Epic Singers and Oral Tradition

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8. Interlocking Mythic Patterns in Beowulf*

There are two discrete narrative patterns that are found fairly widely disseminated in epic or story tradition, the possible presence of which I should like to explore in Beowulf. The first of these involves three stages, (1) A powerful figure is not present or, for various reasons, is powerless in a situation of danger to his people. (2) During the period of his absence, or of his inability or unwillingness to act effectively, things go very badly for those around him, and many of his friends are killed. Finally, (3) the powerful figure returns or his power is restored, whereupon he puts things to right again. The first element in the pattern is sometimes preceded by a quarrel, which motivates either the absence of the powerful figure or his loss of power.

For the first element (1), we find in Beowulf that Hrothgar is powerless against Grendel. The resulting difficulties (2) over a long time—twelve years—are clear, and need not be elaborated. With the advent of Beowulf (3), Hrothgar’s surrogate, the difficulties begin to be overcome, although they cost Beowulf the death of his companion Hondscio. Beowulf maims and drives away the monster Grendel, and the ancient joy and peace return to Heorot.

One is tempted to view the absence of Beowulf himself at the beginning of the poem as the proper first element of the pattern. It may be so vestigially. If that is true, then the lack of a leader is indicated in two ways in Beowulf, namely by Beowulf’s absence and Hrothgar’s impotence.

This pattern, or the continuance of its central period of difficulty, is repeated with the coming of Grendel’s dam, whose elimination of Æschere duplicates and deepens the pattern, because Æschere is emphatically identified as Hrothgar’s favorite counselor (see lines 1708-1709, 1323b-1329). Hondscio’s relationship to Beowulf is “unmarked,” and in the early part of the poem he is not even named. In contrast, Æschere is mentioned by name and “marked” in his appearance in this episode. I have sometimes wondered whether the telling of the Grendel episode in Beowulf’s recapitulation of the event (lines 2000-2100) actually represents the incident in its form before it was combined with that of Grendel’s dam. In that case, Hondscio’s name would have occurred in the early part of the poem. At any rate, Hondscio and/or Æschere are {141|142} killed, and after the death of the second, Beowulf again appears to remove the difficulties and once again restore peace and joy to Heorot.

The pattern does, then, seem to occur in Beowulf, and it is possible that the deaths of Hondscio and Æschere can be interpreted as vestiges of the death of the substitute. They correspond to Patroclus in the Iliad or Enkidu, Gilgamesh’s companion, in the Epic of Gilgamesh. This interpretation would remove what to me has been a puzzling difficulty in the Grendel episode, namely the death of Hondscio while Beowulf looks on. The death of Æschere causes no such difficulty because Beowulf was not in Heorot at the time of the second attack.

One should also remark that the pattern of absence, devastation, and return often, and indeed, originally or ideally, includes elements of disguise, deceptive story, mocking or testing, and recognition, as in the seasonal pattern in the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. [4] All these elements are associated with the hero’s return and with the establishment of his identity. They are all to be found in the classic example of the pattern in Homer’s Odyssey. They are present in more modern oral epic traditions, for example, in the Turkic epics and in Slavic return poems, both Russian and South Slavic, to mention only two out of the numerous contemporary cultures still preserving their traditional narratives with all their traditional elements observed. The challenge of Unferth, beginning “Are you that Beowulf who?” (lines 506-528), fits into this pattern as an element of mocking or testing. [5] Whether or not this episode is an example of a traditional Germanic flyting, as Carol Clover argues, a challenge of the hero suits the pattern and is appropriate where it is in Beowulf. [6] In other words, the flyting might be used in the Germanic version of the pattern where the mocking or testing appears in the basic Indo-European tradition, to which Slavic and ancient Greek belong. Be that as it may, mocking in the context of determining identity, feigned or otherwise, is a part of the complex of the return pattern, and I would like to suggest that it may occur here in that complex in Beowulf.

