Oral Poetry and the World of Beowulf
Anyone who sets out to discuss Beowulf as an oral poem immediately
places him- or herself on some rather shaky ground; for this is a hotly contested
area where opinions are very deﬁ nitely, even emotionally stated. I remember
as a graduate student in the mid-1970s being told by a very distinguished
scholar that Beowulf could not be an oral poem, since it was simply too good.
But since that time oral studies have burgeoned in all directions, and those of
us who try to keep up with the ﬁ eld are gaining an increasing admiration for
the sophistication and complexity achieved by poets working in preliterate
cultures, or societies where the impact of literacy is marginal or restricted.2
Indeed, the appearance in recent years of two major books that give full weight
to the oral afﬁ liations of Beowulf, not to mention a host of lesser productions,
signals the emergence of a new consensus in Old English studies.