The Dichotomy of Christianity and Paganism in Old English Literature
Several important works of Old English literature have survived to chronicle to modern readers the prevalent cultures and social norms of ancient civilizations. But many, if not all works from the old English period were tampered with during translation in order to convey a Christian message instead of an intended Pagan, Nordic or non-religious message. While literary pieces in old English presents ease in translation, the message or messages of what literary pieces like Beowulf and The Dream of the Rood, attempts to disseminate, more often than not, becomes altered in one way or another due to emergence of influential factors such as changes in language, and cultural norms..
The Dream of the Rood: Pagan or Christian
A close look at the religious dichotomy of The Dream of the Rood determines that the story is told in both Christian and Pagan aspects. In a Pagan perspective, The Dream of the Rood’s primary narrator, the dreamer, through a dream, recollects that the cross in which Christ’s death took place was a crucial element in the unyielding war between good and evil. In the dreamer’s visionary context of the passion, The Dream of the Rood implies that Christ is the hero of the epic battle; a determined warrior who used the cross to conquer both evil and death.
As such, the poem introduces a Christ in an Anglo-Saxon mythical context wherein the warrior Jesus fights with his servants at his back winning the battle against evil, sin, and death. Christ, in this context, poses as an exemplary leader to his servants as He refused to take his enemies head on and chose not to be corrupted or tainted by sin but to suffer and die on the cross. And after the victory over the abovementioned battle, Christ rewards his servants with a celebration of their victory in heaven (Dockray-Miller 3).
Similarly, as much as the death of Christ served as humanity’s way back to God’s grace, the intolerable punishment he suffered went to show how one man can defeat a seemingly undefeatable force. Such exposition of human endurance reflects the story of Spartan King Leonidas who, at the battle of Thermopylae, fought off the Persian King Xerxes’ and his corruption as well as his lust for power.
During the historical battle, Leonidas together with his soldiers and the rest of the alliance of Greek states, valiantly fought wave after wave of the Persian Empire’s army for three days. And during those days, Leonidas and the Greeks defied all odds and the mixed emotions brought about by Xerxes’ massive army. Like Jesus, Leonidas’ death led to the awakening of Greek elders. An awakening that prompted them to send all of their soldiers disseminate the message a certain message about freedom and salvation
The cross, or the tree that was eventually used to construct the cross of Jesus, on the other hand, apart from being the secondary narrator in the middle of the poem also stands as a witness to the passion and death of Christ. While the role of the tree appears to give weight to the relevance of the cross in Christian theology, the concept of a talking tree is a representation of pagan belief and practice that involves the perspective that plants have souls and should thus be honored as divine or supernatural beings.
As much as the poem explores the themes regarding the suffering and death of Christ and the cross as a symbol of victory over evil and death, the poem remains to reference pagan beliefs. Particularly, The Dream of the Rood gives an allusion to the pagan practice of giving importance to spirits and supernatural entities that embody nature’s elements such as trees and animals. And because The Dream of the Rood entails that the tree is the catalyst for Christ’s triumph over death, it embodies the divinity of Christ as humanity’s savior from sin and death.
The tree’s role in Christ’s crucifixion further strengthens the poem’s pagan references. Specifically, while the essentiality of Christ’s sacrifice is held as an important event in Christian belief and theology, the tree used to construct the cross where Jesus was crucified implies that the unsuspecting tree, which was pulled from its roots constitutes as a sacrifice in pagan merits. And that the suffering and death of Christ is comparable to the Old Norse ideology of the world tree otherwise known as Yggdrasill
In a general sense, the passion of Jesus and the elements incorporated with it are, to a certain extent, similar with the events of Ingui’s sacrifice on the Norse World-Tree Yggdrasill. The Christian insignia or the cross, which serves as the reminder of Christ’s altruistic sacrifice resembles the image of Yggdrasill or the Old Norse World-Tree which serves as its epitome of holiness (North 273). Second is that the message implied by the death of Jesus mirrors the sacrifice made by Ingui to Yggdrasil (North 273). Furthermore, The Dream of the Rood’s author apparently chose the myth of Ingui’s sacrifice to present the story of the passion in characters and other narrative elements familiar to the recently christened people of the Scandinavian lands (North 273).
