Christian Critique of Pagan Society in Beowulf
By Mathew Moura
The Beowulf poet critiques the way in which pagan German societies placed all importance in a materially prosperous earthly existence rather than a spiritual readiness for the afterlife. Rather than evaluating a king on his spiritual leadership and morality, the Geats, the tribe of whom Beowulf is king, praise pride, the ability to gain treasure and protection from enemies. The poet places a Christian context on the Germanic peoples, judging that the Geats' demise at the end of the poem was due to their seeking of transient earthly possessions rather than upholding to Christian principles of seeking only salvation. By also putting Beowulf’s character under scrutiny, the poet conveys that Beowulf is the embodiment of pagan error, and Beowulf’s errors in ideals is what leads to the Geats’ downfall at the end of the poem.
To the Geats, Beowulf was a great king. His valor in combat and the treasure won in expeditions would have, to the Geats, proven Beowulf noble. To a Christian audience and poet, Beowulf’s character would have made him a great king, not his ability to bring riches to his people. Beowulf is not portrayed as one of great character. Early on in the poem Unferth casts doubt on Beowulf’s abilities by recalling a story he heard where Beowulf lost a swimming competition to a man named Brecca. Beowulf adamantly defends himself, saying that the reason for his loss was that “time and again, foul things attacked me/ lurking and stalking, but I lashed out/ … my flesh was not for feasting on” (44; lines 559-560, 562). He fails to mention that he lost the race. This is because he defeats Unferth in a boasting contest and therefore, to Beowulf, there is no need for him to convey truth or the entire event’s happenings, he merely uses boasting in order to secure his own reputation. To a pagan Germanic society of this era, boasting was not merely considered an important part of one's character, but it validated one's character and abilities. To a Christian, it would have been deemed as prideful but more importantly, sinful. As the Bible states: “Pride goeth before a fall and a haughty spirit before destruction” (Proverbs 16:18). Therefore, the pride Beowulf displays in boasting would have, with a minor under-standing of Christian ideology, cast a dangerous tone foreshadowing misfortune for Beowulf and his people.
It is that same pride Hrothgar, the king of the Danes and Beowulf’s mentor, addresses in his warning to Beowulf that he should "not give way to pride” (70; 1760). Hrothgar’s speech, though, is lost on Beowulf who gives way to pride when facing Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the Dragon. Beowulf makes the decision not to fight Grendel with weapons, but with his bare hands. His motives are arrogant: “I have heard moreover that the monster scorns/ in his reckless way to use weapons/ therefore, to heighten Hygelac’s fame/ and gladden his heart, I hereby renounce sword and the shelter of the broad shield” (41; lines 433-437). Beowulf, by saying that his motive for not using any weapons is to increase Hygelac’s fame, shows that there is nothing noble or tactical in his decision. Though it is later discovered that Grendel had a charm rendering weapons useless against him, Beowulf would have had no prior insight into this, therefore his decision to not use weapons was merely a fluke, not a tactic. This, coupled with his own reasoning, shows a prideful person, not a noble one.
Also, in his fight with the dragon and Beowulf’s stated reasons for coming to Hrothgar’s aide, the poet puts into question the heroic quality of Beowulf’s motives. Though the dragon was killing many of his own people, Beowulf states as his prime motive of defeating the dragon to be “for the glory of winning” and that his men should stay at bay since “this fight is not yours/ nor is it up to any man except me/ to measure his strength against the monster/ or prove his worth” (86; lines 2514, 2532-2535). This is Beowulf’s most flagrant moment of pride. Rather than logically having his men help him in his fight, Beowulf chooses to fight the dragon alone in order to secure his reputation and give him more reason to boast. This pride leads to his fall and the demise of his own people following his death since the Geats relied so heavily on Beowulf. Pride brings about the downfall of the Geats, which adheres to the Christian proverb and shows the poet’s conscious effort to show how the pagan Geats are mistaken in praising pride since it brings about detrimental errors that bring about their ruin.
Beowulf’s stated reason for coming to Hrothgar’s aide, to “proffer/ my wholehearted help and counsel,” conceals his obligation to repay a debt he owes Hrothgar for repaying his father Ecgtheow’s own debt (38; lines 277-278). By not admitting the true, underlying reasons for his assistance to Hrothgar, by trying to make it seem as a noble venture rather than a repayment, Beowulf commits two Christian sins. First, as shown in Proverbs, pride is considered destructive. Second, Christianity forgives sin with penance, the act of admitting one's sins and then paying for them. Beowulf does not seek penance, he masks his flaws with noble talk. The Christian poet is therefore showing that Beowulf's pride is a flaw, and that what he and his people need is Christianity. The downfall of the Geats, as well as how Beowulf's own pride had much to do with it, sets the tone that Beowulf is operating in a society and system devoid of not only Christian ideology, but also Christian means to rectify and atone for sins; Christianity is needed to show these people a Godly path of virtue and salvation.
