I did not study English literature since sixth form and have never Read Beowulf in an academic or education setting. I am even less a student of history. My analysis will come primarily from a reading of the text. Bible references have been made using the King James Translation, which is not ideal- the Latin Vulgate or a contemporary Old English translation would have been more suitable but I use the KJV due to the limits of my resources and current understanding – I am reliant on translation. Therefore I anticipate and encourage any criticism or correction a knowledgeable reader can give me. Please, school me.
BEOWULF: OF HOPE AND HEATHENS
Questions of lineage have almost always been at stake for people of power. We might like to imagine that the obsession with lineage is not so important in the present day but in the last decade we saw how the wholly spurious ‘birther’ movement, questioning the lineage of president Obama, took hold and shaped American politics in ways we still feel. Lineage still affects us.
In theology, the lineage of Christ was of such importance to his early biographers that Matthew’s gospel opens with an exhaustive genealogy reaching back to Adam. Lineage – of course – has always been of paramount importance to monarchs. Alfred the Great, who became king of Wessex in 871, and of all the anglo-saxon kingdoms in 886 was claimed to be descended from Noah;
‘Se Scef wæs Noes sunu & he wæs innan þære earce geboren’1
Which translates to ‘Scef was Noah’s son and he was born inside the ark’,
This quote from Textus Roffensis written in the 12th century echoes claims Alfred made of himself in 8552 according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, connecting his ancestral line to Christian scripture whilst avoiding any of the expectations put upon (or ethnicities assumed of) the three sons named in the biblical account. The house of Wessex was also regularly said to be descended from the Germanic god Woden.
This genealogy effectively provides the King of The Anglo-Saxons with dual citizenship, theologically speaking. He is a descendant of the great kings across the North Sea that were remembered by poets in the old stories, and at the same time connected to Christian history.
It is often imagined that when kings and peoples turned to Christianity they completely and immediately abandoned their prior beliefs, and though Bede and other Christian writers did their best to present history as if it did happen that way, it rarely did. More often the reality was muddier, Christianity was sometimes incorporated into previous practice, sometimes tolerated alongside or as a veneer, and sometimes the previous beliefs were not thrown out, but reconsidered and recontextualised in the light of the new doctrine. No society transitions to a completely new conception of the world over night.
Art often provides a proving ground to explore changing ideas, The Dream Of the Rood, written in Old-English combines Christian and pagan imagery, and alludes to the Norse Yggdrasil (world tree) in its tale of the tree that gave itself up to become the cross and bear Christ. But rather than give a list of examples I’ll proceed at this point to the focal point of this essay, Beowulf, first composed somewhere within the 8th century and surviving in a manuscript from circa 1000.
Beowulf remembers the mythology and geography of a pagan past in tones that both honours it and laments it, whilst inflecting its story through the lens of a Christian present. Beowulf’s world of heroes is at once worthy of epic-scale poetic consideration whilst being simultaneously presented as doomed and fading. The Christian elements of the poem are popularly described as later insertions to a once completely pagan text, however I will argue that the religious tension is inherent, innate and central to the Beowulf story. Beowulf explores the duality of Anglo-Saxon identity and at times produces lines of verse that baffles later readers hoping for the poem to provide a resolved and clear theological position.
I will draw out some moments out of the text to discuss, and I believe that together they speak to a writer attempting to identify the new God within old stories.
In the book of Genesis there’s a story about the Patriarch Jacob going to sleep and having a dream of angels ascending and descending from Heaven. The text then says, ‘Jacob awaked out of his sleep, and he said, Surely the Lord is in this place; and I knew it not.’ (Genesis 28:16 KJV) Beowulf in part feels like a story that claims that – the Lord was with our ancestors, and they knew it not.
