The Heroic Age

Issue 5

Summer/Autumn 2001


"The Wealth They Left Us"

by Marijane Osborn



1. To these lines from Raoul de Cambrai (Duggan 1986:745) may be compared the saga-character Bosi's awareness of his life as story. In rejecting the witch Busla's offer to tutor him in magic, an effeminizing practice, "he said he didn't want it written in his saga" (Pálsson and Edwards 1985:200).

2. The Exeter Book "Maxims" instruct us that mon sceal (one must) lofes gearnian and dom areccan (earn praise and tell of glory) (lines 139-140; Krapp and Dobbie 1936:161)-in other words, live a life that may be talked about. Bonjour (1950) discusses most of the stories told about people in Beowulf, in some cases several together. I list below, in Bonjour's categories, only those stories in his list that are ostensibly "told" (or in one case thought about) by persons in the world of the poem. Line numbers refer to Klaeber's (1950) edition. (1) Stories told about "Beowulf's Life and Geatish History" include lines 419-24, 459-72, 499-603, 2153-89, 2426-2509, and 2910-3007; (2) "Historical, or Legendary, Digressions Not Connected with Beowulf and the Geats" include lines 867-915, 1709-24, 1924-60, 1063-1159, and 2020-69. Other stories having generalized rather than specific protagonists are related in Beowulf, for example, in lines 1724-57 and (Beowulf's own simile) 2444-62. These stories have the added function of incorporating many divergent genres into the larger epic structure of the poem. When Harris (1982) suggests that Beowulf can be understood in some sense as an anthology of the genres of its period, he is echoing the idea of epic-as-cultural-encyclopedia that Havelock (1963, esp. ch. 4).

3. LeVine (1984:68) proposes that the slippery concept "culture" represents "a consensus on a wide variety of meanings among members of an interacting community." Stories accepted by the culture confirm and endorse these shared meanings.

4. This idea is familiar to us from Yates' (1974) well-known study, documenting the use in Renaissance culture, both in metaphor and in practice, of "rooms" in which to store memory. Swiderski (1995) offers an ethnographic study of actual contemporary rooms that house objects evoking vivid memories of cultural and personal past experiences, objects central to people's stories about themselves.

5. Holocaust stories are receiving particular attention these days as the final survivors, far from the country of their birth, approach the end of their lives. Myerhoff (1982:100) discusses her work with a group of elderly Jews, immigrants from Eastern Europe, whose group identity is "acutely self-conscious . . . making itself up, knowing that this is going on, doing it well, and appreciating the process." The main means by which they achieve this construction of their group identity is through orally performed individual life-histories (Myerhoff 1982:101).

6. Toews (1986:291-97) cites Jones' biography while tracing Freud's developing use of the Oedipus myth. He analyses how Freud adapted the story as a life-narrative for himself.

7. Berger and Leicester (1974:37-79) study these exchanges in detail, observing that "Beowulf's address to Hrothgar (lines 407-55) threatens to swell his ethos and the value of his offer, his risking of life beyond the limits of repayment. During this speech, and before his beot, he reminds Hrothgar that Heorot 'stands empty and useless,' and he says that he came because the 'best wise earls' of the Geats, knowing his strength, advised him to volunteer his services to the king. Hrothgar meets this with a different account (lines 457-72), reminding him of a prior obligation" (Berger and Leicester 1974:47-48). See also Bjork's (1994) fine and detailed analysis of the exchange function of speeches in "Speech as Gift in Beowulf."

8. For a recent alternative view see Griffith (1995).

9. Peltz speaks of how "re-membering, constructing a life, composing a whole" is "a much more complicated phenomenon than merely looking back" (Peltz 1995:30); it is "refashioning an identity for the present" (Peltz 1995:42). As Beowulf lies dying, he negoiates a coherent and positive self, as many persons do on their deathbed, by linking the fragments of his life into a reassuring whole.

