The Singer Resumes the Tale

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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:

And the opening stanzas of “Vo̧lospá,” the first poem in the Codex Regius of the Old Norse Poetic Edda:

And, finally, the opening lines of Beowulf:

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.

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.

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 .

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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

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).


[ 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.