The hero on the edge: Constructions of heroism in Beowulf in the context of ancient and medieval epic

Beowulf depicted in a 1915 bookThe hero on the edge: Constructions of heroism in Beowulf in the context of ancient and medieval epic

By Rodger Wilkie

PhD Dissertation, University of New Brunswick, 2007

Abstract: One defining attribute of ancient and medieval epic heroes is a rage through which the hero threatens his own society. Traces of heroic rage, prominent in such figures as the Greek Achilles and the Irish Cu Chulainn, are detectable in Beowulf, and this rage anchors Beowulf within the context of Indo-European epic heroism. Yet the question of how epic texts construct epic heroes remains. This study considers such heroes generally, and Beowulf specifically, as liminal figures inhabiting the fluid boundaries between order/disorder, masculine/feminine, us/them, human/monstrous, and organic/technological. Through violent and verbal public performances against a disordered or disordering other, the hero emerges as an agent of his society’s masculinity. He also emerges not only as monstrous, but also as a specific kind of monster, a cyborg, and thus paradoxically as both agent of and tool for violence

Introduction: Few works of Medieval English literature are more studied and more written about than Beowulf. A poem of notoriously indeterminate origin, Beowulf has been mined for historical, archaeological, philosophical, religious, mythological, and philological data, and since the 1930s has even come to be appreciated as a story, and a rather good story at that. The main character himself has been variously interpreted as a reflex of a pagan god, a pagan hero, a Christian hero, a Christ figure, an ideal warrior-king, a less than ideal warrior-king, and a downright travesty of a warrior king wallowing in ignorance and sin. He is praised and condemned, saved and damned—an admonitory paragon of everything a good man should aspire to and shun while stumbling toward the ecumenical mead-hall of dubious salvation where monks lament, valkyries pour drinks, and Ingeld arm-wrestles Christ to a draw.

Whatever else he may be, though — and he may be any or all of these things — Beowulf is a hero. It is as a hero that he presents himself upon a first reading of the poem in which he lives, and it is as a hero that he has made and continues to make his strongest impression upon readers both specialist and generalist. But he is not just a hero in the general sense: he is an epic hero in a specific cultural model — the Indo-European model.

As such, he can claim for his kindred such figures as Achilles, Cu Chulainn, Aeneas and Tumus, Siegfried, Roland, and a long list of others. The following study, therefore, offers an interpretation of Beowulf in the light of the heroic tradition as reflected in Indo- European literature. In comparing Beowulf to other works of heroic literature including The Iliad, The Aeneid, and The Tain Bo Cuailnge, I discuss the tensions that exist between the hero and his society, and offer explanations for these tensions from a variety of theoretical points of view. Specific topics for exploration include the hero’s rage, the gendered construction of his identity, and his function as a monstrous — and technologically modified — other.

Click here to read this thesis from the University of New Brunswick

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