The Singer Resumes the Tale

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6. The Theme in Anglo-Saxon Poetry

From my point of view the work on the theme in Anglo-Saxon poetics got off on what I always thought was the wrong foot. What Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., called a theme was not what either I or Parry meant by the term. His meaning, nevertheless, was to prevail and is found in Riedinger’s Speculum article—not under that name, however, but as a “cluster” of motifs. [1] Yet could it be that that is as close to my theme as can be expected in Anglo-Saxon poetry? Let us examine the proposition, because those who have sought “theme” there seem to have been frustrated, as was, for example, Francelia Clark, who has investigated this subject thoroughly. [2]

Magoun was the first to write in very specific terms of the theme in Anglo-Saxon. In his article “The Theme of the Beasts of Battle in Anglo-Saxon Poetry,” he describes the theme of the title as “the mention of the wolf, eagle, and/or raven as beasts attendant on a scene of carnage. They seem to appear in nine poems on twelve occasions, where their presence serves to embellish a battle scene or a reference to warfare. It is an ornamental rather than an essential theme.” [4] He noted the occurrence as once each in Battle of Brunanburh, Beowulf, Exodus, Genesis A, Battle of Maldon, and The Wanderer and twice each in Elene, Finnsburh, and Judith. Magoun quotes the relevant passages and then gives references to support the formular status of their components. His first three instances provide us with material for discussion, beginning with Battle of Brunanburh 60-65:

Here is Magoun’s translation:

They left behind them the dark-coated one, black raven with horny bill, and the dark-coated eagle with white tail-feathers to share the carcasses, greedy war-hawk, and the gray beast, wolf of the forest to enjoy the carrion. [Never was there more slaughter.]

The second passage is from Beowulf (3024b-27):

Again, Magoun’s translation:

quite the contrary, the dark raven, poised over men fated to die [will] talk a lot, {138|139} tell the eagle how it did at its meal while it and the wolf face to face plundered the slain.

The second instance of the theme in Elene (109b-13a) increases the elements repeated:

                                     Byman sungon
hlude for hergum. ǁ Hrefn weorces gefeah,
urigfeðra, ǁ earn sið beheold,
wælhreowra wig. ǁ Wulf sang ahof,
holtes gehleða,

The trumpets sang out loudly in the presence of the troops; the raven rejoiced in the work; the dewy-feathered eagle watched the march; the warfare of men cruel in war; the wolf raised its song, co-spoiler of the grove.

The hrefn is there in this second example from Elene, and the urigfeðra earn ‘dewy-feathered eagle’ as well as wæl, but note that in this case we have wulf sang ahof ‘the wolf raised its song’ rather than earn sang ahof in the first quotation. These examples are, I believe, sufficient to bring to mind Magoun’s material and to demonstrate that there are not only elements but also verbal correspondences among the several occurrences of the theme. In the same year in which Magoun’s article appeared, Stanley B. {139|140} Greenfield’s “The Formulaic Expression of the Theme of ‘Exile’ in Anglo-Saxon Poetry” carried further Magoun’s idea, quoting thus from Magoun:

Greenfield then distilled “four aspects or concomitants of the exile state”: (1) status, (2) deprivation, (3) state of mind, and (4) movement in or into exile. He noted the characteristic verbal correspondences among nine examples of the theme from nine separate poems. These he divided into three groups that shared some key words. His first group, for example, included:

The correspondences are in kind, like those in Magoun’s “beasts of battle” theme, namely, a formula consisting of þa ic me (him Cain) gewat plus a verb of going, feran or gongan, and the formula wineleas wrecca. The lines are then filled out in typical fashion with paratactic alliterative phrases folgað secan and gode of gesyhðe, and, in the case of gongan, with an epithet modifying Cain in the preceding hemistich. Brief as it may be, this, it seems to me, is either a viable theme in itself or part of a viable theme, that is, “a repeated {140|141} passage with a certain degree of verbal correspondence.” The passages are made up of two formulas, as I have indicated, adapted to the specific metrical and alliterative conditions by parataxis.

In terms of the “aspects or concomitants of the exile state” as set forth by Greenfield, “status” is represented in the two examples above by wineleas wrecca. “Deprivation” is well represented in the second group of examples in his article:

Wæs a bliðemod ǁ bealuleas kyng,
þeah he lange ær, ǁ lande bereafod,
wunode wræclastum ǁ wide geond eorðan.

Edw 15-17

Was ever happy ǁ the innocent king,
although long before, ǁ bereft of land,
he lived as an outcast ǁ widely over the earth.

Forðon ic sceal hean and earm ǁ hweorfan ðy widor,
wadan wræclastas, ǁ wuldre benemed,
duguðum bedeled.

XSt 119-21a

Forthwith despised and poor I shall ǁ turn then more widely,
wander as an outcast, ǁ bereft of glory,
separated from retainers.

hu ic earmcearig ǁ iscealdne sæ
winter wunade ǁ wræccan lastum,
winemægum bidroren.

Sea 14-16

how I full of sorrows ǁ the ice-cold sea
in winter inhabited ǁ as an outcast,
deprived of friends.

“Deprivation” is signaled by lande bereafod, wuldre benemed, duguðum bedeled, and winemægum bidroren. “State of mind” is indicated by hean and earm, and earmcearig, and “movement in or into exile” is expressed by wunode wrœclastum, wadan wræclastas, and winter wunade ǁ wrœccan lastum. In all these cases in both Magoun and Greenfield we can note a more or less stable core of formulas adapted to context. I have found such clusters of formulas or lines in oral traditional lyric poetry as well as in oral traditional narrative {141|142} poetry, as discussed in previous chapters. Perhaps these smaller groupings, or clusters, are the next highest structural unit above the formula. We must investigate further their relationship to the theme; for it may be, indeed, that these smaller units are themselves the themes we are seeking in Anglo-Saxon.

