Beowulf frequently asked questions

A lot of people seem to come to this site with some fairly standard questions about Beowulf.

Here are some answers.

Is there Christianisation of a pagan story in Beowulf?
The answer is no, and yes. There are no specifically Christian elements in Beowulf. However, the bard at Heorot tells the story of creation from a Biblical — or more exactly, Old Testament — perspective. The question used to be asked about what a Christian bard was doing at a pagan court, but the real question should be what is a pre-Christian bard doing at a pagan court?
There is no real evidence to suggest that the Beowulf story existed in the sophisticated form it does in the poem before the Anglo-Saxon Christian era. We can certainly assume that the story itself was not new, just as we know that various of the digressions were not new. Equally, we know that Roman script, which was the only way of writing down long streams of text, was introduced with Christianity. We have very scant pagan attestation in Old English. One example is the tantalising glimpse in the runic poem which begins ‘Ing was aerest…’ (Ing was first… the stanza then going on to describe what appears to be a pagan sun god), and another example is the charm on a field, beginning ‘Erce, erce, erce…’. We also have some runic inscriptions. However, all the evidence is that sophistication grew with writing.
Any attempt to answer the basic question is pure speculation. However, for what it’s worth, this is my view. The Anglo-Saxon Christians were aware of heroes and heroic deeds before Christianisation. This is clear in the Chronicle and also in Bede. However, they did not have a modern anthropological view of paganism. Once pagan practice and belief was no longer active in living memory, they will increasingly have reconstructed it from what they knew about paganism from Christian writings, most particularly from the Bible. They will therefore have held the view that paganism was essentially an idolatry by peoples which previously had knowledge of at least the early chapters of Genesis, but diverged more and more from true worship as they gave themselves over to idolatry. This historic knowledge might be more or less forgotten, but they would not (unless they had been introduced to Christianity) have knowledge of the New Testament. We may see this as a naïve view, which it is, but it is the view exactly represented in the story when the bard recounts ‘the story from creation so far, as known by pagans’.
It is nonsense to suggest that Beowulf was a pagan poem which had been quickly Christianised by interpolating monks. If that had been the case, there would certainly have been a Christian introduction and doubtless some kind of blessing at the end. The pre-Christian bard is part of the overall setting of the poem — as perceived by whoever it was wrote down the final version which we have today.

How critical of Beowulf the character is the author?
This is another old exam question which really represents an earlier era of Beowulf criticism. Essentially, the author presents a fairly uncritical view of Beowulf the character right to the end. However, at the end, Beowulf is described as ‘leodum lithost ond lofgeornost’ — most beloved by his people and most eager for ‘lof’, which is praise or glory. Is this a criticism? In the Battle of Maldon, the Anglo-Saxons give too much ground to the attacking Danes through ‘ofermod’, which could be described as a surfeit of courage, or perhaps overconfidence. From this, it has been suggested that ‘mod’, courage or heart, also a characteristic of Beowulf, is not necessarily always a positive quality. Really, none of these arguments hold water. A comparison with modern agglutinating Germanic languages, and particularly with Old English’s near relations Dutch and Frisian, makes it clear that the addition of a prefix fundamentally changes the meaning. In modern Dutch, ‘gevoelig’ means ‘sensitive’, or perhaps ‘sympathetic’, but ‘overgevoelig’ means ‘touchy’, or perhaps ‘oversensitive’. There are no implicit negative connotations to ‘gevoelig’, but ‘overgevoelig’ is always negative. Many other Dutch and indeed Frisian words function in the same way. Therefore, to say that because ‘ofermod’ is clearly a fatal flaw in the Battle of Maldon, then therefore ‘mod’ is an ambiguous quality, is linguistic nonsense. As far as ‘lofgeornost’ is concerned, we are reading back a modern British cultural sensitivity about becoming modesty into Anglo-Saxon society. As we see from the boasting section early in the poem, the Anglo-Saxons did not have an issue with boasting as such, but rather false boasting — that is, boasting of what was not actually true.
In looking for criticism of the hero, we are also reading something back into the poem which is culturally inappropriate — the notion that there are no real heroes, and that the purpose of heroic stories is really to show the hero ‘warts and all’. The writer of Beowulf shows no interest at any point in presenting Beowulf as a flawed character. To try to exposite this out of the last few lines, and to use dubious linguistics to do it, says more about the critic than about the poem.

Does Beowulf show us the Anglo-Saxon belief that human life is shaped by fate?
Beowulf is not a fatalistic poem in the sense that Norse sagas and Eddic poetry are. This is to some extent because Beowulf always triumphs — we misread the poem if we see Beowulf’s eventual death as defeat, since it would be defeat indeed if such a great hero died in any other context than battle. The poem is, however, written with an enormous amount of hindsight, so the poet knows, for example, that Heorot is to be destroyed by fire. We do not have anything like the fatalism of the Wanderer, who states ‘Wyrd bið ful aræd’ (fate is fully decided), although the actual outworkings of this are not made clear in the that poem. A much weaker version is present in Beowulf in lines 572-3:
“Wyrd often saves
an undoomed hero as long as his courage is good”
This is quite a different perspective from the better known and understood Norse view of fate, where even the gods are subject to the spinning of the Norns, and where, in the central human epic the Volsung saga, the curse of the dwarf Andvarri on the owner of his ring hunts down all those who possess it, to the final destruction of the sons of Guðrun in Hamðismàl.
If you are looking for a life shaped by fate in Beowulf, you are probably over-reading it. Rather, if it presents anything, Beowulf presents fate shaped by life.

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