Ne Sorga: Grief and Revenge in Beowulf

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    Abstract

    The idea for this chapter first came from reading Jurasinski’s recent work on legalhistory and Old English literature. In his stimulating monograph, AncestralPrivileges, he examines how contemporary assumptions coloured the scholarshipof early Anglo-Saxonists and how this continues to affect the scholarly tradition.In particular, he devotes a chapter of the book to tracing the origin of the view(held first by nineteenth-century historians and then by literary scholars) thatvengeance was a ‘sacred duty’1 in Germanic cultures, and he suggests that, whilehonour is clearly a central element of these cultures, its importance has, at times,been over-stated.2 Of particular interest to us here, he writes extensively on theHrethel episode, attempting to find a definite legal precedent for the poet’sassertion that the killing of the king’s son, Herebeald, is a ‘feohleas gefeoht’(l. 2441).3 Significantly, he claims, ‘it might be said that the Hrethel episode is oneof the few portions of Beowulf whose standard interpretation is ultimately derivedfrom legal-historical and not literary studies.’4 And yet, as recent scholars such asJohn M. Hill, Paul Hyams, and Gale Owen-Crocker have demonstrated, AngloSaxon revenge culture cannot be understood exclusively in terms of what Day calls‘the economy of honour’.5 Hyams notes that ‘the actors, including bystanders, alwayshave at their disposal more than one choice of how to respond’,6 while Hill notes theprofoundly emotional nature of the drive for vengeance when he describes Beowulf as ‘grief-enraged’.7 So, here I want to leave to one side the question of the role ofhonour in revenge and focus on the role played by grief. In particular, I shall explorethe observation made by Owen-Crocker that King Hrethel, as the father of boththe killer and the slain, cannot take revenge and that, ‘deprived of his heroic role of avenger, can only die of grief.’8 I make my study through the examples of four grieving figures: Hrothgar, Hrethel, the unnamed thief ’s father, and finally, Grendel’s mother.These four have in common that their grief is extreme, and that the death that provokes it is in some way unexpected and therefore (at least from the perspective of the victims’ loved ones) cruel and unusual. Their grievances are personal.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationAnglo-Saxon Emotions Reading the Heart in Old English Language, Literature and Culture
    Subtitle of host publicationReading the Heart in Old English Language, Literature and Culture
    EditorsAlice Jorgensen, Frances McCormack, Jonathan Wilcox
    Place of PublicationAbingdon and New York
    PublisherRoutlege, Taylor and Francis
    Chapter11
    Pages177-192
    Number of pages16
    ISBN (Electronic)9781315567150
    ISBN (Print)9781472421692
    DOIs
    Publication statusPublished - 2016

    Publication series

    NameStudies in Early Medieval Britain and Ireland

    Keywords

    • Old English literature
    • grief
    • revenage
    • Anglo-Saxon

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