There is no need to follow in further detail Greenfield’s excellent article. It is clear, I hope, from these examples that, in spite of such categories as “status” or “deprivation,” one is dealing with obvious cases of verbal repetition. In short, in “the theme of the beasts of battle,” and “the theme of exile” the repeated passages do exhibit a certain degree of verbal correspondence, be they from the same poem or not. These seem to be recognizable as themes of the oral traditional type, whether they are in an oral or a written text. Moreover, they are themes known to and used by several authors, a fact that strengthens their claim to be traditional.

In the next development in the study of the “theme” in Anglo-Saxon poetry, verbal correspondence practically disappears, and what remains is a cluster of repeated elements of a more general than specific sort. This phenomenon was present actually in Greenfield’s theme of exile, inasmuch as such categories as “status,” “deprivation,” or “state of mind” are general rather than specific. Nevertheless, as we saw, he found groups of formulas used regularly to express the constituent items of the theme.

Crowne lists two passages in Beowulf as examples of the theme of “the hero on the beach” which seem to me to be only sections of a larger theme, namely, lines 1880b-99 and 1963-66. In reality, I believe, the full theme—or perhaps more properly, the full context of the theme of a journey that {142|143} includes departure and arrival—is interrupted by a digression. The full theme began with departure at line 1888, which ended only at line 1904, to be followed by a description of the journey, lines 1905-13, and of the arrival (1914-31a), which is interrupted by a digression about a cruel queen which extends from line 1931b to line 1962, at which point the account of arrival is continued. It would be, therefore, a mistake to treat lines 1914-24 and lines 1963-66 as separate examples of the theme of “the hero on the beach”; together, actually, they form the arrival section of the theme of a journey.

This full theme in Beowulf 1888-1966, the theme of a journey, from departure to arrival, should be compared with the same theme in Beowulf 208-307a. This earlier example of the theme of a journey is also lengthened, not by a digression but by the inclusion in it of the scene of the encounter of Beowulf and his companions with the coast guard and their ritual exchange of words.

The departure of Beowulf and his companions from Denmark runs as follows in lines 1880b-1904:

1880                             Him Beowulf þanan,
          guðrinc goldwlanc, ǁ græsmoldan træd
          since hremig; ǁ sægenga bad
          agendfrean, ǁ se þe on ancre rad.
          Þa wæs on gange ǁ gifu Hroðgares
1885  oft geæhted; ǁ þæt wæs an cyning,
          æghwæs orleahtre, ǁ oþþæt hine yldo benam
          mægenes wynnum, ǁ se þe oft manegum scod.
          Cwom þa to flode ǁ felamodigra,
          hægstealdra heap, ǁ hringnet bæron,
1890  locene leoðosyrcan. ǁ Landweard onfand
          eftsið eorla, ǁ swa he ær dyde;
          no he mid hearme ǁ of hliðes nosan
          gæs[tas] grette, ǁ ac him togeanes rad,
          cwæð þæt wilcuman ǁ Wedera leodum
1895  scaþan scirhame ǁ to scipe foron.
          Þa wæs on sande ǁ sægeap naca
          hladen herewædum, ǁ hringedstefna,
          mearum ond maðmum; ǁ mæst hlifade
          ofer Hroðgares ǁ hordgestreonum.
1900  He þæm batwearde ǁ bunden golde
          swurd gesealde, ǁ þæt he syðþan wæs
          on meodubence ǁ maþme þy weorþra,
          yrfelafe. ǁ Gewat him on naca
          drefan deop wæter, ǁ Dena land ofgeaf.

Then Beowulf, champion brave with gold, exulting in his treasure, trod the greensward; the ship, which rode at anchor, waiting its owning lord. Then, as they went, was Hrothgar’s bountifulness often praised. That was an altogether blameless king, until old age deprived him of the joys of power,—old age which has oftentimes caused harm to many.

Thus to the water came the troop of most courageous liegemen:—ring-mail they wore, corslets interlocked. The land-guard perceived the nobles coming back, as he had done before; not with contumely did he hail the visitors from off the headland’s brow, but rode up towards them and said that they, the bright-mailed warriors who went to their ships, would be welcomed on their return by the people of the Geats. {144|145}

Then was the spacious sea-boat on the beach laden with battle-gear, the ship with curved prow was loaded with horses and valuables; the mast towered above Hrothgar’s hoarded treasures.

To the boat-keeper Beowulf gave a sword bound round with gold, so that henceforth he was more honored on the mead-bench for that treasure,—that heirloom.

Then the ship went on, to ruffle the deep water; it left the Danish land.

This second passage is about three times the length of the first, and, though there are some elements in common, there are also some specific to each. For example, lines 1884-87, telling how Hrothgar’s gifts were admired as the men marched, and commenting on him as a king, are applicable only to the circumstances at that particular moment in the poem. This is true also of the lines concerning the coast guard in this passage: in lines 1890b-95, the coast guard spots the returning Geats, rides to meet them, and, in indirect discourse, bids them welcome again for their continuing voyage back to Geatland; and in lines 1900-1903a, Beowulf presents the coast guard with a sword, and the poet comments on how proudly he boasted of it on the mead-benches. These three passages specific to the circumstances of this particular departure occupy twelve of the twenty-four and a half lines. There is no coast guard in the scene of departure of Beowulf and his companions from southern Sweden, although he does appear, of course, at the time of their arrival in Denmark. In the Beowulf context he seems to belong to arrivals—and to departures on the way back after an initial arrival. One might add the first lines of the passage to those already labeled specific to the particular occurrence:

                                     Him Beowulf þanan
guðrinc goldwlanc, ǁ græmoldan træd
since hremig;

Then Beowulf, champion brave with gold, exulting in his treasure, trod the greensward;

These lines, however, serve the same purpose as the opening lines of the first departure, namely, to move the hero to the shore and ship:

sundwudu sohte; ǁ secg wisade,
lagucræftig mon, ǁ landgemyrcu.

XVna sum

With fourteen men he went to the ship; skilled in sea-craft, he himself led the way to the shore. {145|146}

One might consider, perhaps with greater reason, that lines 1898b-99 could also be specific to this occurrence:

                                     mæst hlifade
ofer Hroðgares ǁ hordgestreonum.

… the mast towered above Hrothgar’s hoarded treasures.