In a Christian point of view, the narrative of the poem presents a Christian teaching of redemption. The cross paved the way for the narrator or the dreamer’s sudden change of belief from being an anxious and confused sinner to an enlightened, confident Christian (Marsden 192). As such, confessions of the author together with the first person narration implies that the poem is an attempt to persuade readers of salvation by believing in the sanctity of the cross and the ultimate sacrifice made by Jesus. The author of the poem appears to rouse a similar Christian perspective on the cross and on Jesus to his or her readers (Marsden 192).
The tree’s contributions to Christ’s triumph over sin and death are glorified by decorating the cross with gold and precious stones. Despite the aforementioned pagan elements incorporated with the literary piece, The Dream of the Rood’s remains to be based upon Christian belief. This is, in large part, brought about by the fact that the poem’s narrative tackles the passion, death and resurrection of Christ and its subsequent triumph over sin and evil.
Such events in the life of Jesus constitutes as the most essential element of Christian faith. In a Jonathan Glenn translation of the poem, the dreamer, after being converted to Christianity, remarks, “May He be friend to me, he who here on Earth earlier died on that gallows-tree for humankind’s sins. He loosed us and life gave, a heavenly home.” The Christian implications of the dreamer in the aforementioned verse lies on the realization that Christ’s death was not simply limited to the victory over the battle between good and evil, but also on how the death of Christ brought forth human salvation.
Based on the Christian translations of the poem, the drastic transformation of the narrator ultimately swept pagan implications under the rug. Considering that the poem gives high regard to the cross not just as a symbol of Christianity, but a symbol of salvation as well as victory, the poem was most probably rid of all superficial Pagan elements to coincide with the rise and spread of early Christianity. And despite the fact that the importance of the tree as a pagan element has remained recognizable, pagan references have been diminished. Such subtraction of pagan references are most evident on how the narrative of the tree has been compelled by the message of salvation brought about by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The Degeneration of Beowulf’s Message
While the plot and the narrative of Beowulf entails various exhibitions of different forms of heroism through the adventures and epic battles the central character embark on, it remains to be part of a certain religious tradition. As such, analyzing the religious dichotomy of Beowulf will lie on whether the religious differences are Christian of Nordic. MH Abrams and Stephen Greenblatt (29) remark the message of Beowulf’s content as a revival of the heroic form of writing in terms of language and is based on the pagan tradition of antiquated Germanic oral poetry.
If the content of Beowulf will be set in a historical aspect, the literary piece would make particular reference to paganism, particularly, the Norse pagan tradition. This is because the timeline of the poem’s events happened prior to Scandinavia’s Christendom. Likewise, the poem’s Anglo-Saxon origin is bound by pagan beliefs and practices similar to Norse paganism as both are categorized as derivatives of the Germanic pagan tradition (Abrams & Greenblatt 30).
Given the region from where Beowulf was originally written, the narrative of Beowulf portrays an archetypal Germanic society of warriors who give utmost significance to the relationship between the ruler of the region and all of his subordinates. Similarly, while Beowulf and his most faithful companion Hrothgar are characterized as pagans who operate under an acceptable moral code, they still embody the principles of a conventional Germanic warrior tribe or society (Abrams & Greenblatt 30).
Subsequently, Beowulf gives relevance to the master-servant kind of relationship with the highest of regard instead of employing communal respect and trust between two individuals. Such relationship is thus a reference to the pagan custom of pledging one’s life to serving a superior not as servant or slave, but as an ally and companion who will risk life and limb to always be in his master’s defense and to be by his master’s side to fight battles and resolve conflicts (Abrams & Greenblatt 30).
In a similar sense, kinship play a huge role on human relations as it is a kin’s duty to avenge the demise of his murdered relative as a form of reparation (Abrams & Greenblatt 30). This concept of exacting revenge is not, by any given circumstance, promoted by Christian teachings. In contrast to what Christianity holds, the death of a family member through murder calls for forgiveness and while asking the surviving family members to pray for the murdered and the killer. Furthermore, while Beowulf’s relationship with Hrothgar does not exemplify the relevance of kinship, the poem holds credence to the said pagan practice through the relationship between Grendel’s mother and how she avenged her son’s death at the hands of Beowulf.
English Professor Stanley Greenfield (59-61), also suggests that the relationship between Beowulf and Hrothgar can be understood in both literal and figurative sense. With Aeschere’s demise, Beowulf dedicates his life to serving and protecting Hrothgar. And Beowulf obediently takes pride and honor in defense of Hrothgar from both human and supernatural threats with his life (Greenfield 59-61).
