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'Beowulf,' the Old Testament, and the 'Regula Fidei.'

Nineteenth-century criticism of Beowulf generally focused upon the task of pointing out the Germanic components of the work's a priori designation as an "essentially heathen poem" (Blackburn 1). In the first decades of this century, Frederick Klaeber argued against this view and proposed that the "general tone of the poem and its ethical viewpoint" are decidedly Christian (xlix). Today, no critic would be taken seriously who would argue that the poem, as we have it, is the marred product of a pious interpolator, as was assumed by the critics of a hundred years ago. Since Klaeber's day, the task of the critic of Beowulf has been, predominantly, to ascertain just what type of Christian tone and viewpoint the poem promulgates. But this has proven to be a difficult undertaking. The ambiguity and vagueness of the Christian references in the poem merely contribute to the general feeling that the poem is in some way Christian without any explicit mention of the tenets of the faith. Larry Benson has long pointed out that

our poet's insistence that his characters are both emphatically pagan

and exceptionally good seems self-contradictory, and that apparent

contradiction has seemed to many critics a touch of feebleness at the

very heart of the poem, so feeble that even his warmest admirers have

been forced either to fall back on the old theory of scribal tampering

or to conclude that the poet simply blundered. (36)

That the Christian poet of Beowulf (in the form we've received it) knew something of the Bible is a donnee. Even so, the poem itself doesn't seem to reflect an overt predilection for the Bible. John Niles has written that

Attempts to show a specific correlation between Beowulf and parts of

Scripture tend to break down in the face of the failure of the text to

match its supposed source in other than commonplace ways. When

Hrodgar praises Beowulf by saying that whoever the woman was who

bore him, "the everlasting Lord was gracious to her in her child

bearing" (945-46a), the words have been thought to recall Luke 11:27,

"Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the paps that gave thee

suck." The physical specificity of the Gospel verse is absent from

the Old English passage, however ... (90)

Indeed, the way in which the poet of Beowulf relied upon the Bible seems to be something other than direct reference or homiletic didacticism. Paradoxically, the three occasions in which the poet allusively refers to the Scriptures serve to further obfuscate the general perception of the Christian elements in the poem; these allusions to Cain (107a, 1261b), the Creation (90b-98), and the Deluge (1689b) are all, of course, Old Testament allusions.(1) Clearly, the oblique nature of the Christian elements in Beowulf indicates the poet's conception of something other than the Christianizing of Germanic folklore. As Chambers pointed out seventy years ago, if the Christian allusions were interpolated, "it was just as easy to rewrite them in a tone emphatically Christian as in a tone mildly so" (125). Yet Hrodgar speaks and behaves as a Christian would; Beowulf acts in accordance with Christian mores; the poet often interposes Christian sentiments. I want to suggest that the Christian poet of Beowulf treats, presents, and interprets the pagan personages in the poem according to the tradition of Biblical exegesis of the Old Testament; the poet deliberately parallels the pagan Germanic past with the pre-Christian world of the Old Testament with the aim of demonstrating the prefiguration of the Christian world in his native heritage just as it was demonstrated in the world of the old dispensation of the Hebrews. It is reading by the regula fidei, the rule of faith. In his De Doctrina Christiana, St. Augustine delineates a theory of hermeneutics that established a firm precedent for this kind of interpretive reading which dominated medieval scholasticism. Literature that was not aligned with dogma must, necessarily, be allegorical or figurative. And the corollary to this method of interpretation was the medieval penchant for allegorical writing, like the bestiary. But the impetus of Augustine's theory of hermeneutics was the need to explain the scandalous material of the Hebrew scriptures. In Book III of De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine succinctly states the central idea of his theory of hermeneutics:

Ergo, quamquam omnia vel paene omnia quae in veteris testamenti libris

gesta continentur non solum proprie sed etiam figurate accipienda sint,

tamen etiam illa quae proprie lector acceperit, si laudati sunt illi

qui ea fecerunt sed ea tamen abhorrent a consuetudine bonorum qui post

adventum domini divina praecepta custodiunt, figuram ad intellegentiam

referat, factum vero ipsum ad mores non transferat. (164)

