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A Case for Irony in «Beowulf»,

with particular reference to its epithets


Tom Clark

This book examines irony in the Old English poem Beowulf. It synthesises an argument that the poetics of Beowulf are fundamentally contrastive. Contrastiveness is a feature of expression that enables the presence of irony, although it does not guarantee it. Using a definition that emphasises contextual rather than absolute readings of irony, this study shows how irony is created in Beowulf by contrastive techniques such as the dichotomy of words and deeds, the use of juxtaposition in its development of characters, and the use of litotes.
The author devotes particular attention to the epithets of Beowulf, examined as both an attributive phrase and the concomitant amplification of that phrase through its poetic context. Close readings of the poem’s epithets reveal many ironies and many different types of irony. The systematic coherence of those types shows Beowulf in a new light, as a thoroughly ironic poem.
Contents: Irony and the contrastive in Beowulf: Contrastive poetics and the use of irony – Words and deeds – Alpha and Omega – Litotes and the negative in Beowulf – The ironical epithets in Beowulf: A methodology for reading irony in the epithets of Beowulf – Annotated list of the ironic epithets in Beowulf – Approaches to a taxonomy of the ironic epithets in Beowulf.