Skip to content
IUScholarWorks Journals
21.08.28 Fox, Following the Formula in Beowulf, Örvar-Odds saga, and Tolkien

21.08.28 Fox, Following the Formula in Beowulf, Örvar-Odds saga, and Tolkien

J. R. R. Tolkien had a lasting impact on Old English studies with "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics" (1936), which called for more serious literary-critical analysis of the poem. Fox's useful monograph surveys work on the form of Beowulf and elaborates a way of reading it based on traditional elements. In his introductory section the author argues for a "loose concept of formula" based on what he finds credible at our present state of knowledge (1), maintaining a critical distance from diverse and sometimes conflicting attempts to define formulaic composition more narrowly. Fox's "loose concept" resembles the sense of "formula" in discussion of popular narratives like Star Wars films, Agatha Christie mysteries, and Tolkien's own works of fantasy, which have been widely imitated. A "formula" for producing such a narrative involves techniques at all levels of structure, and talented imitators can be well rewarded for mastering those techniques. Talented poets of the ancient world could also be richly rewarded for learning established techniques of composition. They probably acquired their skills by raw talent and hard work, assisted perhaps by whatever suggestions an experienced professional could offer at that time.

Chapter 1 begins with formulaic techniques that have been identified at the level of the line and the verse (or half-line), which include stereotyped alliterative patterns, verbatim repetition of useful verses, and "systems" of related verses. These are the techniques of primary interest in the theory of oral-formulaic composition founded by Milman Parry, who argued that the Homeric poems were composed without the aid of literacy. Albert Lord applied Parry's approach to medieval epics, and Francis P. Magoun, Jr., interpreted Old English poetry from Lord's perspective. These researchers expressed contempt for literary-critical admirers of epic poetry, claiming that their rigorous linguistic methods had identified a hurried, unreflective craftsman primarily concerned with adapting prefabricated metrical units to a given sequence of stereotyped plot elements called themes and type-scenes. It is difficult to imagine a starker contrast with the views of Tolkien, who privileged individual talent over tradition and preferred to think of the Beowulf poet as literate. As it turned out, Parry's concept of the formula was unsuitable for application to Beowulf, as theorists like Donald Fry observed. No one could identify prefabricated metrical units that were used persistently enough to support a theory of mechanical composition.A later generation of formulaic theorists headed by John Miles Foley was willing to concede that literate poets could use formulaic techniques and that formulaic poets might have individual agendas even if they composed without the aid of writing. As Fox's thoughtful overview makes clear, most Old English specialists have concluded that Beowulf is a formulaic poem but that there is no rigorous way to define "formulaic" at present (36).

Chapter 2 elaborates a method of reading at the level of the verse that acknowledges limitations of our present knowledge. Fox begins by identifying fixed formulas used in several different poems and closely related systems of "interlocking formulas" that have a fixed element and a variable element. The primary focus here is on a set of interlocking formulas that repeat the phrase under wolcnum ("under the clouds" or "under the heavens"). These are half-lines of the most obviously traditional kind. As Fox shows, systematic exploration of them can help clarify the significance of each instance, with implications for interpretation of each poem. The method is somewhat like that employed by lexicographers at the Old English Dictionary, who sharpen previous definitions of words by exploring a larger number of attestations. The presence of under wolcnum verses in Old Saxon poetry provides important evidence for the depth of tradition in Beowulf (72).

In chapter 3 Fox explores the "fitt" as a unit of formulaic composition. Most fitt divisions marked in the Beowulf manuscript correspond to coherent passages. They are sometimes conspicuously structured by traditional techniques like the "ring composition" described in oral-formulaic theory or the "envelope pattern" described by Adeline Bartlett and Constance Hieatt. After discussing some inconsistencies in the manuscript divisions, Fox focuses on fitt 1 of Beowulf, reading it as a coherent episode that echoes the structure of the Old Testament Genesis. As he is careful to acknowledge, the structural relation is somewhat abstract. Concrete references to Genesis in the poem are limited to Cain's killing of Abel, God's war with the giants, and Noah's flood (91). Fox's analysis of fitt 1 is insightful. His argument for its coherence goes through whether or not one agrees with his more detailed suggestions about Biblical influence. The chapter includes a discussion of the fitt in relation to the formulaic theme.

Chapter 4 analyzes the digressions of Beowulf as rhetorical techniques that contextualize important events by alluding to similar events in other poems. When listeners have been socialized into a traditional genre, as Elizabeth Minchin has observed, concise allusions can link the tale of the moment to the whole storehouse of generic wisdom (103). The illustrative example chosen here is the digression on Sigemund and Heremod in verses 874b-915b. This appears at a moment of triumph for Beowulf,just after he has fulfilled his vow to slay the giant Grendel. In comparing Beowulf to Sigemund, a monster-slayer of pan-Germanic fame, Hrothgar's poet confers glory on the deserving hero, performing a social function of great antiquity. The following contrast with Heremod, a grasping bully of a king, represents Beowulf as an excellent candidate for kingship who leads with affection and generosity. Hrothgar will use the same negative example in verses 1709b-24b when he advises Beowulf that a leader must be wise and affable as well as strong. Fox agrees with Andy Orchard that the poet's use of digressions is coherent with other traditional techniques such as variation, which views a topic from more than one perspective (140).

