A pebble smoothed by tradition: lines 607-61 of Beowulf as a formulaic set-piece
"In lines 607-61 of Beowulf, just before the battle between the hero and the monster Grendel, the Danes and visiting Geats celebrate their comradeship in the great hall of Heorot. While venerable Hrothgar, king of the Danes, presides, Queen Wealhtheow, bedecked with gold, carries the ornamented cup of fellowship to each warrior in turn, old and young alike. The passage, which for convenience we will call “Wealhtheow’s cup-bearing,” is one of several depictions in Beowulf of the social happiness that Anglo-Saxon poetry often calls dream (“joy”) and has been described as “the most detailed description we possess of the offering of the ceremonial drinking cup to an honored guest in early Germanic society” (Fulk, Bjork, and Niles 2008:155). But in contrast to Wealhtheow’s later appearance in the poem (lines 1168b-231)—in which she thwarts Hrothgar’s attempted adoption of Beowulf, promotes the king’s nephew Hrothulf as a protector for her sons, and gives the legendary Brosing necklace to the hero— nothing much happens. Jeff Opland (1976:446-57) does not include the passage in his list of “joy in the hall” type-scenes. Yet new computer-assisted “lexomic” methods of analysis show that these seemingly banal lines contain some of the highest concentrations of unusual lexical, metrical, grammatical, and formulaic features in Beowulf, and the overall distribution of vocabulary in the passage is so distinctive that it affects computer-assisted cluster analysis to a greater extent than any other similar-sized segment of the poem. In the discussion that follows, we introduce several techniques of lexomic analysis and explain how these approaches identify qualitative differences between lines 607-61 and the rest of the poem. We then show how all of these differences are best explained by positing that the passage has a source different from its surrounding textual matrix, a source that was most likely not a written text, but a traditional type-scene. A close reading of the lines in the light of recent approaches to the formula in Old English explains how the passage, so well polished by tradition that it preserved low-level linguistic features to almost the same degree as a written source would, could nevertheless have been easily adapted to other narrative contexts."--Pages 191-192.
Oral Tradition, 32/1 (2018):191-228
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