Knots: Anglo-Saxon Poetry, Orality, Hypertext, and and Literary Theory

Laura Maxwell (English 111, 1994)

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Hwęt! We gar-dena in geardagum,
theodcyninga thrym gefrunon,
hu tha ęthelingas ellen fremedon!

(Lo! We have heard of the glory of the spear-Danes in olden days -- how thanes of that people performed brave deeds!)

Woody Allen advised Diane Keaton in Annie Hall never to take a course where you have to read Beowulf. (Ix-nay on literature that might invoke German nationalism in his shikse girlfriend.) While it's true that the rise of Anglo-Germanic literary and myth studies nourished and was nourished by the German nationalist fervor that led to the Holocaust, the chauvinistic tenor that Old English poetry may have taken on in that context has dissipated with study of these archaic works in a different cultural context.

First of all, Beowulf, and such fragments as The Battle of Maldon appear less to recount and kindle the glory of a race through heroic stories than to instill cultural values in an 'oraliterate' race through heroic tales -- who is a good king and who isn't and why, for example; who is a worthy warrior; who is a worthy wife -- the Anglo-Saxon's Emily Post, if you will, with characters representing specific functions in the community in formal, ritualistic ways. In many cases, the characters that people these poems are one-dimensional -- they don't undergo a change of heart or mind in the course of a work, as protagonists in novels do, but rather are true to their epithets -- "a good king," "a brave warrior," "a true peace-weaver." This does not undermine the complexity and richness of the stories, however, whose narrative and oral-formulaic structures speaks strongly to post-structuralist critical theories.

Secondly, as Marshall McLuhan notes, the transition of Old English poems from their original oral form to manuscript form provides a useful parallel to our own generation's conception of the transition from written to electronic media. McLuhan's Gutenberg Galaxy iterates some of issues of reconceptualizing communication and its contents when the medium for such communication is changed.

Moreover, Derrida's description of units of meaning and Barthes's description of lexias paralleled, for me, the poetic units of Anglo-Saxon poetry -- rich metaphors called kennings, alliterative metrical half-lines comprising formulas which recur throughout the body of Anglo-Saxon poetry -- and rhetorical devices of oraliteracy, such listener-orienting techniques as repetition of an idea in different words within the same sentence. Repetition, or recurring figures, are also used as a narrative device.

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