Epic Singers and Oral Tradition

  Use the following persistent identifier: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.ebook:CHS_LordA.Epic_Singers_and_Oral_Tradition.1991.

9. The Formulaic Structure of Introductions to Direct Discourse in Beowulf and Elene*

This paper is an attempt, after a long silence, to continue work along lines suggested by my distinguished colleague Larry Benson, in an article published in 1966. [1] In it he indicated that a number of the Anglo-Saxon poems that are clearly products of written literature, such as Phoenix and The Metres of Boethius, which are translations of Latin originals, have approximately as many formulas as Beowulf and that the test for orality by formula count is not conclusive for Anglo-Saxon poetry. Shortly after that, Donald K. Fry called for caution together with continued research. [2] Ann Chalmers Watts, after a full and very fair review and further impressive research, came to the same conclusion in The Lyre and the Harp. [3] Although there have been some fine articles on Beowulf since then, formulas in Beowulf have not been the subject of any deep or comprehensive study. Larry Benson concluded his article as follows:

It is in that spirit, like Donald K. Fry, who used this same quotation, that I write to take up Benson’s challenge to continue to study the formulaic style in Beowulf and in other Anglo-Saxon poems.

Formula Clusters

The essential ideas of the two lines just quoted at the beginning of laisse 100 of the Chanson de Roland are, “Engelers spurs on his horse and loosens the reins.” Their expression fills only a line and a half. The subject, “Engelers,” occupies, even with the conjunction “e,” only a half line. A phrase is needed to complete the line and the appositive, “li Guascuinz de Burdele,” performs that function. Still the subject needs a predicate, and so the first two lines have to be taken together. Similarly, the essential ideas of the first two lines of Beowulf are “We have heard of the glory of the Spear-Danes in times past.” Their expression, too, fills only a line and a half. An alliterative phrase is needed in the a) verse of the second line; the appositive “þeodcyninga” performs that function.

To units of hemistich and line must be added units of three and four hemistichs, or even more, in succession, and beginning in either an a) or a b) verse. For example, Beowulf 662,

Ða him Hroðgar gewat ‖ mid his hæleþa gedryht,

requires a second line to complete it, namely 663

eodur Scyldinga, ‖ ut of healle.

Here also we encounter a larger structural unit of four successive hemistichs, the first two and the last of which express the essential idea, or, more accurately, the essential ideas, of the unit, that is, “Hrothgar departed from the hall with his company of retainers.” Alliteration requires the appositive, eodur Scyldinga, “prince of the Scyldings.”

The cluster of formulas operates as does a single formula. Instead of “a word or group of words” one has “a group of formulas regularly used to express a cluster of essential ideas under given metrical conditions.” One has merely expanded the “group of words” to “cluster of formulas” and “essential idea” to “cluster of essential ideas.” The “given metrical conditions” have also been extended beyond the hemistich and the line. The principle of the formula has been preserved intact. The question naturally arises whether any given cluster is “regularly used.” The following clusters from Beowulf, covering two couplets, are helpful in answering that question:

258-259          Him se yldesta ‖ ondswarode,
                              werodes wisa, ‖ wordhord onleac: {149|150}
340-341          Him þa ellenrof ‖ andswarode,
                              wlanc Wedera leod, ‖ word æfter spræc.

The second of the four hemistichs are identical in each couplet, and the syntactic patterns and paratactic structures are the same in both. Moreover, the essential idea of the four hemistichs is the same, namely, “someone spoke to him.” I am inclined to call these couplets “formulaic expressions,” the more so since the several elements constituting the couplets are themselves demonstrably formulaic.

The clusters of which I am thinking, however, differ from those that Robert Creed calls “gnomes” or that John Foley calls “responsions,” as well as from those in Ritzke-Rutherford’s work. My clusters of formulas are bound together syntactically and are involved in the process of verse making. I am still deeply concerned with composing traditional poets and the means and processes that the tradition provides them to express their ideas. The elements of various kinds and sizes that are used to adjust ideas to spaces are not to be thought of as “mere fillers.” Their meaning and force are as important as their compositional usefulness.

Introductions to Speech


Speech introductions are handled differently by the Beowulf poet than by any other Anglo-Saxon poet whose works we have. The maþelode formula systems so characteristic of Beowulf are not used at all in Christ, for example, although they are employed, especially in one prolonged passage in Cynewulf’s Elene, almost as often, proportionately, as in Beowulf. They are found very sparingly in Genesis. Yet they belong to Beowulf par excellence; in fact, they are used twenty-six times in Beowulf compared to nine in Elene and four in Genesis—twice as many in Beowulf as in the other two combined.

