Beowulf and the interweaving of secular and sacred

Full disclosure: While this post does represent something that’s been on my mind, I’ve chosen this particular topic tonight to encourage you to sign up for my course with Davenant Hall, The Church in Medieval England! Registration closes on Thursday, March 24.

I recently read Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf. (1) I’d been planning on reading it since the summer, but some medieval Arthuriana and my reading load for teaching prevented me until now. Beowulf is greatly enjoyable — monsters, adventure, sword-wielding swimming contests, and only 3182 lines versus The Odyssey with 12,109 lines. (2) Beowulf was my second epic (the Odyssey my first), and my second piece of long-form medieval literature (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, trans. Tolkien, when I was 13). It has stuck with me these many years, appealing for all the reasons ancient and medieval epic and romance stay with me — poetic artistry, a good story, some wise utterances.

One of the many reasons Beowulf continues to resonate with me is a characteristic that is eminently medieval, although it is an impulse the Greeks, Romans, and Mesopotamians also demonstrate, albeit differently. The poem is itself deeply religious, deeply Christian, but the characters are pagans. While I concede that around the time Beowulf was composed, there was some concept of the “secular”, (3) there is very little in art of this period that would look such to us today.

Beowulf is interesting in this regard because, as I say, it is a deeply Christian poem. Yet none of the characters of the poem are Christians. They are all pagans, and explicitly acknowledged as such; there is not even an attempt by the Beowulf poet to imagine them as “noble pagans” who are Christians before Christ who maybe make the cut on Judgement Day (or Doomsday to be more OE).

That said, the frequency of mentions of God in Christian terms renders the tone of the poem pius in a properly Christian sense. Pietas here means rendering the proper respect and honour and duty to those around you and above you. In a Christian sense, it includes worship of and obedience to God, as well as honouring your human father and mother. It is also often seen to include fulfilling obligations for the political community, something that obviously becomes culturally conditioned depending on your context. In Beowulf, this last means kings giving gifts to thegns (a good king is a ring-giver) as well as helping your friends and harming your foes (in a Homeric rendering of accounts). Harming your foes is not exactly Christian, but it is unclear to me whether the feuds of Beowulf are approved by the poet or simply recorded, whereas aiding friends and giving gifts are both approved of.

The pagan cast of the epic, however, has misguided pietas towards the false gods of ancient Germanic religion, and the poet makes this clear, interweaving his own Christian commentary on the pre-Christian tale. Several times, the poet draws the reader out of pagan glories to the final judgement, lamenting the deaths of the unbaptised pagan heroes of the past.

However, throughout, there is also an almost unconscious pietas, a sort of natural law (to misapply the term) in Beowulf himself. Here I confess that I am borrowing from Tolkien, “The Monsters and the Critics.” In the poem, as Tolkien observes, Beowulf goes from trusting solely in the gift of God in the fight with Grendel, to trusting in weapons, armour, shield, in the fight with the dragon. Beowulf consciously chooses to trust in God for the outcome of the fight with Grendel, not in the weaponry or art of war devised by men:

… And may the Divine Lord
in His wisdom grant the glory of victory
to whichever side He sees fit.

trans. Seamus Heaney, lines 685-687.

Beowulf meets Grendel in the night, grapples with him, and rips his arm off. Grendel will bleed to death as a result.

The second monster is Grendel’s mother, whom Beowulf confronts with weapons. His first sword, Hrunting, fails him, and he almost loses this fight, needing the aid of a magic sword to gain the victory.

The third monster is the dragon. This time, Beowulf wins but dies in the process, slain by the dragon he and his thegn Wiglaf slay together. The poet says of him as he goes off to the fight:

The fabled warrior in his warshirt and helmet
trusted in his own strength entirely
and went under the crag. No coward path!

trans. Seamus Heaney, lines 2539-2541.

Whereas with Grendel, Beowulf trusted in God to guide the outcome, here, with his weapons, he trusts in himself. He defeats the dragon, but the cost is his own life. The theme drawn through these episodes is that of Psalm 20:7, “Some trust in chariots, and some in horses: but we will remember the name of the LORD our God.” The less Beowulf trusts in God, the more dire becomes his own individual situation.

Yet there is also a high regard for Beowulf as a king saving his people, as a faint image of Christ. Beowulf sets out with twelve companions, his own apostles. And he is abandoned at his moment of keenest need save by one, Wiglaf, just as Christ was abandoned by all the (male) disciples save by St John the Evangelist. Like Christ, his death saves his people. To kill the dragon, the king dies; and in biblical imagery, the dragon represents the devil, defeated by Christ on the Rood.

In these and many other ways, Beowulf is a deeply Christian poem. The poet is not setting out to be “authentic” about these pagan characters. To his own self and his own religion he remains true. Yet his vision of their lives is capable of seeing the swift, sure hand of Almighty God at work.

This intertwining of pagan and Christian, or in other circumstances secular and sacred, is one of the things I love about the Middle Ages. So much of it has these layered readings and meanings and beautiful takes, just waiting to be fleshed out, or even enfleshed. It means that you can’t separate a study of medieval England (or a course!) into “secular” and “sacred” in any easy way.

