Parataxis: Themes

Oral poetry in general does not establish clear parallels between its narrative and extranarrative elements. (Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, 147) In Beowulf, the digressions which weave in and out of the narrative are not immediately relevant and seem forcefully linked to the text. This is because the poem does not simply advance from Beowulf's youth to old age. The text is a balance of two episodes, Beowulf's victory over the two monsters at Heorot and his defeat by the dragon in Geatland. The space between the two events is fifty years, but they are sutured together with only twenty or so lines.

Other paratactical balances exist within the poem. Not only does the youthful Beowulf contrast with his aged self in the second half, but the older king Hrothgar serves as a foil for the young hero within the first part of the poem. Hygd, the good queen of the Geats, also serves as a foil for the malicious queen Modthrytho. The poet jumps quickly, almost illogically, from a description of Hygd to a description of Modthrytho in lines 1927-1962. Again, balance is more important than sequence.

The very technology or form of Beowulf implies parataxis, or balance of opposites. It is (presumably) an oral poem which is committed to paper. It uses "the materials (then still plentiful) preserved from a day already changing and passing, a time that has now for ever vanished, swallowed in oblivion; using them for a new purpose..." (The Monsters and the Critics, 33) The materials of this pagan, oral culture balance out the Christian, written elements. Wonder at the fantastic powers of magic is juxtaposed with solemn Christian piety when the poet meditates on Beowulf's sword, magically dissolving from the acidic effects of Grendel's blood.

Then the sword drenched
in war-blood began to dwindle
into long strips like icicles -- it was a great marvel
that it would melt in the manner of ice
as when the Father loosenes the bonds of frost,
unfastens the shackles that bind the deep --
He who has dominion over the days and years,
the true Ordainer. (Beowulf, ll. 1605-1612)


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