I'm going to be posting, in several parts, the text of my lecture this evening. Enjoy!
It’s always seemed to me odd that there should be such a fascination among Christian authors with regard to non-Christian beliefs, or pre-Christian beliefs. I’ve observed this in some of the greatest poets who have ever lived. The Beowulf-poet, for example, observed time and again that his characters believe not in God, but in a hard-to-define entity called Wyrd. The characters in Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale pray to pagan gods, and end up surrounded with death and despair, their only consolation that they must put up with it and endure. The conclusion of Gloucester in Shakespeare’s King Lear is that “as flies to wanton boys are we to the gods: they kill us for their sport.”
These situation are much grimmer than the ways the pagan gods are normally presented in literature. If you think of, for example, the poetry of Keats, or Shakespeare’s early comedy A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the pagan gods are romantic figures, often whimsical, sometimes unpredictable. But there’s no depressing aura to these works. There’s a big difference with the works I’ve outlined above. And when you look at real pagan literature, you can see something very similar going on. Take the final lines of the Chorus in Oedipus the King for example:
There goes Oedipus—
he was the man who was able
to answer the riddle proposed by the Sphinx.
he was an object of envy
to all for his fortune and fame.
There goes Oedipus—
now he is drowning in waves of dread and despair.
Look at Oedipus—
proof that none of us mortals
can truly be thought of as happy
until he is granted deliverance from life,
until he is dead
and must suffer no more.
Not very optimistic stuff—man is the victim of the gods. Then there are Priam’s remarks in The Iliad, Book XXIV: “This is the lot the gods have spun for miserable men, that they should live in pain; yet themselves are sorrowless.”
What prompts these very realistic, very accurate, very grim depictions of the pagan world?
If you look at the historical and social circumstances that produced them, you can see that each work of serious literature on the pagan theme was produced during a moment of intense spiritual upheaval, in which previously held beliefs have been challenges and found lacking in some way or another. Beowulf was written shortly after the conversion of England to Christianity, the Knight’s Tale shortly after the Black Death, and King Lear at the moment when the Reformation seemed finally to have taken hold once and for all in England. Each author sets up two worldviews in his text, one Christian and one non-Christian. The non-Christian worldview in the tale is an implicit criticism of the author’s contemporaries.
Let’s take each one in turn, and first of all, the conversion. This wasn’t an overnight affair, nor was it particularly smooth. Although St. Augustine, arriving in England in 597, enjoyed some early success, many kings either refused to convert or else relapsed into paganism after an initial conversion. Kign Rædwals of East Anglia, for example, converted and then relapsed. King Edwin of Northumbria, a very powerful nobleman, converted, but then his kingdom was overrun by the pagan Penda of Mercia and his Christian ally Cadwallon of Gwynedd. The pagan gods clung on, leaving even an indelible mark upon the language: the gods Twi, Woden, Thunor and Frig gave their names to the days of the week, the goddess Eostre to a Christian festival, and the midwinter festival Giuli remained as the season of Yule or Yuletide.
Shortly after this upheaval, an anonymous English poet composed—probably orally—the epic we’ve come to name after its central character, Beowulf. It’s a story of monster-slaying—Beowulf kills Grendel, the troll who is murdering the warriors of King Hrothgar, then Grendel’s mother. Finally, in the days of his advanced old age, Beowulf kills and is killed by a dragon that is destroying the Geats, the people he rules as king. Beowulf is such a ferocious warrior that he’s also kept the Geats’ enemies at bay too—notably the Swedes. But once he’s dead, his people fully expect the Swedes to kill them all and have no mercy whatever.
Beowulf is the greatest man of his age, and his age is simultaneously a warrior society and a pagan society. Let’s take those in reverse order.
First, the pagan society. The Beowulf-poet never mentions Christ. He mentions God several times, but always with a lower-case G. (There was actually no capitalization in the Beowulf-manuscript, except for everything in the first line of text.) He mentions Cain and Abel, and he mentions that Hrothgar’s people, terrorized by Grendel, resort to the worship of idols in their despair. And yet there are frequent reflections that seem very Christian in orientation. This has long puzzled scholars, until J. R. R. Tolkien, the novelist, pointed out in 1936 that the poet might have been a Christian himself, writing a poem about a pagan society.
