2 Oct 2017
Beowulf: The Original Epic Transubstantiated
Emerging from the fog of ages past stands a gallant warrior bold and true. A hero not of flesh and blood but of ink and parchment. The hero of old, born of legend and song reconstituted into page and writ, withstood the test of time. Diligent and determined, the ancient script triumphed in the face of destruction displaying the battle scars of its flame-singed edges and scars of lost lines; the epic poem of Beowulf is rewarded with immortality. However, there is a strangeness to this ancient literary piece as it describes a Pagan, Pre-Christian society behaving, believing and practicing in the obvious Christian fashion. The two, Christianity and Paganism, could not be more diametrically opposed in doctrine, yet so suspiciously similar in practice, as subtle elements of Paganism lie sequestered underneath, carefully tucked within folds of Catholic/Protestant robes as the poetry of Beowulf proves.
The story of Beowulf in its originality was an oral tale of the adventures and heroic deeds of a mighty warrior passed from the tongue of bards and retold wherever the Anglo-Saxon peoples gathered in the ancient world of the 5th to 8th century. Long before the advent of Christianity, Old-World heathenry dominated and had always been the way of life. The Germanic tribes of the Anglo-Saxons were a pagan people with belief in gods such as Odin, goddesses such as Freya, and worship and practice of the elements of nature. In fact, before the arrival of Beowulf and his band of thanes on Dane shores, the reader will find King Hrothgar and his subjects in the mead-hall of Heorot calling upon and beseeching their gods (not the Abrahamic God) for help against Grendel's nightly devastations. If the Danes were a Christian people, they would have sought the protection of God of the Bible. The fact they did not is proof that the Danes were first and foremost a Pagan people who may not have even known of the Christian God until the Christian poet much later placed it upon them. Karl P. Wentersdorf also confirmed the fact that the Danes of Heorot could not have been the dedicated Christian people that the poet portrays them to be in his work, “Beowulf: The Paganism of Hrothgar’s Danes”, by stating, “Hrothgar’s references to the deity as evidence that the poet conceived of Heorot as a Christian or at least a monotheistic society”, and furthermore, “finds the excursus at odds with the whole thrust of the poem . . .” (95-96). The poet also portrays the Danes singing praises to and glorifying the God of the Bible while reveling merrily with the over-indulgent flasks and tankards of mead and wine – a definite inconsistency since the Christian faith deems the excessive imbibing of alcohol as a sin. Rather, to expect a rugged, war-like race of the Dark Ages to sing praises to a Christian God in this fashion would be akin to expecting a modern battalion of Marines to sing religious hymns while running in company formation instead of off-color cadences. As narrator Michael Wood in his BBC video documentary entitled, “In Search of Beowulf” confirmed it, “So the poem’s world and its honored heroes were Pagan”. Wood identified another major mainstay of Pagan belief in his documentary while interviewing blacksmith Hector Cole as Cole reported that the blacksmiths of Beowulf’s time may have been respected as practitioners of sorcery as the forging process of the weapons and armor required all four elements of nature that were, and still are, essential and integral aspects of Pagan nature worship: fire, water, earth, and air. Weapons such as Unferth's sword, Hrunting and the giant's greatsword used by Beowulf at the beheading of Grendel's mother were believed to be forged by such enchanting powers. The four elements of nature are an essential and integral aspect of Pagan nature worship.
It was not until the 10th century AD that the Danes of Denmark and the Geats of Sweden were wholly converted to Christianity. It was during this era that an unknown Christian scribe first penned the epic tale of Beowulf into the form of prose we know today, imbuing it so deeply with Christian ideology within the poem as to almost entirely transubstantiate the original Pagan elements that embodied the Anglo-Saxon peoples for centuries. In this later age, Wood called it, “a world caught between the Pagan and the Christian”. The Christian world and the Pagan world are two in direct defiance of one another. Therefore, when the two are thrown together in a work of literature, the result is a misshapen, mish-mashed, and uncomfortable coalition that produces various contradictions and inconsistencies that must be carefully crafted and manipulated so that all the jagged pieces can fit together. The Christian author of the poem found this task very easy to accomplish by making the poetry of a Pagan Beowulf mirror the story of a Christian Christ by introductory comparisons of the chosen hero tested and proven worthy, the hero’s malevolent enemy, the inevitable battle between the hero being against the enemy, and the final defeat of the enemy and consequent death and “ascension” of the hero. Therefore, after hearing a story like Beowulf, the heathen peoples of the time would more likely understand and respect the story of Jesus in a similar manner and thus, become instrumental in their conversion. The answer to the question of how one would know for certain that the 5th to 8th century Anglo-Saxons would come to understand an alien religion such as Christianity lies in the heart of the Anglo-Saxon culture.
