Beowulf & Pre-Christian Understandings: “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?”

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“What has Ingeld to do with Christ?”[1] asked Alcuin of early Anglo-Saxon Christian converts, pitting the familiar tales of heroic but pagan lore against the newfound Christian religion.  “The house is narrow and has no room for both” Alcuin continued, concluding that “the Heavenly King does not wish to have communion with pagan and forgotten kings.”[2] But is it really so easy for a mind or culture to completely switch gears? Or is there some way to redeem non- or pre- Christian traditions in which Christian truths can be found?  In Beowulf we see how the likely ninth or tenth century Christian poet recasts a sixth century pagan Anglo-Saxon tale in a way that made Christian sense of that culture.[3]

In Beowulf, we see “a radical synthesis of pagan and Christian history”[4]  claims Thomas D. Hill, noting how the Beowulf-poet constructed “an essentially ‘humanistic’ reading of his forefathers’ paganism.”[5] Hill describes the pre-Christian Anglo-Saxons depicted in Beowulf as ‘Noachites,’ gentiles with the basic understanding of God, creation, the afterlife and ethics implanted in all mankind, though the lacking specific revelation of the Judeo-Christian tradition. Alcuin’s negative answer to the question (posed just before 800 C.E.) is consistent with other early Christian Anglo writers such as Bede the historian a century prior. A more generous view of pre-Christian, pagan culture, was largely to be found later, beginning with the more humanist ‘high Middle Ages,’ Hill further notes.[6]

The pagan backdrop of the time of Beowulf is described early in the poem: “Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed / offerings to idols, swore oaths/ that the killer of souls might come to their aid/ and save the people. That was their way, / their heathenish hope. ”[7] The Beowulf poet’s Christian understanding is clear, as he continues: “The Almighty Judge / of good deeds and bad, the Lord God, / Head of the Heavens and High King of the World/ was unknown to them.”[8]  This passage, however, is cited as problematic to the poem’s otherwise consistent pre-Christian understanding and monotheistic casting of the tale. Hill notes, citing Tolkien as well, that the polytheistic pagan mentality was typical of the pagan Germans, Norse, Greeks and Romans. The inclusion of this condemnation of paganism was likely a case of late editing “by a scribe who was offended by the ‘humanistic’ depiction of pre-Christian heroes and heroines in the poem.”[9]

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This ‘pre-Christian depiction’ of the pagan culture continues rife throughout the poem, begging the question “what indeed does Ingeld have to do with Christ?” Beowulf’s clan, the Geats, do give thanks to (a monotheistic) ‘God’ for a safe voyage to Heorot, the great hall of the Danish King Hrothgar, and God is referred to throughout as Divine Lord, Eternal Lord, Almighty God, the Lord of Ages and the like.  These Anglo-Saxon warriors are indeed much more monotheistic here than they likely were in actuality, but the poet’s moral is made clear: such an incomplete, grasping notion of God can in fact provide a pathway on the journey to Christian faith.

The question has a familiar ring to it – “What concord hath Christ with Belial?” the Apostle Paul wrote, continuing “or what portion hath a believer with an unbeliever.”[10]   Echoed by Jerome in the late fourth and fifth centuries, Tertullian first posed the question in the second century, “What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? Or the Academy with the Church?”[11]  Tertullian’s solution, like Alcuin’s, was complete separation, noting how casting Christian doctrines in terms developed by Greek philosophy often led to heretical doctrines such as Gnosticism.  But questions about the relation between secular culture and Christianity are asked even today, with such notable writers addressing the issue as TS Eliot (Christianity and Culture, 1939, 1948), H. Richard Niebuhr (Christ and Culture, 1951) and Jaroslav Pelikan (What Has Athens to Do with Jerusalem?, 1998).

At the core of this question lies the notion of culture as a coherent set of answers to universal questions.  Such questions include the origins of life (and of man in particular), meaning or significance for man, the laws of morality, and the destiny of mankind.[12]  The initial question, that of origins, is addressed early in Beowulf, as Beowulf at birth is described as “a comfort by God to that nation,” a “renowned leader” sent by “the Lord of Life, the glorious Almighty.”[13]  This innate design, and hence purpose, echoes that of the Psalmist: “For you created my inmost being; you knit me together in my mother’s womb.”[14] Beowulf’s unique abilities are in this way given divine origin, infused with a sense of purpose.

