Death is inevitable and what happens after death will always be a mystery to the living. For this reason, the afterlife has always been a topic which artists have chosen to explore in their works. Throughout the chronology of British literature, artists have used society's views as a basis to examine the afterlife, and look at it in new ways. The afterlife has been a theme in British Literature from the Anglo-Saxon period of Beowulf to the twentieth century writings of Dylan Thomas. The mysteriousness of the afterlife makes it a topic which artists will always be eager to analyze.
During the Anglo-Saxon Period which lasted from 449 AD to 1066 AD, the popular belief of the times was that a person's life was predetermined by Wyrd, the Old English word for fate, and there was nothing which the individual could do to change his destiny. The most famous writing from this epoch is the epic poem Beowulf. Beowulf, the main character, had no fear of the evil monster Grendel because he believed "Grendel and I are called/ Together," by fate. He also displayed his faith in the beliefs of society when he told Hrogthgar "Fate will unwind as it must." When Grendel died, the soldiers "had no semse of sorrow, felt no regret for his sufferings," because they believed Grendel was destined to die, and there was no way to defy destiny. They also did not pity Grendel because they considered him to be entirely evil because it was his fate. The Anglo-Saxon's strong belief in fate led to them not fearing death as much as during other times periods in British Literature. Beowulf's strong belief in fate was a reflection in the society's pagan belief in fate. Due to the fact that the society at the time of Beowulf was pagan, they did not believe in the afterlife.
The Christian revision to Beowulf illustrated a different outlook on death and the afterlife. When monks were copying the story, they realized it dealt with pagan ideals, and they incorporated Christian ideals into the text. The monks included the concept God was the ultimate one who controls fate. This was shown when Beowulf told Hrogthgar "God must decide/ Who will be given to death's cold grip." The monks also inserted the idea that there is an afterlife. When Grendel died, "hell opened up to receive him." They thought the pagan beliefs about death and the afterlife in Beowulf were unacceptable, so they included their Christian views of death and the afterlife into the poem. The society's values greatly influenced the monks revision of the poems.
"The Seafarer" is another Anglo-Saxon poem which deals with the afterlife. The poem was written by Bede, who was a monk, so it contains the Christian views of the afterlife which are very similar to the one's included in the Christian revision to Beowulf. The speaker believed "Death leaps at the fools who forgot their God./ He who lives humbly has angles from Heaven/ To carry him courage and strength and belief." This showed the belief that God must be worshipped to get to Heaven, and if you do not follow God, like Grendel in Beowulf, you will not go to Heaven. In the poem, the persona expressed that riches can not buy entrance into heaven in the afterlife because, "nothing/ Golden shakes the wrath of God/ For a soul overflowing with sin, and nothing/ Hidden on earth rises to Heaven." This poem reflected an Anglo-Saxon monk's views of the afterlife, which were centered around his strong faith in Christianity.
During the Medieval Period, the Catholic church played a dominant role in society. In England, the church's abbeys and monasteries were the main centers of learning and the arts before the founding of Oxford and Cambridge universities during the thirteenth century. The church preached that following their faith would led a person to the afterlife. A piece of literature which displayed the belief in the afterlife was Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. The story starts at...