If the poet didn’t mention Christ, neither did he mention Woden or Thunor. He mentions no god by name, except one, and that one we have no record of. It’s name is Wyrd. usually, the Old English word wyrd is translated by modern scholars as “fate,” but this is inadequate. There are a number of other words for fate in Old English, and Wyrd does not behave like any of them. If you look closely at where the poet uses the term wyrd, you can see that Wyrd protects Beowulf when, as a youth, he does something very foolish that nearly gets him killed. At the same time, Wyrd helps Grendel to terrorize Hrothgar and his people. What is Wyrd’s motive? Clearly, Beowulf must survive, and so must Grendel—both the good and the evil must survive. When Grendel comes to Hrothgar’s hall for the final visit, the poet records that Wyrd has left him. So, clearly, Grendel has been supported by Wyrd so that Beowulf can slay him. And that means that Wyrd had supported Beowulf earlier so that he could slay Grendel. The slaying of Grendel by Beowulf is the event that Wyrd has wished to occur. Why? Clearly, so that Beowulf could become the king of the Geats.
The point here is that Wyrd participates in human history. Wyrd has a plan and, when human beings attempt to deviate from that plan, as Beowulf did in his early life, then Wyrd has to interfere directly in human affairs and makes things work out. In other words, Wyrd, a pagan goddess, behaves exactly like Providence in Christian thought.
But Beowulf’s ways are not enough. The warrior culture that has produced him is not sufficient to protect his people once he has gone. To explain. In his book Violence and the Sacred, René Girard asks, “Why . . . do we never explore the relationship between sacrifice and violence?” (2) Girard’s answer is that sacrifice—whether human or animal—arises as a social practice due to the ability of violence to accept a substitute. He suggests that societies which practice sacrifice do so in an attempt to purge their members of their tendencies to violent behavior towards “appropriate” targets, and re-channel that violence towards a substitute victim.
Girard’s identifies three models, three ways in which human societies utilize violence: the sacrificial, in which “rites divert the spirit of revenge into other channels” (20-21); the compensatory, in which revenge is constrained by systems of compensation, “trial by combat, etc., whose curative effects remain precarious” (21); and the judicial, our current social system, which he calls “the most efficient of all the curative procedures.”
The fourth system, not mentioned by Girard, but definitely mentioned by MY WIFE, and therefore very important, is the warrior culture, in which victims of sacrifice are voluntary, chosen apparently at random by the fortunes of war. Being a warrior society purges members of that society of their tendencies towards violence among themselves, directing that violence outwards onto other communities.
In Beowulf, the hero is the symbol of his age: a warrior culture, with the ultimate warrior, slayer of enemies both human and monster, at its head. Beowulf, when he faces the dragon, is the king, the shield of his people. When he dies, the messenger to the Geats makes it very clear that their civilization is at an end. Beowulf has long kept their enemies at bay, but now the Swedes will sweep in, killing and destroying, and the Geats can expect no mercy from them.
The warrior society is over, for the Geats. It has ended typically, in grand and glorious fashion, in a way that will be sung about down the ages. But it is certainly over, and this model will no longer work for them.
This is why Wyrd is important. Wyrd is the liminal figure, the connector between the pagan warrior culture, and the Christian culture in which sacrifice was undertaken voluntarily by one man, on one occasion, for all men and women. The seed of the future was sown in the past. If Anglo-Saxon life is to have any meaning in the future, it is by means of the sacrificial system of the Christian faith. This is no doubt why Beowulf is so melancholy a poem. It laments the end of something very attractive. But it ushers in an era more glorious, more gentle, more merciful, ruled over by a king who chose to be the sacrificial victim of his people.
In a way, the question posed by the Beowulf-poet is similar to the one posed by Christ at the end of the Gospel according to John, Chapter 6. Having explained that no one can enter the kingdom of Heaven unless he eats Christ’s flesh and drinks his blood, Christ watches the people wander away in embarrassed silence. Turning to his disciples, he asks, “Do you also want to leave?” Simon Peter replies, “Master, to whom shall we go?” The Beowulf-poet does not know fully what the alternative to the warrior culture is, but he suspects that it lies with Christianity, and Wyrd points the way to Christianity.
Let’s move forward in time. Chaucer wrote the Knight’s Tale in the early 1380s, at a time when England had been twice visited in living memory by an epidemic of bubonic plague. The first outbreak of the plague, an event known as the Black Death, was completely unexpected. It struck Europe in late 1347 and, by the spring of 1350, had carried off somewhere between a quarter and a third of the population. No one knew what caused it. On several occasions, victims were quarantined, but the disease spread anyway. We know now that it was carried by fleas that hopped from rodents to other animals and humans, so quarantining human beings would have made no difference. They didn’t know that. All they knew was that so many people were dying that cemeteries were too small, and there weren’t enough living to do the work. Death was terrifying, swift, and almost 100% certain.