If you want to engage with this beautiful medieval world more, do sign up for my course!

(1) This was round 4, first was R M Liuzza in high school, then Kevin Crossley-Holland in my 20s, then Tolkien around age 30; I hope that Round 5 will be in OE.

(2) At this point in my life, I have read a lot of ancient and medieval narrative literature, some of which I will definitely spend my life rereading.

(3) For the early medieval secular, see the special issue of Early Medieval Europe from last February.

Watch “King Arthur, Symbol, and the Christian Embrace of Narrative Fiction” on YouTube

My latest offering on YouTube is about Arthurian literature and how it represents an embrace of narrative fiction by Christians, with a discussion of symbol and a sacramental worldview that includes a digression about The Lord of the Rings.

Corpus Christi

‘Communion of the Apostles’ — I’m pretty sure this is Panayia Podithou, Troodos, Cyprus (I couldn’t take a photo of my own when I visited)

Today is Corpus Christi. Because Baden-Würrtemberg is fairly balanced between Protestants and Roman Catholics, it’s a holiday here. So for the first time I’m aware of this feast and not by accident.

A few weeks ago, when the upcoming holidays were under discussion, someone asked what Corpus Christi is. I said that it celebrates the Body of Christ.

I was asked, ‘Yes, but what does it celebrate?’

I said, ‘The Body of Christ. The Eucharist.’

‘That’s what it celebrates.’

‘Yes, it’s a special feast just for the Eucharist, and Thomas Aquinas wrote a liturgy and a number of hymns for it. They had just come out of a time of debate about what the Eucharist is, and this feast was a way of celebrating the church’s official line. Although I wouldn’t go as far as a Roman Catholic about how it’s the Body of Christ, but that’s what Corpus Christi celebrates.’

‘I guess you would be the one to know!’

‘I guess so.’

Somehow, I remember my interlocutor asking about three times, ‘What does it celebrate?’ and me stubbornly say, ‘The Body of Christ,’ but I wonder if I’m remembering falsely, because that sounds dumb.

Anyway, it’s Corpus Christi, the feast of the Body of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, flesh historically broken on a Cross and mystically broken in bread.

A worthy celebration, whether you believe in Transubstantiation like the Roman church or in consubstantiation, or are defiant against saying more than, ‘Is means is,’ or believe that we eat it only after a heavenly and spiritual manner (Article of Religion XXVIII), or believe it is only a symbol — the celebration is worthy.

Why should we celebrate the Body of Christ? Why rejoice and commemorate the Eucharist? Because it is one of the two sacraments ordained of Christ during his lifetime on Earth, and the word sacrament signifies thus:

I mean an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace given unto us, ordained by Christ himself, as a means whereby we receive the same, and a pledge to assure us thereof. (Catechism, 1662 BCP)

Unlike baptism, this is a way we can repeatedly join with Christ in an outward and visible way, receiving his inward, invisible grace. We are psychosomatic unities; sacraments are how God uses our bodies to touch our spirits. And, if the Prayer of Humble Access from the BCP has anything to say about it, he can also touch our bodies:

… that our bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him and he in us.

It is commended to us by Scripture, by both Jesus and St. Paul, and is repeatedly commended to us by the Fathers, mediaeval saints, magisterial Reformers, and more. John Wesley believed that weekly communion was important, and every day during certain feast periods of the church.

So be happy about the Body of Christ today!

I leave you with two things, then, this Corpus Christi. One is ‘Panis Angelicus’, one of Aquinas’ hymns for the feast, as sung by Pavarotti. The other is a quote from J. R. R. Tolkien, a devout Catholic:

Out of the darkness of my life, so much frustrated, I put before you the one great thing to love on earth: the Blessed Sacrament … There you will find romance, glory, honour, fidelity, and the true way of all your loves upon earth. –The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien

Saint of the Week: C.S. Lewis

Having given you two Apostles, a martyr, an early mediaeval Celt, and an Eastern Father, I felt that it was time to give you a Protestant.  My favourites are Thomas Cranmer, John Wesley (I think), and C.S. Lewis.  The first two have feasts in the BCP calendar, so I’ve chosen the last for this week.

Dr. Lewis has been much discussed, of course, both in Christian circles and in literary ones.  What can I say that will help you see him better or read him more?  Very little, I imagine.

In grade 10, I wrote an essay about C.S. Lewis as my hero.  I’m not going to reproduce that entity, but here are some reasons why C.S. Lewis is one of my favourite Protestants:

There is something to be loved in a non-Classicist (or anyone, really) who has read St. Athanasius’ De Incarnatione in Greek and proclaimed it, “As readable as Xenophon.”  (See his “Introduction” to the same).  Lewis was a scholar who knew lots of stuff.  In fact, he was a scholar of Mediaeval and Renaissance English literature (hence his works The Allegory of Love and A Preface to Paradise Lost).  Nevertheless, he had skills and knowledge beyond his own field.  He knew Latin and Greek, and Italian (I think).  He read more than simply Mediaeval and Renaissance English literature and the scholarship surrounding it.  And when he read theology, he didn’t limit himself to the outpourings of the 19th and 20th centuries or even to his own language.

