Volume 9, Issue 4: Thema
North of the World
Imagine yourself standing on the shores of the North Sea, with the sky above you cold and pale. Your father, or perhaps your grandfather, had been a loyal pagan servant of Thor and Odin. You, like them, are both noble and barbaric, but unlike them you are Christian. The emergence of your house from heathenism is recent, and apostasy an ever present possibility, as the Danes once showed by falling back into the worship of their devils. But you and your people, the Geats of southern Sweden, still stand delivered. You look at your ship, which is isig ond utfus, covered with ice and ready to sail. You are ready to embark, and look out over the hrond-rode, or whale road. You live in a cold and austere world, but one full of a glittering and severe beauty.
C.S. Lewis once spoke of the lure of pagan "northernness," a lure which in turn was used to help draw him to Christ. "Pure 'Northernness' engulfed me; a vision of huge, clear spaces hanging above the Atlantic in the endless twilight of Northern summer, remoteness, severity. . . ." This northernness is not necessarily Christian, but when turned to Christ it is redeemed like all sinful things and stands upright. But we have little interest in such redemptions or their results because the church in our era is slack and effeminate. We do not look at an unbounded northern sky and see the eternity of God; rather, we look mystically inward to the swamps and standing puddles of our own hearts and see just what one might expect in such places - but not very much and not very far.
At the bottom of this contrast, indeed, at the bottom of every contrast, is the view taken of God. The outlines of the Beowulf story are fascinating, and the anonymous Anglian poet who wrote it in the eighth century was clearly a Christian speaking to well-instructed Christians. One of his virtues as a poet is that he was a Christian who could clearly remember when his people had not been in the faith. We may recall that the Lord Jesus rebuked the Ephesians for falling from their first love. Individualists as we are, we commonly apply this admonition only to individuals whose loving and individual zeal flags over the individual course of their individual lives. But what of cultures? What was it like for us when our scattered tribes first came to Christ? How did we think of the Almighty then? And how do we see Him now from our supposed urbane and modern sophistication?
In the course of the story, Beowulf kills both Grendel and Grendel's mother, descendents of Cain. A humble man, Beowulf the great warrior gives glory to God. He rules as a king of his people for many years, and does not fall into an overweening pride the way many other Viking chieftains fell. At the end of the book, in his old age, he fights and kills a great dragon, and loses his life in the conflict. In that fight with the dragon, the number of Beowulf's retainers is the same number as Christ's disciples, and, like the disciples, they also scatter. Many other parallels throughout the poem make Beowulf a clear Christological type.
But the great thing throughout this long poem is the view taken of God. We have grown far too comfortable with the name of our God. While our Lord did teach us to speak of Him as a Father, He insisted in the next breath that we hallow His name. But His name now comes off our lips far too readily, whether we curse or we bless. Breaking the third commandment comes easily to us, especially when we are looking at the words on the overhead projector.
But God is Liffrea - which means "Lord of life." When we look around us, it is astonishing that anything could live at all, still less live again. We have no account to give for it unless we acknowledge that our God is the living God, and God of all the living. Our fathers knew, living where they did, that the world around us is mostly indifferent and frequently hostile to the processes of life. We owe nothing to the created world around us; our debt for life is to the living Lord.
The living God is wuldres Wealdend, or "Ruler of glory." "Now the Lord of all life, Ruler of glory, blessed them with a prince, Beo" (ll. 16-17). Our contemporary theism is really a pathetic and sorry affair. We want an avuncular figure in the sky, someone to hand out celestial candies when we are feeling a little blue. But the true God is the Most High; He inhabits glory, and He is the sovereign Ruler of it. If invited to approach Him, if we actually understood what an invitation to approach unapproachable Light meant, we would cover our faces, completely abashed.
The Most High is ece Drihten, the "eternal Lord." "The Almighty drove those demons out . . ." (l. 108). In our earlier history, Thor and Odin did have the power to frighten us - we are pitiful creatures who crawl on the ground, after all - but when all is said and done, we came through the kindness of the gospel to understand that they were mere creatures as well. Thunder is bigger than we are, but a creature still. Our gods lived with us, fellow wretches, on the outskirts of inexhaustible eternity. Only One is able to inhabit eternity, and He is the Almighty. The gospel came and ushered us into fellowship with that personal eternity through the Lord Christ.
The Almighty God is sigora So cyning, the "true King of victories." "No man could enter the tower, open hidden doors, unless the Lord of Victories, He who watches over men, Almighty God Himself, was moved to let him enter, and him alone" (ll. 3053-3057). Whether the victory is Grendel falling before Beowulf, or Satan crushed beneath the heel of Christ, God is the only One to bestow any victory. The psalmist asked the God of Israel to rise up and scatter His enemies; whenever the Power of His right hand is pleased to do so, those enemies are driven before Him like smoke in a gale. The church today is a stranger to victories because we refuse to sing anthems to the king of all victories. We do not want a God of battles; we want sympathy for our surrenders.
