”Beowulf” is the oldest known work of English literature, and it contains many elements that can be alien to modern readers. One of these is the voice and point of view of the narrator, which comes from the oral storytelling tradition.
The Narrator in Beowulf
Beowulf is considered the oldest work of English literature still surviving. It was probably written sometime in the 7th century and exists in a single copy that was found in a library in the 15th century. Though it is considered a work of English literature, it is written in an ancient form of English, called Old English, that is unrecognizable to modern English speakers.
Therefore, we typically read it today in translation.And the language isn’t the only thing that makes Beowulf challenging for modern readers. It doesn’t follow many of the storytelling conventions that we are used to. For example, while modern stories usually build up to a conflict between the hero and the bad guy, in Beowulf there are three bad guys that our hero fights, and these fights occur 50 years apart.But one of the most difficult things for a modern reader might be the presence of the narrator, or the person telling the story.
The narrator has a voice and point of view that are often very different from modern narrators. When discussing literature, voice refers to the use of specific patterns of speech and word choice that are used and point of view refers to the narrator’s position in relation to the story and what he knows or does not know.
The Beowulf narrator’s unusual use of voice and point of view is probably due to the fact that it is coming out of an oral storytelling tradition, as opposed to a written one. In the time Beowulf was written down, all writing was done by hand and usually done on animal skins with expensive ink. Books were extremely rare and only accessible to a small, educated group of people.Therefore, the way stories got passed along was not in writing but through oral storytelling. Traveling storytellers, known as bards, would travel from town to town telling stories of the great heroes of the past.
We don’t know anything about the person who wrote Beowulf or where it came from, but it is likely that the story was passed along in this oral tradition for a long time before someone had the ability to write it down.The fact that the stories were passed orally and drew on a familiar group of characters and tales gave rise to certain specific techniques of voice and point of view.
Voice in Beowulf
Since oral stories had to be memorized, bards developed techniques to help make the story more memorable, while also allowing the individual storyteller room to improvise. The most obvious technique for memorization in Beowulf is its use of alliteration, or repeating the same beginning sound in a series of words. For example, here are the first few lines, from Leslie Hall’s translation:’Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievementsThe folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbersFrom many a people their mead-benches tore.’You can see how each line has a repeated beginning sound: S in the first line, F in the second, P in the third, and so on. This gives the narrator a very unnatural and formulaic voice. You always know you’re hearing a story that has been passed down, not something someone is making up on the spot.Another formula of oral storytelling in Beowulf is the use of kennings, or poetic descriptions of everyday things.
So, in Beowulf the sea might be called the ‘whale road’ or a corpse might be a ‘raven harvest.’ These evocative images might have been another way for bards to remember the story and once again give it a formal, detached voice.
Point of View in Beowulf
The narrator in Beowulf is what we would call an third person omniscient narrator. He is omniscient because he knows everything that is going to happen and third person because he is removed from the story.
The omniscient third person narrator is still a common technique in modern writing, but the narrator in Beowulf uses his omniscience in unusual ways.For example, the Beowulf narrator does not care about what we would call ‘spoilers.’ He tells us early on that Beowulf is going to die in the end and repeatedly previews events that will happen later in the story. At the same time, he also frequently flashes back to events that happened before the story, giving background on the tribes and kings being described.This constant shifting of the time frame of the story is another sign of the oral tradition.
On the one hand, the writer expects the reader to already know the story, so he isn’t worried about spoilers, and on the other, the poem is not only telling a good story but serving as a history textbook with its information on the political situation of the time (though the reliability of that history is highly questionable).
The role of the narrator, or person telling the story, in Beowulf is in many ways very different from the narrators of modern stories and novels. This is probably due in part to the fact that Beowulf originated in the oral tradition, being passed down orally by traveling storytellers, before finally being written down. The narrator’s voice, or specific use of language and point of view, his relationship to the action, both show signs of the oral tradition.The voice of the Beowulf narrator makes frequent use of alliteration, or repeated sounds at the beginning of words, and kennings, or evocative images such as ‘whale road’ for ‘sea.
‘ Both of these techniques probably started in the oral tradition as an aid to memory.The point of view is that of an omniscient third person narrator who is detached from the story and knows everything that will happen. But the ‘Beowulf’ narrator frequently jumps around in time, telling is ‘Beowulf’ will die in the end and giving background on the major characters.