4. Beowulf and Oral Epic Tradition*

The Germanic peoples told stories in song from very ancient times. When some of these became known in the Middle Ages the tradition was already very old and in a state of transition from a purely oral to a fully written poetry. One can speak of at least three influences on the oral traditional matrix. One was that of writing itself; another was the effect of the meeting of Germanic vernacular songs such as Elene or Christ with Latin; a third, later, was that of the medieval French tradition of narrative, itself in origin an oral tradition.
One branch of Germanic sung narrative appeared in continental Germany in Old and Middle High German in the shape of such songs as the Hildebrandslied, Gudrun, and the Nibelungenlied . A second branch is represented by the Poetic Edda in Iceland. And a third was the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) and Middle English tradition, or traditions, as the case may be.
It is clear that the basic metrical system common to all Germanic peoples was formed in the oral period and was related to Indo-European metrics. It is tonic rather than syllabic, consisting of from two to four stressed syllables in each hemistich with a varying number of unstressed syllables. In Old High German, Old Norse, and Anglo-Saxon the two hemistichs are bound together by alliteration. Thus the beginning of the Old High German Hildebrandsliedin the manuscript:
Ik gihôrta đat seggen, đat sih urhêttun ‖ ænon muotîn
Hiltibra(n)t enti Hađubrant ‖ untar heriun tuêm. {98|97}
sunufatarungo. ‖ Iro saro rihtun,
garutun sê iro gûđhamun, ‖ gurtun sih iro suert ana
helidos ubar (h)ringâ. ‖ Dô sie tô dero hiltiu ritun. [1]

I have heard this said,
that single warriors, Hildebrand and Hadubrand,
contended between two armies
of the people of the father and son. They prepared their armor,
they fixed their warshirts, they girded their swords
over the ring-mail, the heroes, as they rode to the fight. [2]
And the opening stanzas of "Vo̧lospá," the first poem in the Codex Regius of the Old Norse Poetic Edda:
Hlióðs bið ec aliar ‖ helgar kindir,
meiri oc minni, ‖ mogo Heimdalar;
vildo, at ec, Valfoðr, ‖ vel fyrtelia
forn spioll fira, ‖ þau er fremst um man.

Ec man iotna, ‖ ár um borna,
þá er forðom mic ‖ fœdda ho̧fðo;
níο man ec heima, ‖ níο íviði,
miotvið mœran ‖ fyr mold neðan. [3]

Hearing I ask ‖ from the holy races,
From Heimdall’s sons, ‖ both high and low;
Thou wilt, Valfather, ‖ that well I relate
Old tales I remember ‖ of men long ago.

I remember yet ‖ the giants of yore,
Who gave me bread ‖ in the days gone by;
Nine worlds I knew, ‖ the nine in the tree
With mighty roots ‖ beneath the mold. [4]
And, finally, the opening lines of Beowulf:
Hwæt! We Gardena ‖ in geardagum, {97|98}
þeodcyninga, ‖ þrym gefrunon,
hu ða æþelingas ‖ ellen fremedon. [5]
Lo! We have heard of the glory of the kings of the people of the Spear-Danes in days of yore—how those princes did valorous deeds! [6]
The hemistichs of the stanzas of the Nibelungenlied and Gudrun are longer and lack the alliteration. The pairs of lines rhyme, however, and the last hemistich of the fourth line is longer than the others. This, too, although emerging later, appears to have been a traditional meter. Thus begins the Nibelungenlied:
Uns ist in alten mæren ‖ wunders vil geseit
von heleden lobebæren ‖ von grôzer arebeit,
von fröuden, hôchgezîten, ‖ von weinen und von klagen,
von küener recken strîten ‖ muget ir nu wunder hœren sagen. [7]
We have been told in ancient tales many marvels of famous heroes, of mighty toil, joys, and high festivities, of weeping and wailing, and the fighting of bold warriors—of such things you can now hear wonders unending! [8]
If the first element in the oral traditional character of the Medieval English epic is its metrical base, the second is the formulaic language, with its tendency to an appositive style (of which Fred C. Robinson has written so perceptively) which shapes ideas into the forms provided by the meters. [9] In studying the repeated noun-adjective phrases for gods and heroes, the noun-epithet formulas, in the Homeric poems, Milman Parry came to realize that the formulas, and the systems they formed, were characteristic not only of traditional but also of oral traditional poetry. Rapid composition of lines in performance was made possible by the formulas, and therefore the presence of a large number of them in any given poem was an indication that its style was of oral traditional provenance.
The basic unit larger than a line is a block of lines varying in number from {98|99} two to perhaps six. They follow regularly repeated syntactic and semantic patterns, often with similar wording, although it is necessary to remember that, in Old English poetry, verbal correspondence is not so marked as in other traditions because of the paratactic style and the requirements of alliteration. The lines that make up the block are not consistently memorized but are remembered. [10]
A study of the introductions to speeches in Beowulf and Elenerevealed several such blocks, for example:
Him se yldesta ‖ ondswarode,
werodes wisa, ‖ wordhord onleac:
Beowulf 258-59
To him answered the leader of the band, the chieftain of the troop unlocked his store of words:
Him þa ellenrof ‖ andswarode,
wlanc Wedera leod, ‖ word æfter spræc,
heard under helme:
Then the man renowned in strength answered him; the proud leader of the Geats, hardy under his helmet, rejoined in speech:
Þa ic fromlice ‖ fæder minum,
ealdum æwitan, ‖ ageaf ondsware:
Elene 454-55
Then I boldly gave reply to my father, the old man learned in the law:
Ða me yldra min ‖ ageaf ondsware,
frod on fyrhðe ‖ fæder reordode:
Then my parent replied to me, my wise-minded father declared: [11]
I noticed an excellent example of such a couplet also in the description of King Arthur's arming in the Middle English Alliterative Morte Arthure . The {99|100} first line of the couplet is the same in both occurrences of the theme, but the second line is somewhat variable:
His gloues gaylyche gilte and grauen at þe hemmez
With graynez and goblets, glorious of hewe. [12]
His gauntlet brightly gilded and trimmed at the edge
With seed-pearls and gems of a glorious hue.