10. Hill (1995:110) refers to the complexities of cultural understandings of "the inner self."

11. Béroul's Romance of Tristran (Tristan) is most recently edited with a facing-page translation by Gregory (1992). In this particular scene toward the end of the fragmentary romance, the lovers have been dwelling exiled in the Forest of Morrois for some time. King Mark, having been told where they are asleep together, sets out with the firm intention of killing them, but when he finds them sleeping clothed and with Tristan's sword between them, he decides that they cannot be unchaste, and his wrath turns to pity. Intending to be kind, he places his glove where it shelters Iseut's face from the sun, exchanges rings with her (noting how thin and frail her fingers have become), and exchanges swords, leaving his where Tristan's was. When the lovers awaken, they recognize the objects as Mark's, but totally misconstrue their meaning, taking them as Mark's threatening reaffirmation of sovereignty (Gregory 1992:94-101). For discussion, see Baron (1972).

12. Quoting from Mercadel (1990:225), Herman (1997:1047) explains the term: "A script is 'a description of how a sequence of events is expected to unfold . . . . A script is similar to a frame in that it [a script] represents a set of expectations . . . . Frames differ from scripts in that frames are used to represent a point in time. Scripts represent a sequence of events that take place in a time sequence'." In this article Herman shows how these AI concepts may be useful for literary analysis. For an introduction to the theory aimed at psychologists, the reader may consult Mandler (1984); and Palmer and Jankowiak (1998) put the theory to an ethnographic purpose. I have wondered whether the adoption of story as a private script is a strategy particularly employed by women, especially when isolated for some reason within their own group or, as queens frequently were, within an alien group. Though Heilbrun (1988:43 and elsewhere) refers repeatedly to women's isolation, she touches only briefly on how stories may offer both consolation and direction in such isolation (e.g., Heilbrun 1988:74). In her recent pseudonymous novel An Imperfect Spy by "Amanda Sharp," however, Heilbrun's secondary protagonist, the "spy" referred to in the title, who has isolated herself from her former group through a simulated suicide, claims to be modelling her life on the career of John le Carré's spy Smiley. But we discover at the end of the novel that she has "really" been following a Demeter script, and at the same time her imprisoned daughter discovers that she has been perceiving herself as a victim like Hardy's Tess, and breaks out from that role. There is much to explore in regard to both the inspiration and insidiousness of famous stories as scripts that women, especially when isolated, may adopt as their own, either to their benefit or their harm.

13. The Finnsburg affair is summarized by Klaeber (1950:231-32). Overing (1990) and Hill (1997) interpret Hildeburh's position at the end of the episode in diametrically opposed ways. Overing sees Hildeburh as finally "a completely passive image," a chess-piece, an object (Overing 1990:86), with "nowhere to go, no space or place to be" (Overing 1990:87), whereas Hill (1997:265) sees her as able now to "assume a once familiar place in the world, where her legal status has in fact remained."

14. Beaty observes the echoing on the words secg and munde in the Sigemund dragon-slaying digression, lines 867-71 of Beowulf, but he does not notice that these words echo the components of Sigemund's own name, "victory-hand," a name that thereby honors Beowulf's deed of bare-handedly tearing off Grendel's arm. The device may explain the poet's adoption of this particular name when in other versions of the story the dragon was slain by Sigemund's son Sigurd.

15. The fragment is edited by Klaeber (1950:243-49), and more recently by Fry (1974).

16. Hill (1995:26-27) implies that the Finnsburg episode is a victory song for the Danes in large part because Hildeburh herself goes home avenged for her grievous loss.

