Christianity in Beowulf
Works often provide a great deal of insight about the time period during which they were written. Beowulf, an epic narrative poem, is a reflection of many Anglo-Saxon ideals and concepts. This work was written after the Anglo-Saxons were already Christianized, yet the pagan traditions that had dominated their lives were not in the distant past; they were relatively recent. As a work of fiction, however, the legitimacy of Beowulf in a historical context may be questionable. The same pagan concepts found in Beowulf, however, can also be found in other works of the period, and these works also contain many elements of Christianity. Overall, Beowulf contains many pagan themes and concepts, but yet it also contains many references to Christianity. This is very similar to the England of this time period, because even though it was Christianized, it still had many pagan tendencies. Although the concepts of paganism as compared to Christianity may seem very dissimilar, these two aspects of Anglo-Saxon life came together to create a form of Christianity that was different than that of mainland Europe. This combination between pagan concepts and Christianity is demonstrated in Beowulf. It was a Christian author that wrote Beowulf for a Christian audience.
Beowulf exhibits different pagan concepts, each of which plays a central role in the narrative. These concepts, however, seem to be tied in with the elements of Christianity exhibited in the work. The author reconciles many pagan concepts with regard to elements of Christianity. The pagan concept of fame is demonstrated throughout Beowulf. To Beowulf and the other characters of the story, to be famous is to have great prowess and to accomplish heroic tasks. And, as the character Beowulf himself states "let him who can win fame before death, because that is a dead man's best memorial" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 60). This statement illustrates how important the concept of fame was to Beowulf, who is a representative character. In order to demonstrate such prowess and heroism, the Danes and Geats of the story must prove themselves. Beowulf himself illustrates his willingness to prove himself when he states that he will "either perform some heroic feat, or breathe [his] last in [the] banqueting hall" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 41). Beowulf has decided that he will either accomplish this goal or die in the attempt. When Beowulf accomplishes this task and mortally wounds Grendel, he has shown both his prowess and a great degree of heroism. Hrothgar tells Beowulf that "by [his] exploits [he has] established fame forever" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 49). Thus, the pagan concept of fame was acquired through accomplishments such as these. However, although the means through which men gained fame may seem to conflict with certain elements of Christianity, the author reconciles this fame with many references to God. Although prowess and heroism may not necessarily be Christian concepts or virtues, the author attributes both of these to God through the speech of his characters. Hrothgar states that Beowulf's killing of Grendel was achieved "through the power of the Lord" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 49). Thus, this ties Beowulf's prowess and fame back to God, thus reconciling a pagan concept to Christianity.
The concept of what it is to be famed and honorable as shown in Beowulf is reaffirmed in another primary source of the time. In Beowulf, Wiglaf urges on his companions to help their lord and to "share the battle with Beowulf" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 89) against the dragon. They would gain fame by standing with their lord in battle and demonstrating their courage. This concept is also shown in an account of the Battle of Maldon, which took place in the year 991. After the fall of his thane, one of the men of the battle, named Aelfric, reminds his companions of the times they shared with their lord and that "now it my be proved which of [them] is bold" (Maldon, Smith ed., p. 9). This boldness, which can also be interpreted as courage, would also gain fame for these men, if they were to fall by their lord's side. Thus, the pagan concept of fame shown in Beowulf is also encountered in this account of the Battle of Maldon. Yet, in both Beowulf and this historical account, the concept of fame is tied back to elements of Christianity. After earning fame just before death after his stand against the dragon, Beowulf declares his "thankfulness to God the king of glory, our eternal Lord" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 93). Then Byrhtnoth, who is the thane that falls in the account of the Battle of Maldon, thanks the Lord "for all the joys that [he had] met with in this world" (Maldon, Smith ed., p.9). Thus, both Beowulf and Byrhtnoth, who had received fame in battle, which is a pagan concept, relate back to God at their deaths. This supports the idea that although both men were Christians, both men valued pagan concepts.
Fate is another pagan concept that plays a role in the story of Beowulf. Within Beowulf fate is often mentioned or referred to in association with death or greatness. For example, the author states that "they were unaware of the fate which was in store for some of them" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 56) in reference to the men who slept in Heorot the night after the death of Grendel. This refers to the impending death that will befall one of the men. But, at another point of the story, Beowulf, when he speaks of his impending battle with the dragon, states that "fate, the master of us all, must decide this issue" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 86). He resigns to fate, which is a pagan concept, but he makes no mention of God. The author does, however, associate fate with elements of Christianity at other points in the narrative. Hrothgar wishes that "God reward [Beowulf] with good fortune, as He has done up until now" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 56) in reference to Beowulf's defeat of Grendel. Therefore, through this statement the pagan concept of fate and fortune, as well as its determination, is tied to God. It should be noted, however, that during Beowulf's address to the king before he even fights Grendel, Beowulf states that "whichever of [them] is killed must resign himself to the verdict of God" and that "fate must decide" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 37), all within the same passage. Beowulf demonstrates both his Christian beliefs and his belief in pagan concepts. The author shows once again that although these views may be opposing, they may both be held.
