior to die in a dishonorable way and not to be buried in a proper way. So, this was a pagan way to mark Grendel as an evil creature. At the same way, he is an embodiment of the evil from a Christian perspective as well. So, some magical help from God is a hint that Beowulf is represent the good and is favored by heaven. Thus, for instance, the discovery of a sword that brings victory is a sign of providence assistance. As a researcher points out, it “was not merely lucky, but providential, and the hero was not saved only by the discovery of the sword, but by the mail-coat and especially by the decision of God”(Cavill 18).  There is an argument whether this sword is a magical object and has some supernatural powers, or whether a person is the only instrument of God. In any case, the idea of the supernatural is different from the pagan and from the Christian perspective. Pre-Christian background of the poem can be easily traced as the supernatural is mostly manifested in the material world. So, the supernatural means bigger, stronger, smarter, and mightier. In other words, larger-than-life heroes are an aspect of pagan mythology. In contrast, the Christian layer of the poem implies the concept of the supernatural in another way. The supernatural is hidden and not openly manifested; it is implied but not pronounced aloud, it does not seek glory in the world. So, this notion of the supernatural refers mostly to the invisible God’s guidance that leads the hero through all challenges.

At the end of the poem, it might seem that God leaves Beowulf but it is not exactly so. There is a touch of fatalism about anticipation of death. Like a warrior, he is always ready to die in a noble way. His death might seem unfair because he finally reached the point where he has enough wisdom to be a virtuous and fair king, other people’s fates depend on him. Yet, in the absence of deep regret about Beowulf’s death there are some Christian motifs too. In fact, all aspects of success in the earthly life are just lessons to be learned here, and are necessary for the next stage, which is an afterlife. So, on the one hand the author is sorry about the unfair death of Beowulf but on the other hand he feels peaceful because the hero goes to a better place to stay. He rejoins the heaven of God, which is rather a reward than punishment in terms of Christian values. The narrators says, “Whichever one death fells must deem it a just judgement by God. ( Beowulf 440-441)

To conclude, it is worth saying that Beowulf is an example of a text that was created for centuries by different generations of people. It originates from the epic that embodies the values than ancient Anglo- Saxons had in different spheres of life.  Thus, it promotes the warrior’s code, physical might, devotion to one’s king. Besides, it claims that one has to choose revenge to keep one’s face because passive behavior is dishonorable. However, because the story was written down in the epoch of early Christianity, it has an imprint of the new outlook as well. The following aspects of the poem can be considered as those, which belong to later adoptions: non-acceptance of violence and revenge, worship of God who blesses fight with the evil, forgiving enemies. One more aspect is that the spiritual life and afterlife are more important than the material existence on earth. The author of the poem is Christian who tries to be objective about the real story and yet to appeal to his contemporaries’ new beliefs.

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