Literature and Theatre

Christopher Abram

How do we become spatially intimate with Beowulf? Where do we feel closest to this poem? This essay locates the essential space of Beowulf not in Beowulf’s indistinct Scandinavian homeland, nor under the bright lights of the ‘historical’ Heorot at Lejre in Denmark, but in the fens of East Anglia. Drawing on the author’s own experiences of living in or near the fens, this essay discusses how the poem’s first descriptions of Grendel conjure up a fenland that still rings true to East Anglians in the twenty-first century and how the fenland environment is essential to the poem’s ‘psychology of terror’. Turning to the perspective of indigeneity within the poem, the essay then argues that intimacy of this sort fosters, and is fostered by, a sense of Grendel and his mother as tragic protagonists rather than demonic antagonists, forced into acts of resistance by Hrothgar’s imperialist aggression. Comparing this process to the historical draining of the fens from the sixteenth century onwards, the essay considers the poem’s complex explorations of the nature of ‘home’ and the violence of ecocide.

in Dating Beowulf
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Intimate relations
Irina Dumitrescu

Relationships change people. Intimate encounters with poems do too. This chapter considers Beowulf’s closest relation – in very literal terms – in literary history, the Old English poem Andreas. Dumitrescu argues that this other long Old English poem, sometimes maligned for what critics have characterized as heavy and clumsy borrowing from Beowulf, is ‘Beowulf’s most loving reader’. Revealing the entangled and reciprocal logics of intertextual intimacies, the chapter explores how Andreas’s borrowings of Beowulf’s style lead us to changed encounters with both poems. Indeed, literary influence does not always travel just in one direction; Beowulf, too, despite being senior in the couple, is transformed through Andreas’s imitation. Its pagans become monstrous. Andreas thus reveals the darker side of Beowulf: the blindness of heroes, the tenuous distinctions between monsters and men, and the deathly potential of history and its artefacts. Modern scholars have recognized these too, but Andreas, Beowulf’s first and most loving reader, saw them first.

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Donna Beth Ellard

This essay searches Beowulf for scenes of childbirth and infant caregiving, moving from the poem’s opening description of the orphaned Scyld Scefing to think about Beowulf’s own early childhood experiences. Drawing on Old English, Anglo-Latin, and Old Norse sources as well as contemporary feminist theorists of affect and the family, the essay explores a backdrop of early medieval abandoned children, which illuminates the intimate ties shared by both Scyld and Beowulf. Although Beowulf may seem unconcerned with childhood or parenting, ‘anecdotes of parent–child bonds populate all corners of the poem’, and ‘[f]ar from being ignored or rendered incidental, the domestic origins and early childhood events of these heroes create an organizing “pulse” for the adult activities of Scyld and Beowulf’. Moreover, the abandonment of Scyld and Beowulf can be repositioned as an act of complex care that manifests attachments beyond the immediate purview of one’s biological family and cultural community.

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Roberta Frank

Beowulf has one big back story – the fall of the dynasty of Danish kings founded by Scyld – almost none of which is told ‘in’ the poem. The legends themselves are present in the poem chiefly as mysterious dark matter, sensed by the shadows they cast and by their gravitational pull. This chapter looks at the submerged narrative of the poem, beginning in its opening lines where we learn of the future destruction by fire of Heorot, Hrothgar’s newly erected hall, and of in-law trouble waiting impatiently in the wings. The chapter then looks at how (and why) the allusions in Beowulf to Scylding dynastic history are set out concentrically, in a loose ring-structure, an enveloping barrow of remembrances. As this study reveals, a shared sense of wit or style offers the spark for an intimate relationship, as the Beowulf poet entices with wryness and obliqueness, using seduction to turn audiences into accomplices and companions in making meaning, not whoopee. The real love affair in the poem is thus between the narrator and his auditor.

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Thinking, feeling, making
James Paz

This essay unites meditations on the author’s background as a working-class, first-generation scholar with an appeal to get to know Beowulf’s unseen makers: its metalworkers, embroiderers, and craftspeople of all kinds. In dialogue with the place of skilled labour in William Morris’s socialism, the use of the word cræft in various Old English discourses, and more recent critical attention to craft, the essay analyses the concept of ‘craft’ as an illuminating rubric for getting intimate with the poem, even as the poem’s craftworkers – both anonymous and legendary, as in the case of Wayland – frequently prove elusive. Whereas printing and teaching Beowulf alongside images of Sutton Hoo overemphasizes the poem’s aristocratic material culture, this essay centres instead the poem’s skilled labourers in order to explore questions of class and classed knowledge that inhere within the poem’s silences and offer an account of Beowulf from the perspective of the craftworker rather than the hero.

