Like the Norse sagas of the early Middle Ages, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf originated in the oral tradition. The poem as it has come down to us was not written down until the ninth century, though the events in the poem itself seem to indicate the action occurs during the late fifth to early sixth centuries. The temporal disconnect between the time of the poem and the time of the poet creates some interesting difficulties when it comes to the issue of interpretation.
The most telling issue with which readers of the epic must contend is the tension between a pagan worldview and a Christian worldview. The world of the characters in the poem, the world of Scandinavia in the late fifth and sixth centuries, was a world untouched by Christianity. Depicting a fundamentally pagan world was somewhat problematic for a ninth-century Christian poet. How can the pagan world of the poem be reconciled with the Christian world of the poet? The tension between the two worldviews derives from the poet infusing the story of Beowulf with Christian elements, including number symbolism and Christian imagery.
In medieval literature, the importance of numbers cannot be overstated. Certain numbers recalled for readers important aspects of Christianity, and in doing so infused the stories with additional, more profound meaning. The number three, the number of the trinity, is the perhaps the most used of Christian numbers. In Beowulf, the poet structures the story into three parts: Beowulf’s struggle against Grendel at Heorot, his battle with Grendel’s mother, and his battle against the dragon. Consistent with the Christian theme, each battle represents a greater challenge for Beowulf than the preceding one. While Beowulf’s deeds themselves do not require Christianization to serve their purpose for the story, the use of Christian number symbolism infuses the action with greater significance for the reader. The poet also emphasizes images and light and darkness to stress the importance of the struggle of good versus evil. For example, the poet depicts Beowulf in shining mail, whereas the creature Grendel is depicted as the very essence of darkness.
The most subtle distinction between the world of the poet and the world of the characters relates to the question of morality. The behavior of the characters, all of whom adhere to the warrior code, also exhibits strong elements of Christian morality. Rather than emphasizing the overall structure of the story or the theme of good and evil, he stresses those aspects of the warrior code that are consistent with a Christian view of morality, particularly the idea of honor and justice. In both the warrior code and the Christian view of morality, Beowulf victories are evidence of justice. The primary difference is that in the warrior code, Beowulf is victorious because he has been favored by the gods with the strength, bravery, and valor to do so. In the Christian view, the justice of Beowulf’s being victorious lies in the larger sense of Beowulf, symbolizing good, conquers evil.
The relationship between the poet’s world and the world of the characters rests in the sometimes awkward incorporation of Christian elements into a pagan framework. With number symbolism and the use of light and darkness, the conflation of the two worldviews is more apparent to the reader than it is with the integration of Christian morality into the warrior code, which prove more compatible.