[So all, or nearly all, of the deeds contained in the books of the Old

Testament are to be interpreted not only literally but also

figuratively; but (in the case of those which the reader interprets

literally) if agents are praised but their actions do not agree with the

practices of the good men who since the Lord's coming in flesh have been

guardians of the divine precepts, one should take up the figurative

meaning into the understanding but not take over the deed itself into

one's own behavior.](2)

And with regard to the literature of the Platonists and other pagans, Augustine felt no self-consciousness about appropriating those points of their philosophy which demonstrate Christian doctrine:

Philosophi autem qui vocantur si qua forte vera et fidei nostrae

accommodata dixerunt, maxime Platonici, non solum formidanda

non sunt sed ab eis etiam tamquam ab iniustis possessoribus in

usum nostrum vindicanda,

[Any statements by those who are called philosophers, especially the

Platonists, which happen to be true and consistent with our faith

should not cause alarm, but be claimed for our own use, as it were from

owners who have no right to diem.] (124)

This tradition of literary exegesis and composition was kept alive in monasteries throughout Europe. In fact, classical literature owes its conservation, in large part, to the monks who tirelessly copied manuscripts in scriptoria everywhere.(3) Mundane copying was elevated to an art form; around 700, the monks of Lindisfarne produced one of the marvels of the medieval world--the Lindisfarne Gospels. Corollary to the impulse to preserve sacred as well as secular literature was the presence of the great libraries which these monasteries often housed. Alcuin became the librarian and schoolmaster for York minster in 776, and his description of the library holdings is vital to our knowledge of education in early England. Wearmouth and Jarrow were founded in the late seventh century, and their libraries were furnished with books by Benedict Bishop, who thrice travelled to Rome to acquire them for the monasteries (Wilson 35). All of England's monasteries must have been influenced by the tremendous sacred and secular learning with the arrival of Archbishop Theodore of Tarsus to the school at Canterbury in 669. He and Abbot Hadrian were both fluent speakers of Latin and Greek, and the fame of the Canterbury school rapidly spread throughout England, as Bede tells us in his Historia:

isque primus erat in archiepiscopis, cui omnis Anglorum ecclesia

manus dare consentiret. Et quia litteris sacris simul et saecularibus,

ut diximus, abundanter ambo erant instructi, congregata discipulorum

caterua scientiae salutaris cotidie flumina inrigandis eorum

cordibus emanabant, ita ut etiam metricae artis, astronomiae et

arithmeticae ecclesiasticae disciplinam inter sacrorum apicum

uolumina suis auditoribus contraderent. Indicio est quod usque

hodie supersunt de eorum discipulis, qui Latinam Graecamque

linguam aeque ut propriam in qua nati sunt norunt. Neque umquam

prorsus, ex quo Brittaniam petierunt Angli, feliciora fuere tempora. (332)

[He was the first of the archbishops whom the whole English Church

consented to obey. And because both of them were extremely learned in

sacred and secular literature, they attracted a crowd of students into

whose minds they daily poured the streams of wholesome learning. They

gave their hearers instruction not only in the books of holy Scripture

but also in the art of meter, astronomy, and ecclesiastical

computation. As evidence of this, some of their students still survive

who know Latin and Greek just as well as their native tongue. Never had

there been such happy times since the English first came to Britain.](4)

Again, it was Augustine who made the study of secular literatures acceptable if it is used to aid in the interpretation of sacred works: "Quidquid igitur de ordine temporum transactorum indicat ea quae appellatur historia, plurimum nos adiuvat ad libros sanctos intellegendos, etiam si praeter ecclesiam puerili eruditione discantur," [Whatever the subject called history reveals about the train of past events is of the greatest assistance in interpreting the holy books, even if learnt outside the church as part of primary education] (104). And all of these very rapid stages in English ecclesiastical history had taken place, we should remember, before the earliest Old English poems that have survived were written.