As much as Beowulf was directed toward the exploration of themes such as heroism and camaraderie, religious themes, particularly Christian values, remain as visible elements. Richard North (101-2) sees the epic of Beowulf as a Danish Mythological narrative with a Christian perspective. One is that the all out compassion Beowulf shows for Hrothgar is reminiscent of Biblical relationships between Jesus and His Apostles. While the barrier of the master-servant relationship still is present, Beowulf and Hrothgar manifest how they value one another.
Author Allen Cabaniss (101), on the other hand, suggest that that there are definitive and distinctive similarities between Beowulf and the Bible. One is his comparison between the characteristics of the characters Beowulf and Jesus. While Beowulf manifests all out courage and determination in facing the unnatural beings that plague Hrothgar’s kingdom, Jesus show an altruistic attitude in overcoming in overcoming and eradicating evil and sin.
Likewise, both Jesus and Beowulf are kings who chose to make the ultimate sacrifice of death to save their people. In addition, Cabaniss (101-2)compares the home of Grendel and his mother to what Revelation 21:8 as “shall have their part in the lake which burneth with fire and brimstone: which is the second death (Revelation 21:8, New International Version).” And finally, Both Beowulf and Jesus share a similar concept of forgiveness, particularly to their detractors. Jesus in the Gospels chose to forgive his detractors who call for his death to the portion of the poem when Beowulf comes into terms with Unferth before plunging into the lake of fire (Cabaniss 102).
T.A Shippey and Andreas Hearder (12) meanwhile imply that despite Beowulf’s reference to paganism remains to be visible in its elements, it still contains values set forth by Christian doctrine. While it both authors suggest that the Christian message was not brought about by conscious tampering, it simply came to an agreement with Christian teachings.
Based on the contents of Beowulf and The Dream of the Rood, it can be argued that Old English Literature was both tampered and un-tampered during translation. This is because the message of traditional Old English literature can be based on moral codes prevalent also in Christian beliefs. The use of figurative language such as simile’s and metaphors contribute to the fact that old English literary works may be motivated by moral norms with or without religious messages.
Great and important works of Anglo-Saxon literature such as Beowulf may appear to be tampered by translations to convey a Christian message, but the fact of the matter is that some of the messages only allude to Christian values. Because translations often involve the use of words, so the only tampering a literary piece may receive is the tone of the narrative and not the tone of the plot or the message of the story. In addition, tampering messages of Old English literature through translation cannot be directed toward tampering the message because the words are not totally and substantially different from modern English and that messages, regardless if it is Christian or pagan depends upon the understanding and comprehension of the reader.
In the same sense, translations of a particular literary piece to modern language can be considered as improvements. This is because regardless if the piece is tampered or not, translations introduce literary works to various audiences thereby giving more perspectives to people setting a path for different forms of appreciating the piece.
While translations provide a path for diverse appreciation of literary works, they should not be considered as original works. This is due to the fact that one, translations may vary dependent on the language use and constant changes in language. And two, because antiquated literature has been altered by time, there is no assurance whether a particular version of the piece in existence is complete or not.
Although transforming Old English works from their original version, the Christian perspective is an important addition. Many of the stories might not be of the same quality without the care of that was taken by the monks during translation and revision. The messages of literary pieces may coincide or agree with Christian teachings, but it does not deny the opportunity that also cannot be written in Christian way. The truth of the matter is that there are certain elements that reference Christian teaching, but not all elements in a literary piece are in favor of Christian values.
Abrams, M.H. & Stephen Greenblatt, “Beowulf.” in The Norton Anthology of English Literature: The Middle Ages (Vol 1), New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2000
Cabaniss, Allen. Liturgy and Literature. Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1970.
Dockray-Miller, Mary. “The Feminized Cross of ‘The Dream of the Rood.'” Philogical Quarterly, 76 (1997): pp 1 and 3.
Glenn, Jonathan A. “The Dream of the Rood.” 9 February 2006. University of Central Arkansas Department of English. 21 April 2009 < http://faculty.uca.edu/jona/texts/rood.htm>.
Greenfield, Stanley. Hero and Exile. London: Hambleton Press, 1989.
Marsden, Richard. The Cambridge Old English Reader. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2004.
North, Richard. Heathen Gods in Old English Literature. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
North, Richard. Origins of Beowulf: From Vergil to Wiglaf. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006.
.Shippey, T.A & Andreas Hearder. Beowulf: The Critical Heritage. New York: Routledge, 1998.