Medieval Lit, October 2017
The place of God in Beowulf has long puzzled scholars, and has been a subject of profuse debate among scholars of the last two centuries (Irving 175-7). In his insightful discussion of the meshing of pagan and Christian elements in Beowulf, Edward Irving writes that “God is truly felt as a living presence only at those moments when we feel the surges of heroic power in Beowulf. In this special sense the hero is indeed God’s agent, for he is the only way we can be aware of God and of how he acts in the world of men we know” (186). Though Irving acknowledges that the Christianity of Beowulf is “distinctly limited” (186), his characterization of God’s presence in battle presents a problematic generalization, and an exaggeration of God’s modest involvement in the poem. I would like to dispute this claim by using Judith, hero of the Old English poem by that name which appears in the Nowell Codex beside Beowulf, as a foil to show what hero as ‘god’s agent’ really looks like, and to demonstrate that Beowulf is not such.
An overview of the deities featured in Beowulf and Judith shows us a fundamental dissimilarity in their extent of engagement. While Judith’s God protects his heroine, Beowulf is protected less by divinity than by physical forces, such as his armor. The narrator of Judith, for example, specifies that when Holofernes prepares “to violate / the bright woman with defilement and with sin[,] The Judge of glory…would not consent to that, but he prevented him from that thing” (J 58-61)). In Beowulf, by contrast, it is noted that “the son of Ecgtheow would have surely perished / had the strong links and locks of his war-gear / not helped to save him” (Beowulf 1550-53)). While we see Judith speaking to, and instantly receiving guidance from, her God (J 77-98), we never see Beowulf directly address his deity, and the only guidance his God provides is reported in the form of awkwardly attached prosaisms (Beowulf 1553). As a result we experience Judith’s God as a tangible figure and Beowulf’s rather as a figure of speech. Robert Hosmer even regards the Beowulf poet’s references to God as “little more than rhetorical commonplaces” (67), and this idea is corroborated in the writing of F.A. Blackburn, who notes that “the vague and colorless Christianity of these passages becomes very apparent if for the word God or equivalent epithet we substitute fate…No further change is needed in many of the passages…to remove the Christian tone and make them entirely heathen” (216-17). This is an effective demonstration of how gossamer the veil of divinity is that drapes the Beowulf narrative.
Disparities also arise between the characters of Beowulf and Judith. We witness Beowulf accept a myriad of rewards for his victories, in the forms of celebration, praise, status, and expensive gifts, while Judith accepts scarcely any reward. Rather, upon her triumphant return to Bethulia, the heroine does not dwell on her victory but conveys only as much of it as is necessary to rally her people (J 183-186), remarking that it is they who will receive the glory (196). Judith shows herself consistently content to win glory for others when it is concluded that “she did not doubt / in the reward which she had long yearned for. For that be glory / to the beloved Lord for ever and ever” (345-47). This egoistic distinction between Beowulf and Judith is not insignificant to the qualification as of God’s agent: as we learn from a comparison of these two poems, Beowulf’s ego comes between him and his god; Judith’s humility bonds her to hers.
Status as God’s agent, however, can perhaps be best gauged by the warriors’ motives for engaging in battle, and the ways their conflicts are resolved, and explained. In Judith, on one hand, we see that the heroine does not lay a finger on her opponent until she has first consulted her God and received his direct encouragement:
“Then [Judith]…took a sharp sword…and drew it from the sheath / with her right hand. She began to call the Guardian of Heaven by name…and said these words: / ‘God of creation, Spirit of comfort, / Son of the Almighty, I want to beseech you / for your mercy on me in my time of need…Give me, Lord of Heaven, / victory and true belief so I might cut down this bestower of torment / with this sword. Grant me my salvation, / mighty Lord of men: I have never had more need / of your mercy than now. Avenge now, mighty Lord, / eminent Bestower of glory, that which is so grievous in my mind, / so fervent in my heart.’ Then the highest Judge / inspired her immediately with great zeal, as he does to each / of the dwellers on earth who seek help from him / with reason and with true faith. Then she felt relief in her mind, / hope was renewed for the holy woman.” (77-98)
This spiritual transaction complete, Judith is motivated to action and proceeds to “seize the heathen man” (98) and behead him. Important to note is the fact that Judith asks God not only for success in her endeavor, but also for “true belief;” this and the emphasis on worshippers receiving help if they appeal to God with “reason and with true faith” (emphasis added) demonstrate all the more vividly just how inherently Judith’s execution of Holofernes is fused with her religious convictions.