Let me turn now to an investigation of the second pattern that was mentioned at the beginning. Stories with this pattern tell of the encounter of the hero and a companion, or companions, with first a male monster, which he overcomes, and then a female monster, or a divine temptress who wants to keep him in the “other” world. His escape from {142|143} the one and his rejection of the offers of the other involve breaking a taboo and/or insulting a deity, and as a result one or more of his companions is killed. The hero, then, with a question in his mind concerning his own mortality or immortality, goes on a journey in which he learns the answer to that question.

The Homeric example of this is in the wanderings of Odysseus. The hero blinds the Cyclops Polyphemus, thus offending Poseidon, and with Hermes’s help he defies the powers of Circe, who wishes to detain him in the “other” world. In the Polyphemus episode Odysseus loses some unnamed companions, but in the second incident, that with Circe, he loses a named and otherwise “marked” (the youngest) companion, Elpenor. After this, Odysseus goes to the Land of the Dead and there learns when death will come to him.

This second pattern, then, also contains a death at a climactic point. In it a hero, often an unusual birth, with a companion or companions, encounters a monster of cannibal propensities who kills one or more of the hero’s companions, but he overcomes the monster by seriously maiming him. That episode constitutes the first element in the pattern. We have seen it in the encounter of Odysseus and his companions with Polyphemus (and it is duplicated in the episode with the Laestrygonians) but it fits the Humbaba episode in Gilgamesh also, so far as we can tell, although some details are not clear. In that episode the hero of the epic, Gilgamesh, who is part god and part man, and his mortal companion, Enkidu, penetrate into the apparently sacred Cedar Forest where they overcome and kill the monster Humbaba. These elements correspond to the Grendel episode in Beowulf, of course.

Following the episode with a male monster, the hero comes into conflict with a female figure who wishes to keep him with her in her world but whom he thwarts. His companion or companions are also involved in this episode, but they are not immediately or literally killed in it. I have in mind the incident of Odysseus and Circe in the Odyssey and of Gilgamesh and Ishtar in the Gilgamesh epic. In the latter, Gilgamesh, returning in glory from his conquest of Humbaba, is seen by the goddess Ishtar. She falls in love with him and wants him to be her lover. He refuses and she calls on her father to send the Bull of Heaven against the two heroes. They slay the Bull, and Enkidu throws a haunch of the animal at the goddess, who is furious. Finally the gods in assembly decree that one of the two must die, and the choice falls on the mortal Enkidu. The episode with Grendel’s dam in Beowulf fits in the {143|144} sequence in this pattern, but there are clearly points of divergence, particularly in that Grendel’s dam is killed, whereas Ishtar and Circe are only frustrated.

The third element in this pattern is the climactic one to which the first two have been leading. It is the death of one of the hero’s companions, a death that is caused by the actions of the hero and his companions in elements one and two. It is clearest in Gilgamesh where Enkidu’s death is caused by the breaking of taboos or the insulting of the gods by the two protagonists in killing Humbaba and thwarting Ishtar. This third element is vestigial in the Odyssey in the death of Elpenor, which occurs at the proper position in the story to fit into the pattern. It is preceded by the episodes of Polyphemus and Circe; it is followed by a journey during which the hero’s ultimate destiny, death, is discovered.

Whether we accept Hondscio and Æschere as possible vestiges that have been misplaced or simply as pointing forward to a death not present, or whether we simply note the absence in Beowulf of this crucial element, this absence (or vestige) must somehow be explained. To do so is not difficult, as a matter of fact, and the explanation leads us, I believe, to a clearer indication not only of the presence but, more significantly, of the importance of this pattern in that poem.

