Christian Colouring in Beowulf

F.A. Blackburn summarises the possible sources for the Christian elements of the poem in his essay The Cristian Colouring in the Beowulf:

  1. The poem was composed by a Christian, who had heard the stories and used them as the material of the work.
  2. The poem was composed by a Christian, who used old lays as his material.
  3. The poem was composed by a heathen, either from old stories or from old lays. At a later date it was revised by a Christian, to whom we owe the Christian allusions found in it.
Unfortunately, without records of those old stories or lays upon Beowulf may have been based, we cannot be sure which one of these is true.

   Blackburn also classifies these Christian elements:

  1. Passages containing biblical history or allusions to some scriptural narrative. These include references to Cain, Abel, and the flood.
  2. Passages containing expressions in disapproval of heathen ideas or heathen worship. There is one of these in the introduction to the Danes near the beginning of the poem.
  3. Passages containing references to doctrines distinctively Christian: references to heaven, hell, and the day of judgement. He finds ten cases.
  4. Incidental allusions to the Christian God. He finds some 53 cases.
   Looking closely at these elements, Blackburn speculates on how easily one can refigure them to be pagan by the replacement of a word or omission of a phrase, thus seeing how scribes may have done so in the past. Reversing the Christianizing process, he concludes that at some point, Beowulf may have been an entirely pagan text.

   Others choose to examine how well the Christian elements fit together and form such an integral part of the poem. Unlike other poems, such as The Wanderer or The Seafarer, in which it appears to many editors that the Christian exhortations appear [to early critics] to have been appended to the otherwise pagan poems, Beowulf has Christian elements throughout the narrative.

   Marie Padgett Hamilton, in her essay The Religious Principle, argues that the poem is consistent with Augustine's model of God's grace: that a society of the Righteous live together with one of the Reprobate on earth. This principle and the ways in which they are presented in the poem, Hamilton argues, would have been familliar to the English at that time. Beowulf's concern over his honour and wyrd -- his fate -- are concerns about Providence or Divine will. In wyrd, we can see the beginnings of a change in what was a pagan concept and its acceptance of a new Christianized meaning. On the other side, Grendel is equated to the race of Cain, and the dragon to be an incarnation of the devil. Again, these characterizations of the monstrous and evil were well known to the English.

   What is clear about the religious colouring of Beowulf is that while it is clearly Christian, there is little Christian doctrine. References are only to the Old Testament narratives and concepts easily refigured from their pagan equivalents. It seems that Beowulf tells of a period in the midst of religious change being neither entirely pagan, nor fully Christian [or to be an attempt to integrate Germanic history into an old testament time frame].

Select Bibliography

Blackburn, F.A. "The Christian Colouring in the Beowulf" in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. University of Notre Dame Press. 1963.

Hamilton, M.P. "The Religious Principle" in An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism. University of Notre Dame Press. 1963.

Anonymous, Beowulf Klaeber, F.R. ed. D.C. Heath & Co. 1950.