The situation is strikingly similar to Homer, where we have a text that doesn’t have a lot of precedents but also obviously describes situations considerably earlier than itself. It makes dating the thing, or even isolating and dating the various layers within it, almost impossible, but maybe what’s interesting for your purposes is that it represents a literate Christian scribe (or series of scribes) trying to make sense of an illiterate pagan society (and possibly working from an oral text, or group of texts, that he’s received).He goes on to discuss the various reasons that religion, which comes up so frequently in Beowulf, might have ended up being portrayed in such a nebulous and paradoxical fashion, but the two main theories are basically as outlined above: either you have a Christian author imposing his own sort of order on his depiction of what he knows was a very different society, or you have a Christian editor sticking some pious bits into an older text.
Thomas D. Hill (who has been teaching English at Cornell since 1967!), in his essay "The Christian Language and Theme of Beowulf,"* offers a slightly different take. Essentially, he sees the author as a Christian who admired the pagan heroes of myth and had "tolerance and respect for the past" (213), as opposed to, say, Alcuin, who wrote, "The Heavenly King does not wish to have communion with pagan and forgotten kings... for the eternal King reigns in Heaven, while the forgotten pagan king wails in Hell" (Norton p. 91, from Donald A. Bullough's 1993 translation). The point being that a lot of Christian scholars of that era did not look kindly on their pagan predecessors, however admirable or legendary, but the Beowulf-poet, argues Hill, was different. He "was willing to question the authority of what must have been the majority opinion of the church of his time" (210). (Hill mentions that other critics have tended instead to argue either that the Beowulf-poet simply wasn't particularly concerned with theological consistency or that he accepted that his heroes would be doomed to Hell.)
And now some lengthier quotes, because I think that Hill offers a very useful way to understand the poem's theology, but it's 2am and I don't trust myself to give a halfway-decent summary of anything he says:
...[I]t seems to me that the most consistent way to read the poem as we have it is to assume that the Beowulf-poet had thought long and hard about the problem and had arrived at (or had been taught) an essentially "humanistic" reading of his forefathers' paganism. He seems to have believed that the best and greatest of these men knew about God, creation, and natural moral law, and that when they died their souls went to heaven. ...As for the bit about idol-worship and not knowing God, well, Hill argues that it doesn't match anything else in the text and can simply be deemed corrupt; either "someone else added that passage" or "the Beowulf-poet forgot for a moment to maintain the careful balance which he maintains elsewhere in the poem" (204); Hill seems to lean pretty heavily toward the former explanation. The latter is funnier, though.
...Beowulf is a remarkably consistent text in that the religious language of the poem reflects the religious knowledge of those patriarchs who lived before the covenants and the creation of Israel. It is useful to have a term to define the religion of Beowulf, Hrothgar, and the good Germanic heroes in the poem and I would suggest that we define them as Noachites, that is, as gentiles who share the religious heritage and knowledge of Noah and his sons without having access to the revealed knowledge of God which was granted to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.... (202)
Then, of course, you have the whole problem of the fact that Beowulf and his buddies worship just the one God who seems to have a whole awful lot in common with the Christian God, whereas
the pre-Christian Germanic peoples were in fact pagans who worshipped a number of different gods and there is no historical evidence that any of these peoples anticipated the distinctive Judeo-Christian God, who created the heavens and the earth (Beowulf lines 90-98 and who governs the course of history (Beowulf lines 696-702). (205)Hill deals with this with the same idea that Leigh mentioned, that of a Christian scribe/author who, despite having a fairly firm grasp on religious history, chooses to order his fictional world in a manner he finds more palatable or more comfortable.
Hill offers a couple of examples from Old Irish and Old Norse-Icelandic literature to show how other early Christian authors dealt with the problem of having legendary heroes who happened to be pagans. Not wanting to imagine their heroes burning in hell, these authors evidently thought it would be ok for pagans--if they were exceptionally awesome--to go to Heaven, so they strained credibility and theology to make this possible. This is the best example, by far:
Thus in the death tale of Conchobar, Conchobar is wounded (the solidified brain of a slain enemy is embedded in his skull) and only partially healed--any excitement will kill him. He remains seven years in this parlous state until he is told of the passion of Jesus, leaps up to lead an onslaught of the Ulstermen to avenge this crime, and dies as an Irish martyr to the faith. (207)THAT IS TOTALLY SWEET. Did you just read that part? He had a solified brain! In his brain! Also... what??
Hill takes the story from Ancient Irish Tales (1969), by Tom Peete Cross and Clark Harris Slover, which I should clearly track down and read because I am utterly enamored of the beautiful logic of that story. And apparently Cu Chulainn's salvation was arranged via similarly improbable happenstance.
This is going to have to end my discussion of religion in Beowulf, and indeed Beowulf itself, because I have already started reading Bernard Knox's introduction to the Fagles translation of the Odyssey. Don't be sad. Fiona still has one more Beowulf post to make, and also I am learning some amazing things from the Knox introduction. For real.
But--while we're on the topic of things that are both Irish and hilariously entertaining--I want to take a very brief detour back to the Heaney introduction, from which I learned this thing that I forgot to share with you. In a discussion of language and why he chose to translate Beowulf into, of all things, an old Ulster dialect, Heaney happens to mention that "the word 'whiskey' is the same word as the Irish and Scots Gaelic word uisce, meaning water" (xxxiv).
Explains a lot, doesn't it?
*All criticism I have cited, up till and including Hill, has been taken from the previously-mentioned Norton edition. I have used page numbers (usually marked with p. or pp.) when citing criticism from the book and line numbers (usually marked with l. or ll.) when citing the poem itself; I hope this system makes sense to you. I'll try to be consistent with it.