Contradictory Christian Elements in Beowulf
In Beowulf the Christian element, which coexists alongside the pagan or heathen, sometimes in a seemingly contradictory fashion, is many faceted.
Certainly the Christian element seems to be too deeply interwoven in the text for us to suppose that it is due to additions made by scribes at a time when the poem had come to be written down. The Christian element had to be included by the original poet or by minstrels who recited it in later times. The extent to which the Christian element is present varies in different parts of the poem. In the last portion (2200–3183) the number of lines affected by it amounts to less than four per cent., while in the section dealing with Beowulf’s return (1904–2199) it is negligible. In the earlier portions, on the other hand, the percentage rises to about ten percent (Ward v1,ch3,s3,n16). The Christian element is about equally distributed between the speeches and the narrative.
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. In the case of cremation mentioned in reference to Hildeburh’s family in The Finnsburh Episode and in relation to Beowulf at the end of the poem, which is the prevalent form of funeral rite found in the poem, this practice had probably passed out of use by the time the poem was starting to be Christianized, so such passages could not excite the repugnance among the Christian listeners in the audience.
The Christianity of Beowulf is of an indefinite and undoctrinal type. The minstrels who introduce the Christian element probably had but a vague knowledge of Christianity. While the poet’s reflections and characters’ statements are mostly Christian, the customs and ceremonies, on the other hand, are almost entirely heathen/pagan: 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). Additonally, earlier in the poem, the Danes, when under extreme pressure from Grendel, reverted to Satan-worship:
At times they prepared sacrifice in temples,
war-idol offerings, said the old words aloud,
that the great soul-slayer might bring some comfort
in their country’s disaster. Such was their custom,
the hope of the heathen; they remembered Hell
in their deepest thoughts. They knew not the Lord,