Emily Thornbury (Yale): "Surface, Depth, and Interpretation in Beowulf"

Emily Thornbury
April 12, 2019
All Day
18th Avenue Library, Room 090


Abstract: In Beowulf we find a series of conceptual metaphors for interpretation: hunting; diving; buried treasure. A closer look, however, reveals a fundamental conflict between the views expressed by these metaphors, a conflict centered on the presence or absence of a surface-depth dichotomy. Within the text, we can see the Beowulf-poet wrestling with a Classically-derived worldview that privileges the hidden and associates the surface with deception. Ultimately the poet seems to have found himself unable either to accept this new metaphor, or, having understood it, to return to earlier concepts that presumed the surface acted as a sure guide to truth—a philosophical dilemma that contributes to the apocalyptic bleakness of the poem’s end. In Beowulf’s conflict, then, we can learn a great deal about the alterity of Anglo-Saxon thought, and about the real ambivalence that sometimes accompanied the importation of Mediterranean philosophy.

Bio: I've worked extensively on the role of poets and poetry in Anglo-Saxon England; my monograph on the topic, Becoming a Poet in Anglo-Saxon England, was published by Cambridge University Press in early 2014. New projects include work on ornament and aesthetics in early medieval England.