Article Summary and Analysis Thomas D. Hill, in "The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf," adds his voice to the decades of analysis of how paganism and Christianity function in Beowulf. Hill suggests that although the extant criticism concerning this matter is substantial, it deserves re-examination; indeed, this theme of paganism and Christianity will most likely never be satisfactorily reconciled and will thus perpetuate a continual re-examination as others read both the elements that contribute to the analysis differently, and read themselves into the poem as well. Hill asserts in the beginning that "most comparable early medieval epic texts are either emphatically and militantly Christian.
The theme of religion in Beowulf has proven fertile ground for scholars and its analysis offers insights into the poem and the times in which it was written.
As a student of the history of religion and religious movements, this particular aspect of Beowulf is fascinating. In simple terms, the poem can be described as a retrospective on pagan Scandinavia through the lens of Christian morality. In order to analyze the theme of religion in Beowulf, this paper will summarize the background of the problem, then focus on a translation of the specific section of the poem considering vocabulary, allusion, apposition in the ways divinity is described, and the comparison of heathenism with monotheism.
A brief consideration of the inconsistency of the translated section with the poem will provide some insight into the authorship question. Last, the way this section has been treated by Seamus Heaney in Beowulf: A Verse Translation will afford another measure by which the treatment of religion can be reviewed.
And there is — most comparable early medieval epic texts are either emphatically and militantly Christian … or unapologetically pagan or secular in their viewpoint … Beowulf is neither… and this question remains an important issue in modern Beowulf criticism.
The Monsters and Critics. Hill identifies this as monotheistic Noahidism, referring to the seven laws that God gave Noah.
At the same time, the pagan or heathen references abound in descriptions of the Danes and Geats, but noticeably absent are any names of Norse deities.
So while religious faith and belief systems are a crucial component of the poem and monotheism is favored over paganism, it is not as overt as one might expect in this milieu. Hill notes that the Beowulf poet acknowledges the pagan past in a comparatively tolerant manner suggesting that the worth of ancestry and the values of pagan society were considered important enough to treat with some degree of reverence.
This is identifiable in the warrior ethos and gnomic wisdom that is presented as endemic to the society portrayed in the poem. However, there are also some incongruities that cannot be overlooked with regard to the treatment of the religious theme which become clearer once the translated section is analyzed.
Beowulf lines tomore than any other section of the poem, deals with the juxtaposition of paganism and monotheism. In the beginning of the section, lines -the poet tells how the Danes sought refuge far from Heorot in order to escape the deadly clutches of Grendel.
What prevents Grendel from approaching the throne? This is an interesting distinction because as Hill notes in his article, the monotheism of the poem is Noahide in nature, not overtly Christian.
This portrayal of Grendel as a satanic figure fits rather well into the thematic landscape of the poem and is done in such a way that it is recognizable, yet not overt. The specific words used to describe this practice are useful in an attempt to better understand the meaning. The next section of this passage, linesbegins the moralization against heathenism that is quite strident.
Without any equivocation, the poet informs us that the Danes did not know the one true God, how to worship, nor did they expect any relief or change. In contrast, there is no mention of any label for the pagan deity or deities, implying that while the heathens sacrificed animals and worshipped idols, it was all for naught.
This lament is redolent of the type of strident religiosity that we might expect of medieval texts which espouse the virtues of Christianity over paganism, yet it is only found within these few verses.
While the motive of the poet seems clear, we are left to wonder why this editorializing is not more prevalent throughout Beowulf. Is it possible that condemning the Danes beyond what was done in this passage would be excessive in light of the fact that in the distant past of the poem, the Danes were never exposed to monotheism or Christianity?
If the translated passage is taken at face value, the religious knowledge possessed by Beowulf and Hrothgar is incongruous with heathenism.As for Beowulf himself, he seems to be both pagan and Christian in his orientation. Before his encounter with Grendel, the poet says of Beowulf, that he "placed complete trust/in his strength of limb and the Lord's favour" (ll).
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The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Christianity and Paganism appears in each section of Beowulf.
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Benson notes that although some critics appear certain that Beowulf is the work of a Christian author, rather than a pagan work later modified by a Christian .