It should be noted, however, that equally great clerics, like Bede himself, were opposed to classical studies (Schrader 45). And much has been made of Alcuin's admonishment of the monks of Lindisfarne ("Quid Hinieldus cum Christo?") for singing lays about Ingeld. Nevertheless, the idea that pagan literature could be mined for Christian truths was, apparently, deemed a more tenable method of dealing with it than futile efforts to suppress it totally. It could, in fact, even be made useful, as Gregory pointed out: "If it is united with the Holy scripture it may lead to a more profound understanding of that Scripture. The liberal arts are to be learnt only in order that knowledge of them may lead to a more profound understanding of the Divine Word" (qtd. in Schrader 40). This Christian theory of poetry, defined by St. Augustine of Hippo, is "for the modern explicator or critic, the key to the spiritual significatio of medieval literature" (Greenfield 148).

Bernard Huppe's important study of the influence of Augustine's De Doctrina Christiana on Anglo-Saxon literature, Doctrine and Poetry, elucidates one of the possible impulses behind the ambiguity of the Christian tone of Beowulf. If Beowulf is obscure, Huppe argues, it is so intended, for "the Bible was divinely ordained to be obscure, in order to prevent slackening of attention when the intellect was not strenuously engaged ... gymnastique intellectuale, is, for Augustine, an essential part of the process of the mind moving toward divine truth" (9). The duty of the reader is to distinguish between what is literal and what is figurative or allegorical. Indeed, for Augustine, the difficulties of the scriptures are divinely ordained in order to subjugate superbiam, pride:

Sed multis et multiplicibus obscuritatibus et ambiguitatibus

decipiuntur qui temere legunt, aliud pro alio sentientes. Quibusdam

autem locis quid vel falso suspicentur non inveniunt: ita obscure

dicta quaedam densissimam caliginem obducunt. Quod totum

provisum esse divinitus non dubito, ad edomandam labore

superbiam et intellectum a fastidio renovandum, cui facile

investigata plerumque vilescunt. (60)

[But casual readers are misled by problems and ambiguities of many

kinds, mistaking one thing for another. In some passages they find no

meaning at all that they can grasp at, even falsely, so thick is the fog

created by some obscure phrases. I have no doubt that this is all

divinely predetermined, so that pride may be subdued by hard work

and intellects which tend to despise things that are easily discovered

may be rescued from boredom and reinvigorated.]

But regardless of this distinction, all effort is applied to achieve a greater understanding of Biblical truths. This impetus could explain the curious ambivalence most readers feel when pressed to identify the Christian elements of Beowulf. That is, the Christian poet inherited a piece of pagan folklore in which he could discern the subtle outlines of Christian doctrine Oust as it was detected in the Old Testament), and, so, he passed on the poem interpreted anew through this Augustinian hermeneutic magnifying glass.

This allegorization of secular and pagan literature was made acceptable by the observed fact that the Old Testament itself contained no Christians whatever. The Hebrew scriptures, of course, are rife with slaughters, intrigues, and violent sexuality and, thus, created a problem for medieval Christians. St. Augustine's doctrine of allegorical wading made the Old Testament "safe for Christian readers or [made] it consonant with the New Testament by discovering Christian doctrines such as the Trinity hidden within it" (Godden 208). The pervasive influence of Augustinian literary theory, the usefulness of which was most persuasive in interpreting the Old Testament, was naturally extended to pagan literature. Even a glance at the titles of works in the Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus shows us that the Old Testament exercised enormous influence upon Old English poetry.(5) And this certainly seems to be true for Beowulf. As we have already mentioned, all of the Biblical references are from the Old Testament, and the general sense of the deity we glimpse in the poem has a greater affinity with Yahweh than with Christ--he is the distant, inaccessible "Metod" who dispenses "dom": "daer abidan sceal / maga mane fah miclan domes, / hu him scir Metod scrifan wille," [There a man guilty of crime shall await a great judgement, how glorious God will impose sentence upon him] (977b-79). Or he is the "Wealdend" who holds sway over fatum and acts, in Beowulf, in a capacity greater than that of wyrd: "Swa moeg unfoege eade gedigan / wean ond wroecsid se de Waldendes / hyldo gehealdep!" [So may an undoomed man easily endure misery and exile who keeps the favor of the Lord] (2291-93a). In Beowulf, it is by God's judgement that one is deemed worthy--not by the redemptive blood of Christ: "wolde dom Godes doedum roedan / gumena gehwylcum, swa he nu gen ded," [God's judgement would rule the deeds of each man, as he now yet does] (2858-59).