The opening lines of the first departure set in a distinctive way a pattern of key words and sounds which recurs in the passage. The line “sundwudu sohte; ǁ secg wisade,” with an alliteration perhaps suggested by the previous hemistich, “XVna sum,” is picked up a little later in line 213, “sun wið sande; ǁ secgas bæron,” and the b of bæron seems to suggest the alliterative pattern for the following line, “on bearm nacan ǁ beorhte frætwe.”

Something similar may be observed in the second departure, where, for example, the sœgenga of sœgenga bad of line 1882b is picked up by sægeap naca in line 1896b, which in turn leads to gewat him on naca in line 1903b. And the hringedstefna of line 1897b echoes hringnet bœron in line 1889b.

The “subtheme,” if I may use that term tentatively, of the boat at anchor is also found in the second journey passage, but in its arrival section, in lines 1917-19:

sælde to sande ǁ sidfæþme scip,
oncerbendurn fæst, ǁ þy læs hym yþa ðrym
wudu wynsuman ǁ forwrecan meahte.

He tethered to the beach the roomy ship, held fast with anchor-ropes, lest the waves’ force should drive the joyous craft away from them.

Here, the ship is waiting for the return of the heroes from inland. It seems that this subtheme belongs most commonly—if the few instances we have can justify such a statement—to a ship being anchored to await the return of its owners or which, having been previously anchored, is waiting at anchor for them to come back. The “anchored ship” subtheme is found in Elene and Christ, in addition to the above instances in Beowulf, and we should see whether the context of those passages confirms the usage in Beowulf. The pertinent lines in Elene extend from line 225 to line 255 and cover a journey from departure to arrival. The departure reads as follows:

One should observe in passing the abundance of responsions. Note, for example, feoroðhengestas ‘a throng of men’ in line 226b and wæghengestas ‘wavehorses, ships’ in line 236; and stæð ‘seashore’ and gearwe stodon ‘they stood ready’ in line 227, which are picked up in line 232a in on stæðe stodon ‘they stood on the shore.’ Such responsions indicate that the poet thought of the passage as a unit bound by internal tensions.

It is fascinating to see that this departure section of the journey theme in Elene depicts the ships as moored to the shore and standing waiting in lines 226b-228, but they are not on ancre fæst. But when the journey, which covers lines 237-50a, is over, the arrival is described as follows:

250                                        Ceolas leton
          æt sæfearoðe, ǁ sande bewrecene,
          ald yðhofu, ǁ oncrum fæste
          on brime bidan ǁ beorna geþinges,
          hwonne heo sio guðcwen ǁ gumena þreate
255    ofer eastwegas ǁ eft gesohte.

They left the ships at the sea-shore whipped with sand, the ancient vessels secure at their anchors, to wait on the surf the warrior’s fate, until the warlike queen with her company of men returned to them along the roads from the east.

The anchors seem to belong to the arrival section of the journey theme in {148|149} Elene as well as in Beowulf. Let us look, then, at the passage in Christ, a really different kind of poem. Here is the pertinent passage in lines 858b-63:

This example too confirms the fact that our subtheme of the ship at anchor belongs in the arrival section of the journey theme. There is as well considerable verbal correspondence among the occurrences of the subtheme and its environment: sundhengestas ‘ocean horses’ and yðmearas ‘horses of the waves’ in Christ and fearoðhengestas, sæmearas ‘sea horses’, and wæghengestas in Elene. Surely we are dealing with themes and sections of themes and subthemes within the sections. Yes, there are oral traditional themes in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Moreover, they are very similar to oral traditional themes in other poetries, namely, repeated passages with a certain degree of verbal correspondence between occurrences.

It is worthwhile to continue further with the larger theme of the journey, with its sections on departure, travel, and arrival. We must return, therefore, to the departure section of the two journey themes in Beowulf with which we began. The departure from southern Sweden is the simpler of the two. We saw that it differed from the departure from Denmark in respect to the ship. In the latter, the ship was at anchor awaiting the return of the Geats from their adventures at Hrothgar’s court. In the former, the ship was in the water under the cliff (lines 210b-11a):

                                     Flota wæs on yðum,
bat under beorge.

The bark was on the waves, the boat under the lee of the cliff.

The next action is embarkation of men and equipment. In the first departure this is accomplished in lines 211b-15a: {149|150}

                                     Beornas gearwe
on stefn stigon; ǁ streamas wundon,
sund wið sande; ǁ secgas bæron
on bearm nacan ǁ beorhte frætwe,
guðsearo geatolic;

The warriors, well prepared, stepped on to the prow; streams of ocean made the sea eddy against the sand; men bore into the bosom of the ship bright armour, splendid war-gear;

This almost stark description, broken only by the paratactic guðsearo geatolic, which is needed to alliterate with and to introduce guman ut scufon ‘the men shoved off’, is truly ornamented by the realistic detail of the sea surging against the beach as the men entered the boat.

The departure from Denmark, leaving aside the specific elements I enumerated earlier, especially those dealing with the coast guard, tells, as we have seen, of Beowulf proceeding to the shore after leaving Hrothgar and mentions the boat waiting for its captain and riding at anchor (lines 1882b-83):

                                     sægenga bad
agendfrean, ǁ se þe on ancre rad.

The ship, which rode at anchor, waited its owning lord.

After commenting on Hrothgar’s gifts and on the man himself, the poet continues (lines 1888-90a):

Cwom þa to flode ǁ felamodigra,
hægstealdra heap; ǁ hringnet bæron,
locene leoðosyrcan.

Thus to the water came the troop of most courageous liegemen:—ring-mail they wore, corslets interlocked.

After five and a half lines devoted to the coast guard, the action continues with the loading of the ship (lines 1896-99):

Þa wæs on sande ǁ sægeap naca
hladen herewædum, ǁ hringedstefna,
mearum ond maðmum; ǁ mæst hlifade
ofer Hroðgares ǁ hordgestreonum. {150|151}

Then was the spacious sea-boat on the beach laden with battle-gear, the ship with curved prow was loaded with horses and valuables; the mast towered above Hrothgar’s hoarded treasures.