His gloues gayliche gilte and grauen by þe hemmys
With graynes of rubyes full gracious to schewe.
His gloves gloriously gilded and engraved at the edge
With beads of ruby, bright to behold. [13]
Such a block has not been memorized, but the alliteration serves not only to knit separate parts of the first line together but also, by carrying over to the beginning of the second line, to link the two lines into a memorable couplet. I do not intend to imply that the Alliterative Morte Arthure is an oral traditional poem. Such constructions, however, do point to the fact that many of the characteristics of oral poetry can be found in it. This fact has already been abundantly documented by scholars from Ronald A. Waldron to Jean Ritzke-Rutherford and Valerie Krishna. [14]
The style of oral traditional epic poetry is far too complex to have been invented by a single person and must have been developed over the centuries by generations of poet/singers. All this has been expounded with diligence and grace by Alain Renoir. [15] The meter and the style of Anglo-Saxon narrative verse were inheritances from the oral tradition in which they originated. We might use Walter Ong's convenient term and call them "oral residue."
Oral tradition is naturally subject to changes in the community. [16] Some social changes are rapid and some gradual. The changes are usually brought about by "outsiders," or by "outside influences." There may be massive transformations such as the religious conversions that took place in late {100|101} antiquity and the Middle Ages. Historical events such as war may decimate a community and alter the tempo of change. One more gradual change that may come about is the spread of literacy and the introduction of new types of entertainment.
The singing of epic songs is very ancient. It is clear that it began in an "oral" period. Tradition, that is to say, all the singers before and contemporaneous with each singer/performer, bequeathed to him a technique of composing songs in performance. This technique is not improvisation, if by improvisation we mean that which is impromptu, without premeditation or preparation. What I am talking about is a very special type of composition. Each performance results in a "new" text, to be sure, but that "new" text is made up of formulas, blocks of lines, and themes of preceding performances. Such a method of composition produces a recognizable style.
Milman Parry's fundamental insight about oral tradition is in essence that there are elements of style that arise from the necessity of composing and recomposing songs rapidly in performance. The presence of these elements in any given text is an indication that it belongs in the category of oral traditional songs. In the fifties this insight was applied to Beowulf by Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., who concluded that Beowulf was an oral traditional poem. [17] In The Singer of Tales in 1960, a revised version of my 1949 doctoral dissertation, I came to the same conclusion about Beowulf, among other medieval works. These conclusions were based on a study of the number of formulas and formulaic expressions in the text.
In 1966, Larry Benson argued that there were as many formulas in the Anglo-Saxon translation of Boethius as in Beowulf. He showed that all Old English poetry, even that which was "written" on the basis of Latin sources, used a formulaic style. The controversy has continued since then. Ann Chalmers Watts in 1969 reviewed the whole problem very even handedly and thoroughly. She concluded that we would probably never be able to arrive at a final, satisfactory solution. But the research has continued and has generated some fine scholarship for and against oral provenance. We now know a great deal more about formulaic and thematic composition in other parts of the world where there are living traditions, and the analyses of stylistic features in the Anglo-Saxon texts themselves have been improved and fine-tuned. [18]
Before going further, I want to dispel, if I can, some of the misunderstandings that have arisen about the art of oral composition and its relationship to {101|102} Old English epic poetry. In discussing the relationship of oral style to the Old English Beowulf, Derek Pearsall wrote, "Lord himself points out that literacy is the death-blow to oral tradition, and that the writing down of orally composed verse is impossible (before the invention of the phonograph) or at least artistically disastrous, as with the method of 'oral dictation;' yet this, it is presumed, is how all existing Old English poetry came to be written down." [19]
The first statement, that "literacy is the death-blow to oral tradition,"— those are his words, not mine—has some truth in it, but it would be more accurate to say that literacy carries the seeds of the eventual demise of oral traditional composition. In time, literacy usually means or can mean the end of the practice of oral traditional sung narrative. It is not, however, writing per se that brings about the change; oral traditional epic flourished in the Slavic Balkans for centuries in communities where significant portions of the population were literate. But gradually the epic began to be written down, and the concept of a fixed text, and of the text, of a song came to be current. With that concept arose the need for memorization rather than recomposition as a means of transmission. Literacy also often brought with it, as it came from outside of the community, changes in the society itself. In the Middle Ages, for example, the institution of the church introduced a new establishment that was often antagonistic to the old. The function of the oral traditional epic, namely, to express and maintain a system of values, including a developed sense of the heroic, was in danger of being usurped by a different hierarchy. In this way also, literacy, or what it imported, meant the eventual fading away or reinterpretation of the heroic society.