- THE INCITING INCIDENT
The inciting incident of the Beowulf poem is the monster Grendel’s nightly attacks on Heorot, the grand mead hall of the Danes. However, the famously non-linear poem takes approximately a hundred lines before reaching Grendel. It opens with a genealogy that casts the kings and heroes of the poem as descendants of Scyld. In Beowulf Scyld is described as a foundling with no parentage that rose to become a good and heroic king. ‘þæt wæs god cyning’ (that was a good king). The inference here is that Scyld is born of Woden, indeed other texts presumably drawing from the same mythic tradition make Scyld’s parentage explicit, such as the Prose Edda, though the date of this text is much later than Beowulf.3 There is no doubt therefore that the poem places us firmly in a pagan world long since past,
Hwæt. We Gardena in geardagum,
þeodcyninga, þrym gefrunon
Attend! We have heard of the thriving throne of Denmark,
how the folk-kings flourished in former daysc. (Lines 1&2)
It seems odd therefore when Scyld’s descendant Hrothgar builds Heorot, that the scop (bard or poet) fills the evening air of the great hall drinking sessions with a song that paraphrases the Christian creation story.
He told how, long ago, the Lord formed Earth,
a plain bright to look on, locked in ocean,
Exulting established the sun and the moon
as lights to illumine the land dwellers
and furnished forth the face Earth
with limbs and leaves. Life He then granted
to each kind of creature that creeps and movesc. (Lines 91-97)
The immediate inclusion of Christian imagery to a pagan scene can distract modern readers from the poetic linking of three forms of creation in the poem; the creation of the world, the construction of Heorot, and the creative act of the scop’s song. But would it have seemed out of place to a contemporary audience? Would perhaps the Christinising elements be part of a process that allowed the Anglo-Saxon descendants of Angles, Jutes and other Germanic people groups to re-imagine their history in the light of new faith without orphaning it?
As was mentioned in the introduction, Anglo-Saxon kings traced their lineage back to Noah, this practice was first recorded some time between the scholarly consensus on poem’s first composition in the eighth century and the date of the Beowulf manuscript, I think there is significance in this. If the conception of the relatively freshly converted Anglo-Saxon’s was to imagine their heritage to have proceeded north at some unnamed time after the ark but before the time of Abraham; they could then maintain the age of northern myth within the Christian timeline – placing it between the call of Abraham and the arrival of Christian missionaries to northern Europe. Within this framing of history – all events up to and including the biblical flood in scripture would be of particular interest to the Anglo-Saxon imagination as they could imagine their forebears interacting with and having some knowledge of these passages- becoming for them the whole canon. It would also allow them to uphold their previous heroic and pagan culture as noble in its ignorance, and functional under God’s covenant with Noah that fore-fronted human governance and atonement for sin that would have been familiar to the Anglo-Saxon culture’s blood feud.
Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed: for in the image of God made he man. (Genesis 9:6, KJV)
Within a viewpoint of the old Germanic world as a group descended from the flood; the scop – the shaper of words – being able to draw on stories ancient and mysterious, preceding even Woden seems less anachronistic.
Amongst the Judeo-Christian mythology that the Beowulf poem is able to connect its pagan heroes to, is the story of Cain and Abel. Cain who killed his brother. As a result was marked and then exiled ‘east of Eden’ where it was said that the soil would not yield good crops to him and he’d be destined to have enmity with whatever people came across him. Beowulf asserts that Cain’s descendants became monsters; the elves, ogres, shades and giants of Germanic mythology.
Þanon untydras ealle onwôcon,
eotenas and ylfe and orcnêas,
swylce gigantas, þâ wið gode wunnon
lange þrage; he him þäs leán forgeald. (lines 111-114)
It is one such descendant of Cain, the monster Grendel who attacks Hereot. Grendel is said to range borderlands and wastes (lines 102-107) much like Cain was sent to barren lands. We are told that the source of Grendel’s anger with the Danes is the sound of their joy and reverie, but specifically the nightly clear song of the scop and the recitation of the creation story. It is a nightly reminder to Grendel of God’s favour; of what he has been cast out from and that – which by contrast – the Danes are still a part of. This sparks rage. By building, singing and rejoicing the Danes are aligned with the God of creation even in ignorance.