There is not much verbal correspondence between these parts of the departure section, nor indeed between the departure sections themselves of our two examples of the journey theme in Beowulf. This is not very surprising, of course, because no treasure was loaded on the ship in southern Sweden, only armor, which the men are wearing in the second departure; and there the emphasis, as was to be expected, is on the treasure given Beowulf by Hrothgar. Moreover, the coast guard plays a large role in the second departure but is not present in the first. We did discover that a subtheme of the second departure, that of the ship riding at anchor, was to be found in arrival scenes as well. Let us turn now, then, to the arrival sections of the journey theme. The arrival of Beowulf and his companions in Denmark is notable for their encounter with the coast guard, who appears as soon as they have secured their ship. Here is their landing (lines 224b-28):

                                     Þanon up hraðe
Wedera leode ǁ on wang stigon,
sæwudu sældon ǁ (syrcan hrysedon,
guðgewædo), ǁ gode þancedon
þæs þe him yþlade ǁ eaðe wurdon.

After that the people of the Geats went quickly up on to dry land; they made fast the ship; their coats of mail, their armour, rang; they thanked God that for them the sea-paths had been easy.

The coast guard is now introduced and the famous interchange between him and Beowulf, ending with the march to Heorot, ensues. This elaborate coast guard episode contrasts with the arrival home of Beowulf and his men. They too are met by a coast guard (lines 1912b-19):

                                     Ceol up geþrang
lyftgeswenced, ǁ on lande stod.
Hraþe wæs æt holme ǁ hyðweard geara,
se þe ær lange tid ǁ leofra manna
fus æt faroðe ǁ feor wlatode;
sælde to sande ǁ sidfæþme scip,
oncerbendum fæst, ǁ þy læs hym yþe ðrym
wudu wynsuman ǁ forwrecan meahte. {151|152}

The keel pressed forward, driven by the wind; it stood upon the land. The havenward was quickly ready at the water’s edge, he who before had long time looked out eagerly far over the sea for the dear men. He tethered to the beach the roomy ship, held fast with anchor-ropes, lest the waves’ force should drive the joyous craft away from them.

There is some verbal correspondence between the arrivals up to this point, in spite of the differences of the coast guards. The word hraþe ‘quickly’ appears in both passages, but applied to different persons. Most noticeable is the securing of the ship. It is done in one hemistich in the first paragraph—sæwudu sældon—and in a line and a half in the second: “sælde to sande ǁ sidfæþme scip / oncerbendum fæst.” Only the verb (sælde / sældon ‘fastened’) is common to both passages. I have discussed the subtheme of the ship at anchor above; now the seafarers set out for inland.

It is on this point that Crowne’s work focuses most intensely, eventually leading far away from beaches and even from human actors, as when he equates the sea beasts at banquet in the Breca episode with the hero’s companions, who would otherwise be missing from the scene. But in the early part of his article he treats themes, or subthemes, in the sense in which I also understand them, namely, as repeated passages with some verbal correspondence.

For example, in some of the instances given by Crowne there is actually a fair degree of verbal correspondence. The simplest form of “the hero on the beach” is found when Beowulf and his men arrive in southern Sweden on their return from Denmark in lines 1963-66. This is the second part of the arrival section of the second journey theme, as discussed above.

Gewat him ða se hearda ǁ mid his hondscole
sylf æfter sande ǁ sæwong tredan,
wide waroðas. ǁ Woruldcandel scan,
sigel suðan fus. ǁ Hi sið drugon, …

Then the strong one went forth himself and his companions, by the sand, treading the sea-beaches, the broad foreshores. The world’s lamp shone, the sun hastening from the south;—they passed along their way, …

A more elaborate form is found in Andreas 235-47, in which Andreas starts out his journey to Mermedonia. The account begins:

Both passages begin with gewat him þa, a common opening gambit for saying “Then he began to …”; both indicate the beach, using the word sand: sylf æfter sande and ofer sandhleoðu; and both speak of his companions, mid his hondscole and ond his þegnas mid. The difference between hondscole ‘companions’ and þegnas ‘thanes’ is dictated by the alliteration established by the first half of each line. In the selection from Andreas, still another word for beach is used in gangan on greote ‘advance on the sand’, employing an alliteration that seems to be governed by the verb gangan. The word also is used in both passages, as sæwong tredan in Beowulf 1964 and as to sæs faruðe in Andreas 236. Waroðe ‘shore’ too is found in the Beowulf passage in wide waroðas and in line 240 in the quotation from Andreas in syðþan he on waruðe. And finally, the woroldcandel scan ‘world’s lamp shone’ of the Beowulf passage above has its counterpart in heofoncandel blac ‘heaven’s candle shone’ in line 243 from Andreas. In short, there is considerable verbal correspondence between those two passages. It has been suggested that the Andreas poet modeled his story and hero after Beowulf. [17] If this is true, the verbal similarities noted here are {153|154} not surprising. The words repeated in one form or another are gewat him þa, sand, mid his, sœ, waroðe, and -candel, representing six of the eight hemistichs of Beowulf 1963-66. Only line 1966 of the Beowulf quotation seems to have no verbal correspondence that I have noted in the passage from Andreas.

Moreover, sand and alliterate in a single line in both passages: “sylf æfter sande ǁ sæwong tredan” and “ofer sandhleoðu ǁ to sæs faruðe.” When the two concepts of sand and sea are repeated in Andreas 238, the alliteration, governed now by gangan, brings forth two other words for sand and sea: “gangan on greote. ǁ Garsecg hlynede.”

Strangely enough, there is less correspondence between Beowulf 301-7, the second part of the arrival section of the first journey theme, and Beowulf 1963-66, given above, the second part of the arrival section of the second journey theme; Beowulf 301 begins with gewiton him þa feran; the words sand,, waroðe, and woroldcandel, or equivalents, do not appear. But this passage does have correspondences with Andreas 235-37, as cited above. Here are lines 301-7a of Beowulf.