I am puzzled when Pearsall says that, according to me, writing down oral traditional poetry is impossible or artistically disastrous, "as with the method of dictation," before the invention of the phonograph. He seems to have misunderstood completely and misconstrued the facts. There is nothing wrong with the method of dictation; it is not by any means "artistically disastrous." I have seen and heard thousands of lines dictated very successfully by singers. I have even demonstrated that dictated texts are sometimes better than sung texts. It is true that there are singers who have difficulty in dictating, but that is the exception rather than the rule. As noted, the Old English poetry, insofar as it is oral traditional poetry, was very probably dictated.
Pearsall also wrote, "The further proposition, that Old English poetry, in its existing form, was composed extempore, is untenable." [20] This has been {102|103} the most pervasive misunderstanding of all. I have already addressed this objection, [21] but I want to stress once again that neither Parry nor I have ever said that Old English, or Homeric, or South Slavic oral traditional epic was composed "extempore." To say that a poetry is composed in performance, from traditional elements, is not the same as saying that it was composed extempore.
Pearsall's concluding comments on the views of Parry demonstrate a widely held belief in the general inferiority of oral traditional literature: "But the theory is irrelevant to most of the important questions about the poetry, and, by substituting the crude notion of improvisation for the many more varied and subtle kinds of composition, has distracted attention from the quality of Anglo-Saxon poetry that most needs stressing, its learned and lettered provenance." [22] I have already indicated that oral traditional epic poetry cannot be grasped in terms of a vague and overly generalized usage of the word improvisation . But I also suggest that what in Anglo-Saxon poetry is sometimes thought of as being of "learned and lettered provenance" is actually comfortably within the range of the compositional techniques of oral traditional literature.
After dismissing what he calls the oral theory, Pearsall turned, naturally enough, to a consideration of the role of Latin in the development of Anglo-Saxon poetry, specifically Beowulf . He felt sure that there was Virgilian influence in that poem. He was convinced that the Beowulf poet received the idea of writing an epic from his knowledge of Virgil's Aeneid . This is, of course, not by any means a new claim, but it is surprising to me how it continues to be held so adamantly by a few scholars, notably Theodore Andersson. [23]
Although it appears that Virgil was used in monastery schools and, depending on when one dates Beowulf and when and how the poet learned to write, if he did, he may have read some Virgil. I do not know of any evidence that schoolboys read the whole of the Aeneid with all the care that the critic implies. Actually, the Anglo-Saxon bard did not need to seek inspiration from abroad. Oral traditional narrative verse holds within itself not only the potential for epic but also an ongoing mixing and combining of songs and stories. It has been the dictum for a long time that the Germanic peoples had a tradition of short heroic lays, of which the Finnsburh fragment, Waldere, and the Hildebrandslied are held up as examples. The Christian South Slavic oral epic tradition is also made up of short songs, and there is a {103|104} large body of songs of local raids and feuding, some Christian and some Moslem, which are short. But some of the South Slavic epics—again, both Christian and Moslem—can reach considerable length; for example, in the Christian tradition, the Ženidba Dušanova, "The Wedding of Dushan," has 690 lines; the Ženidba Maksima Crnojevića, "The Wedding of Maksim Crnojević," has 1,226 lines; and in the Moslem tradition, there are songs of more than 10,000 lines. A person brought up in the singing tradition, as I believe the poet of Beowulf was, who found himself in a monastery and with the ability to write, might well have been moved to set down a "mingling" of songs. Such "minglings" take place quite naturally in oral traditional literature. The epic can "grow from within," without outside models.
Beowulf's recounting to Hygelac of his adventures at Heorot has been pointed to by Pearsall as a technique that the poet learned from Virgil. There is irony here, of course, as Virgil's model was Homer, and Homer was clearly an oral traditional poet. Such recounting is common in oral traditional poetry, and we find it also in records of poetic traditions from the earliest times, including striking examples in the Gilgamesh Epic, down to the present. In editing one of Avdo Međedović's dictated songs (Parry No. 6802, 7,621 lines) I found that it contains portions of events recapitulated not once but two or three times by different participants to different persons. The Beowulf poet did not need to go to Virgil to learn a device shared by all Indo-European oral poetic traditions. It would seem very strange, indeed, if the Germanic tradition alone were ignorant of that technique, even if we do not find any instances in the very scanty surviving materials older than Beowulf .
The style of the Aeneid is so different from that of Beowulf that it seems to a classicist as an extraordinary case of wishful thinking to believe that the one influenced the other. For one thing, the complex style of Virgil with its intricate word order makes no use of true formulas, as Parry proved in detail years ago. [24] Beowulf also has intricate word order necessitated in part by the exigency of the Germanic line, but its intricacies are not like those of Virgil and are inheritances from a long tradition. Nothing could be more different in tone and method of composition than Beowulf is from the Aeneid . The style of the Aeneid is allusive; it cannot be read and fully understood without reference to the specific wording of Virgil's literary sources; his epic must be perceived through a web of learned allusions. He quoted or adapted the words of other authors, not only Homer but erudite Hellenistic poets such as Apollonius and Callimachus. Moreover, present-day Virgilian scholarship {104|105} even questions whether Aeneas should be thought of as a hero in the Homeric, or in the Germanic, sense. He is full of self-doubt and misgivings. If the Beowulf poet ever read the Aeneid—which I very seriously doubt—it seems to have had no effect on him.
