The Heroic Age

Issue 7

Spring 2004

Civilized Rage in 'Beowulf'


by Thomas L. Wymer and Erin F Labbie



"Civlized Rage in Beowulf" argues that there is a difference between controlled rage and uncontrolled rage in Beowulf. Controlled rage is useful to the development of social relations and the nation; uncontrolled rage is damaging to civil interaction and the formation of society. We work with Norbert Elias' work on Civilization to determine that evidence of the socialization present in 13th century court society is also incipient in Beowulf.

 This article

 Issue and Journal
Table of Contents
Next Article
Previous Article

© 2004 by Erin Labbie and Tom Wymer. All rights reserved.
This edition copyright © 2004 by The Heroic Age. All rights reserved.



1. Elias 1994, 1:158. Also see endnote 22 in The History of Manners, where Elias discusses the epic cycle.

2. Despite the notable differences between Elias' response to Freud and Foucault's rejection of psychoanalysis as a whole, both work from the notion that the drives and instincts are, at least, partially, constituted by language and culture.

3. A. Kent Hieatt, "Introduction" to Hieatt 1967, 4.

4. William V. Harris calls attention to Elais' neglect of classical precursors in Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity (2001, 150ff).

5. The Dictionary of Old English, University of Toronto, in progress.

6. The translations we cite are chosen because they are among the most often used in classrooms, those of Kevin Crossley-Holland (1968; repr. 1987); E. Talbot Donaldson (1966); Charles W. Kennedy (1940); Burton Raffel (1963; rpt. 1971); Seamus Heaney (2000). All appear in major text anthologies: Donaldson in Norton's English literature, Raffel in Norton's world literature until it was recently replaced by Heaney, Crossley-Holland in both Longman's British literature and Prentice Hall's world literature, Kennedy in both Macmillan's and St Martin's world literature and in Heath's British literature. We have also included Howell D. Chickering (1977) because it is a major dual-language text and, as Bjork and Niles describe it, "the choice of many scholars who teach the poem" (1993, 357), especially in advanced courses.

7. In Beowulf, bolgenmod appears twice, gebolgne and gebulge once each, and gebolgen six times. Since there are other words associated with kinds of anger, yrre and hreoh, for example, one might be tempted to suggest that the choice of forms of belgan is more a matter of poetic variation or alliteration, but to do so would be to ignore the similarity of contexts in which forms of belgan were chosen by the poet.

8. All quotations from the poem are cited by line numbers from Klaeber, and all typographical features within the quoted Old English text, such as words or letters inserted in brackets or italicized letters, are Klaeber's as well. The translations are our own, based on Klaeber's glossary unless otherwise noted, and created with an eye more toward accuracy than elegance.

9. He points out the "oral base to fratricidal violence", and the awareness in the poem of feasting as a hostile metaphor (Hill 1989, 21). Additionally, the scene of the feast is represented as a form of primal scene, whose violence affects Grendel, who listens from outside to the sounds that exile him (Hill 1989, 23).

10. Guilt here is both a moral construct and a literary and psychological phenomenon. A good source for a more extended discussion of guilt in literary history is John Carroll's Guilt: The Grey Eminence Behind Character, History and Culture.

11. Niles expands briefly on the notion of swelling in "Rewriting Beowulf: " . . . for etymologically, [gebolgen] derives from the verb (ge)belgan, 'to swell up' (cf. 'bellows'). The adjective refers to the way that-whether voluntarily or involuntarily, as with rage-a person will expand his chest to maximum capacity at the onset of a supreme physical test, perhaps terrifying others and certainly packing in the breath that carries vital oxygen to muscles that will soon be straining" (1993, 865). In suggesting that rage can be an involuntary response, however, Niles fails to notice that Beowulf's rage, always appearing as it does at appropriate times, is quite voluntary.


Works Cited

Bjork, Robert E. and Niles, John D. eds., 1997. A Beowulf Handbook. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Brown, George H. ed., 1989. Hero and Exile: The Art of Old English Poetry. London: Hambledon Press.

Carroll, John. 1985. Guilt: The Grey Eminence Behind Character, History and Culture. London, Boston, Melbourne, Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Chickering, Howell D. 1977. Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition. Garden City, NY: Anchor.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin. 1968, repr. 1987. Beowulf. Woodbridge: Boydell.

Donaldson, E. Talbot.1966. Beowulf, A New Prose Translation, New York: Norton.

Elias, Norbert. 1994. The Civilizing Process Volume 1: The History of Manners, trans. Edmund Jephcott. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.

Elias, Norbert. 1982. The Civilizing Process. Volume 2: Power and Civility, trans. Edmund Jephcott. Oxford, UK, and Cambridge, USA: Blackwell Publishers.

Hall, John R. Clark. 1975. A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary, rpt. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Harris, William V. 2001. Restraining Rage: The Ideology of Anger Control in Classical Antiquity. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Heaney, Seamus.2000. Beowulf, A New Verse Translation. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

Hieatt, A. Kent. 1967. "Introduction" to Constance Hieatt, tr., Beowulf, and Other Old English Poems. New York: Bantam Books.

Hill, John M. 1997. "Social Milieu". In A Beowulf Handbook. Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles, eds., 255-269. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Hill, John M. 1989. "Revenge and Superego Mastery in Beowulf" Assays 5: 3-36.

Hume, Kathryn. 1975. "The Theme and Structure of Beowulf," Studies in Philology, 72.1: 1-27.

Jager, Eric. 1990. "Speech and the Chest in Old English Poetry: Orality or Pectorality?" Speculum 65: 845-859.

Kennedy, Charles W. 1940. Beowulf: The Oldest English Epic, New York: Oxford.

Klaeber, Fr. 1950. Beowulf and the Fight at Finnsburg, 3rd edition. Boston: D. C. Heath.

Magennis, Hugh.1996. Images of Community in Old English Poetry. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Niles, John D. 1993. "Rewriting Beowulf: The Task of Translation," College English 55.8: 858-878.

Puhvel, Martin. 1979. Beowulf and Celtic Tradition. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfreed Laurier University Press.

Raffel, Burton. 1963, repr. 1971. Beowulf. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press,

The Dictionary of Old English, University of Toronto, in progress.