17. This interpretation follows that by Robinson (1985:77-78), endorsed by Clark (1990:89).

18. Perhaps influenced by Renoir's (1990:299) view of Wealhtheow as a "worried mother in a fragile world," Clark (1990:87. 89) twice refers to the Danish queen in her speeches as "nearly distraught." I see her more in terms of the ritually potent figure proposed by Damico (1984), or the politically and socially astute woman that Bloomfield (1994:195) evokes. Forceful, smart, and tactful, Wealhtheow is using her traditional role to take steps to ensure the kind of future that she desires. Clark (1990:89) points out that while Beowulf does not reply to Wealhtheow at this time, as one might expect him to do, his farewell speech to Hrothgar at lines 1818-39 "makes an answer to Wealhtheow's petition which the queen should have approved and which Hrothgar receives with deep gratitude." Beowulf promises to come with a "forest of spears" (line 1834) should Hrothgar have need of aid, and assures him that his son Hrethric will find friends if he chooses to visit the Geats.

19. Narrative songs understood as warnings or other secret messages are occasionally found in literature, and presumably also in life since such narrative can function as a private code. In Book 13 of History of the Danes Saxo Grammaticus tells the story of how in the year 1131 a Saxon minstrel "sought to forewarn" Kanutus (King Knut Lavard) of an ambush that he knew had been planned, by means of "a noble song" about Grimhild's treachery toward her brothers in the famous Volsung story (Christiansen 1980:127-28). Similarly, the folk song "Follow the Drinking Gourd" (the Great Bear constellation) has been said to offer secret advice to escaped slaves to go north. Simpson (1968:155-206) assembles and translates the Scandinavian stories about Hrolf Kraki (Hrothulf) and his deeds.

20. I have used much of the material in this section concerning Thryth to a different purpose elsewhere (Osborn 1998:30-35).

21. "Indeed, the wise Queen Hygd of Beowulf even bears a name (like Alfred's Wisdom) which attests to her mental powers" (Robinson 1993:162). Malone (1941:357) suggests that "the intellectual (or at least reflective) twist which the poet gives to Hygd's behavior was in all likelihood inspired by the queen's name." Klaeber (in Dobbie 1953:215) objects that using the word wegan ("weigh") not recorded in this metaphoric use elsewhere in Old English, to represent Hygd actively thinking about Thryth is "probably too modern in conception." Yet it seems to me that her meaningful name itself answers such an objection. In fact, Bosworth and Toller (1898:1184; 1921:740) do show metaphorical use of the word, and in my view line 12 of the seventh "Metrical Charm" (Dobbie 1953:125), uses the word-element wæge, meaning "weight" (as used on a scales) in a similarly metaphorical way; line 126 supports this interpretation. Cleasby and Vigfusson (1957:689) point out that a metaphorical meaning of the Icelandic verb vega, cognate of Old English wegan, is pervasive in the sagas. King Alfred uses another vivid metaphor for mental activity , when near the end of Preface to the Pastoral Care he refers to our minds as hunting dogs let loose on the track, that is, the written works, of our predecessors (Bright 1966:27). The title for my essay comes from the sentence in Alfred's Preface preceding this one.

22. Klaeber makes the two words mod and þryð into the compound name "Modþryð" and finds nothing to alleviate the suddenness of the digression. For an extensive discussion of this "Modthryth" crux and the various opinions about it by previous commentators and editors, see Dobbie (1953:214-15). Like Hygd, Thryth is not known as an Anglo-Saxon name in its simplex form (Sisam 1965:84), but it is exactly equivalent to Latin Drida (Klaeber 1950:197). The word is found as a second element in several compound names apparently associated in some way with the story at hand (Klaeber 1950:199). For a brief discussion of the persons thus named and of possible connections of Thryth's story with the plot of the Castaway Queen romances, see where I (Osborn 1998:30-35 and notes) refer to previous scholarship, especially the extensive studies by Rickert and Chambers.

23. That Hygd, like Thryth, has become wise after adolescent difficulties may be suggested both by the possibilities in her name (hygd in excess becomes oferhygd, "pride" or "arrogance," as in line 1740) and by the word that further describes her in line 1927; she is welþungen, perhaps "turned to good purpose." If so, this would further explain her having chosen Thryth's story to "weigh" in terms of her own life.

