The Blending of Christian and Pagan Themes in Old English Poetry
Poetry and literature in the modern sense of the word emerged in England together with the appearance of court of the Anglo-Saxon kings, along with the adoption of Christianity, when the first book in Latin appeared after the arrival of the Roman mission of St.Augustine. The heritage of the Old English literature is mostly poetry or historical chronicle. “The earliest written works in Old English were probably composed orally at first, and may have been passed on from speaker to the speaker before being written” (Moore). We know the names of some of the later writers (Cadmon, Alfric and King Alfred), but most writing is anonymous (Moore).
Oral literature had the great importance in the early centuries of Anglo-Saxon history. The songs of Anglo-Saxons, who conquered Britain, saved for a long time echoes of legends and stories, which formed the content of the earlier German poetry from the continent. Later, the new historical conditions of Anglo-Saxons life led to the rewriting of these first songs under the obvious influence of Christianization of barbarian tribes, the impact of the monastery schools, and the contact with Latin culture, etc. Nearly all existing Anglo-Saxon pieces of poetry are the distinct traces of this adaption. It is obvious, because the history tells about the survival of the Anglo-Saxon songs associated with pagan religious cults, such as wedding songs, military songs, songs of workers and dirges. As a result, later we can observe the blending of Christian and a pagan theme in old English poetry and Beowulf is a good example of this fact.
The famous medieval heroic epic poem, which dates back to the ancient Germanic legends of pagan times, appeared first in the late 7th century. The world of Beowulf is a world of kings and warriors, the world of feasts, battles and fights. The only manuscript dates back to the year 1000 (Brodeur). So far nobody was able to reveal the mysteries of Beowulf. There are a lot of views about how we should interpret the origin, parallels and connections in the poem. Each line of this creation provides food for thought. The combination of myth and history, the process of nucleation of feudal relations, different characters, contrasts, the theme of struggle between good and evil attract attention of the reader. Quite exciting question is the blending of Christianity and paganism in the poem.
The poem glorifies the pagan virtues, such as courage in the battles, loyalty to the native tribe and the leader, as well as ruthless revenge. Meanwhile, Beowulf can be interpreted as a Christian allegory of the universal struggle between good and evil, life and death. Beowulf's enemies are not the people from other tribes as it is depicted in most such poetic works, but they are bloodthirsty creatures, the enemies of the whole mankind (Chambers; Beowulf). A contrast between good and evil plays an important role in ancient mythology, where each of the symbols and the characters refers either to a positive bearer of good, or a negative personification of evil.
The Pagan Mythological Foundation in Old Enlish Poetry
The pagan mythological foundation of work is obvious. Saturating fiction poem reflects the mythological interpretation of history and the relationship of tribes in the early medieval period (Fulk). People are shown in their conflict with the frightening forces of nature represented in the images of the Burning Sea, sea monsters and fire-breathing dragon. The justice and piety are not the determining qualities of the hero. Beowulf embodies the traits that give an idea of the ideal knight and the medieval warrior, a hero, who has the power of nature and physical strength. The image of Beowulf shows the reader the ideal folk hero, eager to tame the forces of nature. Pagan and Christian outlooks are knotted in the understanding of the forces of evil. After all, the understanding of God as the Creator is peculiar in the poem. The reader can meet with such names, as the “lord of the world”, the “Mighty God”, but we will never find there the name of Christ. In the mind of the author and his audience there is no place for the theological sense of the sky, which occupied much of the medieval minds of people.
God is constantly mentioned throughout the poem - everything happens according to His will, He gives praise, calls for help. Despite the fact, that the name of Jesus Christ is not mentioned in the text, we tend to recognize God in this very way. Although, speaking about the highest power, it is not so simple, because fate seems to stand along with the Almighty, on the same level. For example, the verse 574 in Beowulf says:
The living when they drive away death by themselves!”
These lines show that the possibilities and power of God go to the fate, which is impossible in the Christian worldview, because human life is in the hands of God alone. According to the pagan themes, everything is in the hands of fate and luck. So, here Christianity and paganism are together again.
In this case, the key figure of the poem becomes clear. It is the undefeated (until a certain time) hero. Beowulf is a young knight, who knows about the disaster that struck the King of the Danes, is eager to help people in need. The evil monster Grendel attacks the King’s palace and causes the continuous destruction to his warriors for the last 20 years. The hero decides to go overseas in order to kill Grendel. Beowulf is a fictional character, endowed with great force, eager to fight, for who the honor and glory are above everything else. On one hand, he is a pagan, who expects a reward after his battle. This reward can be whether the treasures like heroic death and historical immortality or fame - the same eternal life. On the other hand, Beowulf is a kind of God’s messenger. No wonder there is a self-characterization in the text as:
“But the truth
Is simple: no man swims in the sea
As I can, no strength is a match for mine”(Verses 533-534).
He guides Hrodgar and his followers on the right path. The faith in Beowulf and, therefore, in God saves the Danes from a terrible fate in the end.
The views of the ancient Anglo-Saxon tribes help to understand the way they percept the nature of good and evil. Mostly, they combine the inner traits with the natural phenomena, such as hurricanes, storms and even the change of the day and night, as well as the seasons throughout the year. The three monsters depict the storms in the North Sea, when Beowulf is a divinity, who conquers the elements of nature. His peaceful reign is during the blessed summer, while his death symbolically coincides with the beginning of winter. Thus, the contrasts of nature are symbolically depicted in the poem. They mean growth and decay, rise and decline, youth and old age. Such confrontation between the two opposing forces divides the images of the poem into two camps, one of which is the hero, the king and queen of the tribe, their guards, and the other consists of monsters and enemies. The world of the poem is divided into two parts, with Beowulf in the center of the first and his opponents in the center of the second. All the elements of this world tend to one of these poles; there is no "neutral" position.
Summing up, we have to admit the obvious fact that Beowulf cannot assign a dominant ideology. The influence of Christianity and paganism is, in fact, equal. History tells us that the situation was the following during the Christianization of England: the Irish brought a new religion to the North and Pope Gregory led propaganda of the Catholic mission, which was soon defeated (Abrams). Thus, England had fixed the Irish Christianity, which still contained the mixture of signs from the past. Of course, Christianity came in the first place, but paganism was not sunk into oblivion.
None of the other Anglo-Saxon works, which came up to present times, managed to receive the same worldwide recognition as this poetic creation had done. This poem is the only piece of the ancient heroic epic, where we can read the completely survived primary source. It is evident that the brave vigilantes gave birth to this song, devoting most of the content to battles, courageous soldiers and feasts as there are no further descriptions of any other aspects of life in Anglo-Saxon society. The basis of the poem gives the opportunity to think over the ethical outlook of people who lived in that era. We can easily imagine the way they percept the world around them and the nature of good and evil through the blending of Christian and pagan themes in the Old English poetry.