Gewiton him þa feran. ǁ Flota stille bad,
seomode on sale ǁ sidfæþmed scip,
on ancre fæst. ǁ Eoforlic scionon
ofer hleorberan ǁ gehroden golde,
fah ond fyrheard; ǁ ferhwearde heold
guþmod grimmon. ǁ Guman onetton,
sigon ætsomne, …

They set out then to journey on;—the ship remained still, the spacious vessel rode on the painter, held by its anchor. Above the cheek-guards shone the boar-images, covered with gold, gleaming and tempered. The fierce-hearted boar held guard over the warlike men. The warriors hastened; they went together, …

Sidfœþmed scip ‘spacious ship’ corresponds to widfœðme scip ‘wide ship’ in Andreas. There are other correspondences, too. For example,

fah ond fyrheard ǁ ferhwearde heold
guþmod grimmon. ǁ Guman onetton,

The fierce-hearted boar held guard over the warlike men. The warriors hastened; reminds one of the following from Andreas:

ofer lagoflodas. ǁ He ðær lidweardas
þrymlice þry ǁ þegnas gemette, {154|155}

… over the waters of ocean. There on the ship he found the crewmen, three splendid thanes,

It would seem that the kenning [metaphorical compound word] ferhwearde ‘life-protector’ governs the alliteration of the first hemistich, “fah ond fyrheard.” The same is probably true also in the case of lidweardas ‘ship-protector’, which would govern the alliteration of ofer lagoflodas in the first hemistich. The following lines in both passages are governed by alliteration around the word for man: in Beowulf the word is guman, and it calls forth “guþmod grimmon”; in Andreas it is þegnas, which calls forth “þrymlice þry”—although in this instance, it might well be that the specialized þry ‘three’ is the governing word, in which case it is þry that calls forth both þrymlice ‘splendid’ and þegnas.

One of the reasons there is little verbal correspondence in some of the examples given is that in a few cases the elements are more general, let us say, than the raven, the eagle, and the wolf in the theme of “the beasts of battle.” Another reason comes from the fact that as Crowne became more engrossed in the theme of “the hero on the beach,” he moved further and further away from its literal elements. Although he kept the place as a beach, eventually even it gave way to include a doorway, or any liminal situation. Sometimes the hero was mentioned, sometimes not, and the companions became ever more variable. Finally the two merged into “the comitatus relationship,” which could be manifested in innumerable ways.

Crowne finally rephrased the theme as containing “(1) a beach, (2) the comitatus relationship, (3) a bright light, and (4) a voyage.” He has eliminated the hero and his companions in favor of their relationship to one another. The place was somewhat more stable verbally for a while longer with {155|156} Crowne, as was the voyage. It may be that such a pattern exists, but I wonder if we should call it a “theme,” thus confusing it with passages that are held together as discernible verbal units having a cohesive sense of textuality. The latter is another way of saying repeated passages with a certain degree of verbal correspondence, which are what I call themes. In the foregoing I have demonstrated that such passages do occur, but they are not long.

I must confess that these definitions are not crystal clear in themselves, nor is it easy to differentiate between them. Nevertheless, one can see that according to Fry, neither verbatim repetition nor any given formula content is to be expected in either a theme or a type-scene. [25] It is to these arguments that I address myself, because it is in respect to them that these two definitions depart most markedly from my own concept of a “theme.” I have thought that a certain degree of verbal correspondence was needed to differentiate between a repeated action or description in oral traditional and in written nontraditional literature. That is to say, in a written nontraditional literary work there may be repeated battles, or repeated councils, or assemblies, or repeated descriptions of the hero, but the writer makes a point of varying the actions or descriptions. This introduction of variety does not exist to the same degree in oral traditional literature. Put simply, the oral traditional poet has learned how to describe a hero or a horse or how to convene an assembly and report speeches. Although he does not always use the same words, or formulas, if you will, there is a tendency to a fair degree of verbal repetition because he does not strive for variety for its own sake. That he does not value variety in itself does not mean that he may not vary nor that his variations may not be meaningful. He may make meaningful differences between several renderings of the same oral traditional theme.

An illustration of variation within a cohesive structure is provided by two {157|158} versions of the theme of an overnight visit made by Meho and Osman in Avdo Međedović’s epic “The Wedding of Smailagić Meho.” For a discussion of the two versions of this theme, see Chapter 9. We have similar “themes” in Anglo-Saxon, although of a somewhat different nature, to be sure. We have seen examples in Magoun’s theme of “the beasts of battle,” and in “the boat at anchor,” which I isolated earlier in this chapter, as well as the theme of “the world’s candle,” the last two from Crowne’s “the hero on the beach.” They have a degree of verbal correspondence and a sense of textuality and are not abstractions. They are larger than formulas, although made up of formulas. In the references to arms and armor—the most common “alternative” to “the world’s candle” in the “flashing light” category—one must allow for the use of several words for the same object, as, for example, words for “sword,” such as sweord, secg, bill, and mece. A sword is often found associated with other weapons or pieces of armor. Let us see whether we have any cohesive “more or less stable core” for the expression of this group of related ideas.

Two words for specific weapons or specific pieces of armor are to be seen in this passage, bilia ecgum ‘with the edges of the sword’; ecg is also used for “weapon” or “sword.” The passage in Christ(lines 1634-37a) reads:

Þonne þa gecorenan ǁ fore Crist berað
beorhte frætwe. ǁ Hyra blæd leofað
æt domdæge, ǁ agan dream mid gode
liþes lifes,

Then the elect will bring their bright treasures before Christ. Their splendour will survive at the day of judgment; they will possess the joy of a gentle life with God,

A word to “carry” appears in all three passages, bæron, genamon, and berað; and blœd ‘glory’ is found in the last two. Two “sword” words occur in the Daniel passage, bill and ecg.

