Phasing Beowulf: An Aspect of Narrative Structure in Fairytale and Epic. (Literature)

By Aguirre, Manuel | Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies, Annual 2002 | Go to article overview

Phasing Beowulf: An Aspect of Narrative Structure in Fairytale and Epic. (Literature)


Aguirre, Manuel, Studia Anglica Posnaniensia: international review of English Studies


It is by now a fairly reasonable proposition that the overall construction of Beowulf consists of a hero's three successive battles against three numinous adversaries, culminating in his death. (1) The threefold (or manifold) arrangement this entails, and which recurs in various places and at various levels throughout the poem, conforms to a pattern commonly found in fairytales: characteristically, several individuals in succession face a test, or a hero undergoes several consecutive tests, the last of these events (which are essentially one) having a decisive function. Propp's Morphology, Olrik's "Laws", or Bartlett's "Patterns" are inevitable referents here, but certain important aspects of this structure make it advisable to seek a more precise definition than these writers provide. The article introduces the concept of phasing to account for the multiple structure of both fairytale and epic, distinguishes it from the much-abused concept of repetition, defines some of its functions, traces it to a synecdoc hic conception of the world, and relates it to destinal notions in the poem.

1. The structure of fairytales

According to the model proposed by Vladimir Propp (1928) for the analysis of the fairytale genre, (2) there are thirty-one "functions" or main actions which suffice to account for the composition of every wondertale. Functions always occur in a specific order, although there are codifiable exceptions, and of course not every function is made use of in each tale; further, tales are structured in "sequences" (3) each consisting of a number of functions which may but need not appear again in another sequence of the same tale. Propp defined the sequence as a development proceeding from a Villainy or a Lack, through intermediary functions, to Marriage or some other closing function; this basic sequence may appear more than once in a given tale. (4) A fruitful major premise of the book is that action is the main structural component of fairytales; and though the nature of epic tends to complicate the picture, action, too, seems essential to an account of the structure of Beowulf; this premise will prove of great im portance to our study. Let us, first of all, illustrate the method with analysis of a text that will be of use to us later on, the tale The Golden Bird (Grimm 57, AT550; [Roman numerals and italics denote Propp's function; these are followed by a summary of their application to our tale]):

The Golden Bird

First sequence

VIII. The villain causes harm or injury to one member of a family: the king's golden apples are stolen night after night.

IX. Misfortune or shortage is made known; the hero is either approached with a request and responds to it of his own accord, or is commanded or dispatched (x3): one after the other, the king's three sons must keep watch at night.

XI. The hero leaves home (x3): each goes to spend one night in the garden.

XII. The hero is tested, interrogated, attacked etc. in preparation for receiving either a magical agent or a helper (x3): their stay in the garden at night constitutes a test.

XIII. The hero reacts to the actions of the future donor (x3): the two eldest fall asleep, the third manages to stay awake and discovers that a golden bird eats the apples.

XIV. The hero acquires the use of a magical agent: he gets one of its golden feathers. This segment now begins anew: going to the garden was a reduced version of the coming adventure.

XI. The hero leaves home (x3): the three brothers set out one by one in search of the bird.

XII. The hero is tested, interrogated, attacked etc. in preparation for receiving either a magical agent or a helper (x3): a fox asks each in turn not to shoot him, offers advice in return.

XIII. The hero reacts to the actions of the future donor (x3): the first two try to kill the fox, the youngest spares him.

XIV. The hero acquires the use of a magical agent (x3): the fox advises each not to spend the night in a certain house; two disregard the advice, and as a result forget their mission; the youngest heeds it and obtains the fox's further help. …

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