The Beowulf poet uses other words to introduce speech as well, as can be seen from the following list:

maþelode               26 times
spræc                    5 times
gecwæð                 3 times
gespræc                 once
cwæð                     once
acwæð                   once
acwyð                    once
frægn                     twice
fricgan                    once
sægde                    once
abead                     once
wordhord onleac      once
andswarode            twice
ondswarode            once

It is not, however, merely that the formula systems on maþelode are used more frequently than any other system in Beowulf or than elsewhere {151|152} in Anglo-Saxon poetry. What is more significant is that they are used differently. The poet of Beowulf does not hesitate to employ these formulas over and over again, even in long sequences, without striving for variety, although we can see from the list just given that he had alternatives in his repertory, if he chose to use them.


The first seven speeches in Beowulf, which lead into and overlap with a “run” of maþelodes, follow a duplicated pattern, as seen below, and include two instances of maþelode.

coast guard           236           frægn
Beowulf             258-259        ondswarode—wordhord onleac
coast guard           286           maþelode
coastguard           315            cwæð
Wulfgar                332            frægn
Beowulf             340-341        andswarode—word æfter spræc
Wulfgar                348            maþelode

In these cases maþelode introduces a statement made by the person who was first asked a question and received an answer. His statement is followed by some action. The new arrivals on the shore, Beowulf and his men, proceed inland according to instructions given in the first statement, and Wulfgar reports their desire for an audience to Hrothgar after the second.

It will be useful to see the list filled out with the complete introductory passages in each case.

234-236                     Gewat him þa to waroðe ‖ wicge ridan
                              þegn Hroðgares, ‖ þrymmum cwehte
                              mægenwudu mundum, ‖ meþelwordum frægn:
                                        speech 237-257
258-259                     Him se yldesta ‖ ondswarode,
                              werodes wisa, ‖ wordhord onleac:
                                        speech 260-285
286-287a                   Weard maþelode, ‖ ðær on wicge sæt,
                              ombeht unforht:
                                        speech 287b-300
                                        narrative 301-311 {152|153}
314b-315                                                   guðbeorna sum
                              wicg gewende, ‖ word æfter cwæð:
                                        speech 316-319
                                        narrative 320-331a
331b-332                                                   Þa ðær wlonc hæleð
                              oretmecgas ‖ æfter æþelum frægn:
                                        speech 333-339
340-342a                   Him þa ellenrof ‖ andswarode,
                              wlonc Wedera leod, ‖ word æfter spræc
                              heard under helme:
                                        speech 342b-347
348-350a                   Wulfgar maþelode ‖ (þæt wæs Wendla leod;
                              wæs his modsefa ‖ manegum gecyðed,
                              wig ond wisdom):
                                        speech 350b-355

In these seven speeches there are no one-line introductions, although there are three of one and a half lines, two of two and a half lines, one of two lines, and one of three lines.

More important than the length of the passages is the way in which that length is gained. The three-line introduction with which the passage opens (lines 234-236) consists of three clauses, only the third of which has a verb of speaking: “the thane of Hrothgar rode his horse to the people, he shook his spear at the host, and asked in a speech. ” The subject of all three verbs is in the third hemistich, a delayed subject of “gewat … ridan” in the preceding line; forming a one-and-a-half-line unit (lines 234-235a). Hrothgar’s thane is also the subject of the verb in the fourth hemistich, which is modified by the phrase in the fifth, forming another one-and-a-half-line unit (lines 235-236a), sharing a subject with the preceding. The unit introducing speech, with the verb of speaking in the sixth hemistich of the passage, covers two lines (235-236), including the previous unit. This passage is a superb example of the “weaving style” typical of oral traditional composition.

The two-line introduction that follows (lines 258-259) is a “duplicated” one-liner, a frequent pattern in Anglo-Saxon poetry, of course, with its fondness for parataxis.

Two of the one-and-one-half-line introductions (lines 314b-315 and 331b-332) begin in the b) verse, and the a) verse of the following line is, in one case, in apposition with the subject in the preceding b) verse and, in the other, the direct object of the “asking” verb in the second line. {153|154} The other one-and-one-half-line passage (lines 286-287a) begins in the a) verse, and the third hemistich is in apposition with the subject in the first hemistich. In short, it is an extended one-line introduction.

The two two-and-one-half-line introductions that end the sequence (lines 340-342a and 348-350a) are extended two-liners in which the fifth hemistich is an elaboration of the third.

