Beowulf and Caedmon’s Hymn
In Beowulf the Christian element, which coexists alongside the pagan or heathen, may have originated in part from the works of Caedmon.
The Christian element in Beowulf had to be included by the original poet or by minstrels who recited it in later times because it is so deeply imbedded in the text. The extent to which the Christian element is present varies in different parts of the poem. While the poet’s reflections and characters’ statements are mostly Christian, the customs and ceremonies, on the other hand, are almost entirely heathen/pagan. This fact seems to point to a heathen work which has undergone revision by Christian minstrels.
The Christianity of Beowulf is of a vague type. The minstrels who introduce the Christian element probably had but a vague knowledge of the faith, and on top of that they were under pressure from the audience to give them the interesting old pagan stories. At the beginning of the poem, there is the account of the pagan funeral rites of Scyld Scefing, and at the close of the poem we see the heathen rites of burial for Beowulf himself, including cremation, deposition of treasures and armor, etc. with the corpse in the burial mound overlooking the sea. Including such heathen rites enables the poet to “communicate his Christian vision of pagan heroic life.”(Bloom 2).
The minstrels’ catechesis seems poor because their allusions to the church and to the Bible are quite indistinct, vague, indefinete. In the whole poem there is possibly one half-hearted paraphrase of a Scriptural passage, in lines 1743ff:
Too sound is that sleep,
bound up in cares; the killer very near
who shoots his bow with treacherous aim.
Then he is hit in the heart, struck under helmet
with the bitter arrow, the dark commands
of the wicked demon, and he knows no defense.
The Biblical passage to which this may refer is St. Paul’s Letter to the Ephesians, chapter six, verses 16 and following: “. . . above all taking the shield of faith, with which you can quench all the flaming darts of the evil one. And take the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God.” E. Talbot Donaldson, distinguished scholar-critic of medieval English literature, disagrees that the minstrel was referring to the Bible; he comments: “Yet there is no reference to the New Testament – to Christ and His Sacrifice which are the real bases of Christianity in any intelligible sense of the term.” (Bloom 1). Aside from this possibly Biblically-based passage, the only passages of the Bible made use of are those relating to the Creation, the story of Cain and Abel, and the Deluge. But these may be allusions to contemporary religious poetry; for example, the story of Creation may have come from spiritual songs or poetry like Caedmon’s Hymn:
“. . . the power of...