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Romanticizing the Past in the Middle English Athelston

Elaine M. Treharne
The Review of English Studies
Vol. 50, No. 197 (Feb., 1999), pp. 1-21
Published by: Oxford University Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/517756
Page Count: 21
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Romanticizing the Past in the Middle English Athelston
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Abstract

The Middle English Athelston, dated to the last quarter of the fourteenth century, presents an interesting treatment of Anglo-Saxon king Athelstan. This article attempts to determine the reasons behind the poet's choice of Athelston as eponymous hero by looking initially at the main features of the real Athelstan's reign from contemporary accounts and subsequent critical commentary. An analysis of some aspects of his posthumous fame is provided by an overview of selected post-Conquest writings which incorporate references to Athelstan. A discussion of various facets of the Middle English poem demonstrates how the poem fuses historical elements within a fictional framework. The Athelston-poet effectively succeeds in medievalizing a legendary king; but, in so doing he does not engage in the creation of an idealistic monarch of bygone days as one might, perhaps, expect; rather, he demonstrates through his protagonist the human fallibility of the divinely appointed ruler. We see a depiction of an imaginary, hierarchic Anglo-Saxon society in which Church and king are made to co-operate in the provision of temporal and spiritual harmony.

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