24. See Osborn (1998:259, n. 20) for detailed discussion of the crux of the word sinfrea, translated "great lord" at line 1934. I now think that "great lord" may refer primarily to rank in that no man in Thryth's home court has status equal to her father, that is, none is sufficiently high-ranking, in Thryth's view, to aspire to her hand. Analogues of the story, and possibly the phrasing of line 1934, are suggestive, however, of a suppressed narrative concerning incest.

25. The verb onhohsnod[e] occurs uniquely here. Though other suggestions have been made for its meaning, Chambers (1920:96) says that "the best suggestion is that of Bugge [Tidsskr viii.302] who took onhohsnian as "hamstring: [cf. O.E. hohsinu: Mod. Eng. hock, hough: M.H.G. (ent) hahsenen]. Bugge interpreted the word in a figurative sense, "stop or hinder." Despite Irving's view, however, it is not Thryth whom Offa metaphorically hamstrings or otherwise chastises in some unpleasant way; what he puts a stop to is the stories about her unpleasant character. Scholars almost universally refer to Thryth's character as negative, without giving her credit for improving that character, and Schucking (in Dobbie 1953:214) even bases emendation of the text on the contrast between Hygd and Thryth: "She, the good queen of the people, did [not] have the pride of Thryth." Yet, at the end of the poet's account of her, Thryth has become a model queen, like young Hygd.

26. There is a growing awareness that magnanimity or generosity is a key concept of Beowulf. "To be generous is to be noble; to be noble is to be generous," says Hill (1995:86), citing studies by both Clark (1990) and D. H. Green, to which should now be added Bloomfield (1994). These four scholars emphasize that the word milde in Old English and related languages means "generous," not "kind" as Klaeber glosses it. Bloomfield (1994:190-191) offers an excellent historical survey of the scholarship on this word in connection with Wealhtheow's request to Hrothgar that he speak to Beowulf mildum wordum (line 1172) and her later assertion to Beowulf that the Danes are each true to each other, modes milde (line 1229). Bloomfield (1994:192) argues that in each case, as well as the other times that the word milde is used in the poem, generosity and reciprocal loyalty are the issue, not some sort of feminine gentleness alien to the spirit of the poem and its culture. Hill (1995:181, n. 6) notes that the words milde, liðe and monðwærust are "terms of horizontal, kinship-like amity in Beowulf, terms special to the conception of generous kingship embodied in Beowulf as perceived by his people." He argues, however, that "Wealhtheow does urge a 'kindness' of a sort from Beowulf toward her sons: her language comes from the world of kinship ties, not the warrior band (comitatus)" (John. M. Hill, pers. comm., 9/18/97). It is on the basis of this understanding that Hill (1995:141) is able to say that at the hero's funeral his people "emphasize Beowulf's socially cohesive behaviours."

27. Howlett finds the name "Æthelstan" hidden in the text and argues that Beowulf was either composed by King Alfred's chaplain Æthelstan or possibly "as a present to Æthelstan ætheling in 897" (Howlett 1997:540), perhaps with "inculcating heroic behavior" in mind (Howlett 1997:537). Niles (1977:8) lists a number of distinguished "neotraditionalist scholars" (as he calls them) who "tend to hold that the heroic world of the poem offers models in conduct in the world that the audience inhabited."

28. "Shunning," for example, is regarded as dreadful punishment within the close-knit Amish culture. We see much the same thing dramatized in the Kingston story referred to earlier, causing the unwed mother in Japan to drown herself and her baby. Shunning appears also to be a cause of much current teenage suicide, when not to be an accepted member of an "in" group erodes the child's sense of self-worth. Adams (1853:239) refers to the crisis of alienation when observing that the worst thing (worse than poverty and more painful than gout) is not to be seen: "To be wholly overlooked, and to know it, are intolerable." Myerhoff (1982:101) also makes the point that an important aspect of the work of the group she is recording is to combat their cultural invisibility: "Life histories are seen here as giving opportunities to allow people to become visible."