2. A WEIRD FATE
Gæð a wyrd swa hio scel! (Line 455), gets translated quite differently across the sources I’ve looked at. Alexander renders the line as ‘Fate will take its course’, Nichols offers ‘Fate has the last word’, Crossley-Holland says most accurately ‘Fate goes wherever it must’.B,A,C
The word Scel, translates to ‘must’4, it is an imperative. Fatein an Anglo-Saxon conception is often – though not always – intimately connected with one’s death, it is the idea that ones destined demise is pre-ordained. The word in Old English is wyrd and in the sister language of Old Norse which shares the same Proto-Germanic antecedent, wyrd becomes Urðr and is personified as a diety.However, in Old English wyrd appears to remain a degree removed from being personal.Wyrd is a force of inevitability. The will of wyrd in Old-English seems to be treated more metaphorically. In similar way as we might describe the ‘march of time’ today, it is a personifying metaphor that describes an immutable and immovable force. In line 455 Beowulf evokes the wyrd, essentially saying that he is locked into his fate and accepting of it whether he lives or dies.
Hrothgar, the king of Danes responds to Beowulf’s selfless commitment to fight Grendel by talking about the grief already caused by the monster. In the words of Michael Alexander’s translation;
‘My war companions, my war-band, are dwindled; weird (wyrd) has swept them into the power of Grendel, Yet God could easily check the ravages of this fiend.’ (Lines 478-479). I tried translating part of these lines myself and came up with ‘Wyrd swept them into Grendel’s terror’ – which I think is evocative of the dread finality that is in the power of wyrd. What the poet does in lines 478 and 479 however is introduce the Christian God to the Anglo-Saxon fate conception, and thereby he augments our understanding of it within this text. The suggestion is that if God had willed it even the immutable writ of fate would be forced to change. The poet therefore subtly qualifies the pre-Christian concept of wyrd as an agent or outworking of the will of the Christian God.
As well as being an attestation to the Christian God’s dominion over fate, it also plays into that theme of doom and inevitability within the poem.
Having introduced the idea of God as the architect of fate, the idea is again re-enforced at the arrival of Grendel, when readers are reminded that the outcome of the battle is pre-decided.
But God was to grant the Geat people
the clue to war-success in the web of fate –
His help and support; so that they did
overcome the for – through force of one
unweaponed man. The Almighty Lord
has ruled the affairs of the race of men
thus from the beginning…
It was well known to men
That the demon could not drag them to the shades
without God’s willing it.
The hand of the Christian God enters the poem a few more times to intervene with fate, most notably in the hall of Grendel’s mother when at the turning point of the battle between Beowulf and this even more formidable foe. We read that God granted him victory just at the moment that Beowulf’s eyes fall upon a giant’s sword hung on the wall, which he uses to finish the fight. The sword itself can be seen as a microcosm of the whole poem’s religious landscape as through the sword Germanic giant myths are twinned with those in the Bible and the flood. The hilt of the blade, which is returned by Beowulf as a gift to the king has engraved embellishments depicting how God destroyed the race of giants in the flood. This is straight out of Genesis six,
There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bare children to them, the same became mighty men which were of old, men of renown. And God saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. (Genesis 6:4-5 KJV)
The sword in Beowulf however evokes this story alongside pagan runic symbols (lines1687-1697). It is a drawing together and reframing of previously distinct mythic pasts.
3. THE SERPENT
Throughout the poem we find the authorial voice occasionally inserting reminders through distancing motifs that the Danes and Geats are separate from the Christian first audience of the poem, and therefore that calamity and damnation is the eventual end for the Danes despite the moments of favour that they might temporarily enjoy. After Beowulf defeats Grendel’s mother and returns with the heads of the monsters, king Hrothgar offers him advice for leading a nation. Hrothgar recognises that Beowulf’s heroism will inevitably lead to eventual kingship. Part way through that speech Hrothgar begins to talk about the nature of divine favour as it relates to heathens, in a passage that reads as if the Christian poet has co-opted his speech as it is in progress. The poet says how wonderful it is to recount how God will give blessings to a wise man – power, dominion, bliss in his homeland, and a good life. But then asserts that this blessing is only temporary. The pagan king ‘cannot imagine that an end will come’ the poem tells us; before describing how all that good fortune will be ravaged and stripped away. Hrothgar reminds Beowulf – or maybe the poet assures us – that death is the ultimate reward for all who do not recognise the source of their blessing. (Lines 1725-1767)
That an over 3000-line Christian poem does not mention Christ directly must have been done intentionally, just as I believe it was intentional that there are no references to any post-flood biblical events. The portions of the Bible to which Beowulf directly alludes are shorter in length than the poem itself. However Christianity also has a role more indirectly. The three monsters Beowulf fights in the story, those being Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon have been given many readings over the centuries. Without doubt their metaphoric and thematic reach lies beyond the grip of any one interpretation, but a compelling reading within the context of this theological exploration is to read the poem as an allusion to the biblical fall, and Beowulf as an archetypical Adam or flawed Christ figure.
