Oral or Written: A Look into Beowulf
There have been many scholarly opinions over the years regarding Beowulf and its claim to be an oral versus a written work. During the time Beowulf was set most literature was oral and not written. Although it still does not prove that Beowulf was an oral work, the strong oral underpinnings, such as the mnemonic base, as well as the narrative sequence, provides a solid argument that Beowulf was an orally composed poem. The use of epithets in Beowulf is one of the techniques that suggest that it is an oral work. Epithets provide descriptions of the qualities of some of the story's characters. They were also used as fillers in oral poetry. “I have never seen mead enjoyed more in any hall on earth. Sometimes the queen herself appeared, peace-pledge between the nations, to hearten the young ones and hand out a torque to a warrior, then take her place.” (2015-2019). Here the queen is described as a neutral person in both parties that bring the tribes together. “Hrothgar, protector of the Shieldings, replied:” (371) is another epithet that brings more emphasis to who Hrothgar is as a character. Another mnemonic technique used to suggest Beowulf is an oral work is tone. Because most of crowds were men and warriors, the stories often told were about different battles fought and won, or not. If your story was boring, quite naturally no one would want to hear it. It is almost like today’s reality TV-more drama, great ratings. Bards placed agonistically toned statements in their oral pieces to keep the attention of the listeners and to keep the story interesting. The first exchange between Unferth Beowulf is an example. “So Brecca made good his boast upon you and was proved right. No matter, therefore, how you may have fared in every bout and battle until now, this time you’ll be worsted; no one has ever outlasted an entire night against Grendel.” (523-528) Beowulf responds: “Now I cannot recall any fight you entered, Unferth that bears comparison. I don’t boast when I say that neither you nor Brecca were ever much celebrated for swordsmanship or for facing danger on the field of battle.” (582-586) These two quotes make it clear that Unferth has it in for Beowulf and Beowulf responds by letting Unferth know, he is not one to be toyed with. When one is sitting down to compose a story or poem, for the most part, one takes themselves away from what is being written and comes from an objective point of view. A lot of oral literature is filled with emotion and feelings as is Beowulf with its agonistically toned text. Perhaps the most convincing evidence is the simple plot. One example is having the plots organized around the three fights that occur in the poem; the fight with Grendel, Grendel’s dam, and the dragon. Having these structures allows the poem to be remembered and easy to understand. It also makes it easy to pass down to other generations. The simple plot is reinforced by redundancy throughout Beowulf. “Then a bench was cleared in that banquet hall so the Geats could have room to be together and the party sat, proud in their bearing, strong and stalwart. An attendant stood by with a decorated pitcher, pouring bright helpings of mead.” (491-496). “When I first landed I hastened to the ring-hall and saluted Hrothgar. Once he discovered why I had come, the son of Halfdane sent me immediately to sit with his own sons on the bench. It was a happy gathering. In my whole life I have never seen mead enjoyed more in any hall on earth.” (2009-2015). The first quote refers to Beowulf’s initial encounter with Hrothgar and his reception of Hrothgar and his people. After Beowulf returns home, he reports to Lord Hygelac what occurred when he went to rescue Hrothgar and his people. He basically retells Hygelac what happens all over again. The narrative sequence is another example of redundancy in Beowulf. It allows the listener to make sense of the story. “Grendel had cruelly killed earlier-as he would have killed more, had not mindful God and one man’s daring prevented that doom. Past and present God’s will prevails.” (1054-1057). “The son of Ecgtheow would have surely perished and the Geats lost their warrior under the wide earth had the strong links and locks of his war-gear not helped to save him: holy God decided the victory. It was easy for the Lord, the Ruler of Heave, to redress the balance once Beowulf got back up on his feet.” (1550-1556). “I barely survived the battle under water. It was hard-fought; a desperate affair that could have gone badly; if God had not helped me, the outcome would have been quick and fatal.” (1655-1658) The passages are all the same and suggests that Beowulf’s success is all linked to God. Many of the passages link to each other to reinforce the message that the narrator wants to get across. No one will ever truly know if Beowulf was a written or orally composed. The redundancy throughout the poem heavily supports the claim of its oral composition. In addition, as one takes a close look at the techniques used by the composer-the mnemonic base, narrative sequence and plot structure, it should be easy to suggest that the poem was orally composed. Continued research may or may not yield a true answer. The verdict may always be out.