To sum up so far: one of the basic methods of composition is to extend a one-line introduction to one and a half by adding an appositive or to duplicate a one-liner by parataxis; similarly one can extend a two-line passage by a fifth hemistich which is an appositive of the third; the two-line passage itself turns out to be a one-liner that has been duplicated by parataxis, as in lines 340-341, or has been otherwise elaborated, as in lines 348-349. One begins with one line, builds it to one and a half by extension or to two by duplication or some other form of elaboration, and then builds the two-line product to two and a half by extension with an appositive.

We must go further to see whether these patterns are found only in Beowulf or are characteristics of all Anglo-Saxon narrative poetry. We suspect that the latter is true.


It will be useful to see the above list filled out with the complete introductory passages in each case. {154|155}

348-50a                     Wulfgar maþelode ‖ —þæt wæs Wendla leod,
                              wæs his modsefa ‖ manegum gecyðed,
                              wig ond wisdom—:
                                        speech 350b-355
                                        narrative 356-359
360                             Wulfgar maðelode ‖ to his winedrihtne:
                                        speech 361-370
371                             Hroðgar maþelode, ‖ helm Scyldinga:
                                        speech 372-389a
389-390                     Deniga leodum,” ‖ Þa to dura eode
                              widcuð hæleð, ‖ word inne abead:
                                        speech 391-398
                                        narrative 399-404
405-406                     Beowulf maþelode ‖ (on him byrne scan,
                              searonet seowed ‖ smiþes orþancum):
                                        speech 407-455
456                             Hroðgar maþelode, ‖ helm Scyldinga:
                                        speech 457-490
                                        narrative 491-498
499-505                     Unferð maþelode, ‖ Ecglafes bearn,
                              þe æt fotum sæt ‖ frean Scyldinga,
                              onband beadurune ‖ (wæs him Beowulfes sið,
                              modges merefaran, ‖ micel æfþunca,
                              forþon þe he ne uþe, ‖ þæt ænig oðer man
                              æfre mærða þon ma ‖ middangeardes
                              gehedde under heofenum ‖ þonne he sylfa):
                                        speech 506-528
529                             Beowulf maþelode, ‖ bearn Ecgþeowes:
                                        speech 530-606
                                        narrative 607-628a
628b-631                     He þæt fui geþeah,
                              wælreow wiga ‖ æt Wealhþeon,
                              ond þa gyddode ‖ guþe gefysed;
                              Beowulf maþelode, ‖ bearn Ecgþeowes:
                                        speech 632-638

The one exception to the maðelode series (lines 389-390) occurs in a passage in which the text is corrupt! Four of the remaining introductions are one-liners: two refer to Hrothgar as helm Scyldinga (lines 371 and 456), one to Beowulf as bearn Ecgþeowes (line 529), and one to Wulfgar, in which the phrase to his winedrihten completes the line (line 350). Although the remaining four passages have more than one line, they are all basically one-liners that have been extended. {155|156}

Before another long sequence of maþelode begins, there are five speeches, two of which are introduced by maþelode. Here are the five introductions:

First Hrothgar and Beowulf salute one another:

652-654                     Gegrette þa ‖ guma oþerne,
                              Hroðar Beowulf, ‖ ond him hæl abead,
                              winærnes geweald, ‖ ond þæt word acwæð:
                                        speech 655-661
                                        narrative 662-674

Before going to rest, Beowulf utters a boast:

675-676                     Gespræc þa se goda ‖ gylpworda sum,
                              Beowulf Geata, ‖ ær he on bed stige:
                                        speech 677-687
                                        narrative 688-924

There follow then two passages introduced by maþelode in the exchange between Hrothgar and Beowulf the day after Beowulf’s fight with Grendel. Hrothgar looks upon Grendel’s paw and Beowulf responds to his wonder. Their speeches are introduced by:

925-927                     Hroðgar maþelode ‖ (he to healle geong,
                              stod on stapole, ‖ geseah steapne hrof,
                              golde fahne ‖ ond Grendles hond):
                                        speech 928-956
957                             Beowulf maþelode, ‖ bearn Ecgþeowes:

After the gifts have been given in the great hall and the tale of Finn sung, the queen cornes forward and speaks, opening the feasting and further gift giving:

1168b                         Spræc ða ides Scyldinga:
                                        speech 1169-1187
                                        narrative 1188-1214

When Wealhtheow speaks a second time, another lengthy maþelode series begins in earnest. There are nine instances between lines 1215 and 1999, as can be seen in the list below. Lines 1698 and 1983b-1986 are the {156|157} only non-maþelode introductions in this sequence of passages. The series begins at line 1215 with a one-liner.

