Beowulf : a written or an oral poem? (1972)
AuthorsDunn, Ginetteshow all
'Beowulf' has long been considered a written poem, and it is my intention to suggest that it may in fact be of oral origins. The work of Milman Parry and Albert Bates Lord on the Homeric poems has shown fairly conclusively that the 'Iliad' and the 'Odyssey' have been misunderstood for centuries. By comparing these epics with twentieth century Yugoslav songs, Parry and Lord discovered that Homer was most likely an oral singer of the same style as the Yugoslav guslar, Avdo Međedović. Such a discovery, strengthening as it does Parry's a priori thesis, had enormous implications in literary studies, since the way was now open for the re-examination of other older works of unknown origin. So, in 1953,Francis P. Magoun wrote an essay called 'The Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry', in which he suggested the oral nature of 'Beowulf'. But since then speculation on the creative typology of the poem has become inconclusive, inconsistent, and confused. I intend to show how the work of Homeric scholars, especially of Parry and Lord, is culturally and creatively relevant to Old English studies, and in this way to suggest the orality of 'Beowulf'. Oral poetry is the product of non-literate cultures in which man is closer to the objective world than in what Marshall McLuhan calls print cultures. Oral poetry is near to myth and ritual, and has not yet reached the state of discourse or logos The word as a symbolic representation of the thing has not over-ridden the ontology of the universe as an animistic and humanly comprehensible sphere of energy. Besides these mythological implications which first invested the singer with shamanistic powers and then with the honour of both describing and prescribing for his society, oral poetry served the purpose of entertainment and relied on a close transaction between bard and audience. A print culture relies on a different relationship, one that is more impersonal and which emphasizes the split between thought and action. Typed words in a book exist as a sort of currency between author and reader, but are in themselves inert. Spoken words are, by contrast, a living commerce between singer and audience; there is no time lag, tone lag, or intention lag between performance and delivery. So, oral poetry may be said to close the void between thought and action since the two are brought together. There is no crystallization or suspension of the word as there is in a print culture. The considerations of an oral poetry must therefore be radically different from those of written poetry, since the creation and expression and artistic environment in a non-literate culture are unique.