In The Art and Thought of the Beowulf Poet, Leonard Neidorf explores the relationship between Beowulf and the legendary tradition that existed prior to its composition. The Beowulf poet inherited an amoral heroic tradition, which focused principally on heroes compelled by circumstances to commit horrendous deeds: fathers kill sons, brothers kill brothers, and wives kill husbands. Medieval Germanic poets relished the depiction of a hero's unyielding response to a cruel fate, but the Beowulf poet refused to construct an epic around this traditional plot. Focusing instead on a courteous and pious protagonist's fight against monsters, the poet creates a work that is deeply untraditional in both its plot and its values. In Beowulf, the kin-slayers and oath-breakers of antecedent tradition are confined to the background, while the poet fills the foreground with unconventional characters, who abstain from transgression, display courtly etiquette, and express monotheistic convictions.
Comparing Beowulf with its medieval German and Scandinavian analogues, The Art and Thought of the Beowulf Poet argues that the poem's uniqueness reflects one poet's coherent plan for the moral renovation of an amoral heroic tradition. In Beowulf, Neidorf discerns the presence of a singular mind at work in the combination and modification of heroic, folkloric, hagiographical, and historical materials. Rather than perceive Beowulf as an impersonally generated object, Neidorf argues that it should be read as the considered result of one poet's ambition to produce a morally edifying, theologically palatable, and historically plausible epic out of material that could not independently constitute such a poem.
1. Kin-Slaying and Oath-Breaking
2. Courtesy and Courtliness
3. Monotheism and Monstrosity
Leonard Neidorf is Professor of English at Nanjing University and the author of The Transmission of Beowulf.
Neidorf (Nanjing Univ., China) offers a refreshingly original approach to the Old English epic poem Beowulf. The author is convincing and thorough in making his arguments, which he presents in three concise chapters. In the first chapter, he contextualizes Beowulf within the larger tradition of Scandinavian and Germanic literature and explores marked departures that distinguish it.