To understand the Anglo-Saxon peoples of Beowulf’s time is to understand their way of life, a warrior culture. In times before large urban civilizations, small tribes abounded and were scattered across the land. The land was harsh and its people more dangerous. The constant struggle for survival was the order of the daily life. Very few communities lived in peace. Death was ever present and threats of foreign invasion were always at their doorsteps. Life expectancies were very short and only the strongest among them knew a long life. Warriors emerged to defend the people. The best of them were raised into champions, said to be sent by the gods, or were even elevated to god status. For some warriors, those ablest, determined and dedicated in the practice and study of the art of war, while aspiring to stand on the highest pedestals of honor and glory also sought the love and honored loyalty of the "ring-bearers,” their beloved kings and his most bejeweled rewards of treasure. To these warriors, honor, glory, and the pursuit of riches were their goal, life-blood, and their wild hunt. They held stations of authority and importance in their kingdoms. They honored and defended their kings and rulers while opposing the tyranny of others. After success in battle, the rewards bestowed by their rulers were great in both value and practicality. Pritha Kundu, in her academic International Journal of the Huma entitled, “The Anglo-Saxon War-Culture and The Lord of the Rings: Legacy and Reappraisal”, also describes the Pagan Anglo-Saxon warrior culture in like manner as she writes:
The pagan Germanic warriors, as in several other ancient war-like cultures, sought to win glory by doing great deeds in battle. What was interesting about the Germanic ancestors of the Anglo-Saxon warriors, that winning glory for them was not merely personal, but corresponding to the community-virtue and bonds of duty and kinship, in their service to the community and mainly to the chief. The Anglo-Saxon ideal of kinship between a lord and his warrior-thanes bears obvious resonances of the Germanic heroic ethos. (3)
This kind of status was always sought after by the warrior of both standings of and for good and malice. Kundu also points to an example within the Beowulf poem itself that presents a glaring specimen of the Anglo-Saxon warrior culture stating, “Beowulf fights Grendel, his mother, and the fire-dragon, but the different strategies and ethics behind these three battle-sequences are real and convincing military affair, which speaks volumes about the war-culture to which the Anglo-Saxons actually belonged” (5). Thus, was the variance of the warrior that lies at the very heart of Anglo-Saxon culture.
Their warrior culture follows their heroes and reveres them such as the man Beowulf. On the other hand, the Christians follow and rever their hero in the man of Jesus Christ. Therefore, to convert the Danes to Christianity, it was easy to portray Jesus Christ as another of these warrior heroes. It would not have been beneficial to the church to depict the true Jesus of Nazareth as a thin, meek, priestly, conflict-avoiding, armorless and weaponless messenger who suffered and died without a fight. They would only follow and respect a man of societal warrior culture who was renown and bold, hard, strong and powerful, an action taker, an armored destroyer with elite prowess in battle. Therefore, in the early works of British Literature, the church made efforts to blend the two personalities together to win over the pagan converts. Christianity took these pagan concepts and restructured them into a new religion by interpolating, transposing and usurping pagan belief and practices, and events by renaming and re-labeling keywords and titles to Christian names and phrases making them seem to be exclusively Christian ideas much like modern manufacturing does when part products are made by a company in one country then shipped to another company in another country to be assembled into a whole unit and the part makers label replaced by that of the assembler or distributor. The author’s replacement of Pagan belief and ideology in the poem Beowulf is likely to be evidence of the work of the early church catechumenate, a rigorous Christian training program, acting as a way of winning and “re-programming” Pagan converts to the new faith. Christianity has often built their religion on Pagan foundations. In fact, as one particular example, the practice was a law. Wentersdorf gave one example concerning the Church’s regimen for seizure of Pagan properties by stating, “Instead of attempting to destroy the heathen high places, the missionaries in England adopted a policy, suggested by Pope Gregory I, of converting heathen places to Christian usage” (99). Further proof of Christian takeover of Pagan place and practice is still evident today such as most American holidays and church ritual practices. Like cultural appropriation, this is spiritual transubstantiation.