As a consequence, Judith’s success that night is referred to as a gift from God (“Judith had won illustrious glory / in the battle as God, the Lord of heaven, / granted it so when he gave her her victory” (122-24)) and also as guidance from God (Holofernes’ severed head serves “as proof / to the citizens of how she had been helped in battle” (174-75)). Later, we see that such divine assistance is not confined to Judith; when the Israelite militia takes arms against the Assyrians, “the Lord God, the almighty Lord, / helped them generously with his aid” (299-300). Interestingly, the commencement of that army’s combat, like Judith’s private one, awaits God’s sanction, which appears here in the form of a sunrise, as Judith instructs the soldiers to “hasten to battle, as soon as the God of creation, / that glorious King, sends his radiant beam of light / from the east” (189-91). This shows the extent to which Judith’s God infuses the poem’s structure, and imbues even its most quotidian incidents with sublime purpose.
To gain any accurate impression, then, of piety’s place in Beowulf’s combative routine, we must measure each of his three motives and three outcomes of battle in turn against the pattern Judith sets for divine affinity. We see some general tendencies that apply to all the intentions and all the results of Beowulf’s fights, namely that the warrior’s motive always includes a longing for self-aggrandizement, and that the responsibility for each battle’s resolution is attributed to God and to forces other than God by seemingly equal iterations, with the tally of remarks which suggest divine intervention less than or equal to explanations entirely omitting divinity. Often, these two conflicting proposals follow one on the heels of the other, so that in a single breath the poet gives credit both to God and to the autonomous hero, or even to one of Beowulf’s physical traits. A pattern emerges of an indecisive poet, or of a God who demands independent aptitude as a prerequisite, or qualifying condition, for his aid, as if the Almighty won’t get involved unless he knows his hero has a winning chance to begin with.
Looking beyond these abiding themes and into the distinguishing dynamics at play in each of Beowulf’s three battles, we find that it is in Beowulf’s first confrontation, against Grendel, that the warrior most resembles Judith in her venture. The two warriors’ motives for taking up arms are in this case nearly congruent: both enter battle to do their God’s work—in Judith’s case to protect God’s chosen people, the Israelites, and their religion from the Assyrians with their Satanic captain, and in Beowulf’s to eliminate a monster descended from Cain and therefor an affront to God’s ordered world. On the surface, Beowulf undertakes Grendel’s demise in order to save the Danes from the fiend’s nightly terrors, just as Judith undertakes the murder of Holofernes to save her city of Bethulia from plundering and destruction. In a different sense, however, they enter battle for antithetical motives: Judith to gain glory for others (God, and her people), and Beowulf to gain glory for himself, to “prove [himself] with a proud deed” (637) and establish an international reputation. In this sense we see Beowulf’s first, and mildest, deviation from the model of humble service that Judith exemplifies in her separate text.
If Beowulf’s motive in confronting Grendel only partially resembles Judith’s motive in confronting Holofernes, the nature of Beowulf’s victory only partially resembles that of Judith’s. Unlike the “holy maiden” (Judith 56), whose aspiration and achievement both stem from God, Beowulf emphasizes his own importance in the proceedings by expressing his “complete trust / in his strength of limb and the Lord’s favor” (Beowulf 669-70), and observing that the Divine Lord will “in His wisdom grant the glory of victory / to whichever side He sees fit” (686-7). This last remark sounds almost like a boast, as if Beowulf is implying that God’s assistance is contingent upon some standard of moral (or perhaps bodily) fitness which the hero is eager to prove himself meet to. Further instances of the poet juggling his divine with his earthly explanations for Grendel’s overthrow can be seen in the contiguity of two seemingly conflicting sentences at 696: “the Lord was weaving / a victory on His war-loom for the Weather-Geats. / Through the strength of one they all prevailed,” and also in the narrator’s later assertion that “mindful God / and one man’s daring” (1055-56) put an end to Grendel’s murderous rampages. In these remarks the warrior’s strength and the warrior’s courage, respectively, are placed on a par with God’s will as equally responsible for the events at Heorot, and in the end it is “Beowulf’s doings,” not God’s, as is the case in Judith, that “were praised over and over again” (B 855-56). Our resulting faint impression of God as a deciding figure in Beowulf’s combat with Grendel stands in contrast to the predominance of Judith’s God, of whom, as we have seen, it is clearly stated he “gave her her victory” (Judith 124).
