“The Wealth They Left Us”: Two Women Author Themselves through Others’ Lives in Beowulf

“The Wealth They Left Us”: Two Women Author Themselves through Others’ Lives in Beowulf

Osborn, Marijane

The Heroic Age Issue 5 Summer/Autumn 2001


This essay proposes the idea, based on narrative genres identified both by native tellers of tales and anthropologists, that the Beowulf poet imagines the queens Wealhtheow and Hygd as “consciously” using the stories of women who have lived before them as a means for evaluating and directing their personal lives.

People talk about themselves and others in Beowulf. In at least twenty substantial passages they recount significant events from their own or other’s lives, placing these life-events on public view for contemplation, judgment, or example. Such stories seem to be, in Victor Turner’s (1980:146-47) words, “special reflexive mechanisms for mirroring and monitoring behavior in a culture.” They inscribe and teach the ideology of a culture, especially if we are to understand ideology, in Althusser’s (1971:133) terms, as “not the system of the real relations which govern the existence of individuals, but the imaginary relation of those individuals to the real relations in which they live.” Malinowski (1922:299) tells how the mythic narratives that the Trobriand Islanders call lili’u exercise “an active influence on their conduct and tribal life,” and Plato, according to Havelock, was so conscious of the powerful effect of traditional stories that he wished to bar storytellers (“poets”) from his Utopia because poetry represented indoctrination. Plato refers, of course, not to poetry on the written page as we think of it, but performed narrative poetry, the medium for learning culture in an oral society. As Havelock (1963:100) explains, “Oral verse was the instrument of a cultural indoctrination, the ultimate purpose of which was the preservation of group identity”. Much like the stories that children tell themselves, and are told, today, “poetry” gave people paradigms through which they discovered their potential selves and the way those selves might fit together with those of others into a culture. But such traditional storytelling, by persuasively affirming the ancient social constructs, according to Plato as Havelock interprets him, also inhibited change, and specifically the sort of educational reform that Plato advocated.

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