Much has been made of the poet's use of the word wyrd in order to support a pagan foundation for the poem. In his translation of Boethius' De Consolatione Philosophiae, Alfred uses wyrd to translate both fatum [fate] and fortuna, but he is careful to point out Oust as Boethius believed that Fortuna and fate were lieutenants of divine providence) that wyrd is entirely under God's control (Trahern 165). Or, as Ogilvy has written, "wyrd is merely a name for the working of Divine Providence in temporary and transitory affairs" (59-60). Alfred's use of wyrd is similar, it seems to me, to that of the poet of Beowulf:

ond pone oenne heht

golde forgyldan, one de Grendel oer

mane acwealde,-- swa he hyra ma wolde,

nefne him witig God wyrd forstode

ond does mannes mod.

[... and he [Hrodgar] commanded to pay gold for the one whom

before Grendel killed in wickedness,---as he would more, unless wise

God hindered fate for him and the man's [Beowulf] courage.]


So, clearly, this recurrence of wyrd (which may well have been, at one time, the personified name of a goddess like Fortuna) is no impediment to an Augustinian interpretation of the poem. In fact, the Old Testament in the medieval world was viewed by Christians as the development of God's plan for mankind, and if lesser agents like wyrd or Fortuna had been charged with the duty of carrying out that plan, so be it.

J. R. R. Tolkien pointed out in his landmark essay, "Beowulf The Monsters and the Critics," that

It would seem that, in his [the Beowulf poet's] attempt to depict

ancient pre-Christian days, intending to emphasize their nobility, and

the desire of the good for truth, he turned naturally when delineating

the great King of Heorot to the Old Testament. In the folces hyrde of

the Danes we have much of the shepherd patriarchs and kings of Israel,

servants of the one God, who attribute to His mercy all the good

things that come to them in this life. (79)

Hrodgar is, as many critics have noted, the most Christian-like personage of the poem. The wise ruler of the Danes often speaks as a Christian would, yet, here again, no specific references to Christian doctrine are ever made. Here, Edward Irving's statistics make Hrodgar's Christian-like goodness apparent. The poet-narrator, who speaks 61.7% of the poem, makes 65% of the Christian references. Though Hrodgar consumes only 8% of the poem, he utters 17% of the Christian sentiments. Beowulf speaks for 18% of the poem, and he makes 13% of the Christian allusions (Irving 9). R. E. Kaske saw in Hrodgar a model for Biblical sapientia although his age diminishes his fortitudo. And the sapientia et fortitudo theme of Beowulf accords nicely, as Kaske points out, with an Augustinian interpretation of the poem: "Sapientia is bestowed by God (1724-27), in accordance with the continual assertions of the Scriptures and the teachings of the fathers.... In Hrodgar's sermon, the beginning of the man's downfall occurs for his unsnyttrum [for his lack of wisdom] (1734), to which he has been brought by worldly prosperity" (280). Elaine Hansen somewhat marginalizes the importance of Biblical influence upon Hrodgar's sermon by arguing that it is "intended to be read as a parental instruction or wise father's advice poem" (54). Elsewhere, she calls it a "`set piece' of wisdom literature" without pointing to any specific Biblical parallels (61). Proverbs, Job, Baruch, and Wisdom come to my mind. Nevertheless, most critics agree that Hrodgar embodies something of the figure of the noble pagan from later medieval literature.

Critics have not been in such agreement over the character of Beowulf. His love of lof, praise, has been an impediment to critics who might otherwise see Beowulf as a Hrodgar-like worthy pagan. But the attitudes and behaviors which modern readers detect in Beowulf which are antithetical to Christian mores--such as his occasional boasting and pursuit of earthly glory--would not have struck an Anglo-Saxon audience as terribly jarring because the Old Testament itself contained far more disconcerting acts from men and women deemed holy. To accept these obscuriores locutiones of the Hebrew scriptures, Augustine declared that one must accept them as totally figurative: "Quae autem quasi flagitiosa imperitis videntur, sive tantum dicta sive etiam facta sunt vel ex dei persona vel ex hominum quorum nobis sanctitas commendatur, tota figurata sunt," [Matters which seem like wickedness to the unenlightened, whether just spoken or actually performed, whether attributed to God or to people whose holiness is commended to us, are entirely figurative] (150). Furthermore, Augustine states that these behaviors are also relative to their locis et temporibus: "Qiud igitur locis et temporibus et personis conveniat diligenter attendendum est, ne temere flagitia reprehendamus," [We must pay careful attention to the conduct appropriate to different places, times, and persons, in case we make rash imputations of wickedness] (152).

