Telling the old, old story

Beowulf, and with it many other significant texts which have survived from the past, is often discussed in terms of its ‘orality’: that is to say, its use of the techniques of oral composition. These offer the means to create a tale in the process of telling it – in the most basic sense, to ‘make it up as you go along’, a phrase now often used to deride something. In poetic terms, however, ‘making it up as you go along’ is both impressive and difficult; in addition to remembering the story, including all the significant details and pacing and structuring it properly, the oral poet must continually conform to the requirements of the poetic form of his time in terms of rhythm, metre/stress and so on. This requires the adept manipulation of such elements as formulas, epithets and type scenes, as well as a wide-ranging vocabulary and the ability to manage what is often a lengthy and complex narrative.

In the case of Beowulf we see formulas such as ‘geong in geardum’ (young among the dwellings, or enclosures), or ‘Beowulf (or Hrothgar, or Wealtheow) maþelode’ (Beowulf spoke); formulas generally add little to the action or description but fit metrically into a half-line and so give the poet a moment’s grace to work out what to say. Phrases such as ‘once upon a time’ have a similar function in modern story-telling. Type scenes include the ‘hero on the beach’ scene as Beowulf departs and arrives (and departs and arrives); these make use of a specific collation of vocabulary and activity to create a scene so well known (but endlessly variable) that the poet can craft it easily. Old English poetry is bound together by alliteration, so the poet must also have sufficient vocabulary and be able to think far enough ahead to ensure that every line is properly alliterated on the primary stresses.

Hence oral composition is poetry created as a performance, communicating virtuosity alongside the story. It is composition in which the present, listening audience are an integral part; it is thus an inherently communal activity, thoroughly participating in the drive to repeat, remember and pass on the cultural norms and interests of that particular social group. The oral poet’s role is to praise both individual and community by giving back to them already known tales with explanatory (and thus more than a little mythical) force; they are the descendants of a great hero whose deeds are now legendary, their people have won great victories, endured terrible hardship and loss, found ways back to power and prosperity through courage and strength. Tolkien shows this singing of the past in relation to the Rohirrim when Aragorn sings of their ancestor Eorl, a song he attributes to ‘a forgotten poet long ago in Rohan, recalling how tall and fair was Eorl the Young’.

Despite its role in the creation and perpetuation of traditional material, genuine oral composition – in the moment, for those present – is inherently ephemeral; no two oral performances of the same story will be exactly the same. Once the sound of the poet’s voice dies away, there is no concrete record of his creation, only a memory that may live on for the audience after the event itself is over. Its ephemerality makes it prone to the nostalgic mode; there is always the sense of grasping for something that is already lost, something more sure and certain, something older, something better.

By definition, of course, some of the key texts that exhibit the traits of oral composition have only survived because they made the transition from oral to written text at some point and in some manner. Someone wrote down a version of Beowulf that survived. Someone wrote down The Iliad and The Odyssey. In the nineteenth century, Elias Lönnrot collected and collated Finnish folk songs and folk poetry into a national epic now known as The Kalevala. This process continued in many places which had a strong oral tradition despite shifting into a written culture. So the written form of these texts is a frozen moment in the otherwise constantly changing and adapting life of the story they tell.

Thus oral composition is a mode of storytelling that expresses in its form the constant re-appropriation of existing stories for new purposes and audiences; it offers a direct challenge to modern models of author originality and textual commodification in that it is premised on the communal ownership of stories. What belongs to the poet is his particular retelling of any story; the plot and characters are not his to claim, and continue to be freely available to anyone else who wishes to tell the same story, in whatever manner they may prefer. In the present time, when authors claim that their characters are ‘like family’ to them, belong only to them, and must therefore not be messed about with by other writers, it may be hard for us to fully appreciate the flexibility and communality of this system. On the other hand, the rise of fan fiction has opened up our understanding of the myriad ways in which the same story may be retold and, in many cases, make the journey across different media to do so. We are still retelling much older stories too, especially in the context of fantasy, and adapting them in ways that suit the audience now.

