The history of modern Beowulf criticism is often said to begin with Tolkien, author and Merton Professor of Anglo-Saxon at the University of Oxford, who in his 1936 lecture to the British Academy criticised his contemporaries' excessive interest in its historical implications. He noted in Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics that as a result the poem's literary value had been largely overlooked, and argued that the poem "is in fact so interesting as poetry, in places poetry so powerful, that this quite overshadows the historical content..." Tolkien argued that the poem is not an epic; that, while no conventional term exactly fits, the nearest would be elegy; and that its focus is the concluding dirge.
Paganism and Christianity
In historical terms, the poem's characters were Norse pagans (the historical events of the poem took place before the Christianisation of Scandinavia), yet the poem was recorded by Christian Anglo-Saxons who had mostly converted from their native Anglo-Saxon paganism around the 7th century – both Anglo-Saxon paganism and Norse paganism share a common origin as both are forms of Germanic paganism. Beowulf thus depicts a Germanic warrior society, in which the relationship between the lord of the region and those who served under him was of paramount importance.
In terms of the relationship between characters in Beowulf to God, one might recall the substantial amount of paganism that is present throughout the work. Literary critics such as Fred C. Robinson argue that the Beowulf poet tries to send a message to readers during the Anglo-Saxon time period regarding the state of Christianity in their own time. Robinson argues that the intensified religious aspects of the Anglo-Saxon period inherently shape the way in which the poet alludes to paganism as presented in Beowulf. The poet calls on Anglo-Saxon readers to recognize the imperfect aspects of their supposed Christian lifestyles. In other words, the poet is referencing their "Anglo-Saxon Heathenism." In terms of the characters of the epic itself, Robinson argues that readers are "impressed" by the courageous acts of Beowulf and the speeches of Hrothgar. But one is ultimately left to feel sorry for both men as they are fully detached from supposed "Christian truth". The relationship between the characters of Beowulf, and the overall message of the poet, regarding their relationship with God is debated among readers and literary critics alike.
Richard North argues that the Beowulf poet interpreted "Danish myths in Christian form" (as the poem would have served as a form of entertainment for a Christian audience), and states: "As yet we are no closer to finding out why the first audience of Beowulf liked to hear stories about people routinely classified as damned. This question is pressing, given... that Anglo-Saxons saw the Danes as 'heathens' rather than as foreigners." Donaldson wrote that "the poet who put the materials into their present form was a Christian and ... poem reflects a Christian tradition".
Other scholars disagree as to whether Beowulf is a Christian work set in a Germanic pagan context. The question suggests that the conversion from the Germanic pagan beliefs to Christian ones was a prolonged and gradual process over several centuries, and it remains unclear the ultimate nature of the poem's message in respect to religious belief at the time it was written. Robert F. Yeager describes the basis for these questions:
That the scribes of Cotton Vitellius A.XV were Christian [is] beyond doubt, and it is equally sure that Beowulf was composed in a Christianised England since conversion took place in the sixth and seventh centuries. The only Biblical references in Beowulf are to the Old Testament, and Christ is never mentioned. The poem is set in pagan times, and none of the characters is demonstrably Christian. In fact, when we are told what anyone in the poem believes, we learn that they are pagans. Beowulf's own beliefs are not expressed explicitly. He offers eloquent prayers to a higher power, addressing himself to the "Father Almighty" or the "Wielder of All." Were those the prayers of a pagan who used phrases the Christians subsequently appropriated? Or, did the poem's author intend to see Beowulf as a Christian Ur-hero, symbolically refulgent with Christian virtues?
Ursula Schaefer's view is that the poem was created, and is interpretable, within both pagan and Christian horizons. Schaefer's concept of "vocality" offers neither a compromise nor a synthesis of the views which see the poem as on the one hand Germanic, pagan, and oral and on the other Latin-derived, Christian, and literate, but, as stated by Monika Otter: "a 'tertium quid', a modality that participates in both oral and literate culture yet also has a logic and aesthetic of its own."
Politics and warfare
Stanley B. Greenfield has suggested that references to the human body throughout Beowulf emphasise the relative position of thanes to their lord. He argues that the term "shoulder-companion" could refer to both a physical arm as well as a thane (Aeschere) who was very valuable to his lord (Hrothgar). With Aeschere's death, Hrothgar turns to Beowulf as his new "arm." Greenfield argues the foot is used for the opposite effect, only appearing four times in the poem. It is used in conjunction with Unferð (a man described by Beowulf as weak, traitorous, and cowardly). Greenfield notes that Unferð is described as "at the king's feet" (line 499). Unferð is a member of the foot troops, who, throughout the story, do nothing and "generally serve as backdrops for more heroic action."
Daniel Podgorski has argued that the work is best understood as an examination of inter-generational vengeance-based conflict, or feuding. In this context, the poem operates as an indictment of feuding conflicts as a function of its conspicuous, circuitous, and lengthy depiction of the Geatish-Swedish wars—coming into contrast with the poem's depiction of the protagonist Beowulf as being disassociated from the ongoing feuds in every way.