I venture to suggest that the complexity of Anglo-Saxon poetics, a complexity which is that of an oral traditional poetics, has led scholars ignorant of the latter to suppose that only a literate society could produce such complexity. They assume that oral traditional poetics must be simple and unsophisticated. This is in reality not the case. We should rather be seeking to understand fully the richness of oral traditional style. When we do understand that, we will stop looking elsewhere for the source of at least some of the elements that contribute to its excellence.
There are those who would say that Beowulf is a transitional text. In The Singer of Tales, I said that there was no such thing as a transitional text, but I now see the usefulness of the term, provided that we formulate it to be applicable in more precise contexts. What is needed is an exact description of a "transitional" text, so that we will not use the category merely as a resting place for compositions we do not understand. One cannot designate a literary work as transitional between oral and written unless one knows the characteristics of both forms of composition. [25]
Most of us know something about the style of written composition. We learned about it in school, we practice it in varying degrees, we almost take it for granted assuming that, if there is anything else, it must be inferior. This is an ironic situation. [26] Literary style was formed and reached high complexity before the invention of writing. That it did so in Greece is proved by the tradition that led to the Homeric poems. The magnificence of Homeric style was a product of the generations of singer/poets before and including Homer. There was no period of written literature before the Homeric poems were written down. They needed writing to be recorded but not to be composed, except insofar as the dictating process allowed time for a longer "performance" than was usual.
One should be able to point to something that is definitely a "written" characteristic in order to prove that a text is transitional. I can find oral traditional characteristics in the style of Beowulf, I am not sure if I can say of {105|106} anything in the style of Beowulf that it must be from a written tradition. For that reason, I still tend to say that it is an oral traditional poem, possibly literally written down by an oral traditional poet who was in a monastery or close to one. Neither the writing nor the monastery frightens me away from this opinion, although both the writing and the monastery hold the potential of transition.
The subject matter of Beowulf, put most simply—the encounter of a hero with three terrifying monsters—certainly belongs to the lore of a people, and the analogues in Old Norse and other Germanic narratives bear that out. Even if the attitude of the poet is Christian—and there seems to be no doubt of that—the fundamental story is a pagan one. It is basically a traditional tale. Generally speaking it is a mythic tale. I do not mean that it concerns itself with gods such as those we know from Norse mythology. The pattern is that of a story in what Eliade would call the "sacred," as opposed to the "profane" world. The monsters at least inhabit an "other world."
To determine what the first, the oldest, perhaps even the primordial meaning of such an oral traditional epic as Beowulf may be, we must begin by seeking out the mythic pattern that constitutes what Noam Chomsky might call its "deep structure." [27] One must not be surprised to discover that there may be more than one such pattern. I have elsewhere written of "interlocking mythic patterns" in Beowulf. [28] One that involved the episode with Unferth in which Beowulf is mocked on his arrival at Heorot was a "return" pattern, and the other, which mingled with it, concerned monsters, death, and a journey. Although we shall probably never know the details of the origin of any complex of traditional narratives, it may be that we can have a glimpse of the meaningful shapes of its embryo.
Both the style and the myth point to a ritual or religious origin and function for epic. Oral traditional epic is not merely entertainment, as it tends to become in the course of time and social change, but has a serious function in its society. It contains the ideals and values of the society, as well as a regard for the fundamental problems of both the community and the individual and for how they may be met and accepted if they cannot be solved. [29]
Delving under plots to mythic patterns, and even at times below the Germanic to Indo-European, we easily reach the generic narrative of the "monster-slayer." [30] The sequence of elements in that large group of stories {106|107} would begin with (1) an unusual, or special, kind of hero, who (2) has a special weapon, or weapons, (3) to encounter a monster, that is, by definition, a special kind of opponent, usually what we would call "supernatural." In the course of that encounter the hero (4) is almost killed but is saved by (5) divine intervention, to (6) kill the monster, thus restoring order and normality to the world of humankind. My models for this pattern are Marduk, Gilgamesh, Zeus in Hesiod's Theogony, Heracles, Achilles in Homer's Iliad, and others.
Beowulf fits the pattern very well: (1) There is something unusual about Beowulf's younger years, as the poem itself tells us. Some of the other heroes in this narrative pattern also have unusual childhoods. Beowulf's name, "Bee-wolf," or "bear," may indicate an affinity with animals (compare Heracles), and the fact that he possesses the special weapons needed indicates that he is the sort of person who is qualified to use them. (2) Beowulf uses two special weapons for his first two encounters: he has his innate "grip" with which to meet Grendel and a special sword with which to fight Grendel's mother in the mere. For his third encounter, that with the dragon, Beowulf no longer has a special sword nor a special grip. He does have, however, an unusual iron shield, which, in lines 2335-41, he ordered to be made, in place of the ordinary wooden shield, to protect him from the dragon's fire. [31] Beowulf has at last passed into the realm of mortal men, and the honorable death of a hero is his destiny. I do not need to dwell on (3) the monsters, tempting though it may be, because it is enough that they be recognized as bona fide monsters. (4) Beowulf in his first victorious meeting with Grendel was killed by proxy in the person of Hondscio, who died a grim death in his stead; but Beowulf was almost killed by Grendel's mother and saved miraculously (5) by the appearance of an ancient sword. In the third encounter there is neither special weapon nor divine intervener. (6) He kills his opponents (and meets his own death). [32]
I have recited these elements for several reasons. First to remind ourselves of them; second to show that the action of Beowulf is at base an Indo-European myth—it may even be broader than that—found in other oral traditional epics; and third to point to the special character of the third encounter. Beowulf's fundamental story, as well as its basic style, belongs to oral traditional literature. Its mythic pattern gives a "deep structure" and layers of meaning stretching back to very ancient times. Both the style and {107|108} the story have, in the manner of live traditions, adapted themselves to the times during which they took the shapes in which we have them.
