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Beowulf, a Christian poem: an approach to certain difficulties
By Paul Emile Morin
PhD Dissertation, University of Ottawa, 1964
Abstract: This work has for its object to show that Beowulf is a Christian poem, written by a Christian poet, for a Christian audience of the eighth century. We believe that an understanding of Beowulf demands an understanding of the technique of the epic poem, particularly in the handling of historical material, which reflects the contemporary spirit, presenting it in such a way as to be acceptable to a contemporary audience.
Our approach consists in examining and analizing the views expressed about Beowulf in earlier, more recent, and present scholarship, and rendering our judgment upon them. This leads to a close analysis of the poem’s right to be considered a Christian poem. We argue that the poet superimposes the contemporary Christian spirit on a pagan heroic past, and that the characters, while pagan, speak and behave like Christians, just as some characters in Chaucer’s works and Shakespeare’s’ plays do later on. Special attention is given to certain passages in the poem. These are analized, and their Christianity, stated or implied, taken note of. The topics particularly outstanding in the poem and upon which our attention is centered, are Grace and Providence, the monsters and their descent from Cain, the allegorical representation of Grendel’s mere and his abode, King Hrothgar’s sermon on pride, the significance of the Dragon, Beowulf’s funeral, Wyrd, the vengeance theme in Beowulf, money as representing the root of all evil, the achievement of glory understood by some critics as heathen, the understanding of Beowulf’s alleged fear, and the complaint that references to the Scriptures are limited to the Old Testament.
Chapter I deals in detail with the coming to light of the Beowulf manuscript in the sixteenth century, to the time, in the early seventeenth century, when it adorned the bookselves of Sir Robert Cotton’s library at Westminster, to Humfrey Wanley’s record of it, in 1705, and finally to the transcript of the MS by Thorkelin, in 1787, and his edition of it, in 1815. This is followed by a survey of the history of other editions, and the scholarship and criticism which they brought. The second part of the Chapter has to do with the so-called German school of thought, which represents Beowulf as a pagan poem, with multiple authorship, and Christian interpolations by monks.
Chapter II examines the later Beowulfian scholar ship concluding in many cases with the rejection of the views of the German school. Authors of the nineteen-twenties, and contemporary writers and critics are mentioned, and their works referred to. A definite change of attitude is noted towards a rejection of all the tenets of the so- called German school, and an affirmation that Beowulf is the work of a single author, who was Christian, wrote a Christian poem for a Christian audience of the eighth century.
Chapter III states and develops our thesis, that the understanding of Beowulf depends upon a clear concept of traditional epic technique, particularly in its “contemporary” handling of historical background and facts . The second part of this Chapter analizes the handling of the poet’s historical material, or what some critics have pejoratively called digressions. We show that the various episodes which the poet brought to the fore, belong essentially to the epic technique. We point out that these so-called loose ends have caught the eye of the archaeologist, the historian and other scientists, who have dissected the poem for its by-products, instead of searching and plumbing for the living work of art, the poem. Finally, we show that the converts to Christianity of the eighth century were imbued with the new faith and inspired by it to seek the propagation of Christ’s doctrine beyond the borders of Anglo-Saxon England, in the conversion of Saxon tribes on the Continent. The pervasive influence of the Church we show as being reflected in the high degree of culture and intellectuality attained in Anglo-Saxon England of the eighth century.
Chapter IV is devoted to the examination of specific points, some contentious in nature, in the poem . We show how pagan Wyrd was transformed into God’s foreknowledge and Providence, and the role God plays In the life of the characters . The raison d’gtre of Genesis is explained, the origin of Grendel and his dam is established. We discuss the Dragon’s embodiment of malice, Beowulf’s cremation on the pyre, and various other points including blood feuds, and /the worshipping of Idols by the Danes.
Chapter V contains the conclusion. It reviews our position, that is, accepting Beowulf as a Christian poem, written by a Christian poet, for a Christian audience of the eighth century, and states that this view is now generally accepted. We reinforce these views by showing that the Christianity of the poem can be detected further through a constantly recurring principle throughout the work, PRIDE, a topic which In Arthur G. Brodeur’s valuable book, The Art of Beowulf, is given particular prominence. We clarify that Beowulf is not a religious poem per se. Finally, we point out the need for more Beowulfian scholarship in order to give Beowulf its proper recognition as a great work of art, and one which in the words of Aquinas belongs to those things which are beautiful when perceived – pulchra sunt quae visa placent.