Epic Singers and Oral Tradition

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7. Beowulf and Odysseus*

Oral tradition leaves its mark not only in the formulaic style of verse making and in the presence of repeated themes but also in the persistence of certain basic narrative patterns, in spite of sea-changes and reinterpretations. There seems to be evidence that one of the patterns found in the story of Odysseus also underlies a section of the first half of Beowulf.

So far as I am aware, no attempt has been made to compare the events leading up to the Unferth episode with those leading up to the taunt of Euryalus in the Odyssey to see if the parallelism goes beyond the single theme to include a larger complex.

In the Old English poem we have the following sequence: (A) Beowulf has a ship built, (B) crosses a body of water, (C) is met by the coast guard on the opposite shore, and (D) after identification, is led to Heorot, (E) where he is graciously received and entertained, except that (F) during the entertainment he is, without provocation, insulted by Unferth, but (G) after he has proven himself by the long story of his adventures with Breca, (H) the entertainment continues and is ended (I) when all go to bed.

In the Odyssey the pattern is as follows (A) Odysseus builds a raft on the island of Ogygia, where he is being detained by Calypso, (B) crosses a body of water, on which he loses his ship but is provided a substitute for one by Ino, (C) encounters Nausicaa and her maidens on the shore, and (D) is directed to the palace of Alcinous, (E) where he is graciously received and entertained, except that (F) during the games he is, without provocation, insulted by Euryalus, but (G) after he has proven himself, (H) the entertainment continues, including his identification and story of his adventures, and is ended (I) by all going to bed. It is clear that the two narratives share some elements. It will be worthwhile to examine some of the subdivisions in more detail.

A. Both Beowulf and Odysseus are depicted as having neither means of transportation nor companions at the beginning of this section. They both acquire a new ship by building it or having it built. Beowulf at this same time acquires companions. These companions are, however, not a necessary element in the section of story that we are considering. Only later, when one of them is destroyed by Grendel before the attack on Beowulf himself, do the companions enter the essential plot. At the moment of which we are speaking, namely the sequence of events from the departure of Beowulf from home to the end of the banquet, the companions are not necessary. In the Odyssey, although the companions have all been lost at the moment we are studying, they are, of course, a significant element in Odysseus’s complete story.

B. Beowulf’s sea voyage is uneventful. As indicated earlier, Odysseus {134|135} suffers shipwreck, then loses his raft, and acquires Ino’s wimple to assist him. Loss of comrades and/or ship seems to be part of a larger pattern. Beowulf also loses a comrade to Grendel. As a matter of fact, the “shipwreck” (the loss of the raft) in the Odyssey pattern under consideration could be thought of as a duplication of the great shipwreck in which the remnant of his companions was finally lost, just before his arrival at Ogygia. Thus the sea voyage between Ogygia and Phaeacia with its method of landing, that is by swimming to shore with or without a wimple, is in reality a duplication of the journey from the Isle of the Sun, Thrinacia, to Ogygia. Duplications are characteristic of Homer’s poems, especially the Odyssey. But, granted all that, Beowulf’s sea voyage from the land of the Geats to Denmark is not at all like that of Odysseus from Ogygia to Phaeacia.

C. In both Beowulf and the Odyssey the traveler is met by someone. The coast guard fits well the stark Germanic heroic scene; Nausicaa and her maidens on the shore of Phaeacia are meaningful in their setting also. Indeed, the comparative absence of women in Beowulf contrasts strikingly with their important role in the Odyssey. Actually, most of Odysseus’ landfalls involve female figures; the land of the Cyclops is one of the few exceptions. What distinguishes the arrival of Beowulf in Denmark is the coast guard’s questioning of him as to who he is.

D. Identification of the hero is present at this point in the northern song, but not in Homer. This element is in reality found in the Odyssey, but it is delayed until after the gracious reception of the stranger. It occurs at a different point in the story. In both poems, however, the person who meets the hero conducts him to the abode of the leader, although Nausicaa, for reasons of propriety, does not personally take Odysseus all the way into town, but gives him directions.

E. The correspondences in the theme of entertainment are transparent and do not need to be commented on further here.

The themes of insult and reply are the most distinctive in our sequence in both poems, because they mar the joy and peace of the banquet and entertainment. There is an interesting sequel to the relationship between Beowulf and Unferth and between Odysseus and Euryalus that is found later in each poem. Unferth gives to Beowulf his sword to use in fighting Grendel’s mother in the mere, in spite of the fact that Beowulf has a sword of his own. This incident is outside of our sequence in Beowulf, but it has a parallel within the sequence in the Odyssey. During the entertainment that continues after the insult to Odysseus, {135|136} Euryalus approaches and gives to our hero a beautiful sword and an apology.

Another element associated with the theme of Unferth’s taunt is the flashback related by Beowulf in answer to Unferth’s insult, the relating of a past adventure. It is in the continuation of the entertainment at the court of Alcinous that Odysseus relates his wanderings at such great length. In other words, the telling of a story from the past is a constant, and hence significant, element in our sequence. It has reached the ultimate in expansion in the Odyssey.


