Christian and Pagan Influence in Paradise Lost and Beowulf
In Paradise Lost, Milton is adept at drawing from both Christian and pagan sources and integrating them in such a way that they reinforce one another (Abrams 1075). Of course it is a commonplace for critics to believe that Milton valued his Christian sources more highly than the pagan ones (Martindale 20); this is most likely due to the fact that he regarded the Christian sources as vessels of the truth. His classical allusions, on the other hand, served as references for things fallen or damned. Thus, as seen in the invocation to Book 7 ("Descend from heav’n Urania, by that name / If rightly thou art called" [7.1-2]) wherein Milton places his muse Urania, the Greek muse of astronomy, in Heaven and distinguishes her as Christian, Milton works to integrate the Christian and pagan throughout Paradise Lost. Although a detailed account of the reasoning behind his form is beyond the scope of this essay, because "a strict Classicist might resent the intrusion of the Biblical models, [and] a strict ‘Puritan’ might equally resent the degradation of the Word of God to the status of a source of precedents for literary composition" (Lewis 5), perhaps Milton’s choice of form was a political as well as a stylistic one. On the other hand, the reason could be as simple as Milton himself states in the invocation to Book 1: "Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme" (1.16). In this one line, Milton borrows directly from Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, thus acknowledging the epic tradition, yet also challenging that very tradition by promising his readers greatness and originality (Abrams 1476).
Paradise Lost, however, is not the first epic to integrate both Christian and traditional epic conventions. The Beowulf poet followed this form as well, drawing on pagan epic tradition for kings, heroes, and monsters while drawing on new Christian beliefs to present these characters as noble, in possession of the natural knowledge of God, willing to battle his enemies on earth, and therefore capable of redemption. Thus, I agree with John D. Niles that "if this poem can be attributed to a Christian author composing not earlier than the first half of the tenth century…then there is little reason to read it as a survival from the heathen age that came to be marred by monkish interpolations" (137). Just as the Beowulf poet’s contemporary audience was thrown into a schizophrenic state by the pull of a pagan past against the new teachings of Christianity, the poet himself was put to task to successfully blend these religious ideologies in a complex yet effective plot that appealed to his audience precisely because they were attempting to reconcile their own beliefs.
Although Beowulf most likely began as such a pagan epic, it eventually was expanded to include Christian elements, whereas Paradise Lost is definitely a Christian tale that uses classical allusions to remain connected to the epic tradition....