Essay on Christian or Pagan: The Religious Origins of Beowulf
Number of words: 1308
In his book Beowulf and the Appositive Style, Robinson says that Beowulf is a pagan poem reworked by a Christian mind to create a peculiar spiritual atmosphere. It has been argued that Beowulf was a pagan oral poem of roughly the seventh century, later written down by a Christian monk around the twelfth century, incorporating many Christian thoughts and ideas into the epic. The argument behind the pagan origins is not just the pagan traditions found within the poem, but also because of the invasion of England during the fifth century by the pagan tribes of Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. The reason why it is speculated that a Christian monk recorded the oral poem is that in the year 597, several decades before the poem was written, Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine on a mission to King Ethelbert of Kent. Also, Irish missionaries were preaching in northern England at that time. Within seventy-five years, England had returned to Christianity, and with Christianity, the written word was learned and records were made. Before that, all literary materials existed in the minds of the poets and bards.
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote in his famous essay Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics that Beowulf is set in pagan Scandinavia but Hrothgar is a kind of Christian monotheist amongst an ocean of pagans. Tolkien did not clarify, however, if Beowulf was a pagan or Christian poem. When the oral poem was finally recorded, it seems the recorder was honest to the original recitation given to him and did not incorporate his own ideology into the poem. The oral poem that was eventually recorded was of an older pagan tradition coming into contact with a new Christian religion. The reason is the total lack of any kind of reference to the real foundation of Christianity, which is Christ and His sacrifice. If the Christian recorder was trying to incorporate Christian thought into the poem, then specific references to Christ would have been added (much like the recorder of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight did around the fourteenth century). By the twelfth century, Christianity was more familiar and accepted than when it was first introduced in the seventh century, and the well-known Christian symbols would have been added.
Then how can the references to God and other Biblical symbols and figures be taken into account? It would be interesting to note that there are only references from the Old Testament and none from the New Testament. Some of the more notable Biblical references are God as Creator, Grendel as the descendant of Cain, and the flood depicted on the sword found in the lair of Grendel’s mother. However, many, if not all, of these stories directly correlate with pagan stories. For example, many pagan cultures had a flood myth. In the Sumerian myths, Enki, the god of oceans, was the cause of the flood. In the Norse myths Odin’s wife Frigga, the goddess of the atmosphere, brought forth the deluge, and in the Assyrian myths, Baal, the god of rain, was the cause. In the Eddic poem Völuspá (Prophecy of the Seeress), it portrays a period of primeval chaos, followed by the creation of humankind. Ginnungagap was the yawning void. The great world-tree Yggdrasil reached through all time and space, but it was perpetually under attack from Nidhogg, the evil serpent. (“Norse Mythology,” Wikipedia).
Furthermore, God’s will in Beowulf is recognized, sporadically if not systematically, as being identical with Fate (wyrd). There is an easy association between pagan thought and the Old Testament teachings. The Old Testament can more easily co-relate with pagan rituals since it is such an old book and the Hebrews were a ritualistic nation as were the pagans. The harsh laws of God such as an eye for an eye and the laws of vengeance set out by the Old Testament God could be easily identifiable by the pagan tribes being introduced to it for the first time. Also, paganism would be very hard to fully root out of a culture.
It must be remembered that the purpose behind the missionary work in pagan England was not to uproot paganism to plant Christianity, but to plant Christianity in hopes that it would choke out the bad weeds of paganism. A good case in point is the concept of wergild, the price of a man to be paid to his family if he is killed by another. Wergild was an old pagan custom that the English did not do away with until the Norman Conquest, four centuries after the English were converted. By this example, it can be seen that the older pagan traditions had not entirely been flushed out by Christianity.
The same is true for Beowulf. The oral tradition of the poem dates back to around the seventh century AD, just decades after Christianity had been introduced. Although the masses converted over to Christianity, their pagan traditions would have been hard to forget. This fast conversion and unwillingness to completely drop old traditions are illustrated quite clearly in Beowulf. Thus, there are the old Scandinavian legends and stories that could be easily recognized by the people of the time, and the newly introduced religion of Christianity was added to the stories to give a deeper purpose to the tales. For example, the typical Germanic circle of vengeance was not attributed to the lead character Beowulf. Instead of Beowulf seeking wars against neighboring tribes, he takes his power to depose evil. The most horrendous of the evils was the serpent-like dragon which reflects both the old Germanic and the new Christian evil. Thus, Beowulf employs his efforts to maintain peace among mankind through his acts by overcoming evil rather than warring with other tribes.
Although Beowulf seems to be a paradox, combining a pagan story with hints of Christian thought, a more in-depth analysis into the history of the Anglo-Saxons should be considered to understand their religious thought processes. Many critics differ in opinions, but the poem still speaks for itself. Whether pagan or Christian in origin or both, Beowulf still displays a spiritual setting in which the poet’s audience can assess the men of old for what they were.
Donaldson, Talbot E. Beowulf. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. M. H. Abrams. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1986. 25-31.
Robinson, Fred C. Apposed Word Meanings and Religious Perspectives. Beowulf and the Appositive Style. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 1985. 29-59.
“Norse Mythology.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia Foundation, Inc.
Tolkien, J. R.R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. Proceedings of the British Academy 22 (1936): 245-95.
Ward, James, and Rob Kuntz. Legends and Lore. Ontario: Random House, 1984.
 Robinson, Fred C. Beowulfand the Appositive Style, 30.
 Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics, 280-87.
 Ward, James. Legends and Lore. 102, 111.
 Abrams, M. H. Beowulf, the introduction. 26.
 Abrams, M. H. Beowulf, the introduction. 27.
 Robinson, Fred C. Beowulf and the Appositive Style, 30.