Perhaps most interesting among the ambiguous god-references surrounding the battle with Grendel are those in which God is credited with involvement, but on behalf of the wrong party. “As long as God disallowed it,” the poet says of the Geats who slumber in Heorot, “the fiend could not bear them to his shadow-bourne” (B 706-7). This declaration implies that God holds some influence over the monster, prompting the questions, how much influence? And could He have used it to check Grendel before the fiend became the “corpse maker” (276) we know him as? The prospect of God being responsible for Beowulf’s foe as well as for Beowulf crops up again in something Hrothgar says upon Beowulf’s arrival at Heorot (“God can easily / halt these raids and harrowing attacks!” (478-79)), and in a comment Beowulf makes post-conflict in which he credits God with “allowing” Grendel to slip free of the warrior’s death-grip and slink back to his lair, mortally wounded but living (967). From such passages we learn that whatever the extent of God’s influence in the Grendel battle, it is not exclusively exercised in the hero’s favor, whereas Judith’s God is responsible solely for the Isrealites’ interests and intervenes decisively for their benefit.
In Beowulf’s subsequent two battles, the pretext of his spiritual service becomes less apparent before it is finally lost altogether. The warrior’s motive for engaging Grendel’s Mother in conflict is divinely purposeful in the same way his first battle was. By her shared blood with Grendel, Grendel’s Mother poses a like threat to Christendom, and Irving’s characterization of Hrothgar’s attitude towards Beowulf vis a vis the Grendel battle can also apply here: “it is here that the pious Hrothgar thanks God for sending his champion in the person of Beowulf” (Irving 186, referring to Beowulf 927-28). But if Beowulf enters battle once more to police God’s creation, he enters now with the added burden of maintaining his exalted image, of keeping “his glory…secure” (Beowulf 1646). And when he confronts the monstress, we see ‘God’s champion’ slipping from the solid ground of his Christian purpose and teetering further into his personal purpose, his self-glorification. This becomes evident when Hrunting, Unferth’s gifted sword, “refuses to bite” Beowulf’s scaly opponent, and “Hygelac’s kinsman kept thinking about his name and his fame: he never lost heart” (1529-30). Strikingly apparent here is the contrast between Beowulf’s method of coping with adversity and Judith’s, as one draws encouragement and reassurance from thoughts God (Judith 95) and the other from thoughts of himself: the heroes’ egoistic distinction widens.
As for what power is credited with orchestrating Beowulf’s victory over Grendel’s Mother, the liturgy of clues are of the same mixed bag as those that described Grendel’s overthrow, with one elemental difference. Here, emphasis is placed more on Beowulf’s war-gear and weaponry than on the warrior’s strength or the warrior’s God or any other deciding force: we learn more about the intricacies of Beowulf’s “keen, inlaid, worm-loop patterned steel” sword (Beowulf 1532) than about his faith. Midway through the skirmish “the mesh of chain-mail / on Beowulf’s shoulder shielded his life, / turned the edge and tip of the [monster’s] blade” (1547-49), and when prospects look grim for the warrior and he feels “daunted” (1543), he suddenly “saw a blade that boded well” (1557) and which succeeds in piercing the demon’s skin. Thus we come to understand that Beowulf owes his survival of this underwater episode to chain-mail, and that an ancient blade portends Beowulf’s triumph as opposed to God-sent sanction in Judith.
Our faint impression of God’s authority only grows fainter over the course of this battle. In an instance where the sovereign’s role is confidently asserted, it is immediately followed by a statement casting doubts on God’s categorical ability to influence events: we are told that “holy God / decided the victory. It was easy for the Lord, / the Ruler of Heaven, to redress the balance / once Beowulf got back up on his feet” (1553-56). The phrasing here implies that the omnipotent Creator as envisioned by the Beowulf poet relies on Beowulf’s own independent fortitude and gumption to level the odds before He can exert any real influence on the battle field. Such passages paint Beowulf’s God as a rather feeble and marginal figure, who, in addition to sometimes muddling his loyalties, also wields stunted powers. While we see Judith, as a demonstrable agent of God, enjoying a productive and communicative alliance with her all-powerful sovereign, we find Beowulf’s relationship to his God seeming far less coordinated, and far less functional.
Lastly, in his third and fatal battle, Beowulf’s motive no longer bears any trace of the divine purpose that was built into his earlier conflicts as an effect of the Cain connection. As Irving notes, “the final fight with the dragon is never put in symbolic terms like these” (Irving 186), for the dragon poses not a spiritual threat but rather a witlessly physical one, that of a vicious pest infesting his land. As a result, we see Beowulf entering battle now solely to satisfy his ego: the warrior states, “I shall pursue this fight / for the glory of winning” (2515) and the narrator chimes in with the assertion that, “inspired again / by the thought of glory, the war-king threw / his whole strength behind a sword stroke” (2677b-79). In the exhibitionist nature of this last endeavor Beowulf offers the starkest contrast we’ve seen yet to Judith’s humble service, a contrast which is sharpened by Beowulf’s insistence on confronting the dragon by himself. While Judith is described in one breath as both “daring” and “prudent” (Judith 333-34), Beowulf shows himself possessed of too much daring and too little prudence in proclaiming that it is not up to “any man except me / to measure his strength against the monster / or to prove his worth” (B 1534-35). Approaching the dragon with all these pompous ambitions, Beowulf widens the gulf between himself and his God, and, in the process, between himself and Judith too.
