Literature may often serve as an indicator of the tastes and outlooks characteristic of the time in which it was produced. Using this conceit, what is termed as a zeitgeist (literally the spirit of the time) is perhaps one of the most effective methods available as to understanding a foreign culture, especially that of one from a bygone era. It is my intention to use "Beowulf" as a zeitgeist for just that purpose. My discussion will mainly focus upon the changes that were occurring in the social structure, essentially the conversion from a pagan belief system to that of Christianity, and how the anonymous poet handles these elements.
In many ways the epic poem of "Beowulf" serves as both a link and a marker between the two worlds of paganism and Christianity. Although likely composed within the eighth century, the action of the poem is set somewhere around five hundred A.D. this gives Beowulf the dual aspect of both focusing upon an era and a later cultures reflection upon that time period. This Anglican poet fuses Scandinavian history and pagan mythology with Christian elements. However at certain points these elements seem to clash, rather than assimilate seamlessly into one another.
These conflicts are most apparent at times when the poet attempts to place Christian ideals, or otherwise moralize the characters and their actions. Within the time of Beowulf there existed a heroic code, which placed its values upon strength, courage and loyalty. All judgments, both moral and those concerning warfare were based upon the edicts of this code. This code, however, at many times opposes the values of medieval Christianity. The code emphasizes the glory that is to be gained in one's lifetime through heroic deeds, while Christian doctrine stresses that this glory is to be had in the afterlife. Even this concept of "afterlife" is seemingly missing from the Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian people.