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.