The Man, The Myth, The…Christian?

            The epic poem Beowulf was written by an unknown author sometime around the year 750 AD. While this is estimated to be the year that it was actually written down for the first time, this was not when Beowulf was actually created. Beowulf was an epic that was passed down orally for years before someone took it upon himself to actually write the tale down so that it could be preserved and shared with the future generations. In doing this, the author also added a bit of his own faith into the poem, casually inserting Christianity into a very pagan story. Whatever his intentions and despite criticism and argument from many different scholars, the author does a wonderful job of blending the paganism and Christianity within the epic so that while both sets of ideals are present, neither truly outshines the other.

            While the author of Beowulf might have been a practicing Christian, he does little to fully rebuke or criticize the pagan ideals that can be found within the account. In fact, some argue that “although the poem’s core is fundamentally Christian, it maintains a respect for pagan outlooks…” (Bodek 1). While he had the opportunity to make all the changes that he desired to the poem while writing it down, he chose to be respectful of the characters and of the source material. When Grendel attacks and kills men, the writer tells the audience that in response the people:

Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed

offerings to idols, swore oaths

that the killer of souls might come to their aid

and save the people. That was their way,

their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts (lines 175-179)

The author is relating the fact that these people were indeed pagan and had different religious rites and practices than the Christians did. While he does refer to their hope in their gods as “heathenish”, it seems as though he is speaking not in malice, but in pity. These are a people who hold hope in gods that he considers to be false, so it would only be right that he would feel sad that they are putting their faith in something that he believes does not truly exist. Furthermore, a few lines down, the author goes so far as to say, “The Almighty Judge / of good deeds and bad, The Lord God / …was unknown to them” (180-181, 183). He explains that they performed their rituals and held their beliefs not out of pure rebellion to God, but because they did not know the true God or what he considered to be the true gospel. The words are those of someone who is asking his audience to pity the Geats, since they were just lost heathens who didn’t know the real God.

            The theme of vengeance is quite prominent in Anglo-Saxon poetry, and the author does not let his become overshadowed by his Christian ideals. Beowulf comes to Hrothgar specifically to take vengeance on Grendel for all of the men that the monster has killed over the years. Beowulf is the hero that the people have waited for, and he is a firm believer in the fact that that it the obligation of the living to avenge the dead. In fact, Beowulf highly encourages revenge: “Wise sir, do not grieve. It is always better / to avenge dear ones than to indulge in mourning” (lines 1384-1385). Beowulf believes that a person who is still living must avenge their loved ones instead of simply mourning them and moving on. This point of view is wildly contradictory to the one found in Christianity. In fact, in his letter to the Romans, Paul writes, “Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,’ says the Lord” (Rom. 12:19). Paul then goes on to tell his audience to be kind to their enemies, which is extremely contradictory to the ideals that Beowulf would hold. Although Beowulf’s views on vengeance and people taking revenge into their own hands are contradictory to what the Bible teaches, the author decides to leave in the themes of personal revenge. If he had truly wanted to, he could have had God come in and save the day instead of allowing Beowulf to be the flawed hero that he is. While it is implied in the poem that God sent Beowulf to the Danes in order to secure victory over Grendel (1055-1057), this could very well be seen as the author’s attempt to justify the fact that Beowulf desired vengeance and violence instead of just leaving the defeat of Grendel up to God and not seeking revenge himself.

            There are some that would disagree that the Christian aspects are blended well with the pagan ones. In fact, others would argue that the author has tipped the scale to greatly favor Christianity. In his article about Beowulf and its relation to the Old Testament, Christopher Cain writes:

Hroagar speaks and behaves as a Christian would; Beowulf acts in accordance with Christian mores; the poet often interposes Christian sentiments. I want to suggest that the Christian poet of Beowulf treats, presents, and interprets the pagan personages in the poem according to the tradition of Biblical exegesis of the Old Testament; the poet deliberately parallels the pagan Germanic past with the pre-Christian world of the Old Testament with the aim of demonstrating the prefiguration of the Christian world in his native heritage just as it was demonstrated in the world of the old dispensation of the Hebrews. It is reading by the regula fidei, the rule of faith. (228)

Cain claims that the Christianity of the author bleeds through every page of the poem and that Beowulf adheres to the morals presented by Christianity because the author has written him as a Christian personality in a pagan story. However, not everything about Beowulf would suggest that he behaves as a Christian would. For instance, when he is introduced to Hrothgar, he makes it a point to brag about his prowess in battle and assures his audience that he has come to defeat Grendel single handedly (418-426). In Christianity, humbleness and meekness are encouraged, not boasting and violence. Also, as previously mentioned, Beowulf holds to the ideal that taking revenge is the right thing to do when someone that you care about is hurt or killed. Someone who adhered to the Christian faith would most likely not cling to this idea and would prefer to trust God to do something about the monster.

            Beowulf is a mix of both the pagan and Christian ideas and worldviews. While it is fairly obvious that the author has inserted Christianity into this story about a pagan people, it does not detract from the narrative. While the beliefs of the characters might be considered wrong by the author, he never goes so far as to erase their beliefs from the tale entirely. And since most of the epic is wrapped up in vengeance, the author does his best to stay true to the original tale while also presenting a reasonable explanation as to why it is okay for Beowulf to seek revenge instead of just relying on God for help. At the end of the day, this epic penned by an unknown author raises much debate over whether it is a pagan or a Christian poem, although there are some who would argue that it is a blending of the two. For them, the debate is settled.

“Beowulf”. The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. Vol. A. New York City: W.W. Norton, 2012, pp. 41-108. Print.

The Bible. New King James Version. Thomas Nelson, Inc. 1982.

Bodek, Richard. “BEOWULF.” The Explicator, vol. 62, no. 3, 2004, pp. 130-132. ProQuest,

Cain, Christopher M. “Beowulf, the Old Testament, and the Regula Fidei.” Renascence, vol. 49, no. 4, 1997, pp. 227-240. ProQuest,