1215                   Wealhðeo m. ‖ heo fore þæm werede spræc
                                        speech 1216-1231
                                        narrative 1232-1320
1321                   Hroðgar m. ‖ helm Scyldinga
                                        speech 1322-1382
1383                   Beowulf m. ‖ bearn Ecgþeowes
                                        speech 1384-1396
                                        narrative 1397-1472
1473                   Beowulf m. ‖ bearn Ecgþeowes
                                        speech 1474-1491
                                        narrative 1492-1650
1651                   Beowulf m. ‖ bearn Ecgþeowes
                                        speech 1652-1676
                                        narrative 1677-1686
1687                   Hroðgar m., ‖ hylt sceawode
                    ealde lafe, ‖ on ðæm. wæs or written
                    fyrngewinnes; ‖ syðþan flod ofsloh,
                    gifen geotende ‖ giganta cyn
                    frecne geferdon; ‖ þæt wæs fremde þeod
                    ecean Dryhtne; ‖ him þæs endelean
                    þurh wæteres wylm ‖ Waldend sealde.
                    Swa wæs on ðæm scennum ‖ sciran goldes
                    þurh runstafas ‖ rihte gemearcod,
                    geseted ond gesæd, ‖ hwam þæt sweord geworht,
                    irena cyst, ‖ ærest wære,
                    wreoþenhilt ond wyrmfah. ‖ Ða se wisa spræc
                    sunu Healfdenes ‖ (swigedon ealle):
                                        speech 1700-1784
                                        narrative 1785-1816
1817                   Beowulf m. ‖ bearn Ecgþeowes
                                        speech 1818-1839
1840                   Hroðgar m. ‖ him on ondsware
                                        speech 1841-1865
                                        narrative 1866-1983a
1983b-1986         Higelac ongan
                              sinne geseldan ‖ in sele þam hean
                              fægre fricgcean, ‖ (hyne fyrwet bræc,
                              hwylce SæGeata ‖ siðas wæron):
                                        speech 1987-1998
1999                   Beowulf m. ‖ bearn Ecgðioes
                                        speech 2000-2151

Before the last two introductions Beowulf and his men have returned home, and in lines 1987-1998 Higelac asked him how he fared in Denmark. Unlike Hrothgar, Higelac has no maðelode formula! Line 1999 {157|158} introduces Beowulf’s famous retelling of events at Heorot. As the events at Higelac’s hall move on, we move also away from the “Beowulf maðelode ‖ bearn Ecgþeowes” formula to other forms of introduction. The sea of maþelodes is disturbed by a non-maþelode introduction of six lines leading into a speech within a speech in lines 2047-2056.

2041-2046                     Þonne cwið æt beore ‖ se ðe beah gesyhð,
                              eald æscwiga, ‖ se ðe eall gem(an),
                              garcwealm gumena ‖ (him bið grim sefa),
                              onginneð geomormod ‖ geong(um) cempan
                              þurh hreðra gehygd ‖ higes cunnian,
                              wigbealu weccean, ‖ ond þæt word acwyð:

The scene between Higelac and Beowulf concludes with a three-line introduction (lines 2152-2154) to Beowulf’s words about the armor that Hrothgar had given him:

                    Het ða in beran ‖ eaforheafodsegn,
                    heaðosteapne helm ‖ hare byrnan,
                    guðsweord geatolic, ‖ gyd æfter wræc:

This is the first and only time that “gyd” is used in any of the introductions to speech in Beowulf. In sum, the scene with Higelac contains only four introductions to speech, one of which leads to a speech within a speech. The other two speeches are the opening one by Higelac and the closing one by Beowulf commenting on the gifts of armor that are brought into the hall for him to show to his king.

The two great scenes at Heorot are marked with due ceremony by the repeated trumpeting of maþelode announcing the rising to speak of the great characters of the poem. The note sounded by the coast guard and by Wulfgar is prolonged throughout the great scenes. As the action shifts to the land of the Geats the dignity of maðelode is reserved for Beowulf in his formal line “Beowulf maðelode, ‖ bearn Ecgþeowes,” (line 1999) when he begins his account of his adventures abroad.