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While the discussion of origins nowadays typically involves a discussion of science, in Beowulf the answer is not so much proved as presented as background.   This is even more the case in the explanation of the harassing monsters, Grendel in particular. A “fiend out of hell … a grim demon haunting the marshes “and living “in misery among the banished monsters,”[15] Grendel is presented as having descended from the rebellious line of Cain, according to the account of giants in Genesis 4: “God-cursed Grendel … the bane of the race of men”[16].  The significance of the monsters is famously discussed by J.R.R. Tolkien, citing the sense of dread and death invoked by battling such monsters.[17] Norse Gods and man battle against villainous monsters and, generally, “outer darkness.” [18]

Beowulf the Struggle Against Death

Beowulf thus becomes imbued with the power of the Norse tale, the struggle against death itself.  Compared to classical mythology, such as Homer and Virgil where the monsters were often sanctioned by the gods, the Norse battle of men and their gods against the evil creatures of darkness was marked by a deeper desperation, arguably the survival instinct itself but augmented by the sense of eternity. By making this struggle prominent, Tolkien cites this approach as “the strength of the northern mythological imagination,” finding “a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage, ‘As a working theory absolutely impregnable’” and “potent” with the power to “revive its spirit even in our own times.” [19]

Following from the set of four questions answered by culture (origins, meaning, ethics and destiny), with Beowulf addressing the issue destiny flows most naturally from that of origins.  The Christian vision of an afterlife is of course embedded in the text: in celebrating the defeat of Grendel, the description of eternity for the soul is at least alluded to:

“But death is not easily / escaped from by anyone: / all of us with souls, earth-dwellers / and children of men, must make our way / to a destination already ordained / where the body, after the banqueting, / sleeps on its deathbed.”[20]

But it is the sense of the continuing struggle with death and sorrow that strongly marks the tone of the poem.  The poet’s tale is a reflection on the struggle for survival, against the turmoil and despair brought by defeat. Beowulf describes this despair in his initial offer of help:

“I can show the wise Hrothgar a way / to defeat his enemy and find respite – / if any respite is to reach him, ever. / I can calm the turmoil and terror in his mind. Otherwise, he must endure woes / and live with grief for as long as his hall / stands at the horizon on its high ground.” [21]

Beowulf is again explicit in describing the effects of the struggle on his psyche, when recounting the battle fifty years later: “Grendel struck / after lying in wait. He laid waste to the land / and from that moment on my mind was in dread / of his depredations.”[22]

Bridging the gap from the pagan struggle and questions to the Christian answer requires empathy and guidance. The Christian sense of the answer to death is presented at the account of Hrethel’s death: “Heartsore, wearied, he turned away / from life’s joys, chose God’s light / and departed.”[23]  But it is the ongoing struggle to show answers, particularly in terms of destiny and of meaning, that marks the apologist’s work. In Beowulf, that eternal struggle (though it may just as fairly cast as the struggle of a lifetime) is embodied in the notion of fate.  ‘Fate’ includes most explicitly the idea of destiny, of that world beyond life for which our lives have significance. But it is the this-worldly aspect of fate that most clearly is at work in Beowulf’s tale.

Wyrd / Fate and the Beowulf Way

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Wyrd, the Anglo-Saxon term for ‘what will be,’ or ‘fate’ as it is translated in Beowulf, is famously summarized by Beowulf in anticipation of his battle with Grendel: “Fate goes ever as fate must.”[24] Perhaps belying the pagan Norse conception, the poet has Beowulf precede that with “Whichever one death fells / must deem it a just judgment by God”[25] in looking toward the battle.  Such a marriage of heroic, mythological (pagan) ‘fate’ and the hope found from Christian faith, is found in other poems of the time. The elegy The Wanderer begins with the lines

 

 

Often the wanderer pleads for pity

and mercy from the Lord; but for a long time,

sad in  mind, he must dip his oars

into icy waters, the lanes of the sea;

he must follow the paths of exile: fate is inflexible.[26]

The sadness of the struggle, and the poles of ‘mercy from the Lord’ and ‘inflexible fate,’ mark the Norse formulation, reflecting the problem faced by any pre-Christian inquirer.  Tolkien in fact characterizes the author of Beowulf as “a learned man writing of old times, who looking back on the heroism and sorrow feels in them something permanent and symbolical.”[27]

An excellent example of the apologetic solution is presented by the author of The Fortunes of Men, likely a cleric who “drew on a deep well of popular secular wisdom” but with a “purpose (that) is markedly Christian”: to thank God who alone knows the future, acknowledging that “fate and God have become indivisible.”[28] Fortunes of Men describes the possible fates, horrible and wonderful alike, of lives in this world, summarizing with

In these wondrous ways the Guardian of Hosts

Has shaped and assigned the skills of men

On this middle earth, and ordained the destiny

Of every man and woman in this world.

