Beowulf's Origins

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The origins of Beowulf predate the era of readily available manuscripts and texts for a common and, at the time, mostly illiterate peasantry to read. Though Beowulf was recorded in Old English, it can readily be assumed that its roots are to be found in the mostly oral traditions of the ancient Germanic tribes that roamed and settled much of Western Europe. Because of this heavy oral tradition, stories and legends were passed on by storytellers who would recite their tales from memory. Beowulf, in many ways, reflects this tradition in how it is told. Epics and ballads of considerable length may have needed repetition in order to be memorized easier, and Beowulf has many of its events told again and again. In that sense, a story being retold in Beowulf might be akin to refrain of a song. Also, it is quite possible that the especially more heroic events needed more emphasis, for killing Grendel was no small task, so repetition might have been used as a tool to remind the storytellers as to which events within the Beowulf story were the most important. In essence, repetition in Beowulf was used both for memorization and event emphasis.

First of all, repetition in Beowulf may be present as an aid for memorization. Though there are two different tales of Beowulf's heroism in water, it can be noted that both have many similarities. The first is told at the banquet before Beowulf it to face Grendel. Unferth, king Hrothgar's spokesman, notes that Beowulf was bested by one Breca in a swimming contest. Though Beowulf's response is long and detailed, it is to be seen that he faced more than a few sea monsters. "Rough were the waves; fishes in the sea were roused to great anger. Then my coat of mail, hard and hand-linked, guarded me against my enemies…A cruel ravager dragged me down to the sea-bed, a fierce monster held me tightly in its grasp..." (42). In his encounter with Grendel's mother, much the same is to be seen after Beowulf dives into the lake. "Then she grasped...
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