Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

'Beowulf,' the Old Testament, and the 'Regula Fidei.'

Academic journal article Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

'Beowulf,' the Old Testament, and the 'Regula Fidei.'

Article excerpt

Nineteenth-century criticism of Beowulf generally focused upon the task of pointing out the Germanic components of the work's a priori designation as an "essentially heathen poem" (Blackburn 1). In the first decades of this century, Frederick Klaeber argued against this view and proposed that the "general tone of the poem and its ethical viewpoint" are decidedly Christian (xlix). Today, no critic would be taken seriously who would argue that the poem, as we have it, is the marred product of a pious interpolator, as was assumed by the critics of a hundred years ago. Since Klaeber's day, the task of the critic of Beowulf has been, predominantly, to ascertain just what type of Christian tone and viewpoint the poem promulgates. But this has proven to be a difficult undertaking. The ambiguity and vagueness of the Christian references in the poem merely contribute to the general feeling that the poem is in some way Christian without any explicit mention of the tenets of the faith. Larry Benson has long pointed out that

our poet's insistence that his characters are both emphatically pagan

and exceptionally good seems self-contradictory, and that apparent

contradiction has seemed to many critics a touch of feebleness at the

very heart of the poem, so feeble that even his warmest admirers have

been forced either to fall back on the old theory of scribal tampering

or to conclude that the poet simply blundered. (36)

That the Christian poet of Beowulf (in the form we've received it) knew something of the Bible is a donnee. Even so, the poem itself doesn't seem to reflect an overt predilection for the Bible. John Niles has written that

Attempts to show a specific correlation between Beowulf and parts of

Scripture tend to break down in the face of the failure of the text to

match its supposed source in other than commonplace ways. When

Hrodgar praises Beowulf by saying that whoever the woman was who

bore him, "the everlasting Lord was gracious to her in her child

bearing" (945-46a), the words have been thought to recall Luke 11:27,

"Blessed is the womb that bore thee, and the paps that gave thee

suck." The physical specificity of the Gospel verse is absent from

the Old English passage, however ... (90)

Indeed, the way in which the poet of Beowulf relied upon the Bible seems to be something other than direct reference or homiletic didacticism. Paradoxically, the three occasions in which the poet allusively refers to the Scriptures serve to further obfuscate the general perception of the Christian elements in the poem; these allusions to Cain (107a, 1261b), the Creation (90b-98), and the Deluge (1689b) are all, of course, Old Testament allusions.(1) Clearly, the oblique nature of the Christian elements in Beowulf indicates the poet's conception of something other than the Christianizing of Germanic folklore. As Chambers pointed out seventy years ago, if the Christian allusions were interpolated, "it was just as easy to rewrite them in a tone emphatically Christian as in a tone mildly so" (125). Yet Hrodgar speaks and behaves as a Christian would; Beowulf acts in accordance with Christian mores; the poet often interposes Christian sentiments. I want to suggest that the Christian poet of Beowulf treats, presents, and interprets the pagan personages in the poem according to the tradition of Biblical exegesis of the Old Testament; the poet deliberately parallels the pagan Germanic past with the pre-Christian world of the Old Testament with the aim of demonstrating the prefiguration of the Christian world in his native heritage just as it was demonstrated in the world of the old dispensation of the Hebrews. It is reading by the regula fidei, the rule of faith. In his De Doctrina Christiana, St. Augustine delineates a theory of hermeneutics that established a firm precedent for this kind of interpretive reading which dominated medieval scholasticism. …

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