There have been many ‘Beowulfs’, for example; in recent years Neil Gaiman alone has written three different versions of the story: the animated film Beowulf cowritten with Roger Avery, his short story ‘Bay Wolf’ and his novella The Monarch of the Glen (a sequel of sorts to American Gods). In these reworkings, Gaiman explores our modern interest in the unreliability of narrators and unpicks ideas of monstrosity and heroism: what if the monster wasn’t really a monster at all? What if the monster was human? What if heroes are the real monsters? None of these re-imaginings are ‘the’ Beowulf story, but neither are they fully distinguishable or detachable from it; their meanings are specifically sited at their points of deviation from the Old English narrative and it is therefore always present within the retelling.

Though modern readers may claim to find the idea of oral storytelling difficult to grasp, it is in many ways still the most common mode of storytelling in everyday life. Every unscripted bedtime retelling of a fairy story, every account of a great night out passed on from one friend to another, or every embarrassing recitation of childhood antics by parents to their offspring’s latest partner uses the same impulse, if not quite the same formal techniques. Our desire to remember and pass on tales in oral form remains with us, even in this most technical age.

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Fandom and the idea of transformation

Once we start to be honest about the things that we are fans of, it appears that most of us participate (to a greater or lesser extent) in a fandom of sorts. Fan behaviour can range from the simplest form of engaged interest – buying a band’s music, for example – to something more committed (perhaps going to a single gig and buying a t-shirt, following them on Twitter, joining a fan club), right through to the furthest extreme: going to every gig, buying everything ever made that has any connection to the band and collecting every possible remix of every single song they recorded! Where we come in on that spectrum does not really matter, as long as we use it as a starting point to understand the behaviour and interests of others.

The shift to understanding, rather than pathologising, fan behaviour is something that we have already discussed. A useful round-up of the key aspects and ideas around this can be found in  Jolie Jensen’s article ‘Fandom as Pathology’ can be found on this blog, posted on a blog about fans which sadly seems only to have stretched to a couple of entries. And once we unpick the prejudice that can surround fan behaviour and deconstruct the us/them binary, there is space for us to think more creatively about what fans do.

One such area is in relation to fan fiction, which is one aspect of what has come in some circles to be known as ‘transformative work’. Transformative work is creative; it represents a response to a book/tv show/film/artwork etc. which does something new with that material. You could read Roberta Pearson’s 2010 article on ‘Fandom in the Digital Era’, published in Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture and available online here, for a discussion of it in relation to a wider perspective on digital fandom.

In order to find out more about transformative works and how you can think about them, have a look at Transformative Works and Cultures, which is by its own account ‘an international, peer-reviewed journal about transformative works, broadly conceived,…media studies, and…the fan community’. You can access articles from its website here. The journal is full of fascinating articles that take perceptive approaches to areas you might not have thought about before; it is well worth browsing for a while.

In the context of all this, spend some time thinking about how fandoms work and how your own interests and behaviours are expressed in relation to these ideas. It is particularly interesting to see how referring to texts as ‘transformative’ rather than categorising them as derivative opens up our thinking to make connections with literary composition across several millenia. And it is a helpful reminder that it is not the underlying story you tell that sets you apart from anyone else; it is how you tell it that counts!

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Smoke and Mirrors

In his Guest of Honour speech at Mythcon 35 (2004), Neil Gaiman revealed his childhood response to Lord of the Rings like this:
“I came to the conclusion that Lord of the Rings was, most probably, the best book that ever could be written, which put me in something of a quandary. I wanted to be a writer when I grew up. (That’s not true: I wanted to be a writer then.) And I wanted to write The Lord of the Rings. The problem was that it had already been written.

I gave the matter a great deal of thought, and eventually came to the conclusion that the best thing would be if, while holding a copy of The Lord of the Rings, I slipped into a parallel universe in which Professor Tolkien had not existed. And then I would get someone to retype the book — I knew that if I sent a publisher a book that had already been published, even in a parallel universe, they’d get suspicious, just as I knew my own thirteen-year old typing skills were not going to be up to the job of typing it. And once the book was published I would, in this parallel universe, be the author of Lord of the Rings, than which there can be no better thing.”
(You can find the rest of this speech here.)