The dragon episode begins with the speech of the last survivor, introduced by lines 2244-2246:

                    Þær on innan bær ‖ eorlgestreona
                    hringa hyrde ‖ hordwyrðne dæl, {158|159}
                    fættan goldes, ‖ fea worda cwæð:
                                        speech 2247-2266
                                        narrative 2267-2424

There follows a long speech by Beowulf, which has three parts, each with its own introduction. The first part is introduced by his formal line (line 2425):

                    Biowulf maþelade, ‖ bearn Ecgþeowes:
                                        speech 2426-2509;

the second by lines 2510-2511a:

                    Beowulf maðelode, ‖ beotwordum spræc,
                    niehstan siðe:
                                        speech 2511b-2515;

and the third, by an appropriate introduction to further words by Beowulf as he turns to address each one of his men (lines 2516-2518a):

                    Gegrette ða ‖ gumena gehwylcne,
                    hwate helmberend, ‖ hindeman siðe,
                    swæse gesiðas:
                                        speech 2518b-2537
                                        narrative 2538-2630.

After that, maðelode is taken over, fittingly enough, by Wiglaf, who has three speeches using maðelode, the first of which is introduced by lines 2631-2632:

                    Wiglaf maðelode, ‖ wordrihta fela
                    sægde gesiðum ‖ (him wæs sefa geomor):
                                        speech 2633-2660

and followed immediately by his words to Beowulf, introduced by lines 2661-2662:

                    Wod þa þurh þone wælrec, ‖ wigheafolan bær
                    frean on fultum, ‖ fea worda cwæð:
                                        speech 2663-2668
                                        narrative 2669-2723. {159|160}

The wounded Beowulf speaks again and his words are introduced by lines 2724-2728:

                    Biowulf maþelode ‖ —he ofer benne spræc,
                    wunde wælbleate; ‖ wisse he gearwe
                    þæt he dæghwila ‖ gedrogen hæfde,
                    eorðan wyn[ne]; ‖ ða wæs eall sceacen
                    dogorgerimes, ‖ dead ungemete neah— :
                                        speech 2729-2751
                                        narrative 2752-2790a

At this point Beowulf gives instructions about his funeral pyre; his words are introduced by lines 2790b-2793:

                    he hine eft ongon
                    wæteres weorpan, ‖ oðþæt wordes ord
                    breosthord þurhbræc. ‖ (þa. se bearn gespræc,)
                    gomel on giohðe ‖ (gold sceawode):
                                        speech 2794-2808. (Line 2792b em. C. L. Wrenn.)

After this, Beowulf places his gold collar on Wiglaf’s neck (lines 2809-2812a) and, in a hemistich that serves as introduction to Beowulf’s very last words, the poet says: (line 2812b)

                    het hyne brucan well:
                                        speech 2813-2816
                                        narrative 2817-2861

The next speech is by Wiglaf, and for the first time his words are introduced by “his” formal line: (lines 2862-2863)

                    Wiglaf maðelode, ‖ Weohstanes sunu,
                    sec, sarigferd ‖ (seah on unleofe);
                                        speech 2864-2891
                                        narrative 2892-2897a

The messenger’s announcement of Beowulf’s death to all his men is introduced in lines 2897b-2899: {160|161}

                    Lyt swigode
                    niwra spella ‖ se ðe næs gerad,
                    ac he soðlice ‖ sægde ofer ealle:
                                        speech 2900-3027
                                        narrative 3028-3075.

Wiglaf speaks again in line 3077, introduced by “his” single formal line 3076:

                    Wiglaf maðelode, ‖ Wihstanes sunu.
                                        speech 3077-3109

And his final words were introduced immediately after that speech with lines 3110-3114a:

                    Het ða gebeodan ‖ byre Wihstanes,
                    hæle hildedior, ‖ hæleða monegum,
                    boldagendra, ‖ þæt hie bælwudu
                    feorran feredon, ‖ folcagende,
                    godum togenes:
                                        speech 3114b-3119
                                        narrative 3120-3182.

It is important to be aware of the place of maþelode among the other words introducing speech in Beowulf and it is especially significant to observe the two “runs” of eight or nine maþelode’s. They, as well as the word itself, differentiate Beowulf from the other Anglo-Saxon poems. Within the poem they also appear to distinguish the scenes in Heorot from that in Higelac’s hall and to show a continuity with the dragon episode, marking significantly the generational succession from Beowulf to his kinsman Wiglaf.


Cynewulf’s Elene has nine instances of maþelode and serves as a useful comparison with Beowulf. [12] As in the case of Beowulf, to obtain a true {161|162} concept of Cynewulf’s handling of speech introductions it is necessary to look at other formulas introducing speech in Elene and to see how they sometimes dovetail together with the maþelode systems. The list below schematizes by their verbs the speech formulas from line 78 to line 537.

