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Dr. J. Michael Stitt
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jmstitt@unlv.nevada.edu


Cultural History
BEOWULF: THE CHRISTIAN ELEMENTS
 
 

The vexing question of how to understand the undeniably Christian elements in the extant poem is central to any reading of the poem.  In essence there are three possible approaches which result in four different readings of the poem.

The Pagan Reading

Some scholars see the poem as a survival of the pagan Germanic worldview.  They assume that the undeniably Christian audience was still close to its pre-Christian worldview, and argue the following:

1)      The Christian references are generalized – Christ is never mentioned in the poem – and focus on Old Testament concepts that are least in conflict with the poem’s  essentially pagan worldview.

2)      These Christian references are surface “attachments” that were added to make the poem acceptable in a Christian context.

3)      The Christian elements may – in fact, must – be stripped away to arrive at the poem’s essential meaning.

This interpretation is most easily defended for an early eighth century date of composition or, ironically, with Kiernan’s argument for eleventh century composition in conjunction with the court of  the Scandinavian King Knut.  A ninth or tenth century date of composition does not immediately destroy the pagan interpretation, but it does put considerable strain on the reading.

The Christian Readings

Some scholars note that both poet and audience are Christian, and insist that the extant poem must be interpreted in a Christian context.  This assumption has led to two diametrically opposed readings of the poem

1) Beowulf as the Good Christian

By this reading, Beowulf is the apotheosis of the good Christian.  His life is spent in struggling against evil without personal gain, and in his final self-sacrifice he becomes a Christ-figure.

2) Beowulf as the Failed Christian

By this interpretation Beowulf is a typical pagan Germanic hero.  As such he is a failure as a Christian, being guilty especially of the sin of pride.

A Compromise Reading

A compromise is possible.  In this interpretation, both pagan and Christian values are held up for reflection.  The poem presents a series of seeming paradoxes in an effort to considerable the possibility of coexistence between pagan and Christian worldviews.  By this reading the poem poses the question of similarities in the two worldviews, but reaches no final conclusion.

Links, etc.:

One of the first twentieth century arguments for the Christian nature of the poem was an essay by F. Klaeber, “The Christian Coloring of Beowulf” in his Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg 3rd ed. (Boston, 1950).  The essay’s title was transformed for a rebuttal in Larry Benson, “The Pagan Coloring of Beowulf,” reprinted in Peter S. Baker, Beowulf:  Basic Readings (New York, 1995). Beowulf as Christ-figure is portrayed in M.B. McNamee, S.J. "`Beowulf` - An Allegory of Salvation?" in Lewis E. Nicholson, ed., An Anthology of `Beowulf` Criticism (Notre Dame, 1963).  More complex readings of the Christianity of the poem are found in Margaret Goldsmith, The Mode and Meaning of Beowulf (London, 1970) and D. F. Huppé, The Hero in the Earthly City, A Reading of Beowulf  (Binghamton, 1984).  Efforts at a compromise reading include Fred C. Robinson, Beowulf and the Appositive Style (Knoxville, 1985) and John Niles, Beowulf: the poem and its tradition (Cambridge, 1983).  A polemical but useful essay that puts some of these works into the larger perspective of Beowulf scholarship is Raymond Tripp, Jr. “Recent Books on ‘Beowulf”.

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