The same pattern of equipping, sailing over the sea, landing, being met by someone, being entertained and reviled, is repeated in Odysseus’s return to Ithaca. The sequence is even closer to that in Beowulf than that from Ogygia to Phaeacia. The Phaeacians provide Odysseus with a special ship and a mysterious crew for his voyage to Ithaca. Like the journey of Beowulf, that of Odysseus in this case is uneventful, but far more wondrous. As for a possible vestige of the loss of both ship and companions, it should be noted that the ship of the Phaeacians was turned to stone on its return, but of its crew nothing was said.

We have seen that it is typical of the Odyssey that the hero is met on the shore by a female figure. In this case it is Athena. Straightway in the exchange between Odysseus and Athena the question of identity arises, in one of the most delightfully playful scenes in the Odyssey.

From here to the end of the poem the sequence is not always clear because of the tendency of the Odyssey to duplication and ornamentation, but what does stand out is that the poem contains the distinctive {136|137} elements of entertainment, vilification, acquiring of weapons (cf. Unferth), the long flashback (Odysseus to his wife), and finally bed. The elements are all there.

Identification of the hero is repeated a number of times, but it is still identification. Vilification also takes several forms. But in this final instance of the sequence in the Odyssey the hero meets and slays those who unlawfully possess his house, namely the suitors of Penelope. The events in Phaeacia have been a foreshadowing of events that are to happen in Ithaca up to the end of the banqueting, when the story takes the same turn as in Beowulf. In the Odyssey the sequence of the narrative goes from release from detention (Calypso on Ogygia, Queen Arete on Phaeacia; an element common to these two examples in the Odyssey, but missing in Beowulf) to the end of feasting, in which the hero is taunted, and all retire for the night. The parallel in Beowulf then, is to the home-coming of Odysseus and the slaying of the suitors, the disturbers of the peace, and the bringing of order to Odysseus’s halls.

We might carry the comparison still further. The slaying of the suitors begins a feud with their families, and the relatives set out to take revenge upon Odysseus and Telemachus, who have gone off to Laertes’ farm. Can this be parallel to the desire for revenge on the part of Grendel’s dam? In the Odyssey the theme is abortive, because Athena, the dea ex machina stops the feud. Yet, it should be noted that the story persists in describing a descent to the lower world (the so-called Second Nekyia) at this point in the sequence where in Beowulf the hero goes down into the mere.

At the other end of the story, at its beginning, there are correspondences that are, at least, suggestive. In both Beowulf and the Odyssey considerable point is made of the fact that a “time of troubles” has lasted for twelve (Beowulf) or twenty (Odyssey) years. During this period a monster has killed the inhabitants, or suitors have devoured the substance, of a kingdom. The return of Odysseus and the arrival of Beowulf have the same salutary effect. Evildoers are punished and order is restored.

Does this mean that the story of the first part of Beowulf is a “return story”? Not necessarily, but it does mean that the narrative frame of part of the return story is similar to, if not identical with, the sequence of events in another kind of adventure tale.

There is still one more example in the Odyssey of the pattern “ship {137|138} journey—taunting at banquet or games—bed.” This section of narrative, it would seem, is distinctive or separate enough to have an existence of its own.

Certainly this is not a strong taunt, but this upbraiding does take place at the proper point in the frame, and it should be remembered that taunting has been a characteristic of the story of Telemachus up to this point, taunting both at banquet and at assembly. When the exact sequence is not kept in oral-traditional narrative, often the elements may all occur in the story but in different order. After the banqueting and entertainment, during which Nestor tells a long story (like Odysseus’s tale of his wanderings), all go off to bed.

The examples of the narrative sequence we have been investigating seem to indicate that this sequence is useful and has meaning both on the return of the hero to his home to set everything in order and to remarry his wife and on the outward journey of the young hero to win a wife. The identity of the hero on the boundaries between the “other” world and the real one is the pivot of the sequence. Vilification appears to have a function in the pattern. That it is a necessary element is demonstrated by its constant appearance.


[ back ] * Reprinted by permission of New York University Press from Franciplegius: Medieval and Linguistic Studies in Honor of Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr., edited by Jess B. Bessinger, Jr., and Robert P. Creed. Copyright © 1965 by New York University.

[ back ] 1. Panzer, 1910.

[ back ] 2. Carpenter, 1946, 136-152, and 184-193.

[ back ] 3. Beowulf, 1968, 149-150.

[ back ] 4. For a discussion of the pattern to which the monster fights belong see Lord, A., 1980, Chapter 8 in this volume.

[ back ] 5. Odyssey 3.229-238, translated by E. V. Rieu, 1946.

[ back ] 6. For more on Telemachus see Bynum, 1968.

[ back ] 7. See Parry, M, 1954 and 1953, no. 24.

[ back ] 8. For another aspect of comparison of elements in Beowulf with elements in the Homeric poems see Creed, 1962, 44-52.