Tolkien's insistence on the literary excellence of Beowulf put studies of folkloric origins in the shade. Such studies have been discredited, too, by a rather vague concept of "analogue" in some publications of the 1950s (158). In chapter 5, Fox offers an analogue study designed to coexist with the current climate of opinion, focusing on Örvar-Odds Saga. The shift to comparison of Beowulf with Old Norse prose texts is required because we have no other long poem in Germanic alliterative meter based on traditional legends. Heroic prose legends can provide meaningful analogues because the distinctive rules of poetic meter do not govern large-scale narrative structure. Valuable insight into the way folkloric plots evolve is provided by the three versions of Örvar-Odds Saga, which differ in their handling of folkloric scenes and descriptions. Fox argues persuasively for the relevance of such folkloric elements to scenes and descriptions in Beowulf. Important topics for comparison include concrete details in fights with monsters, and heroes poised between the old religion and the new. The most useful comparanda seem to be formulaic subconstituents used to create a variety of hero-tales--realizations of the genre that are distinct but bear a Wittgenstinian "family resemblance" to one another.

In calling for more literary criticism of Beowulf, Tolkien spoke from the perspective of an author who admires a narrative and wants to know how to make something with the same appeal. As Fox observes in chapter 6 (195-96), Tolkien wrote his essay too early to incorporate oral-formulaic theory, but he had developed important ideas of his own about ancient narratives. As a thoroughly trained linguist, he could do stylistic analysis at micro-level, like his contemporary Eric Auerbach. Tolkien used this kind of analysis as a starting point for exploration of problems resistant to scientific explanation--how to create a story for one's contemporaries with the appeal of myth, for example. Chapter 6 attempts to clarify Tolkien's insights about the power of ancient tales--forcefully expressed in his criticism but rather Delphic--by showing how he applied them in Sellic Spell and The Hobbit. These tales employ techniques discussed by Fox in earlier chapters, such as ring composition and envelope pattern. Shifting the object of analysis from Beowulf to Tolkien's fiction is an unusual maneuver but Fox justifies it well and the chapter succeeds in showing why formulaic techniques are effective.

Fox's brief conclusion summarizes what he has hoped to accomplish. His survey of scholarship on the form of Beowulf, which is indeed "almost impossible to control" (1), provides a manageable introduction for graduate students and for serious undergraduates interested in fantasy literature. For those who teach Old English it is valuable to have the perspective of someone who also teaches creative writing. English departments have become less concerned with how literary works are made and more concerned with how they circulate in society. As a result, English majors interested in creative projects have been somewhat marginalized. The progressive thinkers among them have been provided with important issues to consider but limited insight into how to embody those issues in powerful narratives. At my university, some English majors have turned to linguistics courses for insight, following Tolkien's example.

I am persuaded that Beowulf is formulaic at all levels of structure but I wonder if Fox is wise to accept Tolkien's view that the artistic excellence of Beowulf implied a literate style of composition. Developments in linguistics since Tolkien's essay have called such claims into question. Already in the 1960s the behaviorist underpinnings of Parryite oral theory had been demolished by Noam Chomsky in his review of Linguistic Behavior by B. F. Skinner.Mainstream theoretical linguists no longer believe that children learn to speak by minimal adaptation of previously heard phrases to new contexts under reinforcement. Much of linguistic competence seems to be innate. Adults lack the special learning aptitude of young children and may make more use of memory in acquiring new linguistic skills, but there is no scientific basis for the claim that artistic excellence is impossible in long oral poems, especially in eras when poetry is used for all kinds of cultural preservation and everyone is constantly exposed to it. Fox's study of under wolcnum verses would be just as persuasive--perhaps more persuasive--without the assumption that poets borrowed verses from one another rather than inheriting them independently from a traditional word hoard. Pushed too far, celebration of the written word can degenerate into abjection of pre-literate cultures, some of which still survive in the shadow of the state.

Tolkien assumed without argument that the Christian mission to England created a new culture almost at once, displacing pre-Christian culture to a murky margin. In fact Christianization typically included a syncretic transitional period of significant length, as Richard Fletcher observes in The Barbarian Conversion (1998).The Beowulf poet looks like a sincere adherent of a Christianity rooted in pre-Christian concepts of friendship and generosity. If Beowulf was composed around 700 CE, as seems likely on linguistic grounds, there would have been nothing like a modern police force. Networks of friends and kin were largely responsible for their own security at that time and turning the other cheek could lead to disaster for all. The pre-Christian duty of vengeance is never explicitly criticized in Beowulf. Explicit Biblical material in the poem could have been learned by anyone who attended church services. Hellish details in the description of Grendel's mere, attributed to literary borrowing from the Visio Pauli by Fox (66), could also have been acquired by ear. As Antonette diPaolo Healey observes in her 1978 edition, the vivid picture of hell in this wild piece of eastern religious folklore was widely appropriated in hell-fire sermons and in related literature down to the time of Dante despite being condemned by reputable theologians.It is worth adding that the very word "hell" originally referred to the underworld of Germanic mythology.

Tolkien and kindred spirits like C. S. Lewis preferred fantasy literature to the realistic fiction that had acquired greater academic prestige. The Inklings reading group that they attended was organized to encourage new writing in fantasy genres that included science fiction. For more than a century now readers have had their noses rubbed in the realities of industrialization, high-tech weaponry, and increasingly sophisticated methods of political oppression; but the realistic novel offers little insight into possible remedies. A detailed description is helpful only if a context for it has been established. Serious analytical efforts can require abstraction away from historical detail. As the era of Hemingway recedes ever farther into the past, fantasy literature has proved surprisingly durable. The thought experiments of writers like Octavia Butler provide an escape from our oppressive situation to a place from which we can think more productively about it. As we face the global catastrophe of climate change, the Romantics' opposition of nature to the dark Satanic mills seems all too pertinent, and their interest in ancient narratives seems timely as well. To me at least Beowulf makes best sense as a distillation of cultural values from an era before state formation. This was an era with serious problems of its own, notably feud and plundering, but we did not discover those problems by a hermeneutic of suspicion. Critiques of pointless conflicts and unprovoked attacks are among the most salient features of Beowulf. Its contempt for abusers of power shames the present.