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Prior Research


As with so many other aspects of research on oral traditional structure, scholarship on the Old English theme began with Albert Lord's 1949 disser-


tation, eleven years later to become The Singer of Tales .[2] Defining the general, cross-traditional unit as a "group of ideas regularly used in telling a tale in the formulaic style of traditional song" (1960, 68), he went on to illustrate the dynamics of the theme in Serbo-Croatian, ancient Greek, Byzantine Greek, Old French, and Old English. Moreover, because the published version of his account appeared some five years after thematic analysis in Old English poetry had formally been begun by Francis P. Magoun and Stanley B. Greenfield, Lord was able to distinguish his concept of the unit from theirs. With typical care and precision he remarks (pp. 198-99):

I should prefer to designate as motifs what they call themes and to reserve the term theme for a structural unit that has a semantic essence but can never be divorced from its form, even if its form be constantly variable and multiform. It is not difficult to see that even from this point of view there are themes in Beowulf : repeated assemblies with speeches, repetition of journeying from one place to another, and on the larger canvas the repeated multiform scenes of the slaying of monsters.

He goes on to give additional examples, such as the arrival of the hero, which along with the assembly is also common in Serbo-Croatian epic, and in general to limit the conception of the theme to an integral narrative unit whose beginning, middle, and end are well defined.

In the meantime, between the submission of Lord's dissertation and its publication, Magoun had isolated what he took to be an oral-formulaic theme: "the mention of the wolf, eagle, and/or raven as beasts attendant on a scene of carnage" (1955, 83).[3] Finding twelve occurrences of this multiform in the canon, he then subjected them to a phraseological analysis, concluding (p. 90) that "the formulas and formulaic systems will be seen to divide up in two ways, those potentially relevant to the subject matter of the theme and those of general usefulness." While this concatenation of narrative details may represent a theme for Magoun, it is clear why Lord would rather consider it a motif: there is no repeated, specific set of actions involved in the "Beasts of Battle," no narrative process preserved from one instance to the next. This is, by comparison to "assembly" or "readying a hero's horse" in the Serbo-Croatian epic tradition, a somewhat static collection of details uncatalyzed by a network of recurrent and associated actions.

Greenfield's (1955) theme of "Exile,"[4] more like Magoun's than Lord's


unit, consists of the four elements status, deprivation, state of mind, and movement in or into exile. Again we encounter a collection of details without a clear narrative matrix, a recurrence of what Greenfield calls exile "images" without a specific network of actions. And once more it is apparent why Lord would choose to call such a unit a "motif" rather than a theme.

The question that these early studies presage is essentially the burden of the present chapter: are all Old English themes really oral traditional units, and how does the principle of tradition-dependence affect the definition? While typologies constructed for their own sake (too often against the empirical evidence) are certainly of limited usefulness, it is equally misleading to dissolve all distinctions in search of an overarching generalization. What we shall seek in the analytical section of this chapter is a workable, tradition-dependent idea of the Old English theme, one that recognizes both the distinctions made by Lord and the discoveries reported by Magoun, Greenfield, and others—for the lesson of the earliest scholarship in this area is that we must be willing to undertake a true comparison, one that can draw on findings in other oral traditional literatures but must nevertheless be rigorously grounded in the philology of its own tradition.

A Brief Summary of Scholarship

Building on the foundations erected by Lord, Magoun, and Greenfield, later scholars have uncovered numerous themes in the narrative poetry of the Old English canon. In lieu of extended discussions of these contributions, I present below a digest of the twenty-four themes or type-scenes reported to date, together with references to the articles devoted to each. A general overview of the most frequent or most often cited themes follows.



