It has been twenty years since I published A Reading of Beowulf. During that time I have accumulated more ideas in the natural course of teaching. Most particularly, however, my critical imagination was fired a few years ago by the "oral" theory of Old English literature, and as a result my whole point of view toward the poem shifted. What used to seem like troublesome flaws in a remarkable poem, cracks to be anxiously papered over, now seem merely structural features of this kind of early poetry, features that are now open not only to our understanding but also to our fresh appreciation.
The first chapter discusses other recent approaches to the poem before reviewing its many "oral" characteristics. Chapter 2 focuses on peculiarly oral modes of characterization, and on some of the problems they have caused critics, while Chapter 3 takes up typical methods of narrative construction. Chapter 4 examines the ubiquitous symbol of the hall as a unifying factor.
The book grows out of a faintly oral tradition itself, since most of it first saw day in the form of lectures and papers read at conferences. I am most grateful for the encouragement and helpful comments of audiences in many places over several years. In earlier guises, much of the chapter on the hall was presented at the Old English Colloquium at Berkeley and as a public lecture at King's College London. I discussed dragons and kindred matters at a session of the Southeastern Modern Language Association, at Manchester University, and at the Swiss universities of Geneva, Neuchâtel, Zürich, Basel, and Bern in 1986. Other sections were first given as talks at sessions of the Modern Language Association and at the Medieval Conference at Western Michigan University in Kalamazoo. A portion of Chapter 2, under the title, "What to Do with Old Kings," has appeared in Comparative Research on Oral Tradition: A Memorial for Milman Parry, ed.John Miles Foley (Columbus, OH: Slavica Publishers, 1987), 259-68.
In addition to the audiences I mention, the following individuals have commented on parts of the work; they should be credited . . .