In Beowulf when the Geats land in Denmark, a few lines after our beginning passage with frætwe and guðsearo, their armor is again referred to in two successive sections of text (lines 224b-28 and 229-32a):

                                     [Þanon up hraðe
225    Wedera leode ǁ on wang stigon,
          sæwudu sældon] ǁ (syrcan hrysedon,
          guðgewædo), ǁ [gode þancedon
          þæs þe him yþlade ǁ eaðe wurdon].
          Þa of wealle geseah ǁ weard Scildinga,
230    se þe holmclifu ǁ healdan scolde,
          beran ofer bolcan ǁ beorhte randas,
          fyrdsearu fuslicu;

After that the people of the Geats went quickly up on to dry land; they made fast the ship; their coats of mail, their armour, rang; they thanked God that for them the sea-paths had been easy.

Then from the rampart the watchman of the Scyldings, who had to guard the sea-cliffs, saw them lift bright shields and trim war-harness over the gangway; {159|160}

Here we have corslets (syrcan) and shields (randas), each with an appositive of general significance, guðgewædo ‘war-dress’ and fyrdsearu ‘accoutrements’, needed for making lines.

Syrcan also occurs in line 1111 in the Finn episode, lines 1108b-13a:

betst beadorinca ǁ wæs on bæl gearu.
Æt þæm ade wæs ǁ eþgesyne
swatfah syrce, ǁ swyn ealgylden,
eofer irenheard, ǁ æþeling manig
wundum awyrded.

The best of the War-Scyldings, the battle-heroes, was ready on the funeral pyre. At the pyre the blood-stained corslet, the swine-image all-golden, the boar hard as iron, and many a noble killed by wounds, were visible to all.

“Shield,” in Herescyldingas (note Scildinga in line 229b above); corslet, syrce; and “helmet,” metaphorically in swyn correspond to part of the combination in lines 333-36a. Only the spears are missing; and there is no word for “bringing,” inasmuch as the corpses are inert on the ground or pyre.

Guðgewœdo in line 227a above, in apposition with syrcan, is also often found in Beowulf . It is used in five other lines, the first two of which (lines 2617 and 2623) lead us to a rich lode of weapons and armor beginning in line {160|161} 2609 and extending through line 2625a. In this passage, it will be noted, fyrdsearo also appears, the only other time it is found. These two passages, lines 224b-32a and 2609-25a, have many verbal correspondences. Here are lines 2609-25a, which cover part of the account of Wiglaf’s background:

          Ne mihte ða forhabban; ǁ hond rond gefeng,
2610  geolwe linde, ǁ gomel swyrd geteah,
          þæt wæs mid eldum ǁ Eanmundes laf,
          suna Ohteres. ǁ Þam æt sæcce wearð,
          wræcca[n] wineleasum, ǁ Weohstan bana
          meces ecgum, ǁ ond his magum ætbær
2615  brunfagne helm, ǁ hringde byrnan,
          eald sweord etonisc; ǁ þæt him Onela forgeaf,
          his gædelinges ǁ guðgewædu,
          fyrdsearo fuslic, ǁ no ymbe ða fæhðe spræc,
          þeah ðe he his broðor bearn ǁ abredwade.
2620  He frætwe geheold ǁ fela missera,
          bill ond byrnan, ǁ oððæt his byre mihte
          eorlscipe efnan ǁ swa his ærfæder;
          geaf him ða mid Geatum ǁ guðgewæda
          æghwæs unrim, ǁ þa he of ealdre gewat,
2625  frod on forðweg.

And then he could not forbear; his hand seized the disc, the yellow linden-shield, and he drew his ancient sword. This last was known among men as the legacy of Eanmund, the son of Ohthere, of whom, when a friendless exile, Weohstan was slayer in fight by edge of sword, and bore off to his kinsmen the burnished helmet, the ring-mail corslet and the ancient giant-made sword which Onela had given him—his kinsman’s war-harness, a battle-outfit ready to his hand. Onela did not speak about the feud, although Weohstan had laid low his brother’s son. He kept these treasuressword and corslet—many years, until his son could compass doughty deeds, as his old father had done. Then when he passed away from life, full of years, on his journey hence, he gave to him among the Geats a countless number of habiliments of war of every kind.

Here are two words for “shield,” rond and linde; three words for “sword” (one in two spellings), swyrd, mece, sweord, and bill; one word for “helmet,” helm; and one word for “corslet,” byrnan, used twice.

We are clearly defining a “theme,” with sufficient verbal and ideational correspondence to assure a sense of textuality. The verbal core, or cluster of lexical units, with such variations of alliteration and metrics as are needed to make lines, is adapted to the ideas and action of the narrative. {161|162}

Up to the point in the poem where Beowulf and his men enter Heorot and Beowulf first addresses Hrothgar, the word sword has not yet appeared. Sweord is actually, however, a frequent word in Beowulf, it is used twenty-two times in that form alone. It is combined with “shield” in the first passage in the poem in which it occurs, namely, in Beowulf’s first speech to Hrothgar, in which he says that he will scorn sword and shield and rely on his grip (lines 433-40a):

          “Hæbbe ic eac geahsod ǁ þæt se æglæca
          for his wonhydum ǁ wæpna ne recceð.
435    Ic þæt þonne forhicge ǁ (swa me Higelac sie,
          min mondrihten, ǁ modes bliðe),
          þæt ic sweord bere ǁ oþðe sidne scyld,
          geolorand to guþe, ǁ ac ic mid grape sceal
          fon wið feonde ǁ ond ymb feorh sacan,
440    lað wið laþum.”

“Moreover, I have learnt that in his rashness the monster recks not of weapons. Hence—so that Hygelac, my prince, may be glad at heart on my account, I renounce that I should bear a sword, or ample shield, yellow buckler to the battle; but with the fiend I will close with grip of hand, and contend for our lives, foe against foe.”

The structure in this passage is worth remarking on, typical as it is of the appositive style. Scyld is repeated in the rare geolorand, which anticipates the alliteration with the key word grape ‘grip’ in the b-verse. Grape is in turn reiterated in fon ‘grasp,’ and it leads into the alliterating key word feorh ‘life’. We might note the common, and quite natural, use of the verb beran with sweord.