Moreover, if Beowulf does seek "lof," then we should remember that he frequently gives praise to God for his success. Before he meets Grendel, he states:

ac ic mid grape sceal

fon wid feonde ond ymb feorh sacan,

lad wid lapum; daer gelyfan sceal

Dryhtnes dome se pe hine dead nimed.

[. . . but I with my grasp shall grapple against the enemy and fight

over life, foe against foe; there shall the one whom death seizes trust

the Lord's judgement.] (438-41)

That is, Beowulf recognizes it to be God's will that determines the outcome of the fight--not an exercise of the strength of his hand-grip. And again, he says, "ond sipdan witig God / on swa hwoepere hond halig Dryhten / maerdo deme, swa him gemet pince," [... and afterwards wise God into whichsoever hand the holy Lord might assign glory, as seems proper to him] (685b-87). Afterwards, Beowulf describes his struggle with Grendel as something over which God exercised dominion:

Ic hine hroedlice heardan clammum

on woelbedde wripan pohte,

poet, he for mundgripe minum scolde

licgean lifbysig, butan his lice swice;

ic hine ne mihte, pa Metod nolde,

ganges getwoeman, no ic him poes georne aetfealh,


[I thought quickly to bind him with hard clasps on the bed of death that he

because of my hand-grip should lie dead struggling for life unless his body

might escape; I might not, when the Lord would not, hinder his going,

however firmly I held him the deadly foe.] (964-69a)

Later, when Beowulf has been the king of the Geats for fifty years, the dragon attacks his people, and Beowulf worries that he has violated the "ealde riht," the old law (2230).

But the sense of fatalism that pervades the poem has discouraged many critics from seeing Beowulf as a kind of Old Testament worthy pagan who typologically prefigures Christian doctrine. After all, Beowulf leaves his people to face certain war with no familial successor to the throne. But, as Tolkien said, "the wages of heroism is death" (77). Beowulf is the instrument of God in cleansing Heorot of the devilish Grendel, and like the topos of the Old Testament worthy pagan, he is not entitled to enjoy Christian salvation. He is the ideal retainer and king, but it is the Germanic heroic ethos which fails him, not his deeds or beliefs. "This fatalism," Huppe writes, "reveals that Beowulf, governed by the law of revenge, is self-doomed, and it reveals the futility of a society not governed and directed by the goal of salvation" (The Hero 39). Beowulf's reign, though successful, also is a time of tribal warfare and entangling alliances which suggests that Beowulf's legacy as king of the Geats will be further reprisals against his people long after he is dead. But not even the efforts of a noble pagan like Beowulf can forestall the unfolding of prouidentia, which often manifests itself in the kind of internecine struggle described in the digressions and which seems, at the end of the poem, to be inevitable for the people of the Geats. This tone of fatalism is not so much a comment on the character of Beowulf as upon the Germanic ethos--a philosophy that often produces a Heremod, the Danish king who capitulated to the easy temptations of cruelty and greed and was forced to flee to the land of his countrymen's enemies (the Jutes) who put him to death.

