Narration and Heroes: Narrative Options in Recounting the Deeds of Heroes in Literature and Art of the Early Medieval Period

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Redeeming Beowulf and Byrhtnoth: The Heroic Idiom as Marker of Value in Old English Poetry

In this paper I shall argue that the modern view that Beowulf and The Battle of Maldon contain criticism of heroic culture is inaccurate. In some ways, my conclusions are revisionary, and my readings may on the surface seem nothing more than a return to old-fashioned critical positions. This paper does not, however, propose that Old English poetry unthinkingly glorified heroic action; rather, it suggests that the heroic idiom is the marker and guarantee of value in Old English poetry. Any criticism in these poems is directed at those who fail to live up to its standards, not at the standards themselves.

One way to test this idea of the heroic idiom as a measure of value is to scrutinise the mock heroic in Old English poetry. Using Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock as a model, it can be seen that Riddle 52 (Pen and Fingers)—rather surprisingly—measures the work of the scribe in the scriptorium by the measure of the heroic idiom and finds it wanting. In contrast, riddles previously labelled ‘mock heroic’ (Riddle 15 and Riddle 88, for example) do not, in fact, devalue their subjects, even if their use of the heroic idiom might be seen to overinflate the importance of everyday objects. Regardless, in all three of these texts the heroic idiom stands as the marker and guarantee of value.

The main evidence for the role of the heroic idiom as a marker and guarantee of value, however, is its use, right up to the end of the Anglo-Saxon period, to represent God and his saints. Just as gold was evidently seen as a suitable medium with which to adorn the cross, so the heroic idiom was a suitable medium with which to adorn the ineffable power of the creator at creation as well as his most loyal and worthy followers, notably Abraham.

This use of the heroic idiom for religious matters has, of course, been noted many times before, but the significance of this use for the vexed questions of irony in Beowulf and criticism in The Battle of Maldon has not been fully explored. Although it cannot finally resolve them, this paper will address these difficult questions by looking at the issue of value and how it is marked and guaranteed in Old English poetry
Period7 Sept 201110 Sept 2011
Event typeConference
LocationSantiago de Compostela, SpainShow on map