1.           Angel to Constantine           78b           wið þingode
2.           Elene to the Hebrews           287b           wordum negan
3.           Elene                               332            E. maþelode / ond for eorlum spræc
          a.           Moses                     338b           word gecwæð
          b.           David                     344b           word gecwæð
          c.           Isaiah                     352b           wordum mælde
4.           Elene                               385a           wordum genegan
5.           People                               396b           ondsweredon
6.           Elene                               404             E. maþelode / ond for eorlum spræc
                                                    405b           ides reordode
7.           Judas                               417           an reordode
          a.           father                     440b           ond þæt word gecwæð
          b.           Judas                     455b           ageaf ondsware
          c.           father                     462b           ageaf ondsware
                                                    463b           fæder reordode
8.           The wisest                       537b           wodum mældon

The first speech in Elene is that of the Angel who appears to Constantine in a dream:

76-78                                         Him se ar hraðe,
                    wlitig wuldres boda, ‖ wið þingode
                    ond be naman nemde, ‖ (nihthelm toglad):

When Elene herself first speaks to the assembled Hebrews, her speech is introduced by:

286b-287                                         Ongan þa leoflic wif
                    weras Ebrea ‖ wordum negan:
                                        speech 288-319
                                        narrative 320-331

Elene’s second speech is dignified with the maþelode formula—its first appearance in the poem—in tandem with spræc in line {162|163}

332:                                         Elene maþelode ‖ ond for eorlum spræc:
                                        speech 333a-376b

Within that major speech there are three quotations from the Old Testament, presented in direct discourse. One is by Moses, one by David, and one by Isaiah. The first is introduced by:

337b-338                               Be þam Moyses sang,
                              ond þæt word gecwæð ‖ weard Israhela:

The second uses the same formula:

342-344                     Be þam David cyning, ‖ dryhtleod agol,
                              frod fyrnweota, ‖ fæder Salomones,
                              ond þæt word gecwæþ, ‖ wigona baldor:

The third speech within a speech, that by Isaiah, is introduced by lines

350-352                     Swa hit eft be eow ‖ Essaias,
                              witga for weorodum, ‖ wordum mælde:
                              deophycggende ‖ þurh dryhtnes gast:

Elene’s long speech with its three speeches within it is followed by narrative in lines 364-384a. Her next speech is introduced by:

384b-385                     Hio sio cwen ongan
                              wordum genegan ‖ (wlat ofer ealle):
                                        speech 386-395

The answer follows immediately, introduced by

396                     Hie þa anmode ‖ ondsweredon:
                                        speech 397-403

Elene’s next speech is introduced beginning with the now familiar formula:

404-406a                     Elene maðelade ‖ ond for eorlum spræc {163|164}
                              undearninga, ‖ ides reordode
                              hlude for herigum:
                                        speech 406b-410
                                        narrative 411-416

Judas’s first speech is introduced by

417-419a                     Þa þær for eorlum ‖ an reordode,
                              gidda gearosnotor ‖ (ðam wæs Iudas nama),
                              wordes cræftig:
                                        speech 419b-535

This long speech contains three other speeches. The first of these has a complicated introduction, which is not helped by a corrupt text.

436-440                     swa þa þæt ilce gio ‖ min yldra fæder
                              sigerof sægde, ‖ (þam wæs Sachius nama),
                              frod fyrnwiota, ‖ fæder minum,
                              wende hine of worulde ‖ ond þæt word gecwæð:

The second and third speeches within a speech are introduced each by a simple couplet:

454-455                     Þa ic fromlice ‖ fædere minum,
                              ealdum æwitan, ‖ ageaf ondsware:


462-463                     Ða me yldra min ‖ ageaf ondsware,
                              frod on fyrhðe ‖ fæder reordode:

Judas’s long speech is followed immediately by a couplet introducing a short one spoken by the wisest (gleawestan) of the Hebrews:

536-537                     Him þa togenes ‖ þa gleawestan
                              on wera þreate ‖ wordum mældon:
                                        speech 538-546

The next scene opens after three and a half lines of assembling with the proclamation of the heralds: {164|165}

551a-552b                   Hreopon friccan,
                              caseres bodan:

The list of verbs given above shows a somewhat different vocabulary in Elene from what one finds in Beowulf in introductions to speech. Mælian is not found in Beowulf; reordian is used only once in Beowulf and not in an introduction to speech; the same is to be said for þingian; negan (nægan) or genegan is also used once in Beowulf in the formula wordum nægde (line 1318), but not introducing a speech.

