On Beowulf

Near the end of the 7th century, Bishop Wulfram attempted to convert the pagan king Rathbod of Frisia. Despite his remonstrances, the King would not do away with his people’s ancient custom of human sacrifice. It is said that Wolfram saved a man named Oven from hanging. For two hours Wulfram prayed on his knees while the youth hung by his neck. Then when he stood the rope snapped and Oven was delivered. On another occasion, the saint’s prayers turned back the tide. This saved two boys who had been fastened to stakes from being overwhelmed by the waves. Impressed by these miracles Rathbod agreed to be baptised by Wulfram. However, it is said that with one foot already in the stream, the King asked Wulfram if he would meet his ancestors in heaven. The Bishop replied that the chiefs of the Frisians who had departed this life without baptism were, alas, certainly damned. This may have been the honest answer, but it caused Rathbod to change his mind about baptism. “I will go to hell with my ancestors, rather than be in heaven without them”.

What is it like to live at a time when the old religion is replaced by the new? How much harder is it to embrace a religion when doing so implicitly means believing your parents are in Hell? Hell isn’t spoken about much in 21st century Christianity. Even fairly strident Christians tend to feel embarrassed by Father Arnall’s description of hell in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. But for most of Christianity’s history, the existence of Hell has had real implications. It has required Christians to find a way of incorporating pagan writers into the cannon. In the Divine Comedy, Dante strikes a compromise when he meets Virgil. The pagan poet explains that he cannot enter heaven but is spared the ravages of Hell’s inner circles. Yet there is something troubling in Virgil’s fate. How can someone who has never known Christ be expected to become a Christian?

Pelagius (c. 354 – 418) was a theologian who believed that humans have both free will and the ability to achieve perfection without divine grace. He also believed that God would not command believers to do the impossible. Therefore, it must be possible to satisfy all divine commandments without knowledge of Jesus and his teachings. He was perhaps the first Briton to have had any impact on human thought. His ideas were condemned though. St Augustine also believed in free will but argued that grace was still necessary because human nature is tainted by original sin, which even manifests itself in infancy. That is why baptism is so important. Grace is the gift God extends to humanity which makes it possible for humans to begin the journey toward redemption.

So, we see Alcuin of York (c.735 – 804), a Northumbrian cleric who worked at the court of Charlemagne and helped establish the text for the Latin bible writing, “Let the Word of God be read when the clergy are at their meal. It is seemly to hear a reader there, not a harper; to hear the sermons of the Fathers of the Church, not the lays of the heathen. For what has Ingeld to do with Christ? The house is narrow; it cannot contain them both; the King of Heaven will have no part with so-called kings who are heathen and damned, for the One King reigns eternally in Heaven, while the other, the heathen, is damned and groans in Hell. In your houses, the voices of readers should be heard, not a rabble of men making merry in the streets.” Ingeld is a pagan mentioned in Beowulf being sung about in a Christian monastery. Alcuin was a man who persuaded Charlegmagne to do away with the death penalty for pagans. Yet he was firm in his belief that those pagans who lived and died after Christ were truly damned and there was nothing to be done with them.

If the pagans, weighed down by original sin, are truly damned, what did the Beowulf poet, Abbot Hygbald (the person to whom Alcuin is complaining), and the others who kept the story down through the ages see in them? Is it possible for a pagan to be, in some way, to some extent, if only in poetry, redeemed?

A Monk at Whitby around the year 700 wrote a story about how the Roman emperor Trajan was baptised from beyond the grave by the tears of Pope Gregory: “And here we narrate somewhat of the tears of Roman Saint Gregory restoring the soul of Emperor Trajan and baptizing it, which is marvellous to say and hear … Now one day when he was going through Trajan’s Forum … he thought about the work of mercy the pagan had performed, which seemed to him more Christian than pagan. For as he was leading his army forth to fight against the enemy, he was softened by the voice of a widow pleading for mercy, halting the Emperor of the whole world. For she said, ‘Lord Trajan, here are men who have killed my son, who will not render me justice’. He replied, ‘When I return, speak to me, and I will render justice to you’. And she, ‘Lord, and if you do not return, there is none to help me’. Then he acquiesced to the judgement, and from the midst of the bronze armour put together the money that was owed. Thus, St Gregory concluded, he who had not known the passage, Judge the orphan and defend the widow and come and reason together, said the Lord (Isaiah 1.16-17), had done it. And weeping, he entered St Peter’s …”. This formula was reused in 1386 by the author of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight in a poem about St Erkenwald. The saint baptised a pre-Christian Briton’s corpse by weeping having been asked by its ghost to save it from the “lewid date” it was in.

Another solution to the problem was offered in the 14th century by Uthred of Boldon. He suggested that people get a “clara visio” after they die which they can accept or reject. This idea had very little impact on theologians but was taken up by C.S. Lewis in The Last Battle where people are shown a vision of Aslan when they die. Their reaction determines if they are saved or damned.

In Beowulf, a Christian is writing about pagans who behave like Christians. Their ignorance of God is emphasised early on: “At times they vowed sacrifices to idols in their heathen tabernacles, in prayers implored the slayer of souls to afford them help against the sufferings of the people. Such was their wont, the hope of heathens; they were mindful in their hearts of hell, (nor knew they the Creator, the Judge of deeds, nor had heard of the Lord God, nor verily had learned to praise the Guardian of the heavens and the King of glory. Woe shall be to him that through fiendish malice shall thrust down his soul into the fire’s embrace, to look for no comfort, in no wise to change his lot! Blessed shall be he that may after his death-day go unto the Lord and seek peace in the bosom of the Father!)”

They are saved by a man who embodies Christian virtue throughout his life. In his commentary on the poem, J.R.R. Tolkien tried to convey the mindset that may have motivated the poet: ‘This then is a story of a great warrior of old, who used the gifts of God to him, of courage, strength and lineage, rightly and nobly. He may have been fierce in battle, but in dealing with men he was not unjust, nor tyrannical, and was remembered as milde and monðwǽre [in the last lines of the poem]. He lived a long while ago, and in his time and country no news had come of Christ. God seemed far off, and the Devil was near; men had no hope. He died in sorrow fearing God’s anger. But God is merciful. And to you, now young and eager, death will also come one day, but you have hope of Heaven. If you use your gifts as God wills. Brúc ealles wel!’

And of course, Tolkien himself wrote tales of men who were not nominally Christian but who nevertheless seem spiritually Christian. As the watchman says to Beowulf on his arrival at Heorot “sceal scearp scyldwiga gescád witan, worda ond worca (A man of keen wit who takes good heed will discern the truth in both words and deeds)”. As Hama says to himself upon Gandalf’s arrival at Edoras “Yet in doubt a man of worth will trust to his own wisdom”. We as the audience are invited to do the same. To judge from words and deeds whether to let these characters pass.

Tags: Literature