Furthermore, the poet eulogizes Beowulf as the "manna mildust" (3181). And Gernot Wieland has shown that this phrase often refers to the generosity of a Germanic king but also to Biblical figures such as Moses in the Old English Exodous. Neither Beowulf nor Moses in these works can be viewed as Christians. But they can be viewed as "a shadow, or typos of Christ." (Wieland 89). Once again, this accords with the Augustinian hermeneutic: for interpreting pagan literature. Beowulf surely reminded the poet's audience of the many Old Testament figures who, though not prescient of the coming kingdom of Christ, behave in a manner which accords with Christian doctrine and actually perform the tasks of a prouidentia they do not comprehend. These figures and their actions reveal the seeds of Christian doctrine--indeed, they (and their actions) were allegorized to provide proof of the Christian God's control of and guiding hand in the history of pre-Christian paganism. The Deluge and the flight of the Israelites across the Red Sea, for instance, were interpreted as the portents of the sacrament of baptism (Wieland 91). And Augustine in De Doctrina Christiana refers to Paul's epistle to the Ephesians to demonstrate the typological significance of the passover in the Hebrew scriptures:

Meminerint ergo eorum qui pascha illo tempore per umbrarum

imaginaria celebrant, cum signari postes sanguine agni iuberentur,

hysopo fuisse signatos. Herba haec humilis et mitis est, et nihil

fortius et penetrabilius eius radicibus, ut in caritate radicati et

fundati possimus comprehendere cum omnibus sanctis quae sit

latitudo et longitudo et altitudo et profundum, id est crucem

domini. Cuius latitudo dicitur in transverso ligno quo extenduntur

manus, longitudo a terra usque ad ipsam latitudinem, quo a

manibus et infra totum corpus affigitur, altitudo a latitudine sursum

usque ad summum, quo adhaeret caput, profundum vero, quod terrae

infixum absconditur

[Remember those who celebrated the Passover in days gone by, in its

unreal and shadowy form; when the command was given to mark their

gateposts with the blood of a lamb, they were also sprinkled with

hyssop. This is a lowly and gentle plant, but nothing is stronger or

more penetrating than its roots, so that "rooted and grounded in

love" we may be able "to comprehend with all the saints what is the

breadth and length and height and depth." This refers to the Lord's

cross. The breadth is the cross-beam, on which the hands were

stretched out; the length is the part from the ground to the

crossbeam, to which is fixed the whole body from the hands

downward; the height is the part from the cross-beam up to the top,

to which the head is attached; the depth is the hidden part, firmly set

in the ground.] (128)

Likewise, Hrodgar sees Beowulf as an agent sent by God to deliver Heorot from Grendel:

Nu scealc hafad

purh Drihtnes miht doed gefremede,

de we ealle aer ne meahton

snyttrumm besyrwan.

[Now a retainer has accomplished an action through the Lord's might that

before we all might not accomplish with skill.] (939b-42a)

The coming of Christianity to the Anglo-Saxons provided them with an historical sense which the Germanic peoples before seemed to lack. Futurity in the Germanic mythologies is a doubtful proposition. But with Christianity, futurity was of paramount importance. And the assurance of that Christian future depended, in large part, upon the ability to examine the past and identify the hand of God at work.

The Old Testament for the Anglo-Saxons was an aid to the interpretation of their own history. They saw in their migration from the continent a literal exodous to the Promised Land, and, later, they would see in their sufferings, inflicted by pagan Norsemen, God's chastening of the Israelites through the instrument of the Assyrians and the Babylonians (Godden 225). The New Testament could not serve as a guide to the interpretation of history, for it is the stillpoint of history, the "conjunction of history with eternity" (Raw 227). The description of Grendel's mere may resemble the description of hell in the Visio Pauli, but this is closer to simple literary borrowing than the kind of reliance upon the Old Testament for a structural and thematic framework in which the poet of Beowulf, I would contend, engages (Robinson 32). A more substantial literary borrowing (involving the characteristics of Grendel and his mother) of the sort which may originate from the Visio Pauli appears to be, as Ruth Mellinkof has shown, from "an ancient Jewish pseudepigraphical Noah book or (if, as some think, there was no Noah book) pseudepigraphical traditions designated as Noachic" (183). So even in matters of literary borrowing, it seems that the Beowulf poet was more willing to consult the Old Testament tradition; it seems to have more readily suited his purpose.

