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8. Old English Epic Poetry: Beowulf

Daniel Anlezark

Subject Literature

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405159630.2010.00009.x


At the end of the Old English epic poem Beowulf , a cavalcade of princes circles the dead king's newly erected tomb, singing his praises: cwædon þæt he wære    wyruldcyninga manna mildust    ond monðwærust, leodum liðost    ond lofgeornost.         ( Klaeber 1950 : lines 3180–2) They said that he was of all the world's kings, the mildest of men and the most gentle, the kindest to his people and the most eager for praise. Some have found in this last word of the poem, lofgeornost , a sting in the tail, a defnitive moral judgement passed by the poet on the emptiness of the heroic life of the pagan past, a mournful condemnation of a whole system in the imperfection of one extraordinary man ( Stanley 1963 ). The dead king Beowulf, whose youthful adventures are traced for us before the account of his defeat by a dragon in old age, may embody other virtues, but his eagerness for praise might seem from a retrospective Christian moral viewpoint to equate to vaunting pride. The contest with the dragon, in which the beast is killed by Beowulf's young companion Wiglaf, delivers to his people a useless treasure, bereft as they are of a leader and a royal hall in which the dragon's wealth might be shared out. In the world of Beowulf , heroes are brave and die, but others are prudent and live; great kings preside over the ceremonial life of the hall, sharing out treasures, while failed ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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