Well, I knew what he meant, of course. I do not think he was talking about being middle-aged, and certainly no one in either poem is middle-aged, except perhaps King Hrothgar, who says he looks on Beowulf as a son (and his inability to defend his people against Grendel may be a sign of middle age, alas). Beowulf himself is young and strong until we see him in old age; the poem fast-forwards over his middle years with the general comment that he was a good king and the kingdom was peaceful, and then moves into the final adventure of the dragon. Sir Gawain is one of the youngest of King Arthur’s knights, and Arthur himself isn’t all that old, regardless of how Richard Burton looked in the role on Broadway. I’m sure if I had asked the student who in the poems he thought was middle-aged he would have given me that stare that students have perfected, their polite way of saying “I have no *** idea what you’re talking about.”
The problem for this writer was his desire to describe the poems with a single adjective rather than a prepositional phrase or a participial phrase: “poems of the Middle Ages” or “poems written in the Middle Ages.” And he either chose not to use, or couldn’t think of, the word “medieval.”
Just as well, since other students have been mystified by the “-eval,” or “-aeval,” root, one student calling Gawain a “mid-evil story” (which I guess is okay if she intended to incorporate the implacable malevolence of King Arthur’s sister Morgan-le-Fey, except that I’m sure she didn’t) and another suggesting that Grendel lived in a “prime-evil swamp” (which, again, would have been an interesting way of incorporating the monster’s ancestry, which began with Cain, but I’m pretty sure that wasn’t his intention).
Anyway, the student describing the two poems as middle-aged was really dealing legitimately enough with adjective formation: No one would be fazed by a writer who chose to say “He was a middle-aged man” instead of “He was a man of middle age.” But he had the basic modifier wrong. The poems are not poems of middle age; indeed, they’re pretty old, one composed probably in the late eighth century and the other written in the late fourteenth century—early and late in the Middle Ages. Of the Middle Ages simply can’t be turned into an adjective preceding the noun, except by substituting the term medieval (or mediaeval, the spelling they taught me back in the olden days, the spelling that continues to strike me as SO cool!).
So he knew what he meant when he wrote this phrase that doesn’t mean what he meant; and I also knew what he meant, but for a few minutes let myself enjoy the picture of these two poems sitting in lawn chairs sipping beer, speculating that they may be past their prime, thinking about buying red sports cars.