Christian and Pagan Influences in Beowulf

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written i...

The Old English epic poem Beowulf is written in alliterative verse and paragraphs, not in lines or stanzas. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The earliest versions of Beowulf–originally an oral narrative handed down from generation to generation by storytellers or bards–were certainly pagan; that is, religion did not play a role in the poem, since its origins go back a time before Christianity had arrived in Scandinavia.  Nothing is known of these earlier versions of the story because Beowulf was first transcribed by a Medieval monk who inserted Christian themes into the poem (see the Introduction).  Some scholars argue that there is an unresolved tension between the pagan and Christian elements in the poem which detracts from its sense of unity.  Other scholars argue that the pagan and Christian elements in the poem are seamlessly combined and that the “blended” nature of the poem does not detract from its sense of unity (again, see the Introduction).  What is your take on this matter?

According to scholars, the written version of Beowulf was first created somewhere north of the Thames between 750 and 950 (xv-xvi). The influence of Christianity is clearly visible in the embodiment of evil. For example, when Grendel is introduced, he is introduced in opposition to God and goodness. “Grendel they called this cruel spirit, the fell and fen his fastness was, the march his haunt. This unhappy being had long lived in the land of monsters since the Creator cast them out as kindred of Cain. For the killing of Abel the eternal Lord took vengeance. There was no joy of that feud: far from mankind God drove him out for his deed shame! From Cain came down all kinds misbegotten – orges and elves and evil shades – as also the Giants, who joined in long wars with God. He gave them their reward” (101 – 113). Grendel’s evilness is explained using his lineage and his relationship to Cain. Similarly, Grendel’s mother’s evilness is likewise attributed to her family line. She is “the descendants of Cain, the first born human being, a fratricide” (xxix). By using God in crucial points in the action (xxix), the poem uses God as a tool to make antagonists more antagonistic. To me, the poem’s Christian elements tend to take away from the poem’s sense of unity, but that is likely due to a personal bias against Christianity as a whole. What I mean is that the modern world still does not consider Christian beliefs/ elements mythical, and as a result I have a hard time reconciling elements that many people take so seriously with elements like dragons which are largely considered mythical.

Anonymous.  Beowulf: A Verse Translation.  Translated by Michael Alexander.  New York: Penguin Books, 2003.  Print.

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