There are a plethora of examples concerning Christian transubstantiation throughout the epic poem of Beowulf. One only needs to view the similarities between Beowulf, the chosen champion of the gods, and Jesus Christ, the prophet of God. In early literary works such as the poem Beowulf, the gods set their chosen champion to a foreign nation among the people as a mighty protector or even a demigod sometimes having supernatural strength and abilities. Very early in the poem, the poet recounts the lineage of the Spear-Danes founder and king, Shield Sheafson, the best of the war-like Germanic society and a champion sent from God. Line 12 of the Beowulf poem reads, “Afterward a boy-child was born to Shield, a cub in the yard, a comfort sent by God to that nation” (“Beowulf”, 41). Furthermore, in line 16, “so the Lord of Life, the glorious Almighty, made this man renown” (“Beowulf”, 41). The very beginning of the poem introduces God’s chosen, born of man, and sent until the peoples of his own nation and God bestowed upon him enhanced fighting capabilities when He made the progenitor of King Hrothgar “renown”. In comparison, Jesus is also a man and prophet chosen and sent by God to the Israelites to point them toward the Abrahamic God and to save their souls from sin. So, at the beginning of the poem, the stage is set by introducing and identifying both the god's champion and God's prophet that will later morph indirectly and suggestively into the Swedish Geat warrior Beowulf.
The chosen champion of the gods (God), a man of renown, needs to face an enemy threat equal and opposite in powers and strength. In the case of Beowulf, a creature of dark natural magicks is labeled a demon, a word unheard of until the advent of Christianity, as line 86 in the Beowulf poem introduces and describes the monster Grendel, "Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark, nursed a hard grievance" (“Beowulf”, 43). Furthermore, the concept of Satan, devil, demon, as Grendel was defined, even angels, Heaven and Hell are all Christian created concepts and were never Pagan concepts. This is the champion’s enemy and quarry. In Pagan culture, creatures of this sort are mortal flesh and blood, born of the magic of nature or come up from the Underworld and can be fought and killed by physical means. Grendal, in this story, springs from a living and corrupted human bloodline, the lineage of the Biblical Cain and Abel, as lines 106 to 108 states that Grendel is derived from, "Cain's clan whom the Creator outlawed and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel, the Eternal Lord had exacted a price . . .” (“Beowulf”, 43). In Christianity, demons, devils and the like are ethereal unseen forces of Hell and not of flesh and blood and cannot be fought by physical means. Therefore, Grendel as a demon does not fit the profile.
The champion and the enemy prepare for battle. For both Beowulf and Jesus Christ, to prove their worth and find favor among their respective senders there must be a test, a quest, a deed, or a battle. Beowulf’s quest into a foreign land with his fourteen most trusted thanes sail out to Denmark to face his enemy Grendel was much like Jesus' retreat into the wilderness (a foreign place) for forty days and nights to be tempted and challenged by Satan. Both Beowulf and Jesus emerge victorious over their enemy. Jesus begins his ministry acquiring twelve disciples in the land of the Jews. Beowulf is recognized as the gods’ champion and likewise continues his “ministry” in the land of the Danes. Satan is sent back to Hell and likewise, Grendel retreats to his lair to die. Jesus finds favor in God and Beowulf finds favor in his king. At the end of Jesus' ministry as well as the end of Beowulf’s story comes the death of the heroes. Jesus is resurrected from the dead and ascends to Heaven on a cloud and Beowulf triumphantly enters death, his body sent off on a floating burning funeral pyre, and his legend is resurrected in song and story. Both bodies are consumed never again to be found.
There is much the modern reader of Beowulf can take away from the understanding of the poem, but the most obvious is the consistent Christian glossing-over of Pagan themes. The consecutive chain of events: the champion’s coming, the confrontation with a creature from the damned, the battle between good and evil, and the champion’s victory and retribution mirrors that of the story of Jesus as well as countless other stories of Pagan gods of the past. The true hero is the unaltered, oral heroic tale of the 5th century. The current written version of Beowulf appears to be the Christian author’s way of sending Christianity back in time to a pre-Christian era and staking its claim to a vulnerable and defenseless Pagan oral tradition, supplanting Pagan names, concepts, elements, and ideologies with that of Christian doctrine and to make it as though Christianity was always present in the land and has always been the original religion of man.
Beowulf. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 9th ed. New York, 2013, 36-106. Print.
Kundu, Pritha. "The Anglo-Saxon War-Culture and the Lord of the Rings: Legacy and Reappraisal." War, Literature & the Arts: An International Journal of the Humanities, vol. 26, Jan. 2014, pp. 1-16. Print.
Wentersdorf, Karl P. "Beowulf: The Paganism of Hrothgar's Danes." Studies in Philology, vol. 78, no. 5, Early Winter81, p. 91-119. Print.
Wood, Michael. “In Search of Beowulf.” YouTube, narrated by Michael Wood, British Broadcasting Company, 11 Oct. 2012, www.youtube.com/watch?v=1C0sFXU0SLo.