Before fighting Grendel, Beowulf declares that the results are in the hands of witig God, that is, "wise God." God's understanding, His wisdom, is infinite. We cannot see to the beginning of the end of it. We cannot define this infinitude by looking at a clear, night sky, but we may in this analogical manner get some sense of it. What does God not know? He is the only wise God. Hrothgar, the Danish king, also speaks of wigtig Drihten, the "wise Lord." He is the only wise Lord. What is this wisdom? Who is this wisdom?
Beowulf also acknowledges that the wise God is halig Dryhten, the "holy Lord." Our idea of holiness is greatly truncated today; we limit it in thousands of scrupling and schoolmarmish ways. We have lost all understanding of the numinous. We do not know what it would be like to walk through a grove of ancient trees sacred to the holy and terrible gods, and then be converted into the worship of One holier, and stranger, and mightier than these. We reject the shining of the ancient and numinous gods, not because we repudiate those gods as every Christian must, but because we have rejected the very idea of the numinous. We reject them, not because they are creatures, but because they remind us of the divine. This is not the holiness of Christianity, but rather the crass materialism of that great loser, modernity, and its ugly sister, postmodernity.
Hrothgar says that Beowulf has overcome his enemy urh Dritnes miht, which is to say, "through the power of the Lord." Beowulf had been given a tremendous power in his fighting grasp, but the glory for this strength and his subsequent victory is gladly attributed to the Lord of all power.
Hrothgar also speaks of Alwealdan, the "Ruler of all." These early Christians with Hrothgar, on the outlying borders of the medieval world, were no Deists, and they had fashioned no compromises with those who would rob God of His sovereignty. Hrothgar also lifts up wuldres Hyrde, the "Shepherd of glory."
Beowulf refers to the Lord as Waldend fira, the "Ruler of men," and ecum Dryhtne, the "eternal Lord," and Wuldurcyninge, the "King of glory." "Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O ye gates; even lift them up, ye everlasting doors; and the King of glory shall come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, he is the King of glory (Ps. 24:7-10).
The way we think of God necessarily comes out in our speech; the way we refer to Him shows the condition of our hearts. One of the things which should immediately strike us as we read through this wonderful poem is the maturity which is most evident in the way God is reverenced when He is addressed and mentioned. This maturity stands in stark contrast to the breezy flippancy evident in the midst of professing Christians today. In certain key respects, we corporately have clearly fallen from our first love.
Critical in the unfolding of the poem is the idea of wyrd, which although it gives us our word "weird," primarily refers to "destiny" rather than simply to the strange or odd. The use of the word and concept in the poem is indebted to Boethius, and is therefore strongly linked to the Christian medievalism far to the south. The word refers to the unaccountably mysterious and uncanny destinies of men. We moderns have tidy little minds, and want a place for everything and everything in its place - we want the universe sorted out as though it were not any more complicated than the storage shelves in our garage. We have no room for the wyrd, for the idea that ineffable wisdom governs us in the most inscrutable ways. Trapped in our thicket of time and chance, we imagine there is nothing above or outside it. Because we do not know, because we do not see, it must not be there to be known or seen. The writer of Ecclesiastes knew better. "Then I beheld all the work of God, that a man cannot find out the work that is done under the sun: because though a man labor to seek it out, yet he shall not find it; yea further; though a wise man think to know it, yet shall he not be able to find it" (Ecc. 8:17). The author of Beowulf knew the same: "Then and now men must lie in their Maker's holy hands moved only as He wills: our hearts must seek out that will" (ll. 1057-1060).
We who are now alive do not remember how to apprehend beauty; we are so unlettered by modernity that we no longer ache to think of it. Our inability to comprehend such things pervades everything we do. Some hope that postmodernism will show the way out, but a postmodernist is nothing more than a modernist who has admitted his cultural illiteracy . . . which is not the same thing as reading.
Christians by and large do not stand against this folly with a clear understand of antithesis. Coming to worship the Lord in the "beauty of holiness," this somehow gets translated into the "warmth of niceness." Almost entirely gone is the experience of being run through, pierced by the numinous. We acknowledge that some things are "pretty" or "nice," and desire to be dabbed by them. We say we call for the gods of beauty but summon up the imbecilic and grinning demons of kitsch.
The answer is not Beowulf, but our tribes saw things then clearly which we do not see now. They saw their God. And consequently, we can say of this poem, as Lewis said of Tolkien's writing, "Here are beauties which pierce like swords or burn like cold iron; here is a book that will break your heart."
But how can we break our hearts until we have hearts to break?