Discuss the Elements of Paganism and Christianity in Beowulf

Before the advent of Christianity in England, the Anglo-Saxon literature was pagan or secular. So is the case with Beowulf. The work is definitely the product of a pagan poet, finally modified by interpolations by Christian monk who gave it a veneer of Christian characteristic. Indeed, the poem derives the power of its flavor and vigor from the ingenious manner in which the heroic qualities of Pre-Christian Germanic civilization are bought into perfect harmony with Anglo-Saxon Christianity. As a result, many of the gross pagan features are expunged from the poem. But the integration of both pagan and Christian world is quite successful.

Let us first consider the pagan elements in the poem. Pagan elements abound in Beowulf. The poem is pagan on its presentation of the dreadful aspects of nature. The track which Beowulf follows to find out Grendel’s mother is a land over which death-chill groves hang. A wood-fast rooted over shades the flood.The air here grows dreary and the heavens pour down tears. Besides, the wild natural descriptions like the icy and stormy sea, the marshy land and the storm swept sea permeate the poem with pagan spirits.

The heathens believed in the goddess of fate known as Wyrd. Just on the eve of his fight with Grendel, Beowulf says, “Wyrd goes over as it must.” The custom to cremate the dead is also pagan. Beowulf also receives a heathen burial.He is cremated and his ashes are then buried in a magnificent mound and the treasure is also buried with him. The references to the heathen gods like the Heaven and the Earth, the Father and the Mother of all things and their son, the glorious Summer who fought with the Winter and the Frost Giants link up Beowulf with the Anglo-Saxon pagan poetry.

In the poem, the praise of worldly glory, Omens, observed to direct human conflict and sacrifices avowed at the temple of idols, fragments of allusions to stories, myths like the myth of Seyld all are pagan.

Let us consider the Christian elements in the poem. The scop at Heorot chants of the creation of how the Maker wrought the shining earth with its circling waters. Grendel who rages at the revels a Heorot, is a friend from hell, bearing the curse of Cain. The prayers offered by the Danes to their gods are of no avail, for they fail to worship the Lord of heaven who is the true wielder of glory. The Anglo-Saxon believed in the goddess of fate known as Wyrd. But with the advent of Christianity, this Wyrd was modified by the faith that fate is the will of God. It is believed, for example, that Grendel was fated to slay much more but God decides otherwise. 

After Beowulf’s astounding glory over Grendel Hrothgar’s heart leaps up in thankfulness to God and he prays like a true Christian. He says, “The all rulers reward thee with good things as he has done till now.” Again, in the episode of the fire dragon, a man quietly steals the treasure. The fire-dragon without facing any hazards and the poet say that he who relies on God on all occasions receives his protection and easily comes out of thrones of life. Here is found the poet’s reliance on God which is, of course, a Christian element.

Finally, Beowulf thinks that he fights for his personal honor but he is also wholeheartedly committed to the ideal of service to his own people and to humanity at large. His private glory is indeed founded as the fact that he saves a people from the foe of God, and he readily thanks his Maker without whose favor he could never challenge the monsters, let alone conquer them.

We may conclude by saying that Beowulf was originally a conveniently pagan poem. But Christianity permeates the poem and transfigures the pagan elements. Many critics tend to think that the original Beowulf poet was a Christian who included both Christian and pagan elements at the time of writing and that the Christian elements are not the work of a reviser or interpolator – but it is actually what he has written. However, the fusion of pagan and Christian ideas is an important facet to understanding Beowulf.


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