We might discern in Beowulf at least three general areas—I almost said "levels" or "layers," but that might indicate differences of date, and I want to avoid that implication. The first, oldest, and largest is the mythic story, as I have briefly and rather simplistically outlined it. I believe that the narrative pattern has Indo-European roots and that it has undergone many sea changes as it has found its way from Germanic singer to Germanic singer.
The second area came into play comparatively recently when the singers and their society came under the influence of Judaeo-Christianity. This area includes, of course, the song of creation that became attached to the tale. It is reasonable to suppose that some of the medieval monks were traditional singers, brought up in the tradition of singing before they entered the monastery; such brothers—or, if not a monk, a singer who was close enough to the monastery to have known the biblical stories—could have made this adaptation of the monster-slaying myth at any time after the biblical stories became known in a Germanic, most probably Anglo-Saxon community. It might have come into the ken of the singer/monks from their own reading of the Scriptures; but it may equally well, I believe, have arrived at the singers, whether monks or not, through the reading of the Scriptures by the clerics in the refectories or by way of the accounts of creation told or read in the pulpit. This area includes also the genealogy of Grendel as a descendant of Cain. One might speculate—and it is just that—that the singer may have substituted a biblical story he had heard for some other subject sung by the bard at Heorot.
The tradition to which Beowulf belonged carried in the form of its stories the meaning of the myth that a divinely endowed hero brings order to primordial chaos or, in a later stage, restores divinely created order when it has been disturbed by a resurgent chaos. When that tradition met the Judaeo-Christian accounts of the earliest establishing of order in the universe, as recounted in the story of creation, it sensed an affinity between its version and the biblical story. Tradition is fond of emphasizing basic meanings by expressing them in multiforms. Duplication is one of the most important principles of structure in oral traditional literature. An oral traditional form of Beowulf may have assimilated the biblical account of creation some time before our text was composed, but it could also have been placed where it is by the Beowulf poet himself, if he were an oral traditional poet, as I believe. It was inserted early on in the narrative, lines 90-98, where it belongs, because it states in mythic, or "sacred," terms one of the fundamental messages of the poem. At the same time, it also naturally identifies {108|109} resurgent chaos, namely, Grendel and his tribe, with the fratricidal Cain from the same biblical story, line 107; later, line 1261.
Oral tradition frequently duplicates meaningful elements as a subconscious means of making the magic of the tale more powerful, and the adding of an ancient story of power to a more "modern" one, if I have the chronology correct, is a way of reinforcing the strength of the basic narrative. As God established order in the universe, so Beowulf reestablished order when it had been upset by the chaos introduced, or reintroduced, by Grendel. This is a good example of oral traditional literary thinking and compositional technique. The biblical elements were properly assimilated into the oral traditional monster-slaying myth near the beginning of the story to set its tone and significance, which will permeate the whole poem.
To me, the background of Grendel and his like as it is told in our poem after the mother's ravages in which she killed Æschere, smacks of oral traditional tales more than of a learned tract. King Hrothgar explains (1345-61):
"I have heard dwellers in the country, subjects of mine, counsellors in hall, say this: —that they have seen two such huge wanderers of the marches guarding the moors, alien spirits, of whom one was, so far as they could most clearly tell, the semblance of a woman. The other wretched one whom, in past days, dwellers in the land named Grendel, trod exile-paths in human form, howbeit he was greater than any other man. They have no knowledge of a father, whether any such had been begotten for them in times past among the mysterious demons. They dwell in a land unknown, wolf-haunted slopes, wind-swept headlands, perilous marsh-paths, where the mountain stream goes down under the mists of the cliffs,—a flood upon the earth …"
A third area discernible in Beowulf is made up of the allusions to Germanic history and legend. Insofar as the events and personages come from tales and songs in oral tradition, these allusions are easily accepted as part of the oral traditional poem. They point to a poet who was conversant with Germanic legend and history or, put another way, a poet in a rich tradition that contained many songs and stories from the Teutonic past. In one of these, when the scop sang the lay of Finn, we may have a picture of how and when the Beowulf poem itself was sung. After the victory over Grendel there was rejoicing in the Hall of Heorot: "There was singing and music together in accompaniment in presence of Healfdene's warlike chieftain; the harp was played, and many a lay rehearsed, when Hrothgar's bard was to provide entertainment in hall along the mead-bench,—about the sons of Finn, and how disaster came on them" (1063-68). {109|110}
Strangely enough, these historical references, or allusions, were at one time somewhat more of a problem for me in understanding the composition of Beowulf than the biblical stories were. But I wonder if that is not because I was using the South Slavic songs as my main comparative model; so far as I can see now, very seldom does one South Slavic poem make overt references to events in another, or in general to events outside of the poem itself. When we turn, however, to the Homeric poems as comparative model, then the difficulty is removed because Homer refers to other myths and legends that exist in the oral traditional repertory of ancient Greek bards. For example, he knew and made reference to the story of the Argonauts. In the Odyssey (12.66-72), Circe tells Odysseus that he and his men will have to pass through the Clashing Rocks:
"… No ship of men that came here ever has fled through,
but the waves of the sea and storms of ravening fire carry
away together the ship's timbers and the men's bodies.
