Religion in Beowulf

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  • 0:05 Literature and History
  • 1:00 Religion in Beowulf: Theories
  • 2:38 Synthesis Approach
  • 3:30 Examples
  • 4:42 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Lucy Barnhouse
The topic of religion in Beowulf is a fraught one. Christianity and Paganism appear side by side in the poem; the relationship of these apparently incompatible belief systems to each other has inspired a great deal of scholarship.

Literature and History

The historical context of Beowulf has helped to fuel scholarly debates on the role religion plays in this epic poem. Beowulf is a poem that survives in a single manuscript, written down in Anglo-Saxon England in the 900s C.E. Scholars generally agree, however, that the poem in its known form is inspired by earlier stories that were passed between generations - and even cultures - through oral transmission, the ritual practice of storytelling.

Beowulf, in its only surviving manuscript

In the early Middle Ages, when Beowulf was written, Christianity and Paganism coexisted in variable and changing ways throughout Europe. From the late 6th century onwards, through monasteries and missionaries, Christianity spread north and westward.

By the time Beowulf was written down, the religion was well-established in England, but less so among the Scandinavian peoples among whom the poem takes place. Scholars' differing opinions about how the belief systems of Christianity and Paganism interacted and influenced each other have affected their interpretations.

Religion in Beowulf: Theories

Unsurprisingly, given the historical circumstances of its creation, Beowulf's treatment of religion is anything but straightforward. The scholarship on religion in Beowulf has tended towards extremes, whether interpreting the work as a Christian allegory or an elemental expression of Pagan belief.

There are inconsistencies and ambiguities in the poem that cannot be easily resolved. Some scholars - and students - have expressed frustration with this, but as author J.R.R. Tolkien famously pointed out, the poem was written as a work of literature, not a work of religious instruction.

Through the first half of the 20th century, Beowulf scholarship was dominated by the theory that the poem was an essentially pagan work, colored with the Christianity of a late scribe. One particularly grumpy scholar described Christianity as a ''late, adulterating and deleterious influence'' on Beowulf.

This view assumed the existence of earlier, more ''authentic' versions of the poem, reflecting purely pagan Germanic cultures. The view of Beowulf as pagan is supported not only by the presence of monsters and dragons, but by the poem's emphasis on fate and its apparent view of heroic reputation as the only form of immortality.

The theory that Beowulf was a unified work by a Christian author gained hold in the mid-20th century. This view did not deny that the stories linked together in the Beowulf epic probably originated in pagan times.

The creation of the unified whole, though, was deemed to be the work of a Christian scribe. This view is supported by the poem's biblical allusions, and many references to divine favor. Some scholars following this interpretation even argued that the scribe portrayed Grendel and the monsters as allies of the devil, and Beowulf as not only a follower, but a type of Christ.

Synthesis Approach

Increasingly, scholars of Beowulf have argued for a moderate, synthesizing view of the poem's religious elements. The groundwork for this synthesis was, in many ways, laid by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien argued passionately for consideration of the poem as a work of art, not merely a vehicle for a particular set of beliefs. His love for the poem is obvious, not only in his critical essay on it, but in his creation of the Rohirrim in Lord of the Rings, with their heroic war bands and their Great Hall.

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