At present we are engaged in a theological exploration of the classic English work Beowulf. Before pressing on, we must explore why this story is even worth our consideration. Below I offer a few points many of which are borrowed from other scholars.
The First English Work
Scholars are quick to remind us that Beowulf is the first significant work in English we possess. To students and historians of the Anglo-Saxon world, this makes Beowulf a treasure. Whether the story is completely mythical is not the issue. It reflects cultural information we need to better understand the world of the seventh century. The information we have on the Geats and Danes is scarce and without Beowulf we would be left even more in the dark.
As the first work in English, we gain incredible insight into the language itself. The one Beowulf manuscript we posses is a treasure trove for Old English scholars. Documents like this greatly inform our understanding of ancient cultures and language.
Paganism and Christianity
One of the difficulties of the poem regards the role of Christianity and paganism. Many suggest that the original story was purely pagan which was later corrupted by Christian monks who wanted to “fix” the heathenism. Though possible, such a argument seems simplistic.
A better alternative is view the tension as intentional. The king of the Danes, Hrothgar, can at one point be as pagan as any while the next minute recite the creation account of Genesis. In such moments we should recall that the narrator(s) is not just chronicling history, but is telling the reader something of monumental importance. The structure of the poem, both chiastic and alliterated, suggests this poem was a masterpiece slowly crafted and not just a story quickly written.
I would add here that this tension between paganism and Christianity lies at the root of its theology. Beowulf tells us something profound and hopeful about Christianity but only between its pages and only when we take a step back and consider the narrative. The paganism is much more evident and being a good storytellers we shouldn’t be surprised by this tension.
Yet with that said, Beowulf shows the great contrast between the two worlds. The characters of the story live in a time before Christianity really takes a hold of the British island. Yes Patrick and those who followed him have spread the faith in Ireland, but Christianity has yet to take root among the Geats and Danes. Thus we gain great insight into the religious thinking of pre-Christian pagans and the role Christianity played in replacing that.
In short, paganism created a world of violent barbarism. Christianity brought with it civilized society. An oversimplification, perhaps, but evident in the narrative nonetheless.
In an age of superheroes, in Beowulf we meet the first hero. Beowulf is not a son of Krypton or a billionaire playboy, he’s a confident Geat who seeks to eradicate a demonic monster for his neighbors. Beowulf is flawed to say the least – his confidence is difficult for modern readers to stomach – yet his motives are good. He is a hero in the truest sense. Though described as having the strength of thirty men (especially in his grip), he is as mortal as the reader with the book in their hand.
Lewis once wrote in his book On Stories: And Other Essays on Literature:
Those who say that children must not be frightened may mean two things. They may mean (1) that we must not do anything likely to give the child those haunting, disabling, pathological fears against which ordinary courage is helpless: in fact, phobias. His mind must, if possible, be kept clear of things he can’t bear to think of. Or they may mean (2) that we must try to keep out of his mind the knowledge that he is born into a world of death, violence, wounds, adventure, heroism and cowardice, good and evil. If they mean the first I agree with them: but not if they mean the second. The second would indeed be to give children a false impression and feed them on escapism in the bad sense. There is something ludicrous in the idea of so educating a generation which is born to the Ogpu [State Police in the USSR] and the atomic bomb. Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage. Otherwise you are making their destiny not brighter but darker. Nor do most of us find that violence and bloodshed, in a story, produce any haunting dread in the minds of children. As far as that goes, I side impenitently with the human race against the modern reformer. Let there be wicked kings and beheadings, battles and dungeons, giants and dragons, and let villains be soundly killed at the end of the book. Nothing will persuade me that this causes an ordinary child any kind or degree of fear beyond what it wants, and needs, to feel. For, of course, it wants to be a little frightened
The key quote, of course, is “Since it is so likely that they will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.” Beowulf offers such a story. Yes it is gory, bloody, and violent full of monsters and murder. Yet in the midst of such a depraved world there stands a true hero: Beowulf. I agree with Lewis, since we will all “meet cruel enemies,” let us “at least have hard of brave knights and heroic courage.”
We Are All Descendants of Cain: A Theology of Beowulf – Introduction
We Are All Descendants of Cain: A Theology of Beowulf – Why Beowulf Matters