The second major group of exchanges of speeches in Elene begins with Elene’s address to the assembled people:

573                     Elene maþelade ‖ ond him yrre oncwæð:

The reply of the people is to indicate Judas as their wise man and spokesman. There is no introductory formula to the speech, which extends from line 588b to line 597b. Now that her interlocutor for the formal exchange has been named, the series begins in earnest as Elene tries to persuade Judas to tell her where the cross is hidden. It might be reasonable to expect a series of maþelodes at this point, following the pattern in Beowulf; or rather, this expectation would be reasonable if we knew for certain that Cynewulf was acquainted with the Beowulf text, or—a different matter entirely—with the tradition to which the Beowulf poet belonged. Actually, that expectation is not fully realized; the series is broken. This fact is the more amazing because in the passage in question Cynewulf is following the Latin source very closely, and the Latin speeches are all, without exception, introduced by dixit. Cynewulf varies the verbs of speaking more than either the Beowulf poet or the Latin does. In addition Cynewulf in this passage employs the epithet for Elene used regularly in the Latin text, beata, which becomes eadige in Anglo-Saxon, only once (619) in Elene. Cynewulf also uses tireadig (605) and æðele (662). In short, here too, as in the sequences of verbs introducing speech, Cynewulf prefers variety.

There is one more passage from Elene with a number of maþelodes. The list below presents the introductions to direct discourse from lines 604 to 685, including one example of introduction to indirect discourse (lines 667-668). The speech formulas are emboldened. {165|166}

604           Elene maþelode ‖ to þam anhagan
605           tireadige cwen: ‖ “þe synt tu gearu,
609           Judas hire ongen þingode ‖ (ne meahte he þa gehðu bebugan,
610           oncyrran rex geniðlan. ‖ He wæs on þære cwene gewealdum):
619           Him þa seo eadige ‖ andwyrde ageaf
620           Elene for eorlum ‖ undearnunga:
627           Judas maðelade ‖ (him wæs geomor sefa,
628           hat æt heortan ‖ ond gehwæđres wa,
629           ge he heofonrices ‖ hyht swa mode
630           ond þis ondwearde ‖ anforlete,
631           rice under roderum, ‖ ge he ða rode tæhte):
642           Elene maðelade ‖ him on andsware:
655           Judas maðelade ‖ (gnornsorge wæg):
662           Him seo æðele cwen ‖ ageaf andsware:
667           Judas hire ongen þingode, ‖ cwæð, þæt he þæt on gehðu gespræce
668           ond tweon swiðost, ‖ wende him trage hnagre.
669           Him oncwæð hraðe ‖ caseres mæg:
682           gasta geocend.” ‖ Hire Judas oncwæð
683           stiðhycgende: ‖ “ic þa stowe ne can
684           ne þæs wanges wiht ‖ ne þa wisan cann. “
685           Elene maðelode ‖ þurh eorne hyge:

We have been able to discern differences between Beowulf and Elene in the poets’ choice of words introducing speech, and in the sequences of such words in passages in which there is sustained dialogue. The next step is to analyze the formulaic structure of the passages introducing direct discourse. Such an investigation can serve as a model for the analysis of other structural groups. Something of the variety of the structures one finds in Elene, in comparison with Beowulf, is apparent from the list above.

In the group you will see, for example, introductions of one-half line, plus a parenthetical hemistich (line 655), and introductions of two consecutive {166|167} hemistichs in the b) verse of one line and the a) verse of the following (lines 682b and 683a). Note that stiðhycgende (courageous) is an alliterative helper, even as was the parenthetical hemistich in the previous case. The repeated necessity of fitting essential ideas into a given space is found in both Beowulf and Elene, of course. It is one of the realities of composing, whether orally or in writing, in the alliterative Germanic meters, but the precise ways in which it is accomplished are varied, and may be significant in differentiating one composer from another. This is a fruitful field for research, but I cannot here analyze all the passages in the foregoing group.

Let me make special mention, however, of the longest passage, lines 627-631, five lines. This is in reality a single maþelode hemistich plus a parenthetical sentence extending over four and one half lines! In other words, it is structurally like line 655. Finally, lines 667-669 are actually two separate, consecutive cases of introduction to speech. Lines 667-668, which I have included for the sake of the ring-composition involved, are a case of indirect, rather than direct, discourse. The introduction to direct discourse with which it is associated is the single-line formula in 669. Of the ten introductions to direct discourse under consideration, three consist of a single hemistich (609, 627, and 655), four consist of a single line (642, 662, 669, and 685), one consists of two consecutive hemistichs in two separate lines(682-683), one consists of a line and a half (604-605), and only one introduction, that to indirect discourse, is a bona fide two-line passage (667-668).

