Written in Old English by an unknown poet, Beowulf is a cornerstone of English and Western literature. Scholars believe the poem was written somewhere between the years 700 and 1000 and that the only manuscript that has survived was produced between 975 and 1010.
Stephen Mitchell, translator of a recently published version of Beowulf (Yale University Press), observes that most scholars today believe the poem is Christian while stating, as others have, that the poem lacks references to Jesus Christ, the Gospels, or essential Christian beliefs. While he accepts the Christian background of the poem, he concludes that “the poet’s Christianity is peculiar.”
The poem, he says further, “is so bold in its reverence for a virtuous pagan past that it teeters on the edge of heresy.” Mitchell believes the poet has much in common with the Protestantism of Benjamin Franklin and “mainstream rabbinic doctrine.”
Mitchell is a gifted translator, and his translation of Beowulf in verse is meticulous, lucid, musical, and most readable. He lets the Old English poet sing his powerful song in contemporary English. His translation is as readable as that of the poet Seamus Heaney, whose fine verse translation was published now seventeen years ago.
With Beowulf, however, Mitchell is a good translator but a poor guide to the content of the poem in his introduction and notes. In his casting of the writer of the poem as less than orthodox in his faith, Mitchell treads into territory left unexplored by Heaney, and it is his journey into this terrain that mars the book, along with his overall misunderstanding of the mission of Jesus Christ and Christianity that crosses into bias.
At about the time of the writing of the poem, among other vestiges of Catholicism in Britain, Lindisfarne, Canterbury, and York were centers of Catholic faith, the Lindisfarne Gospels had been written (about 715), and the Venerable Bede (about 673-735) had written his Ecclesiastical History of the English People (about 731).
J.R.R. Tolkien, whose prose translation of the poem, edited by his son, Christopher, was published just three years ago, writes that: “The poem belongs to the time of that great outburst of missionary enterprise which fired all England….Beowulf is not a missionary allegory; but it comes from a time when the noble pagan and his heroic ancestors (enshrined in verse) were a burning contemporary problem, at home and aboard.”
At its core Beowulf is an expression of orthodox Catholic faith. Mitchell is not alone in failing to see these. Even some Christians and Catholics have failed in understanding the poem’s expression of faith. Even a short summary of the poem, however, reveals Beowulf as a type of Jesus Christ: Beowulf, a model king, fights and defeats three beasts, two described as demons and the other a symbol of the devil, over the course of his life. The first two, Grendel and his mother, he defeats alone out of friendship and kinship for the king of a foreign kingdom; the third, a gold-hoarding dragon, he defeats in defense of his own kingdom with the assistance of a young companion, “stouthearted” Wiglaf, who moved by kinship overcomes his “wavering heart.”
The poem points to the poet as a man who understands kinship in the manner of St. Paul and charity and friendship in the manner similar to that of St. Aelred of Rievaulx, a Cistercian monk of Yorkshire who wrote two classic works on these topics in the twelfth century, The Mirror of Charity and Spiritual Friendship.
While he agrees with Tolkien that the poet “in general … did not belong to the party that consigned the heroes (northern or classical) to perdition,” Mitchell rejects the position held by Tolkien that the poet seems to consider the noble kings of the tale as among those who might have been saved by Our Lord at what is called his harrowing of hell.
Instead, Mitchell argues: “Not only pagan practices but pagans themselves, along with Jews and other nonbelievers, were unambiguously condemned by Christian doctrine.” The New Testament verses he provides, and a comment from Alcuin of York (735-804), to support his position are misleading.
What Mitchell cites as doctrine is a long pronounced misunderstanding, and in some cases misrepresentation, of Catholic doctrine. Those well-instructed in the Church’s teachings on who can be saved will see the error in his comments.
The poet’s position, in fact, can be found in the doctrine stated by St. Gregory the Great (540-604), who sent missionaries to Britain to convert the Anglo-Saxons in 596. The mission resulted in the conversion of the Anglo-Saxon King Aethelbert, as well as the tradition inherited by the poet: “The Catholic Church … embraces all the just from Abel to the last of the elect at the end of the world.”
An explanation following this quotation in The Catechism Explained (Rev. Francis Spirago and Rev. Richard F. Clarke, originally published in 1899 and reprinted by Tan Books) further states:
“All who lived up to their lights were Christians, though they might have been looked upon as godless, as, e.g., Socrates among the Greeks, Abraham and Elias among the Jews. They do not belong to the body of the Church, that is, they are not externally in union with the Church, but they are of the soul of the Church, i.e., they have the sentiments which the members of the Church should have.”
