Monday, January 7, 2019

Beowulf and the Conversion of the West

It has been a long time since our tribes came to Christ. Many of us here in America come from peoples who have been Christian for at least a thousand years. Beowulf brings us back to a time when its readers, as a people, were new to Christianity. They were people who knew the despair of paganism and were still undergoing a transformation of worldview and values.

The events spoken of in the poem are set in Scandinavia (Sweden and Denmark) around A.D. 500. A few of the characters are historical figures, although they are shadowy figures we do not know a lot about. The poem was written in Anglo-Saxon England. It was most likely written either in the early 700s (the time of Bede) or the late 800s (the time of King Alfred). The writer was probably a monk, a Christian, who used materials from oral traditions to write this story. Thus, the story is set in a pre-Christian time, but it is being told by Christians for Christians. The explicitly pagan elements have been taken out, as the writer does not want to glorify Thor or Odin. Rather, he focuses on the position of pagans from the perspective of Acts 17:22-31; a sense of the true God exists amid ignorance and distortions. Most of the Scriptural references in Beowulf are from the first eleven chapters of Genesis, which forms the background of all the dispersed peoples of the earth. Though the characters might resorts to idols in times of necessity, at least some of them have an idea of the sovereign Creator God. The writer and the reader, of course, know the whole story - that this God is the God of the Bible.

Beowulf can be seen as a comment on the reader’s pagan heritage. The story portrays and critiques the heroic values of the time. The values of the nobility of the writer’s time were still much like that of Beowulf’s time. Their honor code prized physical strength, pride, individual honor, praise of men, the struggle against fate, and revenge (Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 272-273). These values are highly prized in pagan stories, like those of the ancient Greeks. The story of Beowulf, while it uses these elements, shows their futility and how they often led to destruction.

This story does recognize some good goals that the characters have. Royal halls, such as Heorot, are symbols of community, joy, peace, and stability. The desire for order and fellowship is good. Gift-giving, loyalty, courage, kinship, and generosity are good values that strengthen this order. These characters are trying to maintain the order of creation against the chaos that threatens it. Some of the threats are internal, such as revenge and dynastic struggles, but the monsters of the story are the primary representatives of this chaos. They are outcasts, cursed of God, followers of Cain.
"Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet
telling with mastery of man's beginnings,
how the Almighty had made the earth..." (Beowulf, lines 86-92)
This story portrays the fragile position of man and community. It portrays the pessimism of Germanic paganism. The victory of chaos seems to be real. It is hinted that Heorot, the royal hall, awaits a "barbarous burning" brought on by strife among in-laws (line 83). The throne of Hrothgar will fall into civil strife and usurpation. Beowulf will himself die. As Hrothgar warns him, "Your piercing eye/will dim and darken; and death will arrive,/dear warrior, to sweep you away" (lines 1766-1768). With Beowulf’s death the whole nation of the Geats is doomed.
"A Geat woman too sang out in grief;
with hair bound up, she unburdened herself
of her worst fears, a wild litany
of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,
enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,
slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed up the smoke" (lines 3149-3155).
Yet, this story also transformed the way its readers viewed the world. In traditional Germanic myth, the gods were on the side of the humans against Chaos and darkness, yet humans and gods were doomed to lose ("Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," 25). Courage against hope was held in high admiration and tragedy was inevitable. Yet, in Beowulf the sovereignty of the true eternal King is asserted – and very strongly proclaimed. The monsters and chaos are still present, and despite Beowulf’s heroic efforts they seem to overcome in the end, yet there is hope. God has not been defeated like the pagan gods. Fate is not an impersonal force that foils the efforts of man, but it is the personal will of Creator God who is on the side of order and community. Beowulf may die, and the royal hall may be burned, but as the story says, "The truth is clear: Almighty God rules over mankind and always has" (lines 701-702). As Tolkien explains,
"The monsters remained the enemies of mankind, the infantry of the old war, and became inevitably the enemies of the one God, ece Dryhten [Eternal Lord], the eternal Captain of the new. Even so the vision of the war changes…The tragedy of the great temporal defeat remains for a while poignant, but ceases to be finally important" ("Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics," 27).
In addition to proclaiming God’s victory, this story also transforms the image of a hero. Rather than being proud and selfish, Beowulf exemplifies true heroism. His story is being retold to shift the values of the audience. As Tolkien explains, this shift emphasized that strength is a gift of God (for which God is to be praised), loyalty and service to others comes before one’s self, and glory and position comes to the one who is responsible for his people–not the one who seeks to usurp authority (Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 273-274). It is as if the story proclaims, "'This then is a story of a great warrior of old, who used the gifts of God to him, of courage, strength and lineage, rightly and nobly. He may have been fierce in battle, but in dealing with men he was not unjust, nor tyrannical'" (Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary, 274). According to this story, true heroism is achieved in submission to the sovereignty of God. God gives gifts and Beowulf can only conquer through God’s power. Beowulf is taught to be humble and generous, for he is a mortal (Beowulf, lines 1760-1768). All this would be a powerful message to the ruling class in the author’s time which was still rather influenced by pagan thinking and codes of honor.

And finally, there is a element of this story that points to Christ. Christ is not mentioned in this story. He is the missing element on purpose. Seamus Heaney, noted poet and translator of Beowulf, points out that "It has often been observed that all the scriptural references in Beowulf are to the Old Testament. The poet is more in sympathy with the tragic, waiting, unredeemed phase of things…" (Heaney, xix). Just as the Old Testament contains types of Christ, precursors that hint at future redemption that are of themselves inadequate, so the author of Beowulf points to both future redemption and the insufficiency of the present state. Beowulf is a hero who fights to free people from the darkness of evil monsters and the dragon. Christ truly saves His people from evil and the dragon. Beowulf dies as he kills the dragon after he had been abandoned by his followers. Christ also died killing the dragon after he had been abandoned by His followers. Yet Beowulf is unable to gain lasting salvation for his people. The story of Beowulf ends on an unresolved note. It ends with a death. Yet, its readers know the story does not end there. We know the Savior who died killing the dragon, but who also rose again from the grave. For mortals like Beowulf and us, death may be inevitable. Yet our King has risen from the dead, and by His power, so shall we. The eternal Lord shall not be defeated. He is building His "Heorot" and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. With this backdrop of everlasting joy we can appreciate the vivid tragedy in Beowulf


Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf. Trans. Seamus Heaney. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, 2000.
Tolkien, J.R.R. Beowulf: A Translation and Commentary. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing, 2014.
Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” The Beowulf Poet. Edited by David K. Fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968.

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