Beowulf and Poor Catechesis
Beowulf is a good example of bad catechesis in the Scriptures and in church doctrine and practice. Christianity is presented by scops/minstrels/poets who had general notions about Christianity but were lacking in the detailed knowledge.
In Beowulf the Christian elements are about equally distributed between narrative and speeches. While the poet’s reflections and characters’ statements are mostly Christian, the customs and ceremonies, on the other hand, are almost entirely heathen/pagan: At the beginning of the poem, there is the account of the pagan funeral rites of Scyld Scefing, and at the close of the poem we see the heathen rites of burial for Beowulf himself, including cremation, deposition of treasures and armor, etc. with the corpse in the burial mound overlooking the sea. That enables the poet to “communicate his Christian vision of pagan heroic life.”(Bloom 2). Additonally, earlier in the poem, the Danes, when under extreme pressure from Grendel, reverted to Satan-worship:
At times they prepared sacrifice in temples,
war-idol offerings, said the old words aloud,
that the great soul-slayer might bring some comfort
in their country’s disaster. Such was their custom,
the hope of the heathen; they remembered Hell
in their deepest thoughts. They knew not the Lord,
the Judge of our deeds, were ignorant of God,
knew not how to worship our Protector above,
the King of Glory (175ff)
This fact of heathen rites and customs seems to point to the conclusion that Beowulf is originally a heathen work which has undergone revision by Christian minstrels. The Cambridge History of English and American Literature states that the Christian element was the work of later revision (v1,ch3, s3, n18). So when we talk about “poor catechesis” in the title, we are referring to the poor instruction in the faith given to these early Christian minstrels who slowly revised an originally pagan epic into a somewhat Christian one.
The minstrels’ catechesis seems poor because their allusions to the church and to the Bible are quite indistinct, vague, indefinete, thus reflecting a vague knowledge of Christianity on their part. In the whole poem there is possibly one half-hearted paraphrase of a Scriptural passage in lines 1743ff:
Too sound is that sleep,
bound up in cares; the killer very near
who shoots his bow with treacherous aim.
Then he is hit in the heart, struck under helmet
with the bitter arrow, the dark commands
of the wicked demon, and he knows no defense.
The Biblical passage to which this may...