Bede's Caedmon, "The Man Who Had No Story" (Irish Tale-Type 2412B)

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Abstract

Although various analogues have been cited to Bede's account of the poet Caedmon, none are very close. The plot of a tale well known in modern Irish and Scottish tradition, however, "The Man Who Had No Story" (Irish type 2412B), resembles the first part of Bede's chapter so closely as to suggest that Bede shaped his account under the influence of this narrative pattern, which must, therefore, be assumed to be of some antiquity. Clinching this connection is the motif that Caedmon, a lowly cowherd, is called by name by his mysterious interlocutor. Naturally, Bede turned this tale-type to his own purposes by emphasising devotional features that are not a normal part of the tale. Moreover, he added the story of Caedmon's later life and pious death. Bede's monastic milieu was not impervious to oral culture, it seems. His account of Caedmon involves much mythmaking, and it is best read as an example of the storyteller's art.

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The story of Caedmon's poetic inspiration, as told by the Venerable Bede (ca. 673-735) in book 4, chapter 24 of his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Colgrave and Mynors 1969, 414-21), is of exceptional interest for the light it has been thought to shed on Anglo-Saxon literary history, or on the early mythography of that topic. Whatever Bede's motives were in telling the story of Caedmon and his Hymn, [1] his account can be read as an origin myth for two related activities: first, the use of native English verse to celebrate Christian themes; and second, the use of the technology of writing to record native poetry. In the current critical climate there is no need to belabour the point that Bede's miracle tale is best read as an example of "legendary history"--that is, history as shaped into memorable forms. [2]

The Tale and its Analogues

Analogues to the story of Caedmon have been cited with such frequency in the scholarly literature as to confirm that, whatever else it may be, this tale is a natural magnet for specialists in comparative religion, folklore, and mythology. Precedents for Bede's account of a lowly person's divine inspiration have been cited going as far back as Hesiod's account of his encounter with the Muses one day on the slopes of Mt Helicon, Aeschylus's supposed inspiration to write tragedy as the result of a dream vision, and the prophet Mohammed's life-transforming call to preach the Word of God. [3] Moreover, Bede's narrative was influential in its own time, for (as has long been recognised) the preface to the Old Saxon poem the Heliand includes a story of similar inspiration that is based on this chapter of the Ecclesiastical History. [4] Even "dream vision" poems from North American Indian tradition that result from actual initiatory practices have been brought into relation to Caedmon's Hymn and the life-altering experience from which it is said to have sprung. [5] Still, the author of the most recent systematic attempt to pinpoint useful analogies, Daniel Paul O'Donnell, has arrived at conclusions that are largely negative: "Despite a hunt spanning two centuries, no unambiguous source or close and detailed analogue to either Bede's account of Caedmon's inspiration or the Hymn itself has been found" (O'Donnell 2005, [section] 2.46).

Without discounting any other possible parallels, some of which may be found more relevant or persuasive than others, I wish to propose that the narrative core of Bede's account of Caedmon is modelled on a type of tale much closer to hand, from a northern British perspective, than the stories just mentioned. [6] The tale-type to which I refer is commonly known as "The Man Who Had No Story." In the Irish language, common names for it are An fear gan sceal ("The Man Without a Story") and An fear nach rabh sceal ar bith aige ("The Man Who Had No Story at All"). This type of tale is both distinct and popular enough to have been assigned its own number, 2412B, in the standard index The Types of the Irish Folktale (O Suilleabhain and Christiansen 1963, 343-4). …