A History of English Literature

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The heroic way of life – magnificent, hospitable and courageous – depends upon
military success. It can descend into the world of the feud, violent and merciless. The
heroic code involves obligations to lord, to family and to guest, and heroic literature
brings these obligations into tension, with tragic potential.
A comparison can be made between Beowulf and the Achilles of the Iliad.When
Achilles’s pride is piqued, he will not fight, rejoining the Greeks only after his friend
and substitute is killed. Achilles takes out his anger on the Trojan Hector, killing him,
dishonouring his corpse and refusing to yield it for burial, until at last Hector’s
father humiliates himself before Achilles to beg his son’s body. Achilles is reminded
that even he must die. Homer’s characterization is more dramatic, brilliant and
detailed; the characters ofBeowulfare types rather than individuals. The ethos is also
different. Beowulf devotedly serves his lord Hygelac, and his people the Geats. His
youthful exploits in Denmark repay a debt of honour he owes to Hrothgar, who had
saved Beowulf ’s father Edgetheow, paying compensation for the life of a man
Edgetheow had killed. Like Achilles, Beowulf is eloquent, courageous, quick to act,
unusually strong. But Beowulf is considerate, magnanimous and responsible. As
Hrothgar points out, he has an old head on young shoulders; he makes a good king.
Yet as the poem makes clear in a series of stories marginal to Beowulf ’s own life,
most warriors from ruling families fall far short of Beowulf ’s responsibility and
judgement.Beowulfis both a celebration of, and an elegy for, heroism. The ideal
example set by Beowulf himself implies a Christian critique of an ethic in which
honour can be satisfied by ‘the world’s remedy’, vengeance.
Grendel envies the harmony of the feast in Heorot and destroys it. He is a fiend:
feond means both enemy and malign spirit. He is also in man’s shape, though of
monstrous size. He is identified as a descendant of Cain, the first murderer, who in
Genesis is marke d and driven out by God from human society. Fratricide was an
occupational hazard in ruling Germanic families, since succession was not by
primogeniture but by choice of the fittest. In the heroic age of the north, sons were
often fostered out, partly to reduce conflict and risk, but fraternal rivalry remained
endemic. In Beowulfthe greatest crimes are treachery to a lord and murder of
kindred. The folklore figure of Grendel embodies the savage spirit of fratricidal envy.
The dragon is a bru te without Grendel’s human and demonic aspects. He destroys
Beowulf ’s hall by fire in revenge for the theft of a golden cup from his treasure. The
dragon jealously guards his hoard underground, whereas the king shares out rings
in the hall.
Beowulfcommands respect by the depth and maturity of its understanding.
Although its archaic world of warriors and rulers is simple, the poem is often
moving in its sober concern with wisdom and right action, the destiny of dynasties,
the limits of human understanding and power, and with the creative and the
destructive in human life. Its style has reserve and authority.


The most striking early English poems are the Elegies of the Exeter Book: ‘The
Wanderer’ and ‘The Seafarer’ are heroic elegies, as is ‘The Ruin’. A second group of
love-elegies is ‘The Husband’s Message’, ‘The Wife’s Complaint’ and ‘Wulf and
Eadwace r’. The Elegies are dramatic monologues whose speaker is unnamed and
whose situation is implied rather than specified. In the first two poems the speaker
is an exile who lacks a lord; his soliloquy moves from his own sufferings to a general


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