Beowulf as Medieval Christian Evangelistic Literature

Beowulf is considered the most important pieces of Anglo-Saxon literature for a number of reasons: it is the first epic poem written in the vernacular as well as the oldest English piece of literature currently in existence. However, it’s most often overlooked trait is that is also an example of fervent Anglo-Saxon Christianity and a brilliant example of primitive Christian fiction for the purpose of both defending and spreading the Christian belief throughout the pagan Scandinavian lands.

That Beowulf borrows enormously from Christianity and the Bible is no secret, but these traits are often cited as mere influences and do not have any purposes beyond showing the fact that the author was devoutly Christian himself.

The evidence for it being a work designed to legitimize Christianity on a large scale is as follows:

1. The author makes numerous attempts to show the superiority of the Christian god and the assistance given to those who follow Christianity, as the Anonymous poet tells us, “It was hard fought, a desperate affair that could have gone badly; if God had not helped me,” (1656-1657).

2. It is made clear that the Scandinavian people desire glory and power, and the Christian god is portrayed as a glorious and powerful being with titles like, “almighty,” occurring frequently throughout the text; descriptions of the Christian god’s wrath are brutal and simple, “They suffered a terrible severance from the Lord; the Almighty made the waters rise and drown them in the deluge for retribution,” (1691-1693)

3. The immediate adversary for the Danes is a monster named Grendel, who is the spawn of Cain, the first murderer, but is also a creature who is destroyed be Beowulf, who is empowered and equipped by God, “The sons of Ecgthow would have surely perished and the Geats lost their warrior under the wide earth had the strong links and locks of his war-gear not helped to save him; holy God decided the victory. It was easy for the Lord, the Ruler of Heaven, to redress the balance once Beowulf got back up on his feet.” (1550-1556)

Other themes of subtle contrast, comparison and praise for the Christian God abound and frequently echo Biblical styles and themes; lines 1724-1745 resemble both in style, tone and subject matter the Psalms of King David ofIsrael.

It is quite clear however that this is not simply a tract for conversion since pagan influences do have a strong hold. The more destructive ones are not mentioned and the more positive ones are, i.e. swords and armor have names and characteristics and even personalities as is common throughout the medieval period; meeting halls are filled with mead and warriors eager for glory and celebration; camaraderie and a father-like love between a commander and his troops is often showcased.

Thus, Beowulf is not just an anti-pagan tract, but rather a brilliant and subtle expression of Christianity’s superiority over the old pagan religions of the north. The Christian god is shown to not just be a powerful deity, but THE powerful deity, the almighty, who rewards valour and bravery in a far better way then the pagan gods of the time.  Hence, Christianity is portrayed not as the weak kneed religion of the infidels, but rather as the powerful belief system of the hero of the Danes and Geats, Beowulf. This makes it a powerful and effective evangelistic story and one that clearly had a large influence on both the culture and religion ofScandinavia in terms of advancing Christianity as a legitimate religion.

SOURCES –

Anonymous. “Beowulf.” “The Norton Introduction to Literature.”

Alison Booth. Kelly J. Mays.New York,London. W.W. Norton & Company, 2010. 1088-1098. Print.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s