He had a deep respect for the ancient.

He knew reason and logic, as seen in his analysis of the rationality of miracles and the supernatural in Miracles or in his lucid explanations of Christianity in Mere Christianity.  He had been an atheist, but at some point (1930?), due to his long, reasoned conversations with friends (such as Dr. J.R.R. Tolkien) became a Christian — reluctantly, for Galilean fishermen hold little allure for men steeped in the glories of mediaeval literature.  Once convinced of the reality of the Christian Gospel, he gave himself over to it and its defence (see the essays in God in the Dock).

He knew the poetic.  He wrote poetry, some of it even in Greek metres.  He wrote the flashingly brilliant prose of his Space (or Cosmic) Trilogy, as in the vision of the Divine in Perelandra.  Indeed, here we see also that, although he was acquainted with reason and logic, he did not limit himself to these two modes of operation.  He took in the poetic and likely even the mystical and seemed to revel in it.

He knew grief (see A Grief Observed, much more heartening for the grieving than the cool logic of The Problem of Pain).

If we return to him as a scholar, the fact that he wrote books about his discipline (others not mentioned being Studies in Words, An Experiment in Criticism, The Discarded Image) and loved it did not prevent him from writing about matters theological (as in Fern-Seed and Elephants, The Abolition of Man) nor from writing more literature for others to read (The Chronicles of Narnia, the Cosmic Trilogy, Till We Have Faces) and creatures in between theology and “literature” (The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce).

That last paragraph reflects the sort of scholar I want to be.

Also, he saw why to avoid Prayer Book revision — we are too divided theologically and have no one with the brilliant synthesising mind of Thomas Cranmer (Prayer: Letters to Malcolm).  This last point is one that rings clearly to me as an Anglican living on the other side of the liturgical “renewal” of the sixties and seventies.

How could I not admire this prolific writer and Christian man?  If there were more C.S. Lewises, the world would be a brighter place.

Why read the Bible? Unspiritual Reason #1: Books

From AD 381 to some point in the Renaissance or Enlightenment, the Western world was ostensibly Christian.  And as the pagans were converted, the only non-Christians left were Jews.  The Jewish holy book forms the bulk of the Christian holy book, and the Christian holy book was the foundational text for Western culture.  Knowing the Bible, then, means knowing your own culture better and being better equipped to understand the thought-patterns of those who come before you.  And their allusions.  And what exactly is going on in their art.  And, understanding your heritage and culture, you can begin to fulfil the Delphic Oracle’s command: ΓΝΩΘΙ ΣΑΥΤΟΝ· KNOW THYSELF.  We shall begin with literature.

The PG Wodehouse post demonstrates the first unspiritual reason to read the Bible: the biblically illiterate simply will not enjoy literature as much.  Byron’s “The Destruction of Sennacherib” means less to those who don’t know the Bible.  CS Lewis’ The Last Battle loses much meaning without the book of Revelation.  There is other literature directly inspired or based upon the Bible: Paradise Lost by John Milton, Ben-Hur by Lew Wallace, Many Waters by Madeleine L’Engle, The Red Tent by Anita Diamant, to name a few.  Knowing the Biblical story and how it unfolds adds a deeper layer of meaning as you read literature that plays off it.  The intensity of Many Waters was deep for me, as I knew how the story worked out in the Bible — so how would the twists of this plot dovetail with the Bible?  And I saw characters whom I knew from Genesis characterised and enfleshed by L’Engle.  My familiarity with Genesis increased my enjoyment of the novel.

Other literature is explicitly Christian, even if not directly inspired by the Bible, and an understanding of the Bible will help understand it.  This is the case with Helena by Evelyn Waugh, The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri, and Godric by Frederick Buechner.  Some literature by Christians is not explicitly Christian; nonetheless, an understanding of the Bible still helps you understand the literature.  We see this in The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien, A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle, and Father Brown stories by GK Chesterton (although these are at times quite explicitly Christian).

How do you expect to delve into the depths of the riches of John Donne, Gerard Manley Hopkins, George Herbert, Edmund Spenser, TS Eliot, Prudentius, et al., if you have not investigated the Book that is the foundation of their hearts, minds, souls — yea, their very lives!  Take “Prayer (I)” by Herbert (chosen at random from a selection of Herbert’s poems).  Ideas/allusions that, from my vantage point, clearly originate from Scripture: “Gods breath in man returning to his birth,” “Christ-side-piercing spear,” “The six-daies world-transposing in an houre,” “Exalted Manna”.  Four in three stanzas, and one could argue for a biblical theology surrounding the rest of the poem.  If you seek to woo a poet, get to know his or her holy book and worldview.

Not that this use of the Bible is restricted only to Christian writers.  The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco, an atheist, displays a notable intimacy with the Bible, including controversy surrounding interpretations of some of Jesus’ sayings.  The very deaths that propel the plot are fixed around the book of Revelation as a core, and many biblical ideas flow in and out of the conversations had by the monks through the course of the book.  His novel Foucault’s Pendulum also shows a knowledge of the Bible.

Now I must sleep.  My message is: Cure your biblical illiteracy!  Read the Bible!  It can only do you good.