One of the effects of the Black Death was to undermine the people’s faith in the Church. They felt that the Church and her ministers had let them down, fleeing in fear from the plague rather than staying to administer to the sick. It wasn’t really fair. Mortality among priests was significantly higher than among any other social class. But the effect is really more important than the reality. People started to doubt the effectiveness of the priests, monks, and friars—a feeling compounded by the growing corruption, especially among the monks and friars. From the English point of view, the Pope was particularly suspicious, living not in Rome or even Ravenna, but in Avignon, a city in the land of their enemy, France. As a result, people tended in this period to reject the Church and favour a kind of mild Arianism. They sought their own salvation, by means of pilgrimage or mysticism—not in themselves bad, but an indication of a kind of despair that had settled upon them. And this despair is an important part of late-fourteenth-century life. If salvation did not come from the Church, then where did it come from? “Master, to whom shall we go?” Eventually, the people of England went first of all to Lollardy, the teachings of John Wyclif, and then to Protestantism. Chaucer, in the 1380s, asked the same kind of question.
The Knight’s Tale is a love story, set, as I say, in pagan times. Two young men, Palamon and Arcite, are in love with the same young lady, Emily, sister-in-law to Duke Theseus of Athens. To settle their dispute, Theseus ordains a tournament. On the eve of the tournament, Palamon prays to Venus, asking that he may gain the love of Emily; Arcite prays to Mars, asking for victory in combat. The two prayers look like they’re mutually exclusive, but Saturn, the grumpiest of the pagan gods, resolves the situation. Arcite wins the tournament, but then his horse throws him, killing him. Everyone is devastated.
For Chaucer, this opened up the question of how to reconcile the fortunes that men endure, the misery and suffering of the world, with a benign God. How can a good Creator allow such suffering to occur in His world?
The suffering of Emily, Palamon, and even Theseus is an echo of the suffering of the people of Europe in the wake of the Black Death—there seems to be no pattern to the suffering, no reason behind it. This point of view is well summed up by Egeus, Theseus’ father:
No man myghte gladen Theseus,
Savynge his olde fader, Egeus,
That knew this worldes transmutacioun,
As he hadde seyn it chaungen up and doun,
Joye after wo, and wo after gladnesse,
And shewed hem ensamples and liknesse.
“Right as ther dyed nevere man,” quod he,
“That he ne lyvede in erthe in som degree,
Right so ther lyvede never man,” he seyde,
“In al this world that somtyme he ne deyde.
This world nys but a thurghfare ful of wo,
And we been pilgrymes passynge to and fro.
Deeth is an ende of every worldes soore.”
And over al this yet seyde he muchel moore.
Everyone parts company for the moment; but Theseus himself calls them together again a year later, and on this occasion, he gives them some consolation. He starts, in a sense, be reiterating what his father had said a year previously:
“The firste moevere of the cause above
Whan he first made the faire cheyne of love,
Greet was theffect, and heigh was his entente;
Wel wiste he, why, and what therof he mente,
For with that faire cheyne of love he bond
The fyr, the eyr, the water, and the lond,
In certeyn boundes that they may nat flee.
That same prince and that same moevere,” quod he,
“Hath stablissed in this wrecched world adoun
Certeyne dayes and duracioun
To al that is engendred in this place,
Over the whiche day they may nat pace;
Al mowe they yet tho dayes wel abregge,
Ther nedeth noght noon auctoritee allegge,
For it is preeved by experience‑
But that me list declaren my sentence.
Thanne may men by this ordre wel discerne
That thilke moevere stable is and eterne.
The First Mover—God—has placed limits upon human actions, Theseus argues. We are not infinite beings, we don’t live for ever. Sooner or later, our agency within the world is terminated by death. So far, this doesn’t sound very optimistic. And worse: since God is perfect, this must be right and good. If it seems evil to us, that’s the result of our own limitations, not His imperfections.
All human actions are futile, Theseus alleges:
Of man and womman seen we wel also,
That nedeth, in oon of thise termes two,
This is to seyn, in youthe or elles age,
He moot be deed, the kyng as shal a page.
Som in his bed, som in the depe see,
Som in the large feeld, as men may se;
Ther helpeth noght, al goth that ilke weye,
Thanne may I seyn that al this thyng moot deye.
What maketh this, but Juppiter the kyng,
That is prince and cause of alle thyng
Convertyng al unto his propre welle
From which it is deryved, sooth to telle,
And heer agayns no creature on lyve
Of no degree availleth for to stryve.Human action is futile in the face of death. And since Jupiter himself, king of the gods, has ordained this, there is no point in struggling against it. “Thanne is it wysdom,” says Theseus, “To maken vertu of necessitee.”