Christians today often talk about evangelizing the culture, transforming the culture, and finding ways to communicate with people of another culture. What that looks like can be seen in seventh-century English literature. J.R.R. Tolkien was as great a literary scholar as he was a writer of heroic fantasy. In his article “Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics,” Tolkien described the worldview of Germanic paganism as held by the early Angles and Saxons who seized Britain from the Celts.
Whereas the Greek religion with its philandering gods had little moral content, he said, the Germanic religion featured a strong moral dualism. The gods were locked in a cosmic conflict with the giants. Odin, Thor, Freya, and the others stood for natural and social order, while the giants strove for chaos. Mortals take sides in this conflict, with their constructive actions supporting the gods and their destructive actions supporting the giants. This conflict will continue until the end of time, when, after a climactic battle, the gods will lose. The giants will be victorious, the forces of chaos and destruction will be victorious, and, in this so-called “Twilight of the Gods,” the universe will end in ice and darkness.
Such a finale sounds surprising. A religion in which not only the world but the gods themselves come to a bad end seems odd. We are used to the good guys winning. Everybody is supposed to live happily ever after.
But the assumption of cosmic optimism is itself part of the cultural influence of Christianity. The pagan religions of the West never had the concept of a happy ending. There was no “heaven.” The ancient Greeks and Romans believed that when people died, everyone went to Hades. The ancient Germans believed that everyone went to “hel” (as it was then spelled).
Some of the dead are hideously tortured; others spend their days fighting, their wounds healed for the next day; others just roam in a shadowy, grim existence. The pagans held an essentially tragic view of life.
For the Germanic religions, the hero was someone who fought on the gods’ side, even though he knew that in doing so he was doomed. Of course, Viking and Saxon warriors treasured victory, but the highest form of heroism was courage in the face of inevitable defeat. In everyday life, people could demonstrate heroism if they stood up for what was right, though they often suffered for it.
When Christianity came to these people, there was a reason its message of salvation was called “good news.” So we can have eternal joy after we die? We have access to a heaven?
One concept the Greeks had some trouble with but the Germans understood was that the incarnate God, Jesus Christ, won that access by suffering and dying. Missionaries tell us that many pagans have problems getting their minds around this. “Your God died? Our god is a great warrior.” But to the ancient Germans being evangelized, this message resonated with what they already knew, while transcending their old assumptions. They knew that gods suffered and died. They understood the cross. But the good news, which came as a total surprise, was that this God rose again.
Beowulf is a folk epic, with roots deep into the oral tradition of the Germanic culture. But in the written composition that we have, which is traced to the seventh century — writing itself being a legacy from the church, which introduced Scriptures, schools, and literacy into oral cultures — we have a substantially Christianized tale.
Beowulf battles monsters, but they are removed from folklore and given biblical connections. Grendel is described as a descendant of Cain, the first murderer. Thus, the monster becomes a personification and a symbol of sin. Furthermore, the Beowulf poet says that Cain is also the progenitor of the giants.
The Beowulf poet knows that his hero lived in the pre-Christian era. There are references to the old religion, which was said to worship demons. But the old gods are never so much as named.
The poem also undermines important pagan cultural values. Those tribal societies embraced the code of revenge. In Beowulf, revenge motivates the monsters, with the death of Grendel stirring up the kinship obligations of an even stronger monster, Grendel’s mother. And throughout the poem, for the humans, revenge vendettas are criticized, shown as bringing down the kingdom, which even the monsters could not do.
And though seventh-century English Christianity was hardly pacifist, Beowulf has a startling innovation for an epic poem about a super-human warrior. The hero Beowulf is never depicted killing another human being. He just kills monsters. He is still a hero by ancient Germanic standards, since he faces certain doom with courage, fighting the dragon when he is eighty years old, knowing that he will die. But he is a Christian hero, sacrificing his own life for his people.
Christianity did not destroy the existing culture, but, as we see in Beowulf, it affirmed what was good in the culture. More than that, Christianity reformed the culture, striking against its moral failings, thus making it stronger.