In addition to pride, the Christian poet of Beowulf condemns the Geats’ inability to understand the transitory nature of worldly possessions and status. According to Geat culture, the king’s sole purpose was to “shower [the people] with gifts and armor” (93; line 2866). This system of a king offering tribute to his people would, by Christian standards, be an absorption with transient earthly possessions. Hrothgar warns of placing importance on tribute as well while describing a king whose “possessions seem paltry to him now./ He covets and resents” (70; lines 1749-1750). Beowulf’s obsession with treasure and providing treasure to his people, which it would have been seen as through a Christian perspective, leads him to two destructive decisions. First, when Hygelac dies, Beowulf returns home from the battle with a great amount of treasure in tow. Beowulf appeared to place more importance on the treasure rather than the commitment a thane was to have with his lord calling him to stay with the lord until death or at least to bring the body of his lord back with him, which he assuredly could have done instead of bringing with him thirty pieces of warmail. Among thanes of the period, staying by one’s lord’s side was a principal edict of heroism and obligation. Wiglaf reprimands those who left Beowulf’s side when fighting the dragon: “A warrior will sooner/ die than live a life of shame [for fleeing his lord’s side in battle]” (93; lines 2890-2891). Beowulf himself does this and to a Medieval audience it would certainly have appeared strange or contradictory to the heroic persona Beowulf displays throughout the poem. It would appear that in Beowulf’s pursuit of treasure, or the importance he placed on it, brought him to make a terrible decision to leave the side of his lord, which would have corrupt to both a pagan and a Christian reader.
Still, if one were to read the events surrounding the death of Hygelac differently, if Beowulf did not simply leave his lord and perhaps instead killed all the enemies after Hygelac’s death, Beowulf’s treasure should have been of no significance or importance. However, the poet emphasizes the amount of booty to purposely highlight its significance for Beowulf and his people. This interpretation would nevertheless fault Beowulf for thinking that the amassing of such treasure somehow made up for his lord’s death and his violation of his duties to his lord.
The second destructive decision Beowulf makes, caused by his placing importance on treasure, is when Beowulf is mortally wounded by the dragon and does not realize what his death will do to his people. Beowulf again places too much importance on the treasure and does not realize its being ephemeral. He believes that even though he is to die “I have been allowed to leave my people/ so well endowed” (91; lines 2797-2798). Without an heir, however, and without Beowulf to lead them, the Geat nation is doomed. Beowulf does not seem to recognize the ruin he has brought upon his people.
In addition to showing how treasure and earthly possessions are transitory, Beowulf's individual strength is also shown to be transitory. His decision to ignore Hrothgar’s warning that “For a brief while your strength is in bloom/ but it fades quickly; and soon there will follow/ illness or the sword to lay you low/ … Death will arrive/ dear warrior, to sweep you away,” shows how Beowulf, a pagan, cannot understand that his individual strength, which is the basis of his pride, will fade (70; lines 1761-1763, 1767-1768). It is his pride which leads him to not call upon his troops to assist him in slaying the dragon and to believe that his former strength will still save him, as though he is beyond aging and its wearing effect. This illustrates Beowulf’s misunderstanding in a Christian context: he does not take into account that he will die and all his strengths in terms of a pagan context, his ability to bring treasure and reputation to his people by the slaying of monsters, fades and ultimately amounts to nothing.
Beowulf and Geat people are not, despite their flaws, portrayed as completely evil or sinful; they are simply misled in their emphasis on earthly possessions and status. They are not portrayed as gluttonous savages; they are eloquent and virtuous, as shown by Hrothgar and his speech to Beowulf on how to be a good king. Beowulf too is given a moral quality: he truly wants to do what is best for his people. This is evidenced by his happiness that the treasure he gained from the dragon could be used for his people: "I give thanks/ that I behold this treasure here in front of me/ that I have been allowed to leave my people/ so well endowed on the day I die" (91; lines 2795-2798). The conflict, to a Christian poet and audience, would have been that Beowulf and his people want to do right but lack, not merely the means to do so, but, the Christian means to do so. Beowulf wishes for his people a good life, however, he seeks this by gaining a reputation for himself and giving them treasures. In a Christian context, he should have been concerned with their spiritual salvation. Though he does not do or understand this, he and his people's flaws are not imbued in their character. A Christian would have seen Beowulf as irrevocably human and therefore imperfect. What Beowulf and his people need, according to the poet, is Christianity. In a way, the poem justifies Christianity’s assimilation of pagan societies. The poet sets Beowulf up as flawed but redeemable. This is stressed in the episode when Beowulf goes to attack Grendel’s mother, departing when “the ninth hour of the day arrived” (67; line 1600). This is a direct reference to the hour in which Christ dies (Luke 23:47, Matthew 27:46). Giving Beowulf such a Christ-like quality, it can be inferred that the poet sought to show that Beowulf was redeemable and inherently virtuous despite his pagan flaws and that he and his people were not incapable of becoming Christian and gaining salvation.
The poem thus explores the problems with Germanic pagan society and extols Christian values and ideology. This is important for it shows an early Medieval author showing why the pagan system does not work and why Christianity would be best. The poem provides modern readers with a look into the religious and societal shift from pagan cultures into contemporary Christian-influenced societies. The poem displays what was seen as important to pagan societies but also how Christianity changed many of those ideals. It is an interesting look into how pagan cultures functioned and how Christianity absorbed, thereby destroying, these cultures.
“Beowulf.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages, Volume 1A. Ed. Alfred David. Seventh Edition. New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000. 29-99.
© Mathew Moura