Wherefore let each of us now thank Him,

For all that He, in His mercy, allots to men.”[29]

          In Beowulf, the same approach is echoed by the author in statements made by Beowulf.  Grendel is remembered as one who “would have killed more, had not mindful God / and one man’s daring prevented that doom.  Past and present, God’s will prevails.”[30] History itself is under God’s hand, though of course the choices and actions of men provide at least the papyrus on which the elegy is composed.[31]Similarly, Hrothgar waits to find if Beowulf will answer his own “wondering whether Almighty God / would ever turn the tide of his misfortunes.”[32] But the case of a divine role in the history of man is perhaps most clearly seen in the names given to God in Beowulf, such as the Almighty, God of Ages, Divine Shepherd  and King of Glory.  The Almighty speaks of the strength desired (very nearly worshipped one could argue) by pagan warriors making their way in the world. Hence declarations such as “The truth is clear: Almighty God rules over mankind / and always has”[33] must have had particular appeal to the Anglo-Saxon mind. Similarly, Lord of Ages and God of Ages brings to mind the sense of history, and the answer of a salvation against the backdrop of struggle and sorrow; hence they used in describing the promise offered by the arrival of Beowulf. To Beowulf’s mother, the poet declares “that in her labor, the Lord of Ages / bestowed a grace on her,”[34] and of Beowulf himself, “But you have made yourself immortal / by your glorious action. May the God of Ages / continue to keep and requite you well.”[35]

Glory

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But it is in the idea of glory that human fate and divine providence are most interestingly pitted against each other. The glory to be won from the battle is presaged as the duel with Grendel awaits: “The King of Glory / (as people learned) had posted a lookout / who was a match for Grendel, a guard against monsters / special protection to the Danish prince.”[36] Glory was something to be won in battle, and the goal of any warrior.  The final lines memorializing Beowulf show this, as on top of his virtues, he was “most intent to win glory” in some translations, [37] or in Heaney, “keenest to win fame.”[38] But the desire for glory plays a large role in Beowulf’s ultimate demise. This will move us from the apologist’s handling of origins, meaning and destiny to the fourth and final pillar of culture,  ethics and overall morality.

The cause of glory in battle ultimately leads Beowulf to his demise, fought greedily for fame and gold.  Beowulf states his purposes at the beginning of the battle ”I shall pursue this fight for the glory of winning,” [39] and he is remembered by Wiglaf as “a man unequalled in the quest for glory / and a name for daring.”[40] Beowulf’s refusal of both help from his army and of advice to leave the dragon’s treasure alone highlight his tragic weakness.  Despite his initial innocence (“Yet Beowulf’s gaze at the gold treasure / when he first saw it had not been selfish”[41]) Beowulf’s zealous insistence ultimately harms himself as well as his kingdom.

Beowulf otherwise exhibits the many virtues embodied in the Anglo-Saxon hero.  He is lauded for his brave shepherding of his nation, described in the final lines as “of all the kings upon earth / he was the man most gracious and fair-minded/ kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.”[42] In Beowulf’s own self-description, he claims to have “never fomented quarrels, never / swore to a lie” continuing “because of my right ways, the Ruler of mankind / need never blame me when the breath leaves my body / for murder of kinsmen.”[43]  The virtues of the pagan culture are nothing condemned by the later Christian faith, and the Beowulf poet deftly presents them in a pre-Christian manner.

The vices most apparent in the foes of Beowulf, Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the dragon, are also worthy morals for the Anglo-Saxon audience, though not necessarily explicitly Christian.  Interpreted as “monstrous projections of flaws in Germanic civilization,”[44] the anti-social Grendel who destroys the communal hall and the gold-hoarding dragon who begins a battle over the theft of a solitary cup present obvious morality lessons.  Grendel’s mother is perhaps more complex, but nevertheless presents another case of moralizing to the audience: the “monstrous woman” (“ghastly dam” in Heaney)[45] is typically presented along with more feminine, ideal characters. Beowulf as a play promoting proper (pagan, pre-Christian and even Christian) virtues, if not explicitly a morality play, is an example of what C.S. Lewis referred to in The Abolition of Man as the Tao, or universal code of morality found across all cultures. The Norse culture is in fact one of several for which he finds evidence of such virtues as mercy, good faith among men (citing Beowulf’s self-summary of “I sought no trickery, nor swore false oaths”[46]), justice and duty.

