The Medieval Review 16.02.49

Damico, Helen. Beowulf and the Grendel-kin: Politics and Poetry in Eleventh-Century England. Medieval European Studies, 16. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2015. pp. 345. $49.99 (paperback). ISBN: 978-1-938228-71-1 (paperback) 978-1-938228-72-8 (ebook).

Reviewed by:

Matthew Scribner
Independent Scholar

Helen Damico's new book is a bold attempt to thrust Beowulf into the bright light of history. It argues that Beowulf's battles with Grendel and Grendel's mother reference--if not allegorize--historical personages and events relating to the rule of King Cnut in the eleventh century. More specifically, it links Grendel's descent from Cain to the 1036 assassination of Alfred Atheling by his stepbrother; Grendel's inability to approach Hrothgar's throne (the gifstōl) with questions over the legitimacy of Cnut's successors; Grendel's mother with Ælfgifu of Northmampton, and Wealtheow with Emma of Normandy. With the exception of Wealtheow, these are among the most obscure elements in the poem, so any further investigation of them is welcome (and Damico makes original contributions on the topic of Wealtheow, too).

Damico's first two chapters are not as focused as her last two, but they do establish her historicist methodology. In the first chapter, she examines various characteristics and episodes associated with Grendel in light of historical analogues. Chief among the chronicle sources is the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Encomium Emmae Reginae, both of which Damico cites throughout her book when making the connections between Beowulf and eleventh-century events. Drawing on the chronicles, Damico finds parallels between Beowulf's decapitation of Grendel and the decapitation of Harold Harefoot, links Grendel's initial surprise attack to Alfred Atheling, and even suggests that the Grendelkin's mere could be inspired by Ely. Damico acknowledges the scholarship that links the beheading sequence to folklore motifs, but argues that historical analogues are a more likely source based on Beowulf's theme of praising virtue. The second chapter essentially extends this line of thought by comparing the chronicle accounts of the Anglo-Saxon wars against the Danes with Grendel's Reign of Terror, and by arguing that Grendel's having no power over the gifstōl echoes concerns over the legitimacy of Harold, who claimed to be Cnut's son by Ælfgifu, but whose lineage was doubted by the chroniclers.

If the first two chapters each deal with multiple aspects of Grendel's characterization, the last two each make a targeted case that a character is an echo of a historical figure. The connection between Grendel's mother and Ælfgifu is predicated on the unforgiving (and perhaps politically-motivated) characterization of each, as well as the fact that Ælfgifu is the mother of Harold Harefoot, thus linking this chapter to the previous ones. From there it is straightforward to make the case that Ælfgifu's rival, Emma of Normandy, partially inspires the character of Wealtheow. Although this final chapter does not concern the Grendelkin directly, the contrast between Wealtheow and Grendel's mother still makes for a crucial context of the first two thirds of Beowulf. This chapter also draws on the illustrations in the Harley Psalter for evidence, arguing that MS Harley 603 shows a female authority figure unifying a community, in the same way that Wealtheow unifies Hrothgar's court. (The book has a generous fifteen pages of figures, including useful genealogies of Cnut and Ælfgifu's families). My favourite part of this chapter was Damico's argument that Wealtheow is not a weak queen who is powerless to overcome feuding, as some critics believe, but rather a figure with authority who does necessary work that is praised by the poet. For Damico, "Wealtheow" is not a "foreign slave," as her name is usually translated, but "Cnut's Norman captive," as Damico puts it (226-227). She comes to this translation by citing Erik Björkman, who claims the name has proto-Norse origins. The first part of Wealtheow's name could share an ancestor with Valland, an old name for Normandy in the Fagrskinna, and the proto-Norse versions of þēow could mean "person captured in battle." Damico admits that this etymology is inconclusive, but she has other arguments in favour of connecting Wealtheow and Emma. Whether or not one agrees with them, the idea that Wealtheow is a strong and effective character is an insight worthwhile to any reader of Beowulf, even readers who have no interest in Damico's historical analysis.

Additionally, there are two major arguments underlying the whole monograph that the analyses in the four chapters serve to advance--though the two arguments also enable these analyses to be made. The first of these arguments is that Beowulf was written in the eleventh century. The dating of Beowulf is a long-standing controversy, and Damico's thesis obviously relies on the poem being composed sometime after the real-life adventures of Cnut and his family took place. Damico spends only a dozen pages or so of her introduction weighing the evidence for a late dating (as advanced by Roberta Frank and others) against those (such as Michael Lapidge and Robert D. Fulk) who would place the epic's composition as early as the eighth century. Ultimately, however, Damico lets the evidence she uncovers speak for itself. "It was thus with some hesitation that I undertook to air my findings," she writes, "[y]et the historical parallels that are the concern of this monograph seemed too compelling to dismiss" (6-7). I agree that the parallels are convincing, but tying the book's argument to an uncertain dating in turn makes most of the book's accomplishments uncertain. Part of me wishes that Damico had invested more of her introduction towards making the case for a late dating, but a larger part of me thinks that she made the right choice in simply moving on. Others have argued for a late dating, and the strength of Damico's book does indeed lie in its historical analysis of Beowulf.

This brings me to the second major argument underlying the monograph: that it is indeed valuable to read Beowulf against its (at least plausible) historical context. Plenty of Beowulf scholarship is grounded in history, to be sure. The many readings of the poem based on medieval Germanic myth and culture are examples of this historical sensitivity. But much of it lacks a connection to specific dates, battles, and rulers. As Damico is the first to admit, the reason for this lack is the uncertain dating of the poem. Yet, by taking a risk and pinning her flag to an eleventh-century composition, Damico shows how Beowulf can have a historicist reading as rich as those given to, say, Shakespeare plays. Indeed, Damico's linking of characters and events to eleventh-century politics resembles the way early modernists link Shakespearean plots to Elizabethan dynastic struggles. This approach may not be to everyone's taste, but reading detailed accounts of Danish politics in a work of Beowulf criticism is an experience that I found welcome and refreshing.

I have not been able to cover all of historical parallels that Damico uncovers in this review. She goes through the chronicles in painstaking detail. Certainly, I have never read a work of criticism on Old English literature that delves so deeply into Anglo-Danish history. Beowulf has a reputation among the general public as being an obscure work of fantasy. But for me, Beowulf has never felt more connected to history, as it has after reading Beowulf and the Grendel-kin.

Copyright (c) 2016 Matthew Scribner

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