There is an essential difference between the adversaries in the ancient examples and those in the Germanic ones in Beowulf and in the sagas. In the former the adversaries are “sacred, ” and therefore the opposition to them by the hero is tantamount to sacrilege. Although the details are not clear, it is apparent that when Gilgamesh and Enkidu slay Humbaba in the Cedar Forest they have incurred some degree of guilt. This guilt is, of course, crystal clear in the incident with Ishtar and the Bull of Heaven. Death for one of the two heroes must follow, and the gods choose {144|145} Enkidu, the mortal companion of the partly divine Gilgamesh, as the one who must die. The death of the companion is motivated by the guilt of the pair. In the case of the Odyssey, the fact that Odysseus had offended the god Poseidon by blinding his son, however justified the hero’s actions might be, is made abundantly clear in the song. That Odysseus in the episode with Circe has thwarted her wishes to turn him into a swine and to keep him with her forever is also apparent. But the death of Elpenor is no longer evident as the result of Odysseus’s deeds, partly, of course, because his punishment for the maiming of Polyphemus was already realized in his eventual wanderings and shipwreck. The pattern is weakened but it is still there, for Odysseus goes to the Land of the Dead and there learns, among other things, that death will at some time come to him quietly from the sea.

The loss (or perhaps better the absence) in Germanic tradition of the sense of guilt in breaking taboos and insulting the gods, explains the breaking of the pattern in Beowulf at this particular place in the poem by the omission of a special death, or at best by its vestigial survival earlier in the poem. The hero not only does not incur any guilt in the Germanic reinterpretation of the pattern, but, quite the opposite, he gains great glory by overcoming the evil chaos caused by Grendel and Grendel’s dam.

The pattern may be seen to be resumed, however, in the return journey of Beowulf to his homeland, although this is on another level of reality. We are given not the prophecy of death, as in the Odyssey, but its actuality.

We see then in these three cases of the pattern, first, a clear working out of it in Gilgamesh, replete with guilt that causes death; second, a form in the Odyssey that still holds a strong element of guilt, but death as the result is, while clearly present, only vestigial, since the hero’s guilt is punished otherwise; and third, a form in Beowulf in which guilt has become virtue and the pattern is broken, leaving either a gap or at best an enigmatic and unclear vestige.

The interlocking of these two patterns from the deep past of the story, modulating from the hopeful eternal return of the cyclical myth of annual renewal, through the death of the substitute, to the eventual acceptance of human mortality, provides a mythic base both for the triumph of Beowulf over the evil generations of Cain and for the inevitable death of the hero in old age, still fighting against destructive forces.


[ back ] * The original form of this paper was delivered at an Old English Colloquium at the University of California, Berkeley, in May 1978 and published in Old English Literature in Context: Ten Essays, edited by John D. Niles (London: D. S. Brewer, 1980).

[ back ] 1. See Lord, A., 1960, chap. 9, “The Iliad,” 186-97, and Nagler, 1974, chap. 5, “The ‘Eternal Return’ in the Plot Structure of the Iliad,” 131-136. For further references see Foley, 1980, n. 6.

[ back ] 2. For selected examples in Serbo-Croatian see Lord, A., 1960, Appendix III, “Return Songs,” 242-259. For the Russian bylina of “Dobrynja and Alyosha” see Rybnikov, 1909, vol. 1, nos. 26, 41; vol. 2, nos. 129, 160, 178, 193; also Hilferding, 1950, vol. 1, nos. 5, 23, 26, 33, 38, 43, 49, 65; vol. 2, nos. 100, 145, 168, 187. For a German translation and discussion of Hilferding, no. 5, verses 734-1093, see Trautmann, 1935, no. 26, 280-291.

[ back ] 3. For the Middle English “King Horn” see Hall, 1901, and for the English ballad see Child, 1965, vol. 1, no. 17, 187-208.

[ back ] 4. For further discussion of these elements in the Hymn, see Lord, M., 1967.

[ back ] 5. See Lord, A., 1965, “Beowulf and Odysseus,” Chapter 7 in this volume.

[ back ] 6. Clover, 1980.

[ back ] 7. See Klaeber’s account of analogues, especially in Grettissaga, in Beowulf, 1950, xiv-xxiii; also Beowulf and Its Analogues, especially 302-316.

[ back ] 8. Ibid., lines 2809-2820.

[ back ] 9. Beowulf, 1968, 109.