Beowulf: Questioning the Accuracy Of Oral Tradition

Throughout history, storytellers, or bards, have used the oral method of passing legends from generation to generation. This procedure is called oral tradition and is a practice that is very subjective. Beowulf is a prime example of the conflict that occurs when stories are passed orally and the origin of this first piece of English literature is still being debated.

The literature text refers to the Anglo-Saxons, as well as the Jutes, as being the first to tell the story of Beowulf, but there is evidence that supports otherwise. The time period in which Beowulf was recorded (700-750 AD) is referred to as the dark-ages and the writing style is considered Old English. Given credit for make a recording of the piece is a Northumbrian monk. This may explain the source of many contradictory details that this essay points out.

In the article provided, there is concrete evidence that supports the theory that Beowulf originated in England. Beowulf refers to the marshes and swamps that Grendel, his mother, and many other monsters claim to be their home. The time period, during which this legend was developed, coincides with the landscape of England at the time. Descriptions are similar to that of the area during medieval times. Not only is the land similar, but also the name of Hrothgar’s bride is one that has Roman-English origin, and the floor on which the warriors slept in Herot Hall was fagne, or a floor similar to Roman design.

These details, however minor and hard to find, do provide insight into the origination of this epic poem. The initial story had to have been developed in Britain because the facts support this theory. This article only furthers the belief that oral tradition is completely subjective. The Anglo-Saxons, upon taking control of England, learned of the legend of Beowulf and chose to adapt it to include their culture and ideas. When finally written down, the poem included aspects from all different walks of life; each person who told the story put his or her own particulars into the text. The human memory cannot be relied upon to tell an exact reproduction of what it had been previously told. Human errors, as well as intentional change, always play a part in the reiteration of a story or event. The controversy behind Beowulf just supports that theory and strengthens the idea that oral tradition is not a reliable source when facts are wanted.

In reaction to the article provided, it is obvious to see the details that support the author’s side, whereas there are also other details that refer to the Anglo-Saxons as being the first to tell the legend. Each side has details to support their theory and a reader must wonder who to believe. Life continues without questioning history, yet much of history has been recorded through oral tradition. How is a person to know what occurred during the Revolutionary War? The only way to obtain details of these historic events is by word of mouth. This is not reliable means as shown in the conflict of Beowulf. How much of history should be believed and what should be questioned? Perhaps we never walked on the moon…





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12 June 2014