The apologist thus finds an answer in Beowulf to the question “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?” – a great deal, in fact. The Noachite or pre-Christian general revelation sense of man’s origin and destiny, and the meaning and morality by which he conducts his life are amply laid out.  Beowulf’s redemption of pagan culture by casting its solutions to universal questions as incomplete solutions shows the apologist how to proceed: generously. Like the storied Peace-Child story in which Christ’s sacrifice is retold in terms of native folklore, the apologist needs to make use of the yearnings and strivings towards answers of ultimate meaning and destiny as found in the culture in which they find themselves at work. Such a culture may be the modern or postmodern Western one, or those of the developing world, Asian, Indian, or Islamic, to name but a few.  From modern missions efforts promoting the ‘translating of Christ’ into many cultures, to the philosophical Bultmannian program of remythologizing the message of Christianity (however doctrinally liberal a course Bultmann may have had in mind), the Christian apologist can find in Beowulf an approach that is effective and time-tested.  In fanning the flames of existing spiritual appetite, the appetite for the full course meal offered by the Christian faith can be nurtured.  “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?” – Ingeld represents something like the form of the pitcher into which the drink of divine truth and significance is poured, fully quenching spiritual thirst.”

References

Alcuin, “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?in Seamus Heaney trans., Daniel Donoghue ed., Beowulf: A Verse Translation, 91-92.  New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2002.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Frank, Roberta. “The Beowulf’s Sense of History.” In Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney, ed. Daniel Donoghue, 167-181.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.

Heaney, Seamus, trans., Daniel Donoghue, ed.  Beowulf : A Verse Translation. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.

Hill, Thomas D. “The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf.” In Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney, ed. Daniel Donoghue, 197-211.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.

Lewis, C.S. The Abolition of Man. New York: Macmillan, 1955.

Lewis, C.S. The Great Divorce. New York: Harper One, 1973.

Leyerle, John. “The Interlace Structure of Beowulf.” In Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney, ed. Daniel Donoghue, 130-152.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.

Tolkien, J.R.R. “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics.” Beowulf: A Verse Translation, trans. Seamus Heaney, ed. Daniel Donoghue, 103-130.  New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.

 

Footnote:

Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 175-183.

Bibliography:

Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf : A Verse Translation. New York: W.W. Norton, 2002.

 

[1] Alcuin, “What has Ingeld to do with Christ?” In Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 92.

[2] Ibid., 92.

[3] Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), xxiii. The poem is generally acknowledged to have been composed somewhere between the middle of the 7th century and the end of the tenth century, C.E., as discussed in Heaney.

[4]  Thomas D. Hill “The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf.”  In Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 198.

 

[5]  Thomas D. Hill “The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf.” In Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 202.

 

[6] Thomas D. Hill “The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf.” In Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 201.

 

[7] Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 175-177.

[8] Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 180-183.

[9] Thomas D. Hill “The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf.”  In Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 203.

[10] 2 Corinthians 6:15.

[11] Jerome. De praescriptione Haereticorum, vii.  Accessed http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/0311.htm.

[12] Ask: RZIM Interactive Youth Apologetics, DVD-ROM (Norcross, GA: Ravi Zacharias International Ministry, 2012). http://www.rzima.org In bibl

[13] Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 13-14, 16-18..

[14] Psalm 139:13, New International Version.

[15] Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 100-105.

[16] Ibid., 711-712.

[17] J.R.R. Tolkien “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. In Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 122.

[18] Ibid., 122.

[19] Ibid., 122.

[20] Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 1001-1007.

[21] Ibid., 278 – 285.

[22] Ibid., 1775 – 1778.

[23] Ibid., 2468-2470.

[24] Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 455.

[25] Ibid., 440-441.

[26] The Wanderer. In The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, trans. Kevin Crossley-Holland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 50.

[27] J.R.R. Tolkien “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics. In Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 123.

[28] Kevin Crossley-Holland trans.. The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 303.

[29] Ibid., 306.

[30] Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 1055-1057.

[31] The notions of free will and providence are of course a timeless theological and philosophical problem. Christian apologist C.S. Lewis summarized the situation as poetically as any in The Great Divorce (Chapter 13), with (the very Scottish, and 19th century) George MacDonald stating “Time is the very lens through which ye see … Freedom: the gift whereby ye most resemble your Maker and are yourselves part of reality.”

[32] Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 1314-1315.

[33] Ibid., 700-702.

[34] Ibid., 944-945.

[35] Ibid., 953-955.

[36] Ibid., 665-688.

[37] Roberta Frank “The Beowulf Poet’s Sense of History.” In Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 180.

[38] Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 3182.

[39] Ibid., 2513-2514.

[40] Ibid., 2645-2646.

[41] Ibid., 3074-3075.

[42] Ibid., 3180-3182.

[43] Ibid., 2738 – 2742.

[44] Jane Chance “The Structural Unity of Beowulf .” In Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 154.

[45] Seamus Heaney, trans., Beowulf: A Verse Translation (New York: W.W. Norton, 2002), 2120.

[46] Ibid., 2738.

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