Beowulf - Introduction


The Beowulf poem shows the intermingling of Germanic pagan and Christian values. There is little to be achieved by trying to differentiate the two elements. Hence Anglo-saxons' conception of Christianity were so far from any recognisable in 21st century Christianity as to be a completely different religion.

Norse/Germanic pagan beliefs were fluid and varied from one tribe to another. These values were extremely practical and focussed on gaining material success and honour. They could easily integrate a new layer of biblical figures into their pantheon of heroes, without necessarily altering their world view too greatly. They tended to judge their religion on results. Their myths upheld the qualities needed for success in a war-focused agrarian society built on kinship, ruthlessness and bravery.

In Bede's version of the conversion of the Northumbrian nobles, even the pagan chief priest expressed willingness to try Christianity, as the existing gods weren't working. Despite being assiduous in his observances, he had not gained any honour or become more of a favourite of the king.

Another member of the council referred to the transitoriness of life - the well-known "sparrow in the hall" symbol. He bemoaned humans' lack of knowledge of what was outside the hall and declared himself willing to try the new religion if it could provide more knowledge.

Clearly, Paulinus would not have put too much stress on the "Christian" virtues of meekness, poverty, humility and compassion, when seeking to convert the Anglo-Saxons. The lines in Beowulf referring to the ideal time before the coming of Grendel (with Grendel here identified as as a Biblical devil) express a particularly Saxon view of Eden:

Thus the brave warriors lived in hall-joys
blissfully prospering, until a certain one
began to do evil, an enemy from Hell
...When night came on, Grendel came too,
to look around their hall and see how the Ring-danes
after their beer-feast had ranged themselves there.
Inside he found the company of nobles
asleep after banquet - they knew no sorrow,
man's sad lot.
(Chickering p55)

The poem is studded with references to God but the overall impression is a concept of God as the leader of a huge warband, owed the obligations that a ceorl owed his eorl in exchange for providing the earth and sun. That is, the warrior was obliged to fight God's enemies. This concept of God seems to be derived from the character of Wotan/Thor and is sufficiently close to the God of Abraham for the Old Testament elements of Christianity to be absorbed without any major shift in world-view. Christ and any of the moral values now normally associated with Christian philosophy are entirely absent.

In Hrothgar's speech to thank Beowulf, he offers him everything he has as a reward. These lines illustrate how God is conceived of as the biggest and most generous warband leader: have done such a deed that your fame is assured,
will live forever. May Almighty God
reward you with good, as he has today
(Chickering p55)

Page 1 | Page 2 | Page 3 | Page 4