Formulas: Redundancy

Kelly Maudslien. English 111, Cyberspace, VR, and Critical Theory, 1998

The redundancy of Old English diction seems excessive in translation. The following passage heaps repetition upon repetition:

That was not the least
of hand-to-hand meetings when one slew Higelac,
when the king of the Geats in the battle-rush,
the beloved prince of the people in Frisia,
Hrethel's son, succumbed to sword-draughts,
struck down by a blade. (Beowulf, ll. 2354-2359)

As John Leyerle notes, the subject "Higelac" is repeated in "king of the Geats", "prince of the people", and "Hrethel's son". "Slew", "sword-draughts", and "struck down" comprise a second strand, and "when", "battle-rush", and "Frisia" comprise a third. It is doubtful if these threads physically form interlace patterns on the Beowulf text, but the analogy holds true. Repetition and variation serves to knit the image into the listener's mind.

Once this image is fast in the listeners' memories, they are free to meditate on the meaning or effect of the verse. Variation stops the description so that the present, evanescent moment is caught and held in front of the eye. J.R.R. Tolkien explains that the lines are not meant to be read as one laid down in front of the other, in a line. "The lines... are more like masonry than music." That is, they form a balanced structure out of many similar elements. "We have... in Beowulf a method and structure that within the limits of the verse-kind approaches rather to sculpture or painting."(The Monsters and the Critics, 30) Or, as Adeline Barlett put it, "the method of Beowulf is themethod of all Anglo-Saxon epic; and I should prefer to characterize it as a tapestry, which presents its pictures in a series of panels." (The Larger Rhetorical Patterns in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, 7)

The link to hypertext is clear. Cyberspace architecture is also a series of tapestry panels. Oral poetry uses variation and redundancy to weave its individual tapestries into organic wholes.

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