Beasts of Battle

Magoun 1955; Bonjour 1957; Renoir 1962a, 1976a, 1988; Metcalf 1963

Hero on the Beach

Crowne 1960; Renoir 1964, 1977, 1979a, 1979c, 1981b, 1986, 1988; Fry 1966, 1967a;
Thormann 1970; Wolf 1970; Johnson 1975 (Middle English); Olsen 1980, 1981, 1982; Dane 1982

Sea Voyage

Diamond 1961; Ramsey 1971

Approach to Battle

Heinemann 1970; Wolf 1970; Fry 1972


Greenfield 1955; Rissanen 1969; Renoir 1981a, 1988

Traveler Recognizes His Goal

G. Clark 1965b


Diamond 1961


Diamond 1961

Cold Weather

Diamond 1961


Renoir 1963; Conquergood 1981





Creed 1962; Renoir 1981b, 1988

Impact of a Weapon

G. Clark 1965a

Advancing Army

G. Clark 1965a


De Lavan 1981; Kavros 1981

Cliff of Death

Fry 1986

Grateful Recipient

Magoun 1961

Gesture of Raised Shield

Magoun 1961

Joy in the Hall

Opland 1976


Taylor 1967


Foley 1976a

Traditional Knowledge

Foley 1976a

Speaking Wood

Renoir 1976b, 1988


F. Clark 1981; Andean 1980

Far the best-documented thematic unit (fifteen citations), the "Hero on the Beach" was firs reported by David Crowne in 1960 and has since been shown m recur not only throughout the Anglo-Saxon poetic corpus but also in Middle English and Old High German.[5] Crowne (p. 368) defined this compositional pattern as "a stereotyped way of describing (1) a hero on the beach (2) with his retainers (3) in the presence of a flashing light (4) as a journey is completed (or begun)." This account of the content approaches Lot's concept of the theme more closely than does Magoun's "Beasts of Battle" or Greenfield's "Exile," since the repeated action is more clearly delineate. But if narrative sequence is part of Crowne's idea of the unit, verbal correspondence among instances most certainly is not. In fact, he goes m some length to demonstrate that the theme in Homer as well as in Old English amounts to a grouping of ideas rather than a critical mass of phraseological items, concluding (p. 364) that the theme "does not depend upon a fixed content of specific formulas for its mnemonic usefulness m the singer." This concentration on narrative fabric as the stuff of which the compositional theme is made—and the abandoning of verbal correspondence among instances as a criterion for identification of the unit—marked a point of departure for studies of the theme or typical scene in Old English poetry. No longer did investigators search for repeated verses as the telltale sign of the recurrent scene; in practical terms, they assumed an unlimited variety of situation-specific instance, with a variety of diction m match. The theme in Old English became purely a sequence of ideas for those following Crowne's lead, and scholars were virtually unanimous in doing so.

Magoun's "Beasts of Battle" has also proved important in the development of thematics in Anglo-Saxon verse. Assuming that the Beowulf poet was lettered but composed formulaically, Adrien Bonjour contended in 1957 that this poet,


unlike his lesser contemporaries, shows artistic originality in the handling of the "Beasts" pattern. This general notion of the theme as a structural entity that could be shaped according to individual aesthetic design found apparent support in, for example, Robert P. Creed's 1961 article on oral poetics, in which he argued that a given theme should be understood not simply in relation to other instances within a given poem, but also against the larger traditional background.[6] Thus arose the concept of aesthetic manipulation of traditional themes, just as it had for the formula some years earlier. As time went on, specialists in Old English, it is fair to say, were quite willing to accept a narrative unit such as the theme as long as the theory allowed for the poet's conscious artistic control of his traditional medium.

A third significant step in the study of Old English themes is that taken by Alain Renoir in his contextual analyses of various medieval texts.[7] Although one cannot tie his method uniquely to one particular multiform, his efforts have concentrated on elucidating the expressive content (and this means audience expectation as well as textual structure) of the "Hero on the Beach," "Beasts of Battle," and "Speaking Wood" patterns. Renoir's method entails establishing an inter-textual and often cross-traditional directory for a given oral-formulaic theme, even if it occurs in a written text (e.g., 1976b), and interpreting each instance in the context of what is collectively known about the thematic pattern. In the case of poems whose authorship or provenance is uncertain—and this is often the case with medieval works—this approach provides otherwise unavailable insights into a great range of critical issues as various as manuscript authority and rhetorical structure.

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