Theme in Oral Epic and in Beowulf. Milman Parry Studies in Oral Tradition. By Francelia Mason Clark. (New York: Garland, 1995. Pp. xxxvi + 252, appendix, bibliography, ISBN 0-8153-1874-X.)
Beowulf and the Demise of Germanic Legend in England. Albert Bates Lord Studies in Oral Tradition, 17. By Craig R. Davis. (New York: Garland, 1996. Pp. xvii + 237, appendices, bibliography, ISBN O-8153-2354-9.)
Albert Lord, in The Singer of Tales (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1960) argued against the existence of "transitional" texts, texts could be a product of a single creator who composed both orally and literately at the same moment of his career:
We may in actuality discover what might be called special categories of texts, but it is more than doubtful that they should be labeled "transitional," that is, part way between oral and written (p. 129).
Yet Beowulf provided Lord with a challenge. Here was an epic that did not conform to the oral-formulaic theory quite so neatly as did the Homeric and South Slavic epics. Lord kept his definition narrow enough, however, that he could safely argue that Beowulf, although unusual, is not a transitional text in the way that he chose to define the term.
Beowulf nevertheless is the product of a transitional period in Anglo-Saxon poetry and culture. It contains themes and story patterns different from those of Homeric and South Slavic epics, and it is not entirely traditional in its subject matter, as two recent Garland publications, the subject of this review, convincingly argue. Each book is part of a Garland's series named for one of the two founders of oral-formulaic theory, and as participants in the continuing discussions that Parry and Lord's theories have spawned, the authors both pay tribute to and challenge the ideas of their predecessors. Each also addresses one or more of the major unresolved questions in Beowulf studies. Clark meets the orality/literacy issue head on in her discussion of theme, while Davis's book illuminates the pagan/Christian question.
Francelia Mason Clark addresses the idea of oral theme and Beowulf through a variety of means, primarily through comparison with the South Slavic epic, The Song of Baghdad. She begins by critiquing Lord's own definitions of theme in oral tradition as they changed and developed over time. Of particular concern is the idea of repetition. Beowulf has always posed a problem in this regard, because its themes are not all strictly repeated, nor are there other epics from which to draw a corpus of traditional themes. The concept of theme, Clark argues, needs to be re-evaluated for each culture; Anglo-Saxon themes do not have the same aesthetic function as those of South Slavic epic: "[M]uch of the power of the Song narrative comes from action; in Beowulf much of the power comes from emotion. Thus, instead of a second directly comparable subject, this chapter offers another subject we know is aesthetically moving" (p. 151). Thus Clark argues that the characteristics of the Beowulf poet's patterns are "mobile" (p. 183) and as such, they can be hard to detect.
Craig R. Davis also argues for elusive patterns of meaning in Beowulf as he tackles the issue of myth and legend and their relationship with the Anglo-Saxon epic. The pagan-Christian question gets a thorough review here both in the first appendix and in the scholarship which undergirds the entire study. Davis argues for a new perspective on the Beowulf poet, one which admits that the poet was aware of the conflict between his pagan poem and its new Christian context (p. 162): "Beowulf is thus neither a Christian poem nor a pagan one, nor an especially convincing reconciliation of the two world-views: it is a strange, beautiful, but terminal mutation, a short and unsuccessful evolutionary sport." Beowulf is more than an attempt by a Christian poet to preserve a pagan epic. Pagan mythology, Germanic legend, and the developing Christian culture all find their way into the poem, whose final lament, Davis argues, is not only over Beowulf the hero but the demise of traditional Germanic poetry. …