That way the only seagoing ship to get through was Argo,
who is in all men's minds, on her way home from Aietes;
and even she would have been driven on the great rocks that time,
but Hera saw her through, out of her great love for Jason."
And again, another famous example, when Agamemnon finally admits to Achilles that he was wrong in taking Briseis from him, he blames Atê, 'Delusion':
"Delusion is the elder daughter of Zeus, the accursed
who deludes all; her feet are delicate and they step not
on the firm earth, but she walks on the air above men's heads
and leads them astray. She has entangled others before me.
Yes, for once Zeus even was deluded, though men say
he is the highest one of the gods and mortals. Yet Hera
who is female deluded even Zeus in her craftiness
on that day when in strong wall-circled Thebe Alkmene
was at her time to bring forth the strength of Herakles."
Iliad 19.91-99
And Homer goes on (19.100-133) to tell the story at some length of the way in which Hera deceived her husband so that Eurystheus was born before Heracles, who thus became subject to him.
In Homer we have an oral traditional poet who found no difficulty in staying the forward action of his song, even at such a significant point as that {110|111} when Agamemnon admits his fault and offers recompense to Achilles, in order to tell at some length another pertinent tale, another well-known myth. Telling a story within a story as above and as with the Finnsburh episode in Beowulf is common in oral traditional epic.
A fourth area drawn most naturally into the orbit of the myth in its elaboration in Anglo-Saxon tradition was the use of other poetic genres. Joseph Harris has enumerated them and they require further study. [33] Just to mention a few, they include a praise poem, elegies, boasts, laments, and finally a "death song." [34] These, in my opinion, are not assembled mechanically but integrated into the narrative in such a natural way that I feel sure the process was not self-conscious. As with the other three areas, they too, I believe, were living in oral tradition in the poet's day, an oral tradition of which he was a distinguished and talented representative.
Beowulf is a complex and magnificent poem setting forth an ancient theme of the establishing and maintaining of order on earth by the action of gods and heroes. As its story was told over generations, it attracted multiforms from the Bible, from other myths, history, and legend, and from other oral traditional genres, all of which served to strengthen the inherited meaning. The grandeur of its traditional style contributed also to the enhancement of the subject of the epic. Miraculously the traditional poet succeeded in telling once again an old, old story, in that telling gave it relevance to contemporary spiritual and historical realities, at the same time focused on the individual hero, in whose triumphs the listener can, even in our day, share and thereby be enlarged.
I envisage the poet of Beowulf as an oral traditional poet/singer who had come under the influence of biblical stories, at least the early parts of Genesis, probably from hearing them in a church or monastery. Those stories entered into his inherited Germanic monster-slaying mythic tales. Not only does the scop in Heorot sing of the creation, but the race of monsters is depicted as descendants of Cain. The creatures themselves are like their analogues in Scandinavian lore. But there is another ingredient that has to be accounted for. Whereas references to Germanic lore, such as the dragon-slaying Sigmund, would be part of the poet's traditional store of narrative, the historical events mentioned seem to me to point to a man who was in a community where that kind of knowledge would be available, where he would have heard history as well as Scripture. And that argues for a traditional singer/poet who was, presumably in later years—this is a guess, {111|112} but a good one—living in a monastery. I do not believe that he needed to read in order to have acquired the knowledge that he seems to have had. He could have gained it all by hearing, a not uncommon method in the Middle Ages.
The Beowulf poet's style is consistently oral traditional, but elements in his subject matter were new, and they required adaptation of ancient formulas and creation of some new ones, either on his own part or on the part of other singers in his tradition before or around him. We might legitimately think of his style as transitional in the sense that the poet wrote down his poem; perhaps we might think of his technique as that of a latter-day Cædmon. [35] It is clear to me that Beowulf is not an imitation of anything. I feel sure that the poet is not looking at oral traditional poetry as something apart from himself that he is going to "imitate." The style is natural to him. If his style is transitional, he has not gone so far away from the tradition that his poem is without traditional characteristics or that he has reached the written style of Virgil.
What I have discussed so far seems to account fairly well for the style and the subject matter. I am still haunted by the inconsistencies between the narrative in the early part of the poem depicting Beowulf's fight with Grendel and that in the retelling by Beowulf at the court of Hygelac. The glof 'glove,' 'pouch' still troubles me. Why did the poet of Beowulf not mention the glof in the account of the hero's fight with Grendel, when all eyes were on the contest, when ears were about to echo with the breaking of benches, when dramatic tension was at its height? He missed a significant detail! Why also did he not mention the name of Hondscio when the companion of Beowulf was so gruesomely being consumed? If he were a literary author using writing, why did he not go back and correct his text as all authors with writing can do? Why leave the inconsistency? An answer might be that he was an oral traditional singer who dictated the poem, and we all know that such inconsistencies can arise in that poetry.
