Beowulf, God, and reception

My friends Fiona and Serena have started this blog, Literary Iditarod, for vague purposes that seem to involve reading the entire canon of global literature(!), possibly to prepare for grad school. They’ll quickly move out of my comfort zone, but while we’re on the really old stuff (and specifically Beowulf, which I have read), I’ll join the conversation. I’m going off of this post, in which Serena wonders about “the hopeless muddle that is the story’s theological situation“:

…the narrator can be a Christian who is describing the events of pre-Christian times. But no. That would be too straightforward.

This is one where the textual criticism is essential. And impossible, but we have to at least understand what the situation is and why it’s impossible.

The situation is strikingly similar to Homer, where we have a text that doesn’t have a lot of precedents but also obviously describes situations considerably earlier than itself. It makes dating the thing, or even isolating and dating the various layers within it, almost impossible, but maybe what’s interesting for your purposes is that it represents a literate Christian scribe (or series of scribes) trying to make sense of an illiterate pagan society (and possibly working from an oral text, or group of texts, that he’s received). I’ve always found the “emendations” to be somewhat clumsy — as though someone went through a “pure” original text with a red pen, haphazardly adding references to God.

Then down the brave man lay with his bolster
under his head and his whole company
of sea-rovers at rest beside him.
None of them expected he would ever see
his homeland again or get back
to his native place and the people who reared him.
They knew too well the way it was before,
how often the Danes had fallen prey
to death in the mead-hall. But the Lord was weaving
a victory on his war-loom for the Weather-Geats.
Through the strength of one they all prevailed;
they would crush their enemy and come through
in triumph and gladness. The truth is clear:
Almighty God rules over mankind
and always has.
[688-701, tr. Heaney]

It’s like the part of Josephus where he’s going along describing the affairs of the Jews during the first century and then suddenly says “There was also this guy named Jesus, who was a miracle-worker, and also, he was the Messiah, and Pilate executed him but then he came back to life and did ten thousand other wonderful things.” Then he picks right back up with the history. Hmm, seems a little suspicious!

We know that such things have happened throughout history whenever one civilization absorbs the culture of another but needs to “edit” the absorbed texts to fit its own orthodoxy (the Aeneid, the Spanish inquisition, Stalin, etc… and indeed most translations). I just read Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book, which features such a scene. Arthur Golding’s preface to his 1567 Ovid translation is an example of one manifestation of this impulse, the translator’s apologia. It’s pretty adorable:

I would not wish the simple sort offended for to be,
When in this book the heathen names of feigned gods they see.
The true and everliving God the paynims did not know:
Which caused them the name of gods on creatures to bestow.
[he explains that Mars is really intended as a symbol for aggression, Venus for sex, etc]
Now when thou readst of God or man, in stone, in beast, or tree
It is a mirror for thyself thine own estate to see.
For under feigned names of gods it was the Poet’s guise,
The vice and faults of all estates to taunt in covert wise.
And likewise to extol with praise such things as do deserve,
Observing always comeliness from which they do not swerve.

“I know it seems sacrilegious, but look, there’s actually good stuff in here if you read it as an allegory!” Golding mostly confined his editorializing to the preface, though, and allowed Ovid to speak for himself during the actual poem. The Beowulf poet just spreads this stuff throughout the text. Or is it that simple? There is a narrator character, which complicates things, plus we don’t even know for sure what sources he was working from… The “bewildering array of linguistic forms” in the surviving text suggests that it’s been through quite a few hands before it got to us, anyway.

Plenty of interesting questions, though. For whom was it composed? “As yet we are no closer to finding out why the first audience of Beowulf liked to hear stories about people routinely classified as damned. This question is pressing, given […] that Anglo-Saxons saw the Danes as ‘heathens’ rather than as foreigners.” [Richard North in Wikipedia]

Despite all the “God is the king of heaven” talk, Christ is never mentioned. Is the poet attempting to bring the Danes as close to orthodoxy as historically plausible (“nobody had told them about Christ yet, but look, at least they worshipped a single all-father deity”)?

If the Anglo-Saxon Christian editorializing is scattered throughout, both in the narrator’s voice and in the characters’, it is possibly extricable from the hypothetically “original” pagan content? Or is that a fool’s errand? Is this essentially the same as Athenian theatre and Rennaissance theatre, where you’re telling a story about your contemporary society but dressing it up like it’s long ago and far away?

It’s an interesting question, because I see two strong tendencies that would work in opposition here: A) the assumption that everybody everywhere at every time is just like us, and B) the assumption that foreigners are Other and Evil and Monstrous.

Or to put it another way, A) the Spartans in 300, B) the Persians in 300. I guess we tend to switch between these tendencies based on who the Good Guys are supposed to be?

You don’t have to look at Beowulf as a moment of reception. There’s plenty to discuss about its structure, mythic significance, poetic form, etc. But to the extent that it is a moment of reception (an Anglo-Saxon community receiving and interpreting tales of ancient Denmark) I think that — like most moments of reception — it tells us more about the receiver than it does about the thing being received.

According to this view, Beowulf can largely be seen to be the product of antiquarian interests and that it tells readers more about “an 11th century Anglo-Saxon’s notions about Denmark, and its pre-history, than it does about the age of Bede and a 7th or 8th century Anglo-Saxon’s notions about his ancestors’ homeland.” — Kiernan

1 Response to “Beowulf, God, and reception”


  1. 1 Serena December 10, 2008 at 8:42 pm

    Heyyyy if you want to just make a blog post every time we talk about stuff that’s confusing, that’d be great. We’re going to hit a few more classics (a couple things that weren’t on the Hum110 syllabus and a couple that I just don’t remember very well) before we head back to English lit, so stick around for a while, hmm?


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Leigh Walton talks comics and maybe other arts. (RSS)
He also works for the very excellent publisher Top Shelf Productions (which does not necessarily endorse the views and opinions, etc, herein).

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Header by me. Contains an interpolation of the final panel from All-Star Superman #1 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely. Speaking of which.

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