By Brandon Muri
Published Online, 2014
Abstract: In her essay “The Danes’ Prayers to the ‘Gastbona’ in Beowulf,” Anne Payne concludes that the Danish petitions to “the slayer of souls” indicates a failure of imagination. The Beowulf poet presents this heathen impulse as an obsession with visible forms of power — such as wealth and weaponry — which is the definition of idolatry. Idolatry achieves its ends through the manipulation of representation for practical ends, and in the world of Beowulf it is a practice which results in the removal of essential joys from the human community. My paper will seek to demonstrate how the poet’s mode of interpretation informs his moral perspective, which is compatible with the unmentioned (though implied) doctrine of Christianity and diametrically opposed to the older Anglo-Saxon religious customs the poet refers to as “heathen.”
Introduction: In the last half of the twentieth century, critics have agreed that Beowulf is the work of a single poet composing in the mode of a previous and-still influential tradition of oral literary creation, and that this poet was a Christian consciously making use of pagan materials. The lingering question — why a Christian poet would write an ostensibly “pagan” poem — has troubled scholars for decades. In his 1995 study Pride And Prodigies: Studies in the Monsters of the Beowulf Manuscript, Andy Orchard describes how the multicultural composition the Cotton Vitellius manuscript illustrates a singular Anglo-Saxon tendency to incorporate diverging perspectives. This propensity for cultural assimilation has been well documented. One such example is Pope Gregory’s letter to Mellitus, in which the pontiff directs his emissary to Christianize pagan practices by transforming them, as much as possible, into feasts of the martyrs, reasoning that “he who would climb to a lofty height must go up by steps, not leaps” (letter of Gregory to Mellitus, in Bede, i.30). While this simple explanation may avoid the initial paradox, there remains much to be said; for even if one accepts this picture of a broad-minded Christian poet at home with pagan lore, it remains to be seen why the poem seems to resist a Christian interpretation.
The simple answer to this question is implicit in the poet’s choice of material, which could never be fully scrubbed of its pagan character without changing the essence (the fate of the original chanson de geste that became The Song of Roland and the Celt-Irish heroic legends absorbed into the Arthurian cycle). Fortunately for us, the Beowulf poet had enough respect for his material and the good sense to let the past remain as it was. Therefore in substance the poem reflects the hard edge of its pagan material. At its core, Beowulf is more lion than lamb, offering more of pagan wilderness than cultivated Christian teaching and we find in it a pagan reverence for courage, loyalty, and honor rather than the Christian triad of faith, hope, and love. One would assume such a blending could produce a dubiouswork at best, but this is not the case. The poem confronts us with none of the internal inconsistencies and contradictions many tortured misreadings of the early twentieth century warned us about. As scholars have come to recognize the poem’s integrity as a self-contained work of genius, the unity of the poem — like the Christianity of the poet — has passed into the short list of assumptions Beowulf scholars are willing to make.