In a famous passage in the Venerable Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, a Christian missionary is attempting to convert a pagan tribe to Christianity. The king is inclined to convert but asks the opinions of his leading counselors. One responds as follows:
“The present life of man upon earth, O king, seems to me, in comparison with that time which is unknown to us, like to the swift flight of a sparrow through the house wherein you sit at supper in winter, with your ealdormen and thegns, while the fire blazes in the midst, and the hall is warmed, but the wintry storms of rain or snow are raging abroad. The sparrow, flying in at one door and immediately out at another, whilst he is within, is safe from the wintry tempest; but after a short space of fair weather, he immediately vanishes out of your sight, passing from winter into winter again. So this life of man appears for a little while, but of what is to follow or what went before we know nothing at all. If, therefore, this new doctrine tells us something more certain, it seems justly to deserve to be followed.” The other elders and king's counsellors, by Divine prompting, spoke to the same effect.
This idea seems relevant to the Old English poem Beowulf in a number of ways, including the following:
- Very early in Beowulf, the great Danish king Shield Sheafson dies. The poet reports his death by commenting that
Shield was thriving when his time came
and he crossed over into the Lord’s keeping. (26-27)
The report of Shield’s death recalls the sparrow anecdote in at least two ways. First, Shield is “thriving” at the time he dies, just as the sparrow moves suddenly from the warmth of the room (life on earth). However, the crucial difference is that while the sparrow exits into a bitter, dangerous storm, Shield crosses over “into the Lord’s keeping.” The sparrow anecdote made Christianity seem attractive to pagans because Christianity taught that there might be something far better than a cold, metaphorical storm to anticipate after death – that a warm and loving father existed in heaven, where one might spend eternity in utter joy. The initial reference to Shield’s death implies that Shield was taken into heaven immediately after dying.
- Likewise, at the very end of the poem, when Beowulf’s corpse is burned, the poet writes that “Heaven swallowed the smoke” (3155). This phrase can be taken to imply that Beowulf’s soul is received into heaven. Indeed, earlier in the poem, at the moment of Beowulf’s death, the poet had noted that Beowulf’s
. . . soul fled from his breast
to its destined place among the steadfast ones. (2819-20)
In other words, his soul had gone to heaven.
These passages from Beowulf imply, as does Bede’s anecdote about the sparrow, why Christianity seemed so appealing to so many pagans. The Christian faith offered a happy alternative to the pagan vision of earth as a brief respite from the cold and dark unknown.