Beowulf and the Illusion of History

Beowulf and the Illusion of History

Beowulf and the Illusion of History

Beowulf and the Illusion of History

Synopsis

Most Beowulf scholars have held either that the poems' minor episodes are more or less based on incidents in Scandinavian history or at least that they entail nothing of the fabulous or monstrous. Beowulf and the Illusion of History contends that, like the poem's Grendelkin episodes, certain minor episodes involve monsters and contain motifs of the "Bear's Son" folktale. In the Finn Episode the monsters are to be taken as physically present in the story as we have it, while in the mention of the hero's fight with Daeghrefn and perhaps in the accounts of the fight with Ongenbeow, the principal foes, though originally monsters, appear now more like ordinary humans. The inference permits the elucidation of passages hitherto obscure and indicates that the capability of the Beowulf poet as a "maker" is greater than has been thought. John F. Vickrey, is Professor of English, Emeritus, at Lehigh University.

Excerpt

Early in her book THE AUDIENCE OF BEOWULF, Dorothy Whitelock remarks that “too much brooding over our inadequate scraps of evidence for the Finn tale has been one of the most unprofitable and time-consuming occupations of Beowulf scholars.” And many scholars—mostly, one would suppose, other than those who gave up their time thus unprofitably—would agree with her evaluation. Certainly it is hard to disagree with the view that on many points of interpretation the evidence for resolving some question is distressingly scanty. In the present instance, then, a certain embarrassment attends what can appear to be a resumption of this very occupation. But prompting such resumption is the strong belief that on major points of interpretation some evidence has been been misconstrued and some other evidence overlooked—in short, that the Finn Episode has been much misunderstood. Furthermore, some of what are commonly but somewhat misleadingly called the minor episodes in Beowulf are similarly misunderstood. So the present inquiry, which began some years ago as separate papers on the episode and on the character Dæghrefn in the third mention of Hygelac’s raid into Frisia, has become a much longer and combined study of these two passages.

The older criticism of Beowulf commonly thought that its minor episodes by and large reflected historical incidents. More than a hundred years ago W. P. Ker said that “while the main story is simplicity itself, the merest commonplace of heroic legend, all about it, in the historic allusions, there are revelations of a whole world of tragedy.” Later, and with more specificity, R. W. Chambers said that the main episodes of the poem “are depicted against a background of what appears to be fact,” and Frederick Klaeber said that “the subject-matter of Beowulf comprises in the first place, as the main plot, three fabulous exploits redolent of folk-tale fancy … and secondly a number of apparently historical elements which are intro-

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