Understanding Beowulf as an Indo-European Epic. A Study in Comparative Mythology

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Awarded the D. Simon Evans Prize in Medieval Studies
This monograph is the first book-length comprehensive textual analysis of the Beowulf saga as an Indo-European epic. It provides a detailed reading of the epic in conjunction with ancient legal and cultural practices that allow for a new understanding of this classic work. This theoretical resource offers insights valuable to the fields of comparative mythology, medieval literature and Anglo-Saxon studies.


“contains some startling and profound insights. It is sure to generate controversy in Old English circles, but also to create excitement in comparative Indo-European mythological ones….In sum, the book promises to revolutionize the study of Beowulf and to open it up to other comparativists.”
-Prof. John Colarusso, Ph.D., McMaster University

“A person of impressive learning, Anderson has written a magisterial study of a major work of English literature…. The study is likely to become a critical landmark in Beowulf studies.”
-Prof. Gregory M. Sadlek, Dean,College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, Cleveland State University

From the Foreword:
"Anderson offers insights into the ways earlier interpretations may have limited our consideration of the poem. … We can thank Earl Anderson for his industry, interpretive abilities, and good humor in offering this stimulating addition to the canon of Beowulf criticism."
-Prof. Mary P. Richards,University of Delaware

"... provides a close reading of Beowulf informed by knowledge of the ancient legal and cultural practices that influence the poem. It cites as comparative evidence obvious works like the Sumarian Lament for Sumar and Urim and Hesiod's Theogony. Anderson shoes insightfully how earlier interpretations have limited our understanding of Beowulf. He asks us to forget the recieved criticism of the poem and explore the broad Indo-European contexts." - Alexandra H. Olsen, University of Denver

Table of Contents

by Mary P. Richards


Chapter 1. Scyld, Beow, and the Problem of Hygelac
Heroic life in bono
Heroic life in malo
Scyld as a model of kingship
Typescene analysis
Beow as a model of kingship
The problem of Hygelac

Chapter 2. Mythopoeia
Hreðel’s mailcoat
Grendel’s glof
Four discourse modalities
Grendel as a disease-spirit

Chapter 3. Grendel and his Mother
Epithets for Grendel and his mother
Grendel and thematic oppositions
Grendel’s descent from Cain
Grendel’s name
Ironic scop songs about Grendel’s feud
Grendel and his mother as demons
Grendel’s immunity from weapons
Grendel and the gifstol

Chapter 4. Grendel’s Mere
Grendel’s home as an underwater court
Grendel’s mere as hell
Mythopoeic epistemology
Mythopoeic cosmology
Unferð, and Beowulf’s maritime transgression
Horizontal cosmology as a submerged theme

Chapter 5. Æschere’s Death and the Problem of Hroðgar
“Choosing the avenger” typescene
Retrospective allusions to the Grendel-fight
Proleptic deixis
Collective and individual behaviors
The lament for Æschere and consolatio mortis
Lament and panegyric
Invective and digression
Revenge as consolation
Admonition forbidding mourning
Consolation precepts
Funeral rites as consolation

Chapter 6. Symbolic Politics
Negotiating demonstrative behavior
Beowulf’s reception in Heorot
Epic antithesis
The Ecgþeow digression
Gift-giving as demonstrative behavior
Unferð’s loan of Hrunting
Hroðgar’s adoption of Beowulf

Chapter 7. Family Charisma
Charismatic affection
Hreðel’s sorrow and the Father’s Lament

Chapter 8. Rhetoric in an Open Text
Equivalent and superlative similes
The perfect simile
Wealhþeow’s torque
The logic of epic superlative
Absolute and conditional superlatives
The amazon-warrior simile
Merismus: pleonasm and signification
Smiths and tapestry-makers in Heorot

Chapter 9. Allusion: the Semiotics of Digression
Aetiology and deixis
Allusion in the scop’s song of Creation
The Danes’ worship of idols
Comparative and contrastive collocation: Sigemund and Heremod
The Dano-Heaðobeard feud
Ingeld episode
Finn episode
Tragic court flytings in other texts

Chapter 10. Battlefield Typescenes
“Three mighty blows”
Beowulf’s combative handshake
Single combat: Beowulf’s victory-song
Hygelac’s expedition in Frisia
Beowulf’s single combat with Dæghrefn
Weapons failing in battle
Warning the hero against an adventure
Profiles of the hero and his retainers
Companions await the hero’s adventure
Companions leave the hero for dead
Retreat to the woods
Companion fetches water for the hero

Chapter 11. Wyrd, ellen, geþyld, and the Heroic Moment
Heroism and radical risk
Radical risk in The Battle of Maldon
Radical risk and wyrd
Competing definitions of wyrd
Wyrd in Beowulf
The heroic moment and ellen
The heroic moment and geþyld
The problem of Hondscioh
Geþyld and the dragon-fight
Geþyld in malo

Chapter 12. The Dragon’s Treasure
Arguments in favor of treasure reburial
Arguments for keeping the treasure
The collectivity of the dragon’s hoard
The curse on the treasure
Treasure-regality as a legal principle
Treasure trove and the Seven Sleepers
Treasure trove in Hrolfs saga Kraki
Treasure trove in Cynewulf’s Elene
Treasure-regality in Beowulf
The problem of Wiglaf
The dragon-fight and Indo-European cattle-raids
Theft versus combat
Tracking the dragon to his remote cave
Cattle-raid and dragon-fight as rite de passage
Cattle and treasure as community property

Appendix I. Aornos and Grendel’s Mere (Beowulf 1368-72)

Appendix II. Epic Antithesis in Beowulf and Finnsburh


List of Figures
Figure 1:
Ontology of universals in four discourse modalities
Figure 2:
Epistemology of universals in four discourse modalities
Figure 3:
Distribution of passages focused on Æschere, the monsters, and narrative segments in Beowulf 1251-1421

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