The explanations for the result of Beowulf’s third battle are consistent with their mixed predecessors, only now it is fate we see playing a new and larger role. Of the reckoning with the dragon the warrior remarks, “when I meet the cave-guard, what occurs on the wall / between the two of us will turn out as fate, / overseer of men, decides” (2525-27). And unfortunately fate this time is not in his favor. As Beowulf fights, “fate denied him / glory in battle” (2574-75), and at the hero’s death “his fate hovered near, unknowable but certain: / it would soon claim his coffered soul, / part life from limb. Before long / the prince’s spirit would spin free from his body” (2421-24). God is absent from the active sequences of this skirmish, but is conjured after the warrior’s death in phrases characterizing the permanence and breadth of this new development (Beowulf 2857, 2874).
Beowulf’s death itself brings a new perspective on the hero's remoteness from God. Referring to Beowulf’s dying appeal to “gaze my fill” of the dragon’s treasure (B 2748), Irving explains that the hero’s final moment is ethically mislead enough (from a Christian standpoint) to null the hero’s previous pagan and ethical virtue. He quotes E.G. Stanley: “[Beowulf] is a pagan, virtuous, all but flawless. His flaw being this, that ignorant of God, he, in the hour of his death, could think of nothing other than pelf and a cenotaph; avarice and vainglory” (182-83). On a congruent note, Colin Chase demonstrates how the unjust results of Beowulf’s just career locate the king in a tradition of frustrated heroes: “we hear from the messenger what the people are to expect as a result of [Beowulf’s] death: the renewed warfare of Franks and Frisians and Swedes…Beowulf’s courage and generosity are to yield a harvest of bitterness and suffering. As with Oedipus, and as with Hamlet, the tragic effect lies precisely in the gap between intention and result” (190). This gap of which Chase speaks presents an appealing motif. Since we see no discrepancy between Judith’s intent and result, which both unfold according to her and her God’s plan, we may reasonably interpret this ‘gap’ as the egoistic distinction that cleaves Beowulf from Judith, and likewise as the distance that separates Beowulf from God, the vacuum where his ego has inserted itself, against the warrior’s best intentions, to warp and mislead his results. It is, perhaps, the very pith of his ineligibility to be God’s agent.
All this goes to show that Judith and Beowulf furnish to the reader of the Nowell Codex two antipodal types of hero, and, by extension, two antipodal modes of being. Their contrasting spiritual dynamics bring to the manuscript as a whole a sense of the boundless capacity of the human mind for faith, alongside a sense of the unimaginable potential of the body for might. Perhaps Beowulf’s inadequacy as an agent of God serves a purpose in the Codex, offering a contrapuntal perspective on the dissociation of religious faith from virtue to rejoin Judith’s fervent synthesis of these. Perhaps, too, to rejoin the saturated Christian discourse of a recently-converted isle. Whatever the purpose, if any, of Beowulf and Judith’s union in the pages of this remarkable manuscript, the spiritual interactions within them and between them speak volumes, ultimately, of the power and the beauty of determination.
Beowulf. Translated by Seamus Heaney. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 41-108.
Blackburn, F. A. “The Christian Coloring in the Beowulf.” PMLA, vol. 12, no. 2, 1897, pp. 205–225. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/456133. Accessed 27 Oct 2017.
Chase, Colin. “Beowulf, Bede, and St. Oswine: The Hero’s Pride in Old English Hagiography.”Beowulf: Basic Readings, edited by Peter S. Baker, Garland Publishing Inc., 1995, pp. 181-93.
Hosmer, Robert Ellis, Jr. “‘Beowulf’ and the Old English ‘Judith:’ Ethics and Esthetics in Anglo-Saxon Poetry.” University of Massachusetts, University Microfilms International, 1985, pp. 67-79. Accessed 19 Oct. 2017.
Irving, Edward B, Jr. “Christian and Pagan Elements.” A Beowulf Handbook, edited by Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles, University of Nebraska Press,1997, pp. 175-92.
Judith. Translated by Elaine Teharne. The Norton Anthology of English Literature: the Middle Ages, 9th ed., vol. A, edited by Stephen Greenblatt, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc, 2012, pp. 110-117.