In Beowulf, however, fate plays a different role than it does in the account of the Battle of Maldon. In the account of the Battle of Maldon, Byrhtnoth bade each man to "trust to his hands and to his good intent" (Maldon, Smith ed., p. 7). Although trusting to one's hands might be considered a pagan concept, the mentioning of good intent is an element of Christianity. Beowulf often trusts to his hands in battle, both in his fight with Grendel, as well as after his sword broke in the battle he had with the dragon. Beowulf does not, however, seem to attribute his fate to God. This may be to show the conflict between fate, which is a pagan concept, and elements of Christianity. On the other hand, Hrothgar attributes Beowulf's actions to God even if Beowulf does not on numerous occasions. In reference to fate specifically, Hrothgar states that "through the power of the Lord, a man has performed the task which...we were so far unable to accomplish" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 49), which associates Beowulf's defeat of Grendel with the will of God. Also, Beowulf does make reference to God after the dragon mortally wounds him; he mentions his thankfulness that God "permitted [him] to win [the dragon's treasure]...before [his] death" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 93). Therefore, although elements of Christianity may not be invoked during the actual actions, they seem to be after the actions have already taken place.
The pagan concept of vengeance is also found in Beowulf. The clearest example of this is after the death of Hrothgar's advisor. Beowulf tells Hrothgar that it is better "for a man to avenge his friend than grieve him long" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 60), which is not a very Christian idea. This phrase, however, clearly shows the importance of avenging the death of one's comrade or friend. Yet Hrothgar, after Beowulf finishes this address, "sprang up and thanked the Almighty for the hero's words" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 60), which, as with the other pagan concepts, ties vengeance back to Christianity, even though vengeance is not necessarily directly linked to Christianity. In other words, the author is once again attempting to reconcile a pagan concept, this time vengeance, with Christianity. This pagan concept of vengeance is also seen as the cause of Beowulf's battle with the dragon. The author wrote, "the king of the Geats planned to take vengeance" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 82) after the dragon destroyed the national stronghold and seaboard of the Geats. Yet, once again, the author reconciles this vengeance with elements of Christianity. Beowulf thought that he had "greatly angered the Lord through some breach of the Commandments" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 82). Although Beowulf wanted to seek vengeance on the dragon, he at first thought that he had gone against the will of God in some way.
This pagan concept of vengeance is displayed in several other primary sources of this era, as well as historically in the Battle of Edington. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles entry for the year 757, the king's thanes "killed the atheling and the men who were with him" (Chronicle, Smith ed., p. 5) to avenge the death of their king. Although the king had been murdered, the pagan concept of vengeance is still present. The pagan concept of vengeance is also present in Bede's account of the conversion of Northumbria written in 625. In this account, Bede notes that King Edmund had stated that if "God would grant him life and victory over the king by whom the assassin had been sent" (Bede, Smith ed., p. 13), then he would serve Christ and throw down his pagan idols. Thus, if God would help him to enact vengeance on the king that had attempted to have him assassinated, then King Edmund would convert to Christianity, even though this vengeance would go against many of the principles of Christianity. Similarly to Beowulf, vengeance is present, but there is still some reference to Christianity in both of these accounts. Likewise, during the Battle of Edington in the year 878, Alfred the Great, a Christian king, enacted a form of vengeance on Guthram, his defeated opponent, when he had him converted to Christianity. Alfred was a Christian ruler converting a pagan, but at the same time he was enacting vengeance. This is an example of how there was an interrelationship between pagan concepts and Christianity in the real Anglo-Saxon England. This supports the idea that the author of Beowulf, through his work, may have been attempting to show this interrelationship, since it was actually present in Anglo-Saxon England.
The Christian author of Beowulf had attempted to appeal to his Christian audience not only through the reconciliation of pagan concepts with Christianity, but also through his representation of kingship. Beowulf, when he becomes king of the Geats, seems to have similarities to the King Edwin described in Bede's The Conversion of Northumbria. Beowulf, before his death, tells Wiglaf that he "did not swear false oaths" (Beowulf, Wright ed., p. 91). Beowulf considers this one of his life's accomplishments, and this is not only something that can be associated with Christianity, but it is also similar to King Edwin's examination of Christianity before his conversion. King Edwin "deliberated in his heart how he should proceed, and which religion he should adhere to" (Bede, Smith ed., p. 13) so as not to give a false oath. Another similarity between these two men is that both acted with vengeance against their enemies as stated previously. Thus, Beowulf shares some similarities with this actual ruler who was converted to Christianity. The author's purpose of this may have been to make Beowulf seem more realistic to his Christian audience, who may have understood how Beowulf would have to deal with both the pagan concepts and the Christianity that were a part of Anglo-Saxon life. Thus, Beowulf becomes representational of the interrelationship between pagan concepts and Christianity, serving a similar purpose as the careful reconciliation that the author had undertaken.
A Christian author wrote Beowulf for a Christian audience. The author reconciled such pagan concepts as fame, fate, and vengeance, which are found throughout the narrative, with Christianity. He did this to show the way in which both pagan concepts and Christianity were interrelated. Although Beowulf, as an epic narrative, may not seem a reliable source, it shares many common attributes with some of the other primary sources of the period. As such a resource, Beowulf provides a great deal of insight into Anglo-Saxon life.
- Smith, Lacey Baldwin and Smith, Jean Reeder. The Past Speaks, 2nd edition. Lexington: D.C. Heath and Company, 1993.
- Wright, David, trans. Beowulf. New York: Penguin Books, 1957.