I first met Beowulf on a field trip. My grade school class had a special engagement to see a stage version of the story, performed – I think – by St. Louis’ Metro Theater Company. The spare production featured only a few actors and a set of props that, like those of The Fantasticks, were few enough that they could have been brought on stage in a gunnysack. A central platform at the center of the stage doubled as all the locations of the poem – the darkened hall of Heorot, the haunted mere, the dragon’s cave. A long pole served for almost everything else; it became swords, treasure, and, most memorably, the arm of Grendel, which Beowulf tears from him in their famous wrestling match.I recall feeling disappointed. Being a child, I had no real understanding of theatre or literature, and so I did not understand theatrical minimalism, or that there might be good reasons to tell the story in this way besides a lack of money. One of the actors explained that they did not want to show us Grendel as a latex-and-animatronics spectacle, and I remember thinking that was exactly what I wanted. Oh, well; children’s theater is wasted on children. I’d give anything to see that play again today, with adult eyes, if only to see their dragon again – a man perched atop the platform in cloak of red and gold, which he swirled around his body to create the image of flame.
Some twenty years on, I have spent the past three weeks standing deep in the poem, working with a number of scholars in a summer institute about Beowulf and its relationship to Old Norse-Icelandic literature. Much of this has focused on some very specific textual echoes: Beowulf fights monsters in a king’s hall and a watery mere; Grettir Asmundarson, the hero of the Icelandic Grettis saga, fights a similar pair of trolls in a farmer’s hall and a waterfall cave. Bodvarr Bjarki, a character in Hrolfs saga Kraka, can be read as an Icelandic equivalent to the hero, and even serves a king whose name is cognate to a relative of Beowulf’s King Hrothgar. But beyond these textual correspondences – and the arguments for whether they are mere coincidence or represent evolutions of a common source – much of our discussions have focused on how Beowulf fits into the broader picture of the medieval north, and indeed, just what we know about those societies.
The central, seemingly inescapable question of Beowulf is the poem’s relationship to paganism. The poem, which survives in a single monastery-produced manuscript, clearly survives because of Christian literary practice; just as clearly, its story looks back to the heathen past and the heroic mode. Though every character in Beowulf is, logically, a heathen, the language itself is suffused with Christianity. Critical opinion has ranged from the notion that the poem is largely an oral heathen epic with a veneer of Christian commentary layered over it to reading it as an entirely Christian document that serves to criticize the ethical failures of the past.
The picture isn’t any clearer for other documents from the medieval north, either. The problems with Snorri Sturluson’s Edda are well known, being a prose synthesis of a pagan mythos several centuries after the official conversion to Christianity. But even a poem like Völuspá, which underpins so much of what we think we know about Norse mythology, often gets read as a Christian reflex, perhaps a systematizing of the heathen ways in the face of Christianity. Pick a feature of the literature and you can find a critic who will argue for its Christian influences.
Although I do my best to keep myself objective when I’m in a scholarly context, I admit that I struggle with this. In part I grumble because I feel that medieval studies, across the time period and the discipline, overemphasizes Christianity; while the religion clearly had more social influence than just about any other institution in the period, medievalists seem to interpret everything as though all people living in the middle ages were fanatically devoted, which simply seems unlikely to me. But these interpretations also go against my personal attractions to the literature. I read Beowulf and its Old Norse analogues, ultimately, because it’s the literature that’s shaped me, in ways obvious and not. It’s bound up with my Paganism, and therefore with my sense of self.
That means I want to see the pagan core to the poetry, and I want to see the coherent system of the cosmology. I want to read about Beowulf’s Geats pleaing to their gods for aid against Grendel and ignore the narrator’s snide commentary on their beliefs. I want to read Völuspá as a history that was complete before the Scandinavians ever heard of Christ. Above all, I suppose I want to read the texts with the comfortable sense of understanding they had when I first read them, even though I realize that is an impossibility.
Our modern Paganisms depend in large part on the institutions that study the ancient paganisms from which we draw our inspiration. While we come to our own individual understandings of our sources – and some of us even do excellent research of our own – ultimately, there are matters of expertise and access that underpin our understanding of the past that go beyond the average person’s resources. But that scholarship too is precarious, and often as not reflects assumptions and desires alien to those of the religionist.
Earlier in the Beowulf institute, I had a friendly disagreement with a religion scholar, whose position was that it was wrong, conceptually, to think of ancient Scandinavian paganism as a “religion.” To him, the word betrayed too many modern assumptions, too many Christian influences. For me, it was exactly the opposite: the idea that a “religion” can only refer to an Abrahamic-style proselytizing system seemed to demonstrate the exact kind of bias that he was trying to avoid. I absolutely wanted to think of Norse paganism as “religion,” because religion implies a degree of legitimacy that no other English word contains.
I don’t think either of us quite understood the importance of the others’ framing of the question, what is a religion. It was as if we were both children in the theater, watching the man in the cloak of flame, neither of us quite sure as to the shape of a dragon.