"Beowulf": Myth as a Structural and Thematic Key

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Very little of the huge corpus of Beowulf criticism has been directed at discovering the function and meaning of myth in the poem. Scholars have noted many mythological elements, but there has never been a satisfactory explanation of the poet's use of this material. A close analysis of Beowulf reveals that myth does, in fact, inform its structure, plot, characters and even imagery. More significant than the poet's use of myth, however, is the way he interlaces the historical and Christian elements with the mythological story to reflect his understanding of the cyclic nature of human existence. The examination in ... continued below

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iii, 292 leaves

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Aitches, Marian A. (Marian Annette) May 1990.

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  • Aitches, Marian A. (Marian Annette)

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Very little of the huge corpus of Beowulf criticism has been directed at discovering the function and meaning of myth in the poem. Scholars have noted many mythological elements, but there has never been a satisfactory explanation of the poet's use of this material. A close analysis of Beowulf reveals that myth does, in fact, inform its structure, plot, characters and even imagery. More significant than the poet's use of myth, however, is the way he interlaces the historical and Christian elements with the mythological story to reflect his understanding of the cyclic nature of human existence. The examination in Chapter II of the religious component in eighth-century Anglo-Saxon culture demonstrates that the traditional Germanic religion or mythology was still very much alive. Thus the Beowulf poet was certainly aware of pre-Christian beliefs. Furthermore, he seems to have perceived basic similarities between the old and new religions, and this understanding is reflected in the poem. Chapter III discusses the way in which the characterization of the monsters is enriched by their mythological connotations. Chapter IV demonstrates that the poet also imbued the hero Beowulf with mythological significance. The discussion in Chapter V of themes and type-scenes reveals the origins of these formulaic elements in Indo-European myth, particularly in the myth of the dying god. Chapter VI argues that both historical and mythological layers of meaning reflect traditional man's view of history as cyclic, a temporal period with a beginning and an end. At the juncture between end and beginning is conflict, which is necessary for regeneration. The interlacing of Christian, historical and mythic elements suggests the impossibility of extricating the individual and collective historical manifestations from the cosmic imperative of this cycle. The Beowulf poet perhaps saw in the ancient myths which permeated his cultural traditions the basis of meaning of human existence.

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iii, 292 leaves

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  • May 1990

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  • Aug. 22, 2014, 6 p.m.

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  • May 19, 2016, 11:36 a.m.

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Aitches, Marian A. (Marian Annette). "Beowulf": Myth as a Structural and Thematic Key, dissertation, May 1990; Denton, Texas. (digital.library.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metadc330758/: accessed August 20, 2017), University of North Texas Libraries, Digital Library, digital.library.unt.edu; .