Early versions of Beowulf were necessarily oral because the scops were unlettered. All versions of this classic poem were built of phrases or “formulas” repeated from generation to generation among scops. These formulas were a common source for all early poetry, from which all poets drew the language used in their extemporaneous poetic creations.
Francis Magoun, in his “Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry,” states: “An oral poem until written down has not and cannot have a fixed text, a concept difficult for lettered persons” (Magoun 84). With each telling of the oral poem there is some variation from the previous telling. Consider from the poem when Hrothgar was honoring Beowulf for his victory over Grendel; the king had his scop, to the background of a harp, chant poetic verses relating the famous Finnsburh Episode:
There was tumult and song, melodious noise,
in front of Healfdene’s battle commander;
the harp was plucked, good verses chanted
when Hrothgar’s scop in his place on the mead-bench
came to tell over the famous hall-sport
[about] Finn’s sons when the attack came on them:
Hnaef of the Scyldings, hero of the Half-Danes,
had had to fall in Frisian slaughter. . . . (1063-70)
There was no verbatim memorization involved here, only memorization of the thematic material, plot,...