Fred Robinson has written that "The Beowulf poet would not be the only Germanic Christian who thought his ancestors may have been capable of sensing the existence of a Creator and of directing their piety toward this dimly perceived Creator rather than toward Germanic gods such as Woden, Thunor, and Tiw" (35). And Larry Benson has shown that the English missionaries of the seventh and eighth centuries had a sympathetic interest in their pagan kinsmen of the continent, and he points out that the "remarkable quality" of the poet's chastisement of the Danes' idol worship is "its tone of compassion" (41). In Beowulf, the pagan elements are especially mild. Backsliding Danes, highly valued treasures, and ritual obsequies could have been supplanted by human sacrifice, orgies, and endless revenge murders if the poet had wished to demonstrate the more horrifying side of pre-Christian paganism. Instead, Beowulf is, I think, imbued with a sense of respect for people who behave as Christians might and who fulfill an essential role in the divine ordo, though the question of their salvation is open. Still, "There is nothing sentimental about [the poet's] vision; some Geats and Danes are virtuous in ways that Christians may honor, but none are Christian" (Howe 147). Extreme allegorical interpretations, particularly of Beowulf himself, have missed the point of the Augustinian hermeneutic. If one views Beowulf as a Christ-figure who redeems the Danes as well as his own people, then the difficulties of Beowulf's ethos of revenge, love of treasure and "lof," and penchant for boasting are heightened exponentially. If, however, one views Beowulf as an Old Testament-like noble pagan who carries out the divine prouidentia and generally displays the characteristics of any good Christian, the aforementioned difficulties are, to some extent, ameliorated. This subtler and more complex reading disavows the kind of allegorical, one-to-one correspondence which, in the case of Beowulf, muddies the waters of the poem. And this reading, regardless of the date to which one subscribes for the composition of Beowulf, is fully in accord with the Augustinian interpretation of literature that is not explicitly doctrinal. It also reaffirms, I think, the thematic and structural complexity for which the poets of early medieval Europe are often faulted for lacking.


(1) See Marijane Osborn's essay "The Great Feud: Scriptural History and Strife in Beowulf." Instead of the more obvious references to the Bible I have mentioned, Osborn refers to four "scripturized" moments in the poem: Scyld's dynastic history (a "Germanic Abraham"), the Creation song, Grendel and Cain, and Hrodgar's sermon. Osborn contrasts the issue of audience awareness of these scripturized moments with the lack of this awareness in the persons of the poem: "The poet controls his two perspectives simply by distinguishing between the natural wisdom possible to pagans and the revealed knowledge he shares with us" (121).

(2) I have used Green's translation in all quotations taken from De Doctrina Christiana.

(3) The fruits of this endeavor in England invariably suffered by the plundering of unlettered Vikings not simply because of their appetite for destruction but, more importantly, because of the disruption of the monasteries where this work took place.

(4) I have used Colgrave and Mynors' translation in all quotations taken from Bede's Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum.

(5) The Old Testament is the source for about one-third of the extant poetry. AElfric's Heptateuch (along with his homilies paraphrased from OT books) is an indication of the prominent position of the Hebrew scriptures in even the late Anglo-Saxon period. MS. Junius 11 includes the paraphrases Genesis, Exodous, and Daniel. And, of course, MS. Cotton Vitellius A.xv (the Beowulf manuscript) contains Judith.


Augustine, De Doctrina Christiana. Ed. and Trans. R. P. H. Green. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

Baker, Peter S., ed. Beowulf: Basic Readings. New York: Garland, 1995.

Bede, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Ed. and Trans. Bertram Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1969.

Benson, Larry. "The Pagan Coloring of Beowulf." Old English Poetry: Fifteen Essays. Ed. Robert P. Creed. Providence: Brown UP, 1967. 193-213. Rpt. in Baker. 35-50.

Beowulf, Ed. Frederick Klaeber. 3rd ed. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath, 1950.

Blackburn, F. A. "The Christian Coloring in the Beowulf." PMLA 12 (1897): 205-25. Rpt. in Nicholson. 1-21.

Chambers, R. W. Beowulf. An Introduction to the Study of the Poem with a Discussion of the Stories of Offa and Finn. 3rd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1959.

Godden, Malcolm and Michael Lapidge, eds. The Cambridge Companion to Old English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1991.

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Author:Cain, Christopher M.
Publication:Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature
Date:Jun 22, 1997
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