This speech, delivered ten years after the publication of Gaiman’s short story ‘One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock’ in the Moorcock Anthology Tales of the White Wolf, I find fascinating for a number of reasons. First of all, because it shows Gaiman’s range, even as a young reader; devotion to Tolkien often sits unhappily with an equal addiction to Moorcock’s albino hero Elric and his soul-sucking sword. Moorcock, furthermore, is an anti-Tolkien polemicist whose essay ‘Epic Pooh’ in his Wizardry and Wild Romance attacks Tolkien (along with C. S. Lewis) for espousing middle-class values and failing to rise above suburban sentiment and Winnie-the-Pooh-style language. Coincindentally, the book was republished in the same year as Gaiman gave his speech to the Mythopoeic Society’s annual conference: 2004 (it was originally published in the 1980s). Gaiman’s tendency to read very widely and promote what he likes to others is evident in various activities in addition to his writing, including writing a wide range of introductions to fantasy novels and working on the ‘Neil Gaiman Presents’ set of audio books at You can of course also read his ongoing thoughts at his journal.

Second, because Gaiman’s response to Tolkien mirrors Richard’s response to Moorcock in ‘One Life’; there, too, we see played out a reader’s desire to take ownership of the story and even to take credit (and remuneration!) for its production. I have explored these ideas in detail in an earlier blog (see ‘A writer maybe. Like Michael Moorcock’ posted on March 30th 2011) and their implications for understanding fan fiction. But the fact that Gaiman returns to them as the defining aspect of his childhood experience of reading Tolkien suggests that his writing may productively be read as an extraordinarily creative and diverse set of appropriations and explorations of both past texts and modern SF and fantasy.

Even in the Smoke and Mirrors anthology, for example, we find Gaiman drawing on and playing with medieval texts in ‘Murder Mysteries’ (headed up by a quote from a medieval mystery play) as well as ‘Chivalry’ and ‘Bay Wolf’, working with fairy tale and folk tale in ‘Troll Bridge’, ‘The White Road’ and ‘Snow, Glass, Apples’ and showing his engagement with H. P. Lovecraft in two stories, ‘Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar’ and ‘Only the End of the World Again’. Into this are blended a series of experiments with different genres, in particular the detective story.

The trick in each case is to work so creatively and so apparently effortlessly with the material that one easily forgets the sources and inspirations to these stories; yet they are never hidden. After all, these are ‘short fictions and illusions’. We are merely too distracted by the detail to see them, gazing at a few trees decked out with lights while an entire orchard waits to be explored around them. This is not a criticism; these stories show us ways of focusing on aspects of medieval texts, or qualities of modern fantasy, so that we can understand them in more wide-ranging and productive ways. Gaiman’s stories function as microcosmic refractions of much older stories and ideas, and in this they help us to look, think and see more than we otherwise might.

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Exhibition on romance

As if specifically catering to your needs, the Bodleian Library in Oxford currently has an exhibition on called ‘The Romance of the Middle Ages’ which will run until 13th May. The exhibition has both manuscripts and other objects from the medieval period which can help you to get a fuller grasp of the nature and range of medieval romance. It also has a Routes of Romance strand which includes images and text from Wiliam Morris, Burne Jones and Rosetti and a section on Romance and the Modern World which features Tolkien and C. S. Lewis and discusses other fantasy authors (“Susan Cooper, Diana Wynne Jones, Philip Pullman and Kevin Crossley-Holland”) as well as referring to Harry Potter.

This is an interesting resource online (find it here) but also well worth a visit – and it’s a day out that you can justify as work! Entrance appears to be free, and you could take some time to visit Exeter College in Oxford too, where Morris, Burne Jones and Tolkien all studied. Enjoy!

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On Fairy Stories

Some people have asked me if they can read Tolkien’s essay online, and I promised to post a link. So here it is: On Fairy Stories. This is a .pdf file so it’s easy enough to work with.

It is perhaps worth noting too, since we didn’t get to talk about it in the plenary session, that this essay was first published in a set of essays in honour of Charles Williams, edited by C. S. Lewis. Williams died unexpectedly before the volume came out. However, the piece had begun as a lecture given in 1939 and it seems likely that Tolkien’s developing ideas about fairy stories had been an ongoing source of discussion among the Inklings. The connections between these key writers of fantasy continued to be both creative and productive in ways which then became significant far beyond their own small group.

