At first glance, Beowulf appears to be an epic exclusively about Christian values, and how it influenced the Anglo-Saxons of this time. Moreover, a tale about how Christian principles always defeat the forces of evil, and how all thanes and kings are saintly. However, as the book further develops, it becomes more apparent that this epic intertwines the ideals of both paganism and Christianity. Although the Beowulf poet makes many Christian references in the book through his extensive knowledge of the Bible, the main points he uses to explain the Anglo-Saxon society is through the principles of pagan religion.
Such abundant references to material rewards, earthly fame, wyrd, and wergild prove that he is pagan. Fame, glamour, and material rewards entice men time after time in this epic, as their actions are based on their motives for personal gain. However, these concepts of personal gain and material rewards do not coincide with Christian principles. Christianity places an emphasis on benevolence and generosity, rather than greed, which we see in the tale of the man who stole the cup from the dragon.
A man stumbled on the entrance, went in, discovered the ancient treasure, the pagan jewels and golda runaway slave stole a jeweled cup and bought his masters forgiveness(92,93). There are two details in this quote that demonstrate the philosophy of paganism. First, is the reference to pagan treasure, which implies that Anglo-Saxons are the owners of these treasures, hence they are pagan. Since the Beowulf poet lived during in this period, he in essence is also pagan. Second, the stealing of the jeweled cup from the hoard only highlights the insignificance and greed of a society that places such a high premium on material wealth.
Not only are material rewards and earthly fame displayed through humble slaves, but also through our hero, Beowulf. Although it appears that Beowulf fights to protect the innocence of others, there is a more obscure reason that lies underneath. It is Beowulfs eagerness for material rewards and earthly fame that leads him to protect others. This can be seen when Hrothgar tells Beowulf that he will be rewarded very lavishly if he defeats Grendel. No one strange to this land has ever been granted what Ive given you, no one in all the years of my rule. Purge Herot and your ship will sail home with its treasure-holds full(43).
Hrothgar gives incentive by enticing Beowulfs greed, and Beowulf accepts the offer, knowing that he will claim a great fortune if he wins. Wealthow and Hrothgar constantly give gold and other fine jewels to Beowulf, whether it would be for winning great battles or as little as giving praise to their sons. The emphasis on objects is connected to the pagan world, where objects are like idols which symbolize fame and wealth. Besides glory, fame, and fortune, was another big part of Anglo-Saxon culture. This idea is known as wyrd, the Anglo-Saxon concept of faith.
All religions believe that fate plays a role in everyday lives. Christians dont believe in a pre-determined life, rather they believe that the actions you make during this life will affect your afterlife. However, pagans believe that although your social rank is predestined, worshiping pagan idols can change the outcome of the events in your life on earth. This can be seen when Hrothgar and his counselors make useless attempts to appease Grendel. They can’t offer him gold or land, as they might an ordinary enemy because such material possessions are useless to him.
Like most people in a time of crisis they slip back into old ways of thinking. And wondering what the bravest warriors could do. And sometimes they sacrificed to the old stone gods, made heathen vows, hoping for Hells support (28). Instead of praying to God for support, they sacrifice to the stone idols of their pagan past. Though enlightened by Christianity, the poet is saying, pagan rituals were still very much a part of these people’s lives. With the implication that the Anglo-Saxons had little trust in the Christian faith and in the power of God, we can see the lack of these two items in Beowulf as well.
Beowulf’s descriptions of his adventures contain almost no mention of God’s help. His remarks at the end of his description of the battle with Grendel’s mother that I had barely escaped with my life, my death was not written (89), indicate his concerns with fate. Without the mentioning of God, the Beowulf poet hints at of some other powerful force that can alter man’s fate. This shows that even the great hero is not very confident in God and the Christian religion, and must turn back to the pagan religion.
Despite the major significance of fate and fortune, lies one of the biggest aspects of this epic. Wergild, the concept of revenge, indicates that the role of paganism outweigh the values of Christianity. Christian beliefs tend to promote peace, the oneness of humanity, and helping those who are in need. Yet, the virtues of courage in war and the acceptance of feuds between men and countries as a fact of life come from the pagan tradition. There is a multitude of examples of wergild, violence, and constant feuds like the digression of Finn.
Hengest lived the whole stormy winter through, there with Finn whom he hated. But his heart lived in Denmark-and Hengest dreamed of his home-but revenge came first, settling his bitter feud with Finn, whose bloody sword he could never forget the time had come, and Hengest rose, and drove his new sword into Finns belly, butchering that king(58, 59). Plotting schemes, bloodshed, and feuds are clearly evident in this passage. However, it mainly displays how important revenge was to the Anglo-Saxons of this time, and that it was the concept of wergild, by which they lived and died.
The Beowulf poet portrays the Anglo-Saxon culture by separating their main ideals like a prism does with light. No matter which end of the spectrum you are looking from, all the ideas prove that pagan ideals and principles prevail over the values of Christianity. It is shown on countless occasions through the material rewards, earthly fame, wergild, and wyrd amongst every social class (slaves, thanes, and kings). In the end, the separated lights in the prism come together and become one. This array of light for the Beowulf poet is ultimately his beliefs and concepts in the pagan religion.