Study Guide

Beowulf: Theme of Religion

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Religion is a touchy issue in Beowulf, because the story is told in late medieval Anglo-Saxon Britain, which has been Christianized, but it's about early medieval Scandinavia, which is pagan. The narrator of the poem compromises by making constant references to God's decrees in general terms, but never discussing Jesus or the specific tenets of Christianity. Although the poet can't get away from the fact that his hero, Beowulf, would have been a pagan, he can suggest that Beowulf's trust in God translates easily into a Christian context. The only specific references to Christian stories are some shout-outs to the Old Testament story of Cain and Abel.

Questions About Religion

  1. What religion do the characters in Beowulf follow? What religious perspective does the narrator have? Is there a conflict between these two?
  2. Why is the only specific reference to a Biblical story in Beowulf a mention of the story of Cain and Abel? (Review the story of Cain and Abel here.) Why might this legend of a murderous clash between brothers be especially relevant for medieval warrior culture?
  3. There are many references to God in Beowulf – "the Lord of Life" (16), "Almighty God" (701), "the Ruler of Heaven" (1555), and so on. How do these references work to give the reader a sense of the bigger picture, beyond each individual battle that Beowulf fights? Do you think this is an "Old Testament God" or a "New Testament God"?
  4. Does the narrator give Beowulf credit for his victories, or does the credit go to God? In what ways is Beowulf a fatalistic epic – that is, do events seem to be fixed and decreed, or do characters have free will and the ability to affect their own destinies?

Chew on This

The brutal life of a medieval warrior and the blood-feuds between tribes and families that he experiences are symbolized in Beowulf by the fratricidal story of Cain and Abel.

The conflict between the Christian perspective of the narrator and the pagan activities of the characters in Beowulf results in an uncomfortable tension between theologies.