Praeparatio Evangelium: Beowulf as Antetype of Christ
Hodges, Horace Jeffery
Medieval and Early Modern English Studies, vol. 12 (2004 ) No. 2
The Old English epic poem Beowulf poses something of an enigma for scholars. The poet was surely a Christian, but the poem depicts a pagan society, so what sort of religion is being expressed? Most recent scholars have argued for a Christian reading, but others still hold out for a pagan one. Some have suggested Christian-pagan syncretism. In his 1987 “Introduction” to modern critical interpretations of Beowulf, the influential critic Harold Bloom still expresses doubts that the poem can be called a “Christian” one. “Can there be Christianity,” he asks, “without the figure of Jesus Christ, without the presence of the New Testament?” (Bloom, “Introduction” 1). He then quickly answers his own question: “No one reading the poem would find Beowulf to be a particularly Christian hero” because “[h]is glory has little to do with worship, unless it be justified self-worship” (Bloom, “Introduction” 2). Even the best of attempts to find in Beowulf a hero of Christian values strikes Bloom as possessing “a fine desperation” (Bloom, “Introduction” 3). Is Bloom right? Are Christian readings, despite general scholarly agreement, desperate? How are we to resolve this? I think that we can concur with Bloom that we should not call “a poem Christian only because it undoubtedly was written by a Christian” (Bloom, “Introduction” 4). As minimal criteria, a poem would have to come from the hand of a Christian author and embody arguably Christian motifs to be called Christian. Some scholars, though, would likely prefer strongly maximal criteria, requiring the explicit presence of central Christian themes, e.g., reference to Christ’s sacrifice. Methodologically, I lean toward minimal criteria, but we shall see whether Beowulf can satisfy minimal, maximal, or medial criteria. This article will not attempt to persuade other scholars to adopt a minimalist criteria as methodological assumption because such is not essential for my argument. Rather, my article will note some of the problems posed for a Christian interpretation, along with some of the plausible responses by a few other scholars. Then, I will present a suggestion concerning typology that might help clarify what the Beowulf poet is doing with his culture-hero Beowulf, namely, that Beowulf is being presented an a pagan antetype of Christ in an epic Anglo-Saxon praeparatio evangelium.