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Donna Beth Ellard

Graduate Student, English Dept., UC Santa Barbara

Donna Beth Ellard
Donna Beth Ellard is a Ph.D. candidate in the English Department at UCSB. She is currently working on her dissertation, “A Death So Sublime: Theorizing Death and Dying in Medieval England.” Her interests include Anglo-Saxon Literature and Archaeology, Sublime Theory, Textuality Studies, and Arabic Language. In 2005, Donna Beth received a US State Department FLAS Title VI Fellowship to study Arabic at the American University in Cairo.

Research Sample: Excerpt from “Beowulf’s Deathbed Confessions: History and Heroic Language”

Although Beowulf is not a modern, but a pre-modern text, its poetics utilize the theoretical strategy — and here, I will use Lyotard’s vocabulary—of “recognizable form” and “unpresentable contents” in order to allude to what I suggest is a sublime of peace. Beowulf’s “recognizable form” is the structural poetics of his self-epitaph; his “missing contents” are equivalent to his fifty missing winters. Beowulf adheres to Old English alliterative poetics and maniacally insists upon repetitive versification and syntactic parallelism. His form, in its attention to alliteration, meter, repetition, and rhetoric is recognizable because it follows Old English poetic conventions both structurally and rhetorically. In the midst of these conventions, Beowulf outlines fifty years of rule that do not appear in the text. While these years have been remembered by Beowulf, they have not been remembered by the poem. Perhaps they never happened. Perhaps they are a fictional legacy. Regardless, they point to an unpresentable content that Beowulf cannot articulate directly, but only imply obliquely: a time when no wars were fought, no invasions were attempted, and no specious pacts were made. In essence, it was a time when nothing happened; it was a time of peace. I argue that in Beowulf, this nothing time, this inarticulable space, this, “unpresentable” moment is the sublime. In this violent poem, peace is cognitively unknowable, unreachable, and inarticulable (77).

Before I go any further in my analysis, I would like to step back for a minute and look at peace in relation to the entire poem. In order to do this, I will gloss several moments of the text that linguistically articulate peace and explore the vestiges of a space that can contain peace. In the poem there are two words — “sibb” and “freoðo” — that are translated as the modern English equivalent of “peace,” “friendship,” and “kinship.” However, both of these words are used sparingly in the poem. “Sibb” is first mentioned by the scop, who notes that Grendel does not desire peace with the Danes. Soon after, it is twice used in Heorot: first to indicate the good yet fated relations between Hrothulf and Hrothgar: “þa gyt wæs hiera sib ætgædere/ æghwylc oðrum trywe.” (1164); second, to signify Hrothgar’s and Beowulf’s pledge of loyalty between the Danes and the Geats “Hafast þu gefered þæt þam folcum sceal Geata leodum ond God-DenÅ«m sib gemæne ond sacu restan” (1855-57). “freoðo” is used as the compound noun, “freoðuwebbe” or peaceweaver to describe Modthryth’s political and social “role” as wife of Offa. However, despite the utterances of “sibb” and figures who broker “freoðo,” Peace is not a concept that the poem knows how to describe but rather only mention in proximity to violence. The peace between Hrothulf and Hrothgar is mentioned in relation to a proleptic warning of family feud; the compact made between Hrothgar and Beowulf is brokered by the bloody fight with Grendel, and moreover, uttered by Hrothgar immediately after Beowulf presents him with the antiquated sword hilt — both a war-trophy and a gift of fealty—by which he defeated Grendel’s mother. Finally, Modthryth, the peaceweaver is condemned by the scop as one who deprives of life.

Likewise, spaces where peace, or peaceful respite, can be taken become battle-grounds. Heorot is a place for boasts, gift-giving and rest. However, each of these acts is set in apposition to violence. In Heorot, Beowulf boasts of killing giants and man-eating sea creatures. Although Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel has brought peace to the Danes, he is rewarded with gifts of war: Wealthow presents Beowulf with Hygelac the Great’s neck-ring, an ornament that he will wear on a raid against the Frisians, while Hrothgar gives Beowulf a sword, helmet, and war standard for defeating Grendel. The scop’s tales during the celebration at Heorot are not of concord, but of the ambush of Finn and the feuds of Sigismund. Finally, sleep in Heorot is dangerous on the eve of peace, as Grendel’s mother attacks the hall when all least suspect violence.

In Beowulf, peace is, indeed, hard to know. How then does one go about trying to articulate that which one can only imagine, that which hasn’t been acted out? I argue that in the world of Beowulf — a place and moment in time during which peace was often unthinkable — there is not a semiotic system that can effectively articulate peace. Consequently, in order to leave an imprint of himself as he would like to be remembered, Beowulf must articulate absence. More specifically, he articulates an absence of war rather than a presence of peace. He does this by the repeated negation of activity during the first half of his self-epitaph. In the process, he articulates that inarticulable thing — or peace — which is understood as the sublime. Talking about peace is impossible. It does not provide a meta-narrative to sustain discourse and truth telling because during times of peace, there is no truth to tell.

Contributions to Transliteracies Project:
Electronic Beowulf Project (Research Report)
Exeter Anthology of Old English Poetry (Research Report)
Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc du Berry (Research Report)

  dbellard, 01.12.06

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