Essay on Beowulf as a Pagan Oral Tradition

Essay on Beowulf as a Pagan Oral Tradition

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The unknown author of Beowulf uses examples throughout the poem that suggest the story comes from an "oral" tradition. In the poem Beowulf, a Germanic scop, or bard, recites poetry orally, or in a song, usually telling stories about historical triumphs and adventures. These poets were referred to in this epic poem as "carriers of tales..., traditional singer[s] deeply schooled in the lore[s] of the past" (Beowulf 50). This was common in Germanic culture. Scops would keep folkloric heroes alive in the "oral" tradition. They passed down stories orally from one generation to the next.

"The Beowulf poet himself imagines such oral performances by having King Hrothgar's court poet recite a heroic lay at a feast celebrating Beowulf's defeat of Grendel" (Beowulf 29). "[A] thane of the king's household...linked a new theme to a strict meter. The man started to recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf's triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines, entwining his words" (Beowulf 50). This poet of Hrothgar's goes on to tell of Sigemund and of Waels' son. This section of the oral poetry is actually in the text, giving an example of the Germanic "oral" tradition.

In the same celebration at the mead hall the author illustrates again the "oral" tradition. This time the king's poet performs "with the saga of Finn and his sons, unfolding the tale of the fierce attack in Friesland where Hnaef, king of the Danes, met death" (Beowulf 54). These eighty-nine lines tell a detailed historical story, which is also engrossed in the text and has nothing to do with the actual story. Here the author again displays the scop entertaining the crowd at the celebration with stories recited orally.

There is one other representation of the Germ...


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...Whichever one death fells must deem it a just judgment by God" (Beowulf 41). Here Beowulf gives the outcome to God. As mentioned earlier, Grendel met his fate the night Beowulf was waiting for him. This clearly is contradicting since both dogmas are used to describe the same occurrence. In the fight against Grendel's mother "Almighty God would ... turn the tide of his misfortunes" (Beowulf 61). He also says that God decided the victory in the same fight. "It was easy for the Lord, the Ruler of Heaven, to redress the balance once Beowulf got back up on his feet" (Beowulf 66). Beowulf also claims in this fight that God helped him. After the fight with the dragon the poet says "[w]hat God judged right would rule what happened to every man, as it does to this day" (Beowulf 93). How could there be so many discrepancies in this poem if only one poet wrote it?

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