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A queer history
Peter Buchanan

This essay examines how Bryher’s novel Beowulf, a remarkable work of modernism written against the backdrop of the London Blitz, opens up questions of queerness and interpretations of the women of the Old English Beowulf. Rather than serving as eponymous hero, in Bryher’s novel Beowulf is reduced to a statue of an English bulldog. Developing the queer relation between the Old English poem and the modernist novel, Buchanan explores Bryher’s distinctive mode of intimacy and community in order to shape engagement with tradition and the place of women in a world that can be hostile to them. In the first half of the chapter, drawing on Elizabeth Freeman’s analysis of queer temporalities, this essay takes Bryher’s medievalism seriously in order to explore how the past may be used as a source of pleasure in constructing queer identity in a violent present of uncertain future. In the second, a reading of history as palimpsest in the poetry of Bryer’s sometime partner H.D. opens up a new interpretation of the women of the Old English Beowulf.

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Benjamin A. Saltzman

The medieval Latin word intimare (whence intimatus and thus ‘intimacy’) denotes primarily an action of moving inwards and a state of interiority (intima), but also a mode of verbal communication, of making known, of announcing, of explanation. For us, these two senses are divided between the adjective (‘intimate’) and the verb (‘to intimate’), and when juxtaposed they seem to represent two radically antithetical phenomena. The one tends to imply internalized private reticence; the other, externalized public expression. In dialogue with Old English wisdom literature, this essay examines how in Beowulf these two senses of intimacy converge at moments when stories are shared and recited: the scop’s clear song (90a), the Unferð episode (611–12a), the celebration following Grendel’s defeat (1063–8a; 2105–17a), and Beowulf’s return to Hygelac (2149b–2151). These moments of intimacy and their epistemologies of community entail both the expression of knowledge through narrative as well as the inward synthesis of community, often corresponding with communal experiences of joy.

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Studies in intimacy

Featuring essays from some of the most prominent voices in early medieval English studies, Dating Beowulf: studies in intimacy playfully redeploys the word ‘dating’, which usually heralds some of the most divisive critical impasses in the field, to provocatively phrase a set of new relationships with an Old English poem. This volume presents an argument for the relevance of the early Middle Ages to affect studies and vice versa, while offering a riposte to anti-feminist discourse and opening avenues for future work by specialists in the history of emotions, feminist criticism, literary theory, Old English literature, and medieval studies alike. To this end, the chapters embody a range of critical approaches, from queer theory to animal studies and ecocriticism to Actor-Network theory, all organized into clusters that articulate new modes of intimacy with the poem.

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Emotional connections to the young hero in Beowulf
Mary Dockray-Miller

This essay focuses on the audience’s emotional connections to Wiglaf, the young hero who helps Beowulf kill the dragon at the end of the Old English poem. Noting the surprisingly little attention that Wiglaf has received in the critical literature, Dockray-Miller uses lexical and connotative analysis to consider questions of gender and emotion around this character. As her chapter reveals, by the end of the poem, Wiglaf is no longer defined as young but has become lexically equivalent to Beowulf as an eorl (2908), completing his emotional growth and assuming the role of primary male in the world of the poem. Wiglaf enacts a traditional and cross-cultural ritual of mourning a (metaphorical) father, thus establishing himself as an archetypal figure with whom the audience can easily identify. This affective connection also endows Wiglaf with emotional attractiveness; his masculine appeal and social status are enhanced by his grief in such a way that Wiglaf's performance realigns the poem’s definition of heroic masculinity away from military stoicism and towards emotional association.

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Beowulf translations by Seamus Heaney and Thomas Meyer
David Hadbawnik

This chapter addresses questions about how well the dynamics of textual translation can speak to the dynamics of human intimacy, and how ‘extratextual’ intimacies determine or allow different modes of translation. The essay pairs two important Beowulf translations that at first glance appear among the most wildly divergent – those of Seamus Heaney and Thomas Meyer – teasing out a critique of customary critical and reviewing practices that (often tacitly) plot translations of Beowulf in terms of a false dilemma of ‘fidelity’ against ‘creativity’. Drawing on Leo Bersani, this essay views intimacy as ‘a process … that risks intense closeness and desire – all the feelings involved in an erotic relationship, without the actual sex – for the sake of discovery, revelation, and freedom’ that offers an alternative way to consider the relationships between source text, translation, and reader, that even translation theory innovators such as Lawrence Venuti tend to evaluate in terms of the source text alone.

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