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21.08.20 Leneghan, The Dynastic Drama of Beowulf

21.08.20 Leneghan, The Dynastic Drama of Beowulf

Francis Leneghan's The Dynastic Drama of Beowulf provides at once a clear overview of over one hundred years of Beowulf scholarship, as well as coherently argues for a reading of the underlying structure and theme of the entire poem that is both engaging and convincing: "This book will argue that the hero's own rise to the throne is part of a wider dynastic drama concerning the fates of three great royal houses" (28).

Beowulf is by far the most well known and most studied work of Old English literature. I sincerely believe that if it were not for Beowulf, Old English might never make an appearance in high school or undergraduate classrooms; indeed the field of pre-Conquest English language and literature might likely be as niche as the study of Gothic or Old Saxon, restricted almost exclusively to specialized graduate programs. In the twentieth and twenty-first century, of course, the name Beowulf is widely known and the poem celebrated and regularly translated anew. This has not always been the case. The poem is deeply confusing and critics are widely divided on the date, authorship, context, audience, and meaning of the poem. J.R.R. Tolkien's famous 1936 lecture and essay "Beowulf the Monsters and the Critics" pled for the poem to be read as a poem, as a work of literature, but not as a great one. An okay one, which could "have probably been better" if not for its structure. [1]

Various attempts have been made to date, contextualize, and understand this confounding poem, for which exists a single manuscript and no direct contemporary references. I am personally wary of attempts to "solve" any poem, especially poems like Beowulf or Gilgamesh whose origins will always be shrouded in mystery. Beowulf and Gilgamesh share the particular distinction of regularly being touted as "firsts" and "oldests" while also of having been unread by anyone for hundreds of years. There is no continuity between their production and our reception of them, which really begins in the nineteenth century. (Beowulf was first printed in 1815.) Attempts to date and localize poems like these can be circular in logic. Fruitful readings of the poem often reject attempts at originary discovery and focus instead on what can be inferred about how it might be read in a variety of later contexts. Scholarship which derides later reading and reception of Beowulf strike me as odd, given the paucity of evidence for the poem's value or currency in pre-Conquest England. I have considered that in an undergraduate classroom, Beowulf makes far more sense at the end of a survey of "British" literature rather than at the beginning, because its greatest verifiable cultural influence has been post-Tolkien. Leneghan, however, has made a deeply satisfying case for a reading of the poem that accounts for many of its most unusual--to modern readers--features and imagines clear contexts in which such a text could have been produced and later received within pre-Conquest England. Leneghan, unlike a long tradition of scholars before him, including Tolkien, offers a reading that respects the integrity of the poem as we have it.

As the title reveals, Leneghan posits that Beowulf is a dynastic drama: "This book will argue that the poet was guided throughout by the theme of kingship, and more specifically the dynastic principle" (14). He carefully unfolds this argument over an Introduction and four substantial chapters. A short Conclusion suggests how the poem could have been read in this way in various specific contexts in pre-Conquest England.

The Introduction covers a lot of ground concisely and clearly. Despite the recent canonical status ofBeowulf, much about it is unknown or unknowable. Leneghan provides a solid overview of the text and history of scholarship. Rich with footnotes, this introduction could serve as a general introduction to Beowulf and Beowulf scholarship for a wide range of audiences, from undergraduates to scholars of Old English. He also outlines clearly the structure and the argument of the book, which is repeated throughout the book.

"Chapter One offers a new explanation of the poem's unusual structure in terms of the life cycle of an archetypal dynasty" (28). The structure of the poem has long frustrated scholars. It begins in Denmark and traces the genealogy and rise of Hrothgar and the dangers introduced by Grendel. Beowulf is introduced as an outsider, not named until line 343. The most famous section of the poem recounts Beowulf's relatively easy defeat of Grendel followed by his much more challenging fight with Grendel's mother. Following a lengthy departure, Beowulf returns home and recounts much of what has happened to his lord and uncle, Hygelac, whom we learn was not particularly keen on Beowulf's trip. The poem quickly jumps ahead fifty years to old King Beowulf who takes it upon himself to fight a dragon which terrorizes his land. He is abandoned by all but one of his men and dies having killed the dragon. The poem ends with his funeral foreshadowing doom for his people, but praising him. Throughout the entire poem are sections that are generally known as "digressions" where the poet recounts stories from legendary Germanic history and foreshadows the dismal fates of the main characters of the poem as well as filling in details which are not covered in the main narrative. Having taught this poem many times, I can attest that the narrative structure is difficult to follow. When anthologized--or adapted in a variety of mediums--the first section of the poem is often presented alone. Older scholars, however, were especially interested in these "digressions" as independent witnesses to early Germanic history and legends, telling as they do stories that are attested in other early medieval sources. Tolkien compared such scholars' obsession with these details while complaining about the rest of the poem--especially the three monster fights--to tearing down a tower in order to study it, then being unsatisfied when they discovered the mess they had created. Tolkien himself, who famously argued on behalf the literary merit of the poem, was also critical of the structure of the poem. He suggests the whole of the poem should have taken place in Beowulf's home country of Geatland. Indeed, even in celebrating Beowulf as a poem that deserves to be read as a poem, he asserts that it "may not be among the greatest poems of western world and its tradition." [2] Leneghan's thesis accounts for the monsters, the digressions, as well as the clear biblical themes running through the entire poem. Leneghan argues that it traces the "three different phases in the life-cycle of an archetypal dynasty" (103). That is, the poem's focus is not, say, on the development of the eponymous hero, but rather the rise and fall of particular royal dynasties which Beowulf is associated with: the rise and maturity of the Scylding dynasty in the first half the poem again the decline of Hrething dynasty in the second half of the poem.