The inconsistencies can be accounted for, I think, if we have a truly oral traditional poet with a knowledge of other versions of monster or troll stories in which the glof appears. I have to insist on that or else go to the idea of more than one poet, an idea that I find repugnant. By the time Beowulf arrived home the poet, operating in a perfectly good oral traditional manner, slipped the glof into Grendel's hand even as he named Hondscio. Perhaps he thought he had mentioned them before. Perhaps he usually did, but in singing, {112|113} writing, or dictation—I like to keep all these possibilities—he neglected to mention them. At any rate, that is a way of accounting for those inconsistencies which is compatible with the oral traditional style.
The poet was a sensitive narrator, taking full advantage of the tradition in which he belonged as well as of the new elements appearing in the community or communities in which he lived and sang. There are many questions to be asked and pondered, but I believe that the foregoing view of this magnificent poem, profound and moving, artistically and traditionally subtle, is not an impossible one.

Editor's Addendum

In endeavoring to determine whether Beowulf is an oral traditional poem or, rather, reflects a transitional stage between oral and written, one is tempted to look for guidance to Katherine O'Brien O'Keeffe's discerning and meticulously crafted book, Visible Song: Transitional Literacy in Old English Verse. [36] In her preface she expresses the belief that "at some early point, verse in Old English was oral. From the time that Old English was first written, however, composition of verse in writing may be defined as "literate" but only in a seriously restricted sense." She adds:
Further, my argument assumes the possibility of one or more transitional states between pure "orality" and pure "literacy" and seeks to describe some of the features of an early transitional state characterized by what I shall call "residual orality." By this term I mean a state after the introduction of writing in a culture which nonetheless exhibits many features characteristic of "pure" orality. And finally, I make the assumption that the special character of developing literacy before the Conquest may be described from the manuscripts of Old English and Latin verse, (ix-x)
O'Keeffe discounts both the analysis of style and the use of information based on study of sources in attempts to determine the orality of Old English texts. She questions some of Larry Benson's methods of formulaic analysis, although she is greatly influenced by his 1966 article, which indicated that several "literary" works have a high percentage of formulas. Instead she turns to a scrupulous examination of the physical characteristics of Old English {113|114} manuscripts, such as mise-en-page, spacing, capitalization, and punctuation, which "provide strong evidence of persisting residual orality in the reading and copying of poetry in Old English" (6; the italics are mine).
We may illustrate her methods by considering her conclusions about two Anglo-Saxon poems, Cædmon's Hymn and Solomon and Saturn I . In her study of Cædmon's Hymn she distinguishes between the Latin and the Old English environment of the Hymn; "When the Hymn travels as 'gloss' to the Historia ecclesiastica, the text is subject to little variation, while those records of the Hymn which are integrated in the West Saxon translation of the History show a high degree of freedom in transmission" (46).
O'Keeffe readily accepts Cædmon's Hymn as the product of oral composition, whereas she defines Solomon and Saturn I, "precisely the obverse of Cædmon's Hymn" in the following manner:
Its origin and date are obscure (though quite probably late and almost surely a product of writing) and its subject arcane. One version of the poem is twenty times the length of Cædmon's Hymn … Despite the important differences between them, both Old English poems preserve in their transmission evidence of transitional literacy in the formulaic reading which their variants imply and in the conventions of formatting the manuscripts display. (48)
She concludes:
Cædmon's Hymn and Solomon and Saturn I could not be farther apart in their origins, histories, intellectual presuppositions or circumstances of transmission. They do, however, share one important characteristic: the writing of their verses, reflected both in numerous appropriate variants and in minimal graphic aids for decoding, demonstrates strongly that the poems called forth "formulaic" guesses as an essential part of reading activity. [37] (76)
Here we are faced with a problem. The physical qualities that O'Keeffe has so carefully detected in the manuscript transmission of Cædmon's Hymn and of Solomon and Saturn I are very much alike—in the nature of their variants, in mise-en-page, spacing, and punctuation. These are the qualities by which she defines the transitional role of the reader and the scribe, who are all-important to her, and by which she plots the place of a particular Anglo-Saxon text in the continuum of orality to literacy. As she says in her preface, {114|115} "the copyists get all the lines." She stresses the participatory role of the scribes and at times compares them with the performer of a poem. [38] Yet, in spite of the similarity in their manuscript transmission, Cædmon's Hymn and Solomon and Saturn I have quite different places on the spectrum ranging from oral to written. One is oral and the other "almost surely a product of writing." Thus though O'Keeffe's methods of analyzing Anglo-Saxon manuscripts bring us closer to what she would call "the textual reality" of a poem and to the transitional literacy of the scribes and their contemporary readers than do the editions of modern scholarship, these methods cannot in the final analysis define whether a given poem is oral or written. For that information we have to look again at the poem's style and whatever data are available concerning sources and circumstances of composition, elements she wishes to discount.
In succeeding chapters of her book, O'Keeffe makes valuable observations about the relative literacy of the Metrical Preface to Alfred's Pastoral Care and the poems of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle on the basis of graphic cues and the reading of the manuscript text. Especially in the chapter where she rigorously examines the punctuation or "pointing" of important codices, she is able to conclude that a "scarcity of points in a realized text represents an early state in the conceptualizing of visual information, and a higher number of points arranged in a coherent pattern indicates a later stage." [39] This dictum has bearing on the state of MS BL, Cotton Vitellius A. XV, which contains the text of Beowulf. This poem could not figure in O'Keeffe's analyses because there is only this single witness to its text, and thus a study of variants is not possible. She is able to show, however, that because of its "relatively underdeveloped punctuation" and the "division of the text into long statements" (178-79), the Beowulf manuscript's scribal practice accords with its accepted, relatively early dating, that is, the late tenth century.