Spirago and Clarke also note that after his death Jesus Christ went to a place called limbo, which ended after his death. They note that St. Ignatius of Antioch taught that “Our Lord returned with a large company of souls.” They explain that the souls in limbo experienced, unlike those in hell, some consolation , but like those in hell did not experience “the vision of God.” Among those here were: “Adam and Eve, Abel, Noe, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, David, Isaias, Daniel, Job, Tobias, the foster-father of Christ, and many others, including those of Noe’s contemporaries who had done penance and repented at the Flood (1 Pet. iii. 20.”
In Theology of the Church (1958, reprinted 2004 by Ignatius Press), Charles Cardinal Journet explains that based on the New Testament “it is necessary to hold” that salvation is through “membership in Christ and his Church”; “that certain sinners, deprived of charity, belong to Christ and his Church”; “that certain just persons, who do not yet belong corporally to Christ and his Church, belong, nevertheless, spiritually—in an initial, tendential, and already salutary manner.”
He further states, in a seeming warning to those that would think otherwise:
“For those who do not advance so far, who separate the Church and the Body of Christ, membership in the Church and membership in Christ, or still more, who consider the Church according to the pattern of purely human societies, the axiom ‘No salvation outside the Church’ immediately loses its light. It can then be only a slogan, seized by fanatics—of both extremes—in order to make it rigid or to renounce it.”
Journet’s explanation of this subject is thorough and eloquent. Anyone seeking a definitive understanding of the axiom “No salvation outside the Church” would be wise to read him.
Leo J. Trese offers another clear statement on this subject in The Faith Explained (1965, reprinted by Scepter 2006), as well as a different sort of warning:
“We do not believe, of course, that all non-Catholics go to hell, any more than we believe that just calling oneself Catholic will get one to heaven. The dictum that ‘Outside the Church there is no salvation,’ means no salvation for those who are outside the Church through their own fault.” (Emphasis added)
In the poem, Beowulf slays monsters in a display of friendship and kinship for Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, who says of Beowulf that he “is paying a call on a proven friend.” Beowulf also is the good king who gives his life defending his people.
To the poet, Beowulf is a just man who lives up to his lights and belongs spiritually to Christ. Hrothgar, just king and worthy friend of Beowulf, also comes across as such a man. The author of Beowulf, it seems, has a firmer grasp of Catholic doctrine than his translator, as well as many of his critics. Those who cannot see the New Testament in Beowulf do not understand this Catholic doctrinal point about salvation.
Beyond this Beowulf is both a type of David, the slayer of Goliath and good and repentant king of Israel, and a type of Christ, which is evident in the plot of the poem and in veiled references in the language of the poem.
While the poem has no overt references to Jesus Christ and the Gospels—Tolkien notes that the poet also does not name the pagan gods—the poet does provide us with observable but subtle references to Jesus Christ and gives us in its theme the heart of Our Lord’s teaching that one love one’s neighbor as oneself. Beowulf’s love of God is found in his love of kin and friend, since, as Aelred might say, “God is love and friendship.”
The poet’s mindset can be seen in these verses he speaks as narrator after the Danish king Hrothgar has rewarded Beowulf for killing the monster Grendel:
“God ruled the earth then, as he does now,
and to understand this is always best.”
On the very first page of the poem we find what cannot be anything but a veiled reference to Our Lord:
“God sent a son to console the people,
for He knew their anguish, how they ached
from lack of a leader. The Lord therefore
bestowed great honor on Beow, Scyld’s son.”
He further recounts how seamen told him of Beowulf that:
“God in His grace has surely sent him
to rescue us now from Grendel’s rage.”
While the first reference is not directly to Our Lord or Beowulf, why would a Christian poet write of God’s sending, “a son to console the people,” if he did not have in mind an allegorical statement about Jesus Christ and Beowulf as a type of Christ? A Christian writer surely could expect that his Christian listeners or readers would recognize a reference to Jesus Christ in these lines.
From the very outset, the poet seems to want us to see Jesus Christ and the Gospels in this poem, at least in a subtle way. Whether the poet wrote for Anglo-Saxon royalty, for Anglo-Saxons he sought to evangelize, as an Anglo-Saxon turned monk seeking to understand or cast his heritage and lineage in Christian terms, or for monks he sought to entertain, form, or educate, he depicts Beowulf as a type of Jesus Christ in a story that displays the virtues Christians and Christian kings should live by, virtues that Jesus Christ teaches and demonstrates in his life to help free us from sin.
