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On Heroes and Monsters: The Proposed Influence of the Aeneid on Beowulf

Beowulf and Grendel Mother

On Heroes and Monsters: The Proposed Influence of the Aeneid on Beowulf

By Marcus Wang

Hirundo: The McGill Journal of Classical Studies, Vol.13 (2014-5)

Beowulf fighting Grendel's Mother, from Siegfried, the hero of the North, and Beowulf, the hero of the Anglo-Saxons (1909)
Beowulf fighting Grendel’s Mother, from Siegfried, the hero of the North, and Beowulf, the hero of the Anglo-Saxons (1909)

Introduction: Since the inception of Beowulf scholarship, academics have proposed various possible influences for the authorless work, and while advocates of Biblical, Scandinavian, and Celtic influences have developed many convincing arguments. However, more than a century of scholarship has generated relatively few such arguments for classical influences. This dearth could be due to the fact that advocates of classical influence take less into account the textual references and archeological evidence that gestures to the presence of Virgilian influence upon the text; or scholars may lack the necessary foundation for such an argument. Yet, these obstacles have not prevented the current consensus that Beowulf has Scandinavian origins, at least in part; moreover, this is an argument based only on textual features. Perhaps the lack of scholarship on classical influences of Beowulf is due less to a lack of evidence, and rather to the methodology that scholars have applied to this material so far.

In perhaps the most comprehensive study of classical influence on Beowulf, Tom Burns Haber exhaustively analyzes and compares the motifs, sentiments, and phraseology of Beowulf and the Aeneid. Yet, Haber’s meticulous analysis proves little Virgilian influence on Beowulf because of his broad theoretical framework. For instance, Haber correctly points out that both Beowulf and Aeneas are proud and sympathetic to the causes of their companions. But these traits are so common among epic heroes that Haber’s argument holds little weight in specifically advocating for Virgilian influence. On the other hand, convincing pieces of scholarship on Beowulf’s influences, such as Andy Orchard on the influence of Samuel 1 or Fidel Fajardo-Acosta on the poet’s role in Beowulf and the Aeneid, share a common methodology: a comparison of lengthy passages or summaries of lengthy passages followed by an extensive discussion on their similarities.

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Scholars seeking to prove Virgilian influence on Beowulf based solely on textual features should adopt the above method. Doing so will bring such arguments to a more concrete theoretical foundation. The best demonstration of the technique mentioned in the previous paragraph is the application of this method to a comparative study of the heroes and monsters of Beowulf and the Aeneid. Therefore, the proposed study will take an indepth approach by examining two sets of passages to show that the similarities between the behaviors, descriptions, and lineages of the heroes and monsters are so precise that they exclude many other possible influences of Beowulf. Where it is found that a scholar has already applied the proposed methodology, attempts will be made to refute possible counterarguments, or to point to similarities missed or omitted by the scholar so as to strengthen the existing argument.

Click here to read this article from McGill University

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