Superlatives

Medieval Literature, Dr. Larry Martin

Hampden-Sydney College

February 21, 1991

According to his thegns, Beowulf was better than all other kings at doing what kings (should) do best. He was the mostest. His pursuit of glory reflected on the quality of his men. His generousity increased the brightness of their rings.

Lines 3180 to 3182 of Beowulf are both a comparison of Beowulf to other kings and an analysis of his character by his retainers. This analysis is broken into two parts, social and personal characteristics, with teh topical division along the caesura. The placement of the social attributes in the a-lines and the personal attributes in the b-lines naturally compares and contrasts these elements, balancing each against the other in a test of the scop’s wordweaving skill. 3181a and 3182a extend outward from 3181b, which supports them in meaning: Beowulf’s social appearance of the mild, generous, benign, gracious king stems from his harmonious internal unity, his agreeable self. Beowulf’s united self is a result of his intent desire, pursuit, and preservation of glory. His yearning for fame does not conflict with the proper treatment of his thegns, but is necessary to it: to achieve fame rather than infamy one must impress those who will survive one with one’s deeds and intensity, an intensity which allows he doing of the deeds.

The scop recounts in ll. 3180 – 3182 the praises sung of Beowulf at his funeral. (The entire poem could be such a song of praise.) That Beowulf is lof-geornost and that this is the last word of the poem is yet another example of the scop’s word-binding expertise: Beowulf yearned for praise and got it — he had to die, but he was praised.

Copyright © C. William Cox, Jr., 1991