Chapter 2 traces how the poet drew upon two stores of inherited material to craft this poem, especially its hero. The character Beowulf is utterly unattested outside of this poem. Leneghan argues that this story created a new hero out of folk material and traditional legendary material as a protagonist in a meaningful poem for a Christian audience set in a pre-Christian legendary past. The setting of Beowulf, which the earliest scholars were most interested in, is largely recognizable from cognate Norse, Latin, and other sources. Beowulf himself, however, has no parallel, and has often been seen as a "folktale figure placed in a historical setting" (127). Leneghan convincingly argues that the character and exploits of Beowulf were crafted from legendary material that is otherwise associated with his uncle, Hygelac. Additionally, he argues that the Scyld Scefing material which opens the poem--which inserts a known legendary figure into an otherwise unrelated genealogy--is an innovation of the Beowulf poet. Through these changes and innovations, the poet is able to generate a coherent and engaging story which follows the contours of the rise and fall of royal dynasties by following their association with this new character, Beowulf.

Chapter 3 argues that the three monsters of the poem--Grendel, his mother, and the dragon--are "portents of dynastic and national crises" (155) which have been "carefully integrated into the wider dynastic drama" (154). As Leneghan points out, since Tolkien saved the monsters from critical scorn, they have often dominated analysis of the poem, with the result that the historical and legendary material has been seen as "digressions." Leneghan argues that the monsters are portents of the dynastic strife articulated throughout the poem in Christian context. Grendel is explicitly connected to the biblical Cain; Leneghan argues further for parallels between Grendel and Lucifer (as the rebel and fallen angel), as well as the serpent from the Garden of Eden. The dragon is situated in its Germanic, biblical, and hagiographical contexts, and its rise and fall is placed in direct apposition to the fate of the Geatish nation. Grendel's mother, who is only briefly treated, is seen as indicative of the question illegitimacy in royal succession, especially before standardization of the concept of primogeniture.

Chapter 4 explores the influence of biblical notions of kingship on Beowulf, especially the notion of royal blood, as understood by the Merovingians and Carolingians. In this chapter, Leneghan gives an engaging overview of the development of the concept of kingship in early Christianity as it was imagined first in Byzantium and Rome and into the Merovingian and Carolingian periods. Beowulf is a reflection of the development of kingship from a position based purely on military might and leadership to something that was inherited and could be passed on through blood. Leneghan's focus on dynasties in particular shows how like in Beowulf, this is not an issue of primogeniture, but dynastic rulership. As well as tracing the historical development of kingship in northern Europe at this time, Leneghan highlights the specific biblical underpinnings of many aspects of the kings in Beowulf when compared to the stories of Saul, David, and Solomon from the Book of Kings. Additionally, Leneghan shows the overlap between Bede's understanding of biblical kingship and its applicability in early England.

The Conclusion very briefly considers how Beowulf as a poem concerned with dynastic drama could have been read at three major points in early English history: Mercia and Northumbria in the Age of Bede, Wessex under King Alfred, and the turn of the tenth century, when the one and only extant manuscript of Beowulf was copied.

This volume is incredibly clear and engagingly written. Leneghan's main argument is convincing and has already influenced how I read and think about the poem. This book is thorough in many ways, but also opens up space for Leneghan's arguments to be developed further by him or other scholars. As mentioned, the analysis of Grendel's mother is rather short, but could surely be enlarged upon in other contexts. Likewise, the Conclusion invites further application of his thesis, pointing how the creation of Beowulf understood as a dynastic drama makes sense in the eighth century, but is also legible in the other major periods of literary production in early England. The Dynastic Drama of Beowulf offers a rich and exciting close and deep reading of Beowulf that is sure to be influential in the world of Old English scholarship.



1. J.R.R. Tolkien, "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." Sir Israel Gollancz Memorial Lecture (1936), 28.

2. Ibid., 34.