Salvation in Literature
The contrasting views of salvation throughout Anglo-Saxon and Middle English literature serves as a reflection of each era’s understanding of God’s relationship with man. The Anglo-Saxon idea of salvation is rooted in its understanding of the earthly, physical aspects of this world. God’s relationship to man is seen in relation to a liege lord’s relationship with his hall’s thanes, as described in the Beowulf text. The hero, Beowulf, is an Anglo-Saxon depiction of a “saved” man. In contrast, Chaucer’s General Prologue provides the reader with a view that has shifted from a salvation understood not in this physical world, but one that is highly out-of-reach and mysterious to men. This view invites the characters of the General Prologue to engage in a type of passive-faith salvation, a relationship with God separate from their way of life, however aware of their sin they might be. With these two views, it is possible to categorize the Anglo-Saxon view of salvation as legalistic, or salvation by works, and the Middle English view of salvation as antinomianism, or salvation by grace, apart from works.
The Anglo-Saxon hero gives the reader a clear vision of the understanding of legalistic salvation. The hero’s identity is founded in his ability to claim participation in a mead hall, descending from a long line of esteemed ancestors. The very essence of such identity is rooted in this physical world. This essence of identity is contrasted with the description in “The Wife’s Lament,” where the heroine wanders the earth separated from her husband’s mead hall. She claims, “Endlessly I have suffered the wretchedness of exile” (102). With the lack of a mead hall comes the lack of identity for the Anglo-Saxon. Salvation is understood through the physical principles and therefore, without any tie to such earthly “heaven,” the woman described within this story represents for the Anglo-Saxon an unsaved man or woman.
The hero’s journey, or path to salvation, is similarly grounded in the tangible world, gained by works and physical deeds. The battle between Beowulf and Grendel serves as a spiritual battle, fought in the physical world, with physical implications and consequences. Beowulf’s decision to fight Grendel “hand to hand…, a life and death / fight with the fiend” (lines 438-440) depicts the Anglo-Saxon notion that any understanding of the spiritual world comes from this earthly world. In this way, any promise of salvation comes from physical actions. Beowulf’s defeat of the monster Grendel causes his elevation to a “saved” man, as Hrothgar claims, “But you have made yourself immortal / by your glorious action” (953-954). Beowulf, by fighting a spiritual battle in the terms of the physical world, bridges the gap between God’s relationship with man, demonstrating salvation by works alone.
In contrast, the characters presented in Chaucer’s General Prologue offer the reader evidence of an apparent shift...