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Beowulf and Hygelac: Problems for Fiction in History

John McNamara

The Rice University Studies, Volume 62, Number 2 (1976)

Introduction: Nothing could appear more commonplace than describing Beowulf as a union of historical and fabulous elements. This commonplace is usually expressed by some such formula as “epic synthesis,” for which we can adduce endless examples from Homer onward. But like all such commonplaces, it tends to gloss over the complexity with which history and fable interact within the poems themselves. The formula also concentrates our attention on the effects of such interaction, without considering the esthetic problems created by thevery attempt to introduce fabulous heroes into history.

It is easy enough to see how such a hero’s feats, in a historical context, assume a “reality” equivalent to that of the context and how, to put it the other way around, otherwise mundane history rises to a new level of signifi- cance through acquiring the hero. The matter becomes much more complex, however, when we consider that the hero’s behavior is circumscribed by two equally important requirements imposed by the historical context. His actions must first of all be believable, which is to say that they must fall within the limits of action considered possible by the historical society of which he has become a member. We wilI tend to accept the most fabulous feats if those around the hero accept them, especially if those accepting the feats are themselves authentic historical figures with some reputation for reliability. The second problem is that of maintaining our sympathy for the hero, which requires conformity to the ethical norms of the society and, generally, the acceptance of reputable persons as proof of this conformity. An additional factor enters when the ethical norms of the society within the poem are shared by the audience for whom the poem was composed. As we shall see later on, this creates special problems in Beowulf.

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