Certainty regarding the "orality" of Beowulf or its possible "transitional literacy" may not be within reach. Yet some progress toward an answer to this question may be attainable. Despite Benson's article and O'Keeffe's forsaking of stylistic analyses and "source" study in favor of paleographic observation, [40] one can show that not all formulaic poetic styles are alike. Refinement of formulaic analysis still holds out promise, as Lord's comparative study of the formulaic structure of introductions to direct discourse in {115|116} Beowulf and Elene has demonstrated. [41] One should not automatically assume for Beowulf the same place on the continuum from orality to literacy which the various Old English religious poems hold. The heroic traditionality of Beowulf demands its own special scrutiny. Our focus is first on the performing poet and then on his reader or scribe.


[ back ] * This chapter, in slightly different form, was delivered as the Schick lecture in March 1990, at Indiana State University, Terre Haute.
[ back ] 1. Text from Wadstein, 1903, "Berichtigter Text."
[ back ] 2. [Trans. by Stephen A. Mitchell, kindly supplied by him in a letter dated August 10, 1993.]
[ back ] 3. Text from Neckel, 1983, 1.
[ back ] 4. Bellows, 1969, 3.
[ back ] 5. Citations from Beowulf follow the text of Dobbie, 1953.
[ back ] 6. Translations from Beowulf are from Clark Hall, 1950, with occasional modifications.
[ back ] 7. Bartsch, 1886, 1.
[ back ] 8. Hatto, 1969, 17. [It is notable that the opening lines quoted above of the Hildebrandslied, "Vo̧lospá," Beowulf, and Nibelungenlied stress what the poet heard as the source of his tale, thus emphasizing the role of oral tradition. On this point, see Haymes, 1987. For the traditional nature of Old English opening lines, see Foley, 1991, 214-23.]
[ back ] 9. Robinson, 1985.
[ back ] 10. For the difference between rote memorization and "remembering," see Chapter 1, after n. 26.
[ back ] 11. See A. Lord, 1991, 147-69, esp. 164. Text of Elene from Krapp, 1932; trans. by Bradley, 1982.
[ back ] 12. Text follows Hamel, 1984.
[ back ] 13. Trans. by Krishna, 1983.
[ back ] 14. Waldron, 1957; Ritzke-Rutherford, 1981; Krishna, 1976, 27-34, 37-38, and 1982. For a convenient summary, see Parks, 1986.
[ back ] 15. Renoir, 1988.
[ back ] 16. For my definition of tradition, see Chapter 1.
[ back ] 17. Magoun, 1953.
[ back ] 18. See Chapters 5 and 6.
[ back ] 19. Pearsall, 1977, 17.
[ back ] 20. Ibid.
[ back ] 21. See above; also Chapter 1 at n. 12, and A. Lord, 1991, 76-77.
[ back ] 22. Pearsall, 1977, 18.
[ back ] 23. See Andersson, 1976, esp. chap. 4.
[ back ] 24. Parry, 1971, 29-36, "The Traditional Epithet in Homer" (L'épithète traditionnelle dans Homère: Essai sur un problème de style homérique).
[ back ] 25. See Chapter 10 for a treatment of the transitional text.
[ back ] 26. In linguistic terms, as Gregory Nagy has pointed out (1990b), oral traditional literary style is "unmarked," that is to say that it is the norm from time immemorial; whereas written literary style is "marked," which is to say that it is a later development from the established "norm." "Written is not something that is not oral; rather it is something in addition to being oral, and that additional something varies from society to society" (8).
[ back ] 27. Ducrot and Todorov, 1979, s.v. "Surface Structures and Deep Structures," 242-47.
[ back ] 28. A. Lord, 1991, 140-46.
[ back ] 29. See Chapter 1 at n. 15; also Chapter 8 at n. 28.
[ back ] 30. I am not referring to the Aarne-Thompson tale type of the monster-slayer but constructing a simpler one of my own for the present purposes. Calvert Watkins (1987), in a well-argued paper, demonstrates the longevity and widespread occurrence of the theme Hero-Slay-Serpent and its formulaic expression. [He continues this study in a forthcoming book, particularly in pt. 2, "A Contribution to the Theory of the Formula."]
[ back ] 31. [This last point has been contributed by Daniel Donoghue.]
[ back ] 32. [For the monster-fight pattern, cf. Foley, 1991, 231-42.]
[ back ] 33. Harris, 1981b.
[ back ] 34. See Martin, 1989, chap. 2, "Heroic Genres of Speaking."
[ back ] 35. [A. Lord, 1993.]
[ back ] 36. O'Keeffe, 1990.
[ back ] 37. By "formulaic guesses" or "formulaic reading" O'Keeffe means textual variants that are metrically, syntactically, and semantically appropriate.
[ back ] 38. Moffat, 1992, does not share O'Keeffe's confidence in the ability of scribes, but he calls into question "the general applicability of the idea of the sensitive and competent Anglo-Saxon scribe" (823).
[ back ] 39. O'Keeffe, 1990, 172.
[ back ] 40. See also Doane, 1991.
[ back ] 41. A. Lord, 1991, 147-69. For further reference to Benson's article, see Chapter 5 below.