In the description of Beowulf’s fight with Grendel, familiar words for weapons emerge again (lines 801-5a):

sawle secan, ǁ þone synscaðan
ænig ofer eorþan ǁ irenna cyst,
guðbilla nan, ǁ gretan nolde,
ac he sigewæpnum ǁ forsworen hæfde,
ecga gehwylcre.

… and to hunt out his life, that no war-bill on earth, not the best of iron swords, could touch the cursed foe, for that he used enchantment against conquering weapons, every sort of blade.

When the poet used irena cyst before, in line 673 in the doffing scene, it was in apposition with sweord in the preceding line. Note that in this passage, guðbilla is in apposition with irenna cyst in the preceding line. Alliteration plays a role in the choice of guðbilla, to go with gretan ‘touch, harm’ in the second half of the line. In line 802, œnig ofer eorþan ‘any over the earth’ calls for assonance in the b-verse and hence irenna cyst. Within the limits of alliteration, assonance, and metrics this passage is “thrifty.”

In line 1020 begins a long armor and weapon passage as the poet describes the giving of gifts to Beowulf: {163|164}

1020  Forgeaf þa Beowulfe ǁ bearn Healfdenes
          segen gyldenne ǁ sigores to leane,
          hroden hildecumbor, ǁ helm ond byrnan;
          mære maðþumsweord ǁ manige gesawon
          beforan beorn beran. ǁ Beowulf geþah
1025  ful on flette; ǁ no he þære feohgyfte
          for sceotendum ǁ scamigan ðorfte.
          Ne gefrægn ic freondlicor ǁ feower madmas
          golde gegyrede ǁ gummanna fela
          in ealobence ǁ oðrum gesellan.
1030  Ymb þæs helmes hrof ǁ heafodbeorge
          wirum bewunden ǁ walu utan heold,
          þæt him fela laf ǁ frecne ne meahton
          scurheard sceþðan, ǁ þonne scyldfreca
          ongean gramum ǁ gangan scolde.
1035  Heht ða eorla hleo ǁ eahta mearas
          fætedhleore ǁ on flet teon,
          in under eoderas. ǁ Þara anum stod
          sadol searwum fah, ǁ since gewurþad;
          þæt wæs hildesetl ǁ heahcyninges,
1040  ðonne sweorda gelac ǁ sunu Healfdenes
          efnan wolde. ǁ Næfre on ore læg
          widcuþes wig, ǁ ðonne walu feollon.
          Ond ða Beowulfe ǁ bega gehwæþres
          eodor Ingwina ǁ onweald geteah,
1045  wicga ond wæpna, ǁ het hine wel brucan.

Then the son of Healfdene bestowed on Beowulf as the meed of victory a gilded ensign, a decorated battle-banner, a helmet and a corslet; many saw the jewelled sword of honour borne before the hero. Beowulf drank of the cup in the hall; no need had he to be ashamed of the costly gift before the warriors. Not many men have I known to give more heartily four such treasures, decked with gold, to others on the ale-bench. [A crest around the crown of the helmet, wound about with wires, afforded head-protection from outside], that the sword wrought by files, hard in the storm of battle, might not sorely injure it, when the shielded warrior must go forth against foes. Then the protector of nobles bade eight horses with gold-plated bridles, be brought into the hall, within the building. On one of them was placed a saddle cunningly inlaid, adorned with treasure,—that was the war-seat of the mighty king, when Healfdene’s son wished to take part in the play of swords. Never did courage fail the far-famed chieftain at the front, when men were falling dead. And then the lord of Ing’s descendants, the Danes, gave Beowulf ownership of both the two, of horses and of weapons, bade him enjoy them well. {164|165}

This mighty passage illustrates, I believe, how the basic “theme” of arms and armor can be elaborated for special purposes. In the opening lines, the familiar cluster at the beginning, of helm, byrne, and sweord, is introduced by a splendid newcomer, segen gyldenne ‘a golden standard’, with its own appositive, hroden hildecumbor ‘an ornamented battle banner’. In what follows, the helmet, with its own alliterating appositive heafodbeorge ‘a head-protector’, is described in lines 1030-34; then eight horses are introduced and the saddle of one of them is given special attention. Like the battle-standard, these are not “arms and armor” but are ornaments added to the basic theme for special purposes. The sweorda gelac ‘swordplay’ in line 1040 does not refer to any particular sword and does not come into consideration for describing the theme. The wicga ond wæpna of line 1045 sum up the gifts of “horses and weapons.” The weapons listed at the beginning covered the basic theme; the rest was elaboration.

Two instances of sweord in Beowulflead us into a maze of arms and armor words in lines 1280b-91, when the retainers of Heorot take to arms at the arrival of Grendel’s dam:

1280b                            Þa ðær sona wearð
          edhwyrft eorlum, ǁ siþðan inne fealh
          Grendles modor. ǁ Wæs se gryre læssa
          efne swa micle ǁ swa bið mægþa cræft,
          wiggryre wifes, ǁ be wæpnedmen,
1285  þonne heoru bunden, ǁ hamere geþuren,
          sweord swate fah ǁ swin ofer helme
          ecgum dyhttig ǁ andweard scireð.
          Þa wæs on healle ǁ heardecg togen
          sweord ofer setlum, ǁ sidrand manig
1290  hafen banda fæst; ǁ helm ne gemunde,
          byrnan side, ǁ þa hine se broga angeat.

Then forthwith there came a reverse for the nobles, when Grendel’s mother entered within. The fear was less by just so much as women’s strength, a woman’s war-terror, is, as compared with that caused by an armed man, when the ornamented, hammer-forged blade, the blood-stained sword, trusty of edges, cleaves through the boar-image on the helmet of the foe. Then in the hall, from above the benches, the hard-edged sword was taken down; many a broad shield was raised, firm in the hand. When the terror seized him, none thought of helm or great corslet.

Swords, helmets, shields, and corslets form this arsenal, with only the spear missing. {165|166}

By now we have established the classic core of four or five items that make up the arsenal theme, namely, for armor, corslets, helmets, and shields, and for arms, swords, and spears. They do not always all appear together, as we have seen, but they are what the singer has in mind for arms and armor. As the style demands, and as the specific occasion in the narrative context requires or suggests, the words may vary for purposes of alliteration, and appositives may be employed for making lines and couplets; but these five basic objects constitute the foundation of the arsenal theme in Beowulf .