The text suggests that this is a poet who is familiar with the allegorical approach to the Bible and typology, one who also has a keen understanding of the virtues and vices. The poem is not theology. It is literature. But the poet’s knowledge of Scripture and theology, which suggests he is a monk or cleric, informs the poem, and his use of Scripture and theology suggests he intends to impart at least a basic understanding of some of the elements of Christian theology based on the Old and New Testaments to his audience.
Beowulf is a great king, but he is not, after all, the King of the Ages, Jesus Christ. He is, however, a man of virtue, even if flawed. In his willingness to fight the monster ravaging Hrothgar’s kingdom, and the awakened dragon seeking revenge for the theft of his gold, Beowulf acts out of charity. His actions are placed in contrast to the self-centeredness of the vainglorious Unferth, the thief of the dragon’s treasure, the avaricious dragon he defeats, and his ten companions who are too fearful to fulfill their duty to fight the dragon alongside their king.
Tolkien’s translation is excellent, but the book is equally valuable because of his commentary, which is more than twice as long at the poem itself. His comment on the monsters gives us insight into Beowulf’s threefold battle. The poet, he says:
“. . . saw also the parallel between legendary strife of men of old with these implacable misshapen enemies lurking in dark dens, and the strife of Christians with the fallen devils of hell. . . . .”
Grendel and Grendel’s mother are children of Cain; the dragon points to the dragon of St. John’s Apocalypse. From St. John’s time to our own, the dragon has been a common Christian symbol for the devil; for example, Christ’s crushing the dragon through his Baptism in the Jordan by St. John the Baptist is one of the symbols in the Byzantine canons for Theophany.
Beowulf even undergoes a type of Baptism after Grendel’s mother drags him down to the bottom of the lake and into a hall during their battle, and he emerges from the water victorious. When he kills Grendel’s mother in the hall at the bottom of the lake, it is as if God’s light shines on him through the water and the darkness, and he basks in the light of the world, Jesus Christ:
“A light arose, and the room brightened
like the whole sky when heaven’s candle
illumines the earth….”
Fresh from his victory and the light that had shone on him, Beowulf, unlike the thief of the dragon’s treasure, leaves the treasures he sees in the hall alone. A man of virtue, he is not avaricious like the dragon.
Demons are depicted as vices in Christian teaching, and the threefold battle of Beowulf, although different, points to Our Lord’s threefold battle against the temptation of Satan in the desert. Grendel represents gluttony, a lustful gluttony, while the dragon represents the avarice of the rich and powerful, selfishness, and godlessness. Grendel’s mother, who seeks to avenge her son, is filled with anger and rage, as was her son.
Beowulf is a man, not the Son of God. It doesn’t matter that unlike Jesus Christ he didn’t intend to give his life in defeating the dragon. He enters into battle for the sake of his people even though aged, and he knows very well that death is a possibility, just as he knows that death is a possibility in his fight against Grendel and Grendel’s mother.
Beowulf is a man and king we can admire, because he selflessly lives his life in the service of others, in friendship and in kinship. When he dies after the battle with the dragon, Beowulf gives Wiglaf, his kin, elements of his battle gear. After Beowulf looks at the treasure Wiglaf has brought for him to see, treasure for his people, his final thought of the funeral pyre, we read:
“Soon from his breast his soul departed
to seek the glory God holds for the just.”
Beowulf may be saved, as the poet suggests—God, not man, makes that decision, however—because he is a virtuous pagan, and because Jesus Christ incarnated to save all men.
Wiglaf is an interesting figure in his own right. He is the only one of the eleven companions of Beowulf to fight by his side. In his witness to the death of Beowulf, and in his short speech to the cowardly companions, which, like St. John’s Apocalypse, looks to the past and the future, he is a type of St. John the Theologian. The herald sent to the court also speaks “the truth about past and future.” His message, however, is even more apocalyptic.
Those seeking a more traditional translation, and more comprehensive and insightful commentary than Mitchell’s, should look to Tolkien’s translation. Heaney’s translation, also in today’s English and highly readable, and a bit more muscular like the Anglo-Saxon, remains at the top of the list for those seeking such a translation.