Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf


Readers of Beowulf have noted inconsistencies in Beowulf's depiction, as either heroic or reckless. Heroic Identity in the World of Beowulf resolves this tension by emphasizing Beowulf's identity as a foreign fighter seeking glory abroad. Such men resemble wreccan, "exiles" compelled to leave their homelands due to excessive violence. Beowulf may be potentially arrogant, therefore, but he learns prudence. This native wisdom highlights a king's duty to his warband, in expectation of Beowulf's future rule. The dragon fight later raises the same question of incompatible identities, hero versus king. In frequent reference to Greek epic and Icelandic saga, this revisionist approach to Beowulf offers new interpretations of flyting rhetoric, the custom of "men dying with their lord," and the poem's digressions.
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Biographical Note

Scott Gwara, PhD (Medieval Studies, University of Toronto, 1993) teaches Old and Middle English, Medieval Latin, and Epic at the University of South Carolina. The author of five books, he publishes widely on manuscripts, Latin literature, and bilingual learning in pre-Conquest England.

Review Quotes

"Gwara’s book is destined to become a classic of Beowulf-criticism. It offers us a highly insightful and persuasive reading of one of the most complex poems in English literary history and displays an unusual capacity for drawing on the text’s full critical history while simultaneously developing refreshingly original, yet always carefully argued new ideas"
Andrew James Johnston, in Anglia 2010 Band 128 Heft 3, 498-500

"Scott Gwara brings a fresh and energetic analysis to this challenging poem. Each of the chapters helps form a new appreciation for the complexity of the poem and for its unity. Confronting the text and its critical heritage, he bolsters his argumentation with literary and historical parallels from Old English, Old Norse, and Latin sources. The poem presents Beowulf as heroic but, as Gwara argues, with potential to become selfishly tyrannical. Adversaries such as Unferth and friends such as King Hrothgar record their valid concerns about potential corruption of his character, and the narrator himself subtly presents the ambivalent nature of Beowulf’s exploits. Gwara traces the maturation of Beowulf as he makes critical choices and emerges successfully from not just physical challenges but complicated moral ones. The now common understanding of Beowulf as a static heroic character is demonstrably wrong. Gwara takes up every challenge of the text and the long history of Beowulf criticism to present the soundest analysis I have encountered of this magnificently sophisticated and unique Old English epic."
George Brown, Stanford University

"With incisive prose and deep learning Scott Gwara champions the ambiguity, moral proximity, and essential dialectic of our much studied and misunderstood English epic. An original argument in the best scholarly tradition demonstrates that the audience of Beowulf must calibrate the variables of duty and desire as the characters test the boundaries of fame and fate. In moving the so-called digressions to the center of the poem, Gwara gives us the Germanic ars heroica."
James H. Morey, Emory University

“Scott Gwara's book sends a gale of fresh air through the quiet consensus of Beowulf studies. Its wide comparative reference and readiness to explain cultural difference, rather than explain it away, shed new light on a lost heroic age.”
T. A. Shippey, Saint Louis University

Table of contents

Author’s note

Introduction: A contested Beowulf
1. The Wisdom context of the Sigemund Heremod and Hunferd Digression
2. The Foreign Beowulf and the ‘fight at Finssburch’
3. The Rhetoric of Oferhygd in Hrodgar’s “Sermon”
4. Beowulf’s Dargon fight and the Appraisal of Oferhygd
5. King Beowulf and Ealdormonn Byrhtnod



All those interested in Beowulf studies, early English literature, medieval culture more generally, ancient epic, Icelandic sagas, and world literatures.


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