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Beowulf As A Pagan Oral Tradition

2372 words - 9 pages

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 Germanic "oral" tradition in Beowulf. The mere sound of "the clear song of [Hrothgar's] skilled poet telling with mastery of man's beginnings, how the Almighty had made the earth a gleaming plain girdled with waters", angers the monster, Grendel, and is one of the causes of devastation in the great mead hall (Beowulf 34). In this example the unknown poet of Beowulf does not go into detail about the poets song, as he does in the others, but it is still an example that the "oral" tradition is alive in the text.

Beowulf was obviously, in its origin, a pagan text. There are several examples of pagan elements throughout the story. The belief in wergild, a term meaning man-price, is one of the strongest of these ideas. It also incorporates the pagan ideas of fate, the fashion in which lords are buried, and symbols of paganism. The text is clearly one that tells a Germanic heroic narrative, which is not acceptable to the Judeo-Christian ideals.

The belief in wergild is very similar to the idea of "an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth." "If one[s] kinsmen had been slain, a man had a moral obligation either to kill the slayer or to exact the payment of wergild in compensation" (Beowulf 30). It was also shameful to not...

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