The late seventh or possibly early eighth century manuscript Liber monstorum5 is an Anglo-Saxon fantastical bestiary that bears notable connections to the Beowulf poem. It mentions King Hygelac (who in Beowulf is the protagonist’s king and uncle) as a man of remarkable size and strength. It also groups its monsters into three categories – humanoid, bestial, and serpentine. This categorisation neatly correlates with the three monsters in Beowulf. Yet the creatures in Beowulf could also correspond to the fallen characters in Eden- The man, the woman, and the serpent. In that sense Beowulf’s struggle with the monsters is a metaphor for the human struggle against sin and death in a theological reading. Beowulf faces death three times. When he fights Grendel- a man, connected with the biblical Adam through Cain, he is able to succeed. When he fights Grendel’s mother who is thematically parallel to Cain’s mother Eve, the monster is inflected through gender and the fight becomes more difficult for Beowulf but he still succeeds. Finally, Beowulf faces the dragon. The serpentine and wholly otherworldly monster correlates to the serpent in Eden, and therefore to Satan. This time Beowulf is unable to keep out the dark and loses his life. One of the central questions of the poem seems to be how long can you hold back death and the poet appears to push us toward the answer that even the superhuman warriors of the past could not do it, the unstated lesson to the contemporary audience being ‘so repent, because if they couldn’t – you can’t.
If looking at the theological landscape of Beowulf with binary eyes, one could argue that the poet has their cake and eats it too. Beowulf is a proud man, eager for fame and judged for it but he is also a Christ-like figure sacrificing himself for his people
The poet inlays magical swords with runes and Christian imagery side by side.
The characters discuss the almighty but are ignorant of Christ.
As modern readers we may feel that this doesn’t sit right, but it makes sense in a context whereby the old myths were the story of where you came from, but your nostalgia is being refracted through the lens of a new belief system. What Beowulf does it is reframe the epic heroics of the mythic past in a way that they can still be enjoyed and understood by a Christian audience, or at the very least an audience in a more complex and palimpsest religious world. What this reading shows us I think, is that it is mistake to think that the writer tried and failed to utterly Christianise a now lost pagan text. The layering on of different imagery, values and worldview is intentional, just as it was intentional to set the poem in distant Geatland and Daneland. Beowulf may be limited in what it can tell us about 6th century Europe, but Those particular story decisions give us a glimpse of what it is to like to live in 8th century England.
- Textus Roffensis (Rochester, c.1122-3), fol. 104r
- In Our Time, BBC, first Broadcast 5/03/2015
- Woden Descents – synopsis, https://georgepohl.typepad.com/blog/2015/07/-woden-descents.html, posted June 2015, accessed 02/08/20
- Complete Old English, Mark Atherton, Hodder education, 2006
- Liber Monstorum, Translation by Andy Orchard, https://web.archive.org/web/20050118082548/http://members.shaw.ca/sylviavolk/Beowulf3.htm, 2003
Beowulf Texts used
A. (Original text as reproduced in), Beowulf, Alma Classics, 2019
B. (Verse translation), Beowulf, J.G Nichols, Alma Classics, 2019
C. (Verse translation), Beowulf, Michael Alexander, Penguin books, Revised edition 2001.
D. (Translation), Beowulf, Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Folio Society, 1973