When Beowulf and his companions reach the mere on the morning after the death of Æschere, his men kill with bow and arrows some of the creatures that inhabit the mere. This passage brings us new arms for our repertory, namely, flan ‘arrow’, flanbogan ‘bow’, and herestrœl ‘arrow’ (lines 1431b-36):

                                     bearhtm ongeaton,
guðhorn galan. ǁ Sumne Geata leod
of flanbogan ǁ feores getwæfde,
yðgewinnes, ǁ þæt him on aldre stod
herestræl hearda; ǁ he on holme wæs
sundes þe sænra, ǁ ðe hyne swylt fornam.

They had heard the noise, the war-horn sound. One the chief of the Geats severed from life, from his battling with the waters, by his shafted bow, so that the hard war-arrow stuck in his vitals:—he was the slower at swimming in the mere, for that death had carried him off.

From the examples given above, selected from many possible passages in Beowulf, one can justifiably refer to an “arsenal theme” in Anglo-Saxon poetry. Its elements are regularly not so much formulaic but, rather, single words or lexical units, used in recognizable groups of three, four, or five members. This concept of the theme in Anglo-Saxon poetry has much to offer the reader who heretofore has had problems in identifying in Beowulf a feature that is characteristic of other traditional poems believed to be oral in their origin.


[ back ] 1. Riedinger, 1985; see Chapter 5, above, at n. 23.

[ back ] 2. F. Clark, 1981 and 1995.

[ back ] 3. In the context of Parry’s investigations, the earliest discussion of theme, although not using that term, is to be found in his review of Walter Arend’s Die typischen Scenen bei Homer, Parry, 1971, 404-7. The opening sentence of the review is useful: “There are certain actions which tend to recur in the Iliad and Odyssey, and which each time they do recur, are told again with many of the same details and many of the same words.” That is actually an excellent definition of the theme.

[ back ] 4. Magoun, 1955b, 83; cf. Diamond, 1961.

[ back ] 5. For the sake of consistency Magoun’s citations are replaced with those from the ASPR, a change that does not substantially affect his arguments. The lines from the Battle of Brunanburh are from Dobbie, 1942.

[ back ] 6. The text is from Dobbie, 1953.

[ back ] 7. The text is from Krapp, 1932.

[ back ] 8. Magoun, 1953, 460-61; in Greenfield, 1955, 200.

[ back ] 9. Greenfield’s citations are adjusted to correspond with ASPR .

[ back ] 10. Crowne, 1960, esp. 368. For additional articles on this theme in Old English, see G. Clark, 1965a and 1965b. Although Clark cites Crowne’s article with others, I believe that his theme of “the traveler recognizes his goal” was developed independently. Its subthemes are (1) continuing or completed motion, (2) verb of seeing, (3) goal gleams (towering wall, cliff, etc.), and (4) sometimes an indication of time, frequently dawn. To these may be added such elements as “a reference to the path traversed” or even a description of the hero’s setting out. It is the glistening or shining goal that differentiates this theme from the “hero on the beach,” at the same time joining the two themes with its brightness. See the very useful review article Olsen, 1986, which contains a section (IV), “Themes and Type-Scenes,” 577-88; sections I-III treat “oral and written,” the “oral-formulaic theory,” and the “formula.” For a digest of Old English themes, together with full bibliography through 1987, see Foley, 1990, 331-33.

[ back ] 11. The text of Beowulf is from Dobbie, 1953. Here and henceforth, the modern English version is from Clark Hall, 1950, with some modifications.

[ back ] 12. Foley, 1981b; A. Lord, 1960, 54-58.

[ back ] 13. See Foley, 1990, chap. 9, for a discussion of the sea journey.

[ back ] 14. The text of Elene is from Krapp, 1932; the translation is from Bradley, 1982.

[ back ] 15. The text of Christ is from Krapp and Dobbie, 1936; the translation is from Bradley, 1982.

[ back ] 16. The text of Andreas is from Krapp, 1932; the translation is from Bradley, 1982.

[ back ] 17. [See, e.g., Brooks, 1961, xxii-xxvi. This reference is owed to the kindness of Daniel Donoghue. For a discussion of the arguments about source for Andreas and the conclusion that Andreas is a traditional poem, see Foley, 1995, forthcoming, chap. 6.]

[ back ] 18. See Renoir, 1988, 97, 112-30.

[ back ] 19. Krapp, 1931.

[ back ] 20. Renoir, 1964.

[ back ] 21. Fry, 1966.

[ back ] 22. Fry, 1967a.

[ back ] 23. Ibid., 181.

[ back ] 24. Fry, 1968b, 53; see also Fry, 1969 and 1972.

[ back ] 25. See Foley, 1976, who argues that a theme in Old English poetry may be held together by the recurrence of “stave-roots,” “the roots of alliterating words, although non-alliterating words may at times be included” (221). One occurs near the beginning (“initializing”) and one near the end (“termination”) of the theme, but there are also several between these boundaries. By this means, Foley provides the theme with a kind of verbal correspondence, although his statement that this phenomenon is close to the theme in Homer and in South Slavic epic may be questioned. [Note that both in his 1976 article (231) and in Foley, 1990, Foley points out that each poetry, Greek, Old English, and South Slavic has its own way of constituting verbal correspondence and that each was tradition-dependent; see chap. 1 and passim.]

[ back ] 26. A. Lord, 1991, 147-69.

[ back ] 27. The text of Daniel is from Krapp, 1931; the translation is from Bradley, 1982.

[ back ] 28. [Daniel Donoghue has brought to my attention the fact that syrcan appears in other Old English works, and within Beowulf it appears on six occasions in compounds: beadusercean 2755, heresyrcan 1511, hiorosercean 2539, leoðosyrcan 1505 and 1890, and licsyrce 550. Interestingly, in three of these a form of the verb beran appears (2755, 2539, 1890).]

[ back ] 29. Hainsworth, 1976.