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The Hero on the Edge

Constructions of Heroism in Beowulf in the Context of Ancient and Medieval Epic

By Rodger Ian Wilkie

Abstract: One defining attribute of ancient and medieval epic heroes is a rage through which the hero threatens his own society. Traces of heroic rage, prominent in such figures as the Greek Achilles and the Irish Cù Chulainn, are detectable in Beowulf, and this rage anchors Beowulf within the context of Indo-European epic heroism. Yet the question of how epic texts construct epic heroes remains. This study considers such heroes generally, and Beowulf specifically, as liminal figures inhabiting the fluid boundaries between order/disorder, masculine/feminine, us/them, human/monstrous, and organic/technological. Through violent and verbal public performances against a disordered or disordering other, the hero emerges as an agent of his society’s masculinity. He also emerges not only as monstrous, but also as a specific kind of monster, a cyborg, and thus paradoxically as both agent of and tool for violence.

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