29. The term "The Quixotic Principle," referring to the way previous literature can influence the character and actions of persons in a story (as Don Quixote is influenced by his reading of romances), was apparently coined by Levin (1970:45-66). Sarbin (1982:167) elaborates the idea and applies it to what he calls "belletristic" psychology, thus still focusing on literary (non-oral) storytelling. He does, however, apply the concept to real persons' role-taking under the influence of literature they have read.

30. Although no study of the subject as such as been done, Rodman (1993:173-91) demonstrates brilliantly how the idle questions of a visiting anthropologist in the New Hebrides archipelago were understood allegorically by the young man whom he was interrogating, and then acted upon by the latter many years later to establish an important social movement in Ambae. Analogies to this mode of understanding the words of others as "qaltavalu, literally 'hidden talk,' a form of communication based on a system of implicit meanings" (Rodman 1993:184) are found in all cultures, and can lead to remarkable misunderstandings if the system of meanings is not shared. "Hidden talk" is certainly found in the culture of Germania; one thinks, for example, of the oblique manner in which slayings are sometimes announced in the sagas (notably in Amleth's Saga and Ref's Saga). It is this ability to understand discourse allegorically and, in particular, to perceive narrative as a personal life-message, that I suggest warrants study.

31. As Malinowski (1922:xviii) says in the forward to Argonauts of the Western Pacific, for which Frazer wrote the preface, "My first love for ethnology is associated with the reading of the 'Golden Bough,' then in its second edition"; probably Malinowski's chapters on native myth and magic are the most quoted part of his book. Rosaldo (1980:14) is ironic about her own expectations raised by the classical texts of ethnology when she confesses, "Having come, in part, in search of an exotic world that would unsettle our conventional understandings, we were initially distressed to find that Ilongots did not tell nightly myths, make intricate plans for ritual feasts, or in their daily lives reveal concern for detailed webs of ancient wisdom."

32. A frequently cited example of the use of narrative to incite warriors comes from a passage deriving from Snorri Sturluson's Heimskringla in "The Sworn-Brother's Saga": "On the day of the Battle of Stiklastad [July 29, 1030], the king [Olaf Tryggvason] asked Thormod to recite some poem to entertain the troops, and he recited the Old Lay of Biarki. The king said, 'Well chosen is the poem you have recited because of the events which will take place here today. I shall give it the title of Exhortation of the Housecarls" (Hollander 1949:172). In his discussion of this use of song (or poem) de Vries (1963:250-52) also mentions examples from Tacitus' Germania and other early sources, and Taillefer's supposed recitation of the Song of Roland before William the Conquerer's army at the Battle of Hastings. See also Duggan (1986).

33. Salisbury (1997:290) observes that "much of the critical discourse on fairytales swirls around their acculturating potential for a young audience," and she cites Bruno Bettelheim, Stith Thompson, Max Luthi, Alison Lurie, and Kay Stone. Fairytales, of course, are not presented as history, and in any case it appears that there exists no comprehensive study of the obvious and pervasive use of narratives of all genres, those perceived as "true" as well as symbolic stories like myths and fairytales, for the construction of personal identity. Bruner and Weisser (1991:21) remark on this lack: "The daunting task that remains now is to show in detail how, in particular instances, narrative organizes the structure of human experience - how, in a word, 'life' comes to imitate 'art' and vice versa." More recently, disciplines other than mine have taken up Bruner and Weisser's challenge, as these notes demonstrate (for example, n. 29). Within the context of written texts, probably the most haunting example of the imitation of art by life is the account in Dante's Inferno of how the passionate love of Paolo and Francesca was instigated by their reading together the story of Lancelot. Readers of this essay will no doubt remember similar experiences in which a shared story triggered emotion. Girard (1978:2-8) discusses the Dantean and analogous "mimetic desires" (his term).



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Copyright © Marijane Osborn, 2001-2. All rights reserved.

This edition copyright © The Heroic Age, 2001-2. All rights reserved.