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c h a p t e r s i x The Heroic Laconic Style Reticence and Meaning from Beowulf to the Edwardians Come, friend, you too must die. Why moan about it so? Even Patroclus died, a far, far better man than you. And look, you see how handsome and powerful I am? The son of a great man, the mother who gave me life a deathless goddess. But even for me, I tell you, death and the strong force of fate are waiting. —Iliad 21.119–241 The near oxymoron of my title can best be explained, at the outset, by one of its most famous instances. Capt. Lawrence Oates was a member of Robert Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole in 1910–12. On the fatal return trip his frostbitten feet would no longer allow him to continue walking, and—knowing he was damaging the chances of survival 155 Patterson-06 9/17/09 4:01 PM Page 155 of the others—he decided he must sacrifice himself to the greater good. In the midst of a blizzard he went to the door of the tent, saying “I am just going outside and may be some time”—and walked off to his death. “It was,” Scott wrote in his diary, “the act of a brave man and an English gentleman. We all hope to meet the end with a similar spirit, and assuredly the end is not far.” Nor was it. Less than two weeks later Scott wrote his famous Last Entry, a verbal gesture that was faithful to Oates’s selflessness: “For God’s sake look after our people.”2 This essay will develop the ideas implicit in these heroic acts. The first is that the “national characteristic” of British verbal self-restraint— whether understood as the time-honored stiff upper lip or as a knowledgeable (or perhaps self-protective) refusal to indulge in unwarranted enthusiasm—is part of a continuous tradition that goes back a very long way: specifically to the Scandinavian and Germanic literatures of the Middle Ages. Second, this national characteristic is undeniably class specific : not just Oates’s self-sacrifice but his self-deprecating understatement is central to Scott’s definition of his comrade as a gentleman. And third, when looked at in the context of Victorian and Edwardian culture—that is, at the time when English imperialism was at its apogee, which is the larger context of Scott’s expedition—the medieval origins of the laconic heroic style were rediscovered as an important aspect of the medieval revival which spoke directly to late nineteenth-century conditions. The question of whether it still speaks to ours is something for the reader to decide. These three arguments will be developed by way of three seemingly disparate examples, in very different genres. The origins and original meaning of heroic understatement, as expressed in early medieval literature, will be reconsidered in the case of Beowulf, which itself can be seen as a meditation on, rather than merely an instance of, heroic laconicism. The second example might equally be seen as a retroactive comment, from the perspective of the turn into the twentieth century, on the late Victorian epic of colonialism: the extremely popular novel The Four Feathers by A.E.W. Mason, first published in 1902, just a decade before Scott’s expedition , but set in the late 1880s. The third actually preceded the appearance of The Four Feathers and harks back in its topic to the first. Neither poem nor melodramatic novel, W.P. Ker’s magisterial Epic and Romance, published in 1897, is obviously related both to Beowulf by its focus on the 156 Acts of Recognition Patterson-06 9/17/09 4:01 PM Page 156 medieval heroic poem and to The Four Feathers by its chronological situation , and, I shall argue, by its implied critique of its own era. I Given the significance that Ker’s book will play in the closing section of my argument, an appropriate place to begin to explore the meaning of the laconic style is with his favorite literary genre, the Icelandic sagas. These narratives display throughout a hard-bitten wryness and a persistent use of negation and understatement.3 Here are two examples from Grettir’s Saga. On one occasion Grettir attacks a ghost who lives in a barrow, kills it after a ferocious fight, and then returns home, late for dinner. When he is upbraided by his master for his bad manners in...


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