There are ten more speeches in Elene, but only one uses maþelode. For the sake of completeness, I list below the verbs used in the introductions to those speeches:

691-698             cleopigan ongan (696)           8 lines
723b-724           word … ahof—spræc               1-½ lines
806                    Iudas maþelode                   1 line
848b-851           frignan ongan (849)               3-½ lines
900-901             ongan þa hleoðrian (900)       2 lines
934-938             oncwæð—word gecwæð         5 lines
1067b-1072        frignan ongan—bæd—
                          word acwæð—reordode         5-½ lines
1119b                 Hie cwæðon þus                   ½ line
1166b                 He hire þriste oncwæð           ½ line
1188b-1190        sang—word gecwæð              2-½ lines {167|168}

Not only is the maþelode sequence broken, but variety is evidenced in the words used—although beginning in lines 934-938 some form of cwæð is found—and in the syntactic structures. The reader of Beowulf is aware that this long passage could not have been by the same poet who wrote of Heorot.


It is appropriate to end our analyses with a summary of the results of the comparison of one-line speech introductions in Beowulf and Elene. By noting the role of maþelode in Beowulf, one is able to distinguish that poem from Elene by the structure of their one-line speech introductions, using the following criteria:

1. There are fourteen one-line introductions in Beowulf and nine in Elene. All fourteen from Beowulf are maþelode formulas in the a) verse; seven of the nine from Elene are maþelode formulas in the a) verse. In those cases where the subject and the verb of speaking are in the a) verse and the direct discourse begins in the a) verse of the following line, the two most common possibilities for the b) verse of the speech introduction are either an epithet phrase in apposition with the subject, or another verb of speaking in tandem with maþelode.

2. Twelve of the fourteen maþelode formulas in Beowulf are completed in the b) verse with an epithet phrase (bearn Ecgþeowes, helm Scyldinga, and so forth); none of the maþelode formulas in Elene is completed by an epithet phrase. This might be taken as an indication that none of the figures in the biblical poem belonged to Anglo-Saxon tradition, as did Beowulf, Hrothgar, Unferth, or Wiglaf. They were not identifiable in Anglo-Saxon by their patronymics.

3. There are three one-line speech introductions in Elene that use another verb than maþelode. In two cases this verb is found in the b) verse, with the subject in the a) verse, and is some form of answering (line 396, Hie þa anmode ‖ ondsweredon; line 662, Him seo æðele cwen ‖ ageaf ondsware); in the third case the verb is in the a) verse and the subject in the b) verse (line 669, Him oncwæð hraðe ‖ caseres mæg).

One can, therefore, distinguish Beowulf from Elene by the structure of the one-line introductions to speech, using the criteria just enumerated.

Our ultimate purpose is to determine whether formulaic analysis, or any other type of stylistic analysis, can successfully differentiate between {168|169} oral-traditional narrative sung verse and “written” narrative verse, or even distinguish among several degrees of transitional, or mixed, or imitative styles. Our first step in that direction has been to see if we could find ways in which Beowulf, as a possible member of the oral-traditional or transitional groups, differs from Elene, which is clearly a “written” literary composition. We have succeeded in a limited way with a well-defined body of material, but the careful analysis and interpretation of all of that material has not yet been completed. At the beginning of this analysis I set down some thoughts about structures covering more than one line, which may serve to guide further research, including the analysis of sentences beginning in the b) verse. {169|170}


[ back ] * This paper in its original form was read at the annual International Congress on Medieval Studies at Kalamazoo, Michigan, in May 1982. It has not been published before.

[ back ] 1. Benson, 1966.

[ back ] 2. Fry, 1967.

[ back ] 3. Watts, 1969.

[ back ] 4. Benson, 1966, 340-341.

[ back ] 5. Huppé, 1970.

[ back ] 6. Quotations from the Chanson de Roland are from Roland, 1937.

[ back ] 7. Quoted from Beowulf, 1968.

[ back ] 8. Ritzke-Rutherford, 1981a and 1981b.

[ back ] 9. The fullest study of verbs of speaking in older Germanic poetry is the work of Teresa Pàroli (1975). Her Tavola 2 at page 182, giving the frequency of the several verba dicendi in Anglo-Saxon poetry, is particularly helpful.

[ back ] 10. Mertens-Fonck, 1978.

[ back ] 11. Lines 389-390 reconstructed in Beowulf, 1950.

[ back ] 12. Quotations from Elene are from ASPR, 2, 1932.

[ back ] 13. See Whitman, 1958, chap. II, “Geometric Structure of the Iliad,” especially 252-284.