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Beowulf: An Oral Tradition

By Edited Nov 13, 2013 2 1



              Adventurous, heroic, loyal and courageous are all terms that are used to describe the characteristics of both Hrothgar and Beowulf. The reader from the beginning joins the story in the first phase of many cycles of the poem Beowulf. Through the organization in Beowulf, both the characters and battles characteristics and purposes of this great poem shine through. The organization in the poem Beowulf was structured around the great adventures and fights that occur throughout the poem, the poet organized each fight in a way that supports the overall function and flow of Beowulf.

            The story of Beowulf was divided into three parts essentially. These three parts are ultimately three different battles: Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the Dragon. This poem was organized in a way that one can assume that these fights are challenges for Beowulf and in the end growth comes from winning the fight. Another assumption is they represent phases of his heroic moments as both a warrior and a king. Lastly the fights are a type of theme in this story and this reoccurring theme is proof of how this story could have been orally written and remembered. Each fight has a theme which helps organize this story. Beowulf’s fight with Grendel is about his reputation and revenge. Beowulf verses Grendel’s mother theme was Grendel’s mother fighting for the revenge on her son’s behalf as well as a way of grieving. Last but not least, the fight between Beowulf and the Dragon had to do with Beowulf up keeping his heroic past and a part of his purpose.

            Oral tradition consists of stories written using this technique of writing a story that is passed down or told orally. This is seen and is used a great deal in Christianity with certain gospel that are now read and found throughout the bible. During the time of the era when Beowulf was written and recorded, oral tradition was used to write stories. Memory was the key to the create poems like Beowulf. A story like Beowulf starts with the passing along of a memory, story or something great that is heard or seen. Next is the passing along of the story, of one person telling another and so on. Ultimately, it is remembered and reoccurs because of the moral, lesson or victory learned or heard through the story told.


“And a young prince must be prudent like that,

                                      Giving freely while his father lives

                                      So that afterward in age when fighting starts

                                      Steadfast companions will stand by him

                                      And hold the line. Behavior that’s admired

                                      Is the path to power among people everywhere.” (20-25)


The previous quote speaks or leads the reader into the purpose of the fight and into the fight against Beowulf and Grendel. This quote addresses how reputation is a key element in a heroic warrior career. This quote is the beginning of a reoccurring theme throughout this poem, which the thoughts and opinions of others matter and are valued. It makes one in this time and story feel the need to up hold a certain status. In this phase or cycle of Beowulf, one quote that is proof that this poem was written in a time where oral tradition was popular and common to pass down stories and heroic tales was told in the story which states: “The man started to recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf’s triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines, entwining his words.” (870-873) This quote tells of Beowulf’s great win against Grendel as well as shows the reader the way stories are told and passed down throughout this era.

            The next battle deals with the fight against Beowulf and Grendel’s mother where revenge and pride are the fuel to this particular fire.

                                      “O flower of warriors, beware of that trap.

                                       Choose, dear Beowulf, the better part,

                                       Eternal rewards. Do not give way to pride.

                                       For a brief while your strength is in bloom

                                       But it fades quickly; and soon there will follow

                                       Illness or the sword to lay you low,

                                      Or a sudden fire or surge of water

                                      Or jabbing blade or javelin from the air

                                     Or repellent age. Your piercing eye

                                     Will dim and darken; and death will arrive,

                                     Dear warrior, to sweep you away.” (1758-1768)


This quote sums up both Beowulf’s and Grendel in this phase of the story, it is almost like the climax of the story or another notable battle to help one telling the story to give the reader or listener something great to remember. In oral tradition a storyteller could pass stories on through song or poem. The one reciting the story could have a certain line they would repeat or in the case of Beowulf have patterns of telling stories of heroic battles. In this entire quote is just another example of how this poem could has been told or recorded orally.

            The last, but one of the greatest battles is the battle between Beowulf and the Dragon. This is a great battle not only because Beowulf fought and won this battle in old age, but because it stays with the theme of the poem. Another theme throughout this poem that was seen in many other poems such as Homers Odyssey or Virgil’s the Aeneid is immortality. Immortality is given to the hero of the poem by the legends told about them, not physically. Each heroes die physically, but their names and tales of their lives survives forever. An example in Beowulf is seen in the last few lines of the poem:

                                    “They said that of all the kings upon earth

                                     He was the man most gracious and fair-minded,

                                     Kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.” (3180-3182)


This quote is an example of how Beowulf was remembered, as a great and loyal king and a one who wins. I am convinced in Beowulf’s life and livelihood as a warrior and king that Beowulf made some mistakes. Although, in cases of oral tradition, stories and legends that are remembered and passed down are those of a grand and successful win. Beowulf is kept in my because of his wins. If Beowulf lost the battles he lost or had different characteristics of being unreliable or selfish, then it would have affected this poem and the organization in the poem. The poems organization comes from the fights and the success from them.

            To conclude the poem Beowulf was seen or viewed as a poem or story that was once created through oral tradition all because of the way the poem was constructed. The construction that supports this point is of the three fights in the poem Beowulf. Again they are: Beowulf verses Grendel, Grendel’s mother and the Dragon. The poet of this poem was clever to organize this poem through a theme that occur more than once in this story and with a heroic figure and their great adventures to keep them remembered. Beowulf goes through three phases of life represented through three fights that keeps this story and poem flowing and kept in mind by all that have and have not read this poem. To today’s time Beowulf is a name that is not foreign to many ears. Beowulf as a hero and poem has become immortal from its oral beginnings.  




Oct 15, 2012 1:09pm
Great review of the ancient classic about the old 'super hero' Beowulf. Thumbs up
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