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Beowulf as Epic

Joseph Harris

Oral Tradition Volume 15, Number 1

Cambridge, Massachusetts, has been home to two translators of the Kalevala in the twentieth century, and both furnished materials, however brief, for an understanding of how they might have compared the Finnish epic to the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf. (The present brief Canterbridgean contribution to the generic characterization of Beowulf, taking a hint from the heterogeneous genre make-up of the Kalevala, focuses chiefly on a complex narrative structure and its meaning.) The better known of the two translators was my distinguished predecessor, the English professor and philologist Francis Peabody Magoun (1895-1979). In his 1963 translation of the 1849 Kalevala, Magoun’s allusions, still strongly under the spell of the early successes of the oral-formulaic theory, are chiefly to shared reliance on formulaic diction, though he does also point out certain differences in the two epics’ application of this style (1963a:xvii, n. 1; xviii, n. 3). Magoun’s reference to “the Beowulfsongs” (xviii, n. 3) in the plural, however, alludes to his belief that different folk variants on the life of the hero can still be discriminated in the epic.

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