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George MacDonald

Born in 1824, George MacDonald was tremendously influential in relation to the development of fantasy writing. He wrote a wide range of fairy tales and work primarily aimed at children, but also produced novels for adults – most importantly Phantastes and Lilith – which begin the shift towards the kind of fantasy writing that we see in the twentieth century. Both of these are haunting and enchanting works, though sadly a little too long to be included in our reading given the time we have this spring. We can, however, look at ‘The Carasoyn’ as it contains many of the features which became fundamentally important in the works of later writers from Dunsany to Lewis and Tolkien. Lewis, in particular, was a great fan of George MacDonald; he famously wrote a preface for an anthology of MacDonald’s works in which he acknowledged MacDonald as his ‘master’. Tolkien acknowledged MacDonald as an influence but at times was apparently put off by MacDonald’s tendencies toward the allegorical, something which Tolkien famously disliked.

You can pick up a copy from my office early next week, but if you would prefer to start reading ‘The Carasoyn’ sooner or online, you can find an electronic version here

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Group work

Several years ago, while I was teaching in Dublin, I got the opportunity to join a varied group of colleagues – historians, classicists, modern language specialists – in an Old Norse reading group. Once a week we gathered in a seminar room and worked our way haltingly through stories full of complex sentences and magical names. It was slow work but great fun; add to that the pleasure of meeting new people at the group, not to mention our tendency to head down to the College bar every week after the session was over, and there are new worlds opening up in the texts and new friends with whom to explore them.

We were by no means original in our Old Norse group; in fact, J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis first got to know each other in just such a group, started by Tolkien on his return to Oxford as a professor and named the Coalbiters (Carpenter 2006, 27). Like us, the group was made up of a varied set of people with equally varied knowledge and ability in Old Norse, but all with an interest in getting direct access to Icelandic sagas and that strange, ‘Northern’ quality they contain. Tolkien and Lewis became friends as a result (and because of their many shared interests, not the least being the works of William Morris and George MacDonald), and Tolkien showed Lewis some of his work after they had been reading Old Norse together for a couple of years; it was a version of his story of Luthien and Beren (Carpenter 2006, 29). Lewis rewarded him with a very positive reaction and so heard more of Tolkien’s writing.

Their friendship continued as they developed and wrote, not just as scholars but as readers with particular tastes that were perhaps not entirely in keeping with literary fashions of the time. As Tolkien put it, ‘Lewis said to me one day: ‘Tollers, there is too little of what we really like in stories. I am afraid we shall have to write some ourselves’ (Carpenter 2006, 65-6). Their interests were pursued as part of a ‘literary club’ of writers who met in Lewis’s rooms and also in the pub ‘The Eagle and Child’ in Oxford from the early 1930s on and who were called the ‘Inklings’. When Charles Williams, whose writing hovered somewhere between the supernatural, the spiritual and the fantastical, was relocated to Oxford on the outbreak of the Second World War, in many ways their group was complete (although Tolkien was wary of Williams’s beliefs). You can read useful summaries of his books here. Williams was well versed in things medieval and medievalist; he wrote Arthurian poetry, such as that published in Taliessin through Logres in 1938, and praised his fiancée by declaring that she had ‘a face which some pre-Raphaelite should have loved’ (Carpenter 2006, 79). The Inklings read their work to one another and commented on it, offering approval, advice and criticism.

In this, they were displaying precisely the same kind of behaviour recently described of a group of fan fiction writers and, of course, of many others in other writing groups of all sorts and persuasions. What is interesting about the Inklings is the ways in which an shared interest in reading and writing literature which is now grouped together as ‘fantasy’ was promoted and shaped through the key members of this group, even though the work they produced was very different. For Tolkien, Lewis and Williams, that work was underpinned by a sound knowledge of medieval literature and culture which continued to influence what they wrote. And, in various different configurations, these were also fans of each other. Lewis was the first to read and praise Tolkien’s work while Tolkien helped Lewis get published by recommending Out of the Silent Planet to his own publisher. Lewis wrote what was effectively a ‘fan letter’ – his first ever – to Williams about The Place of the Lion, only to discover that Williams had equally strong feelings about Lewis’s academic book (still recommended reading for medievalists) The Allegory of Love: ‘It has never before happened to me to be admiring an author of a book while he at the same time was admiring me’ wrote Williams back to Lewis (Carpenter 2006, 99). For these three writers, their relationships with the past, especially the medieval past, and each other were of primary importance; between them they produced some of the most important fantasy novels yet written, and had a huge effect on the development of fantasy as a genre.


Humphrey Carpenter (2006). The Inklings: C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams and Their Friends (London: Harper Collins)

For a huge range of web resources on the Inklings, see those amassed by the Journal of Inkling Studies

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