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Epic of Beowulf Essay – Beowulf and Its Formulas

Beowulf and Its Formulas

The making of Beowulf involved the choosing of formulas mostly, from a common body of narrative, rather than individual words, and largely on the basis of alliterative needs.

In his esay, “The Pessimism of Many Germanic Stories,” A. Kent Hieatt says:

The Germanic peoples seem to have inherited a common body of narrative, which is a key to understanding the often incomplete and puzzling allusions and interpolated stories forming a large part of Beowulf” (45).

In his essay “The Point of View and Design for Terror,” Alan Renoir states: “The theory that Old English poetry was formulaic and composed orally at the time of recitation is all but generally accepted today” (154). About 20% of the half-lines are repeated at least elsewhere in the poem. An essential part of 50% of the half-lines are likewise repeated. A large percentage of these essential parts, or formulas, have a resemblance to others in the poem, suggesting that the poet was guided by the sense of the poem, and perhaps by other factors like its sound or rhythm. “The diction of Beowulf is schematized to an extraordinary degree” (Creed 141).

The concept of “formula” needs defining perhaps. A formula can be a half-line, a whole line, a line-and-a-half sometimes, or as small as a single-syllable word as long as it is a significant part of the scop’s rhythm. If not a phrase or a clause, a formula should be an article and its noun, a noun/pronoun and its verb, a verb and its object, a preposition and its noun, etc. For example the verb-adverb pair hwearf pa is proven to be a formula because it is repeated at the beginning of lines 1188 (hwearf pa bi bence), 1210 (gehwearf pa in Francna faepm), and 1573 (hw…

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…er to Egbert. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.

Creed, Robert P.. “The Making of an Anglo-Saxon Poem.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited by Donald K. Fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Hieatt, A. Kent. “The Pessimism of Many Germanic Stories.” In Readings on Beowulf, edited by Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.

Magoun, Frances P. “Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited by Donald K. Fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.

Renoir, Alan. “The Point of View and Design for Terror.” In TheBeowulf Poet, edited by Donald K. Fry. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1968.


Comparison of Seven Beowulf Translations

Comparison of Seven Beowulf Translations

There is not unanimity among Beowulf translators concerning all parts of the text, but there is little divergence from a single, uniform translation of the poem. Herein are discussed some passages which translators might show disagreement about because of the lack of clarity or missing fragments of text or abundance of synonyms or ambiguous referents.

After the Danish coast-guard meets and talks to Beowulf, the guard then begins his next speech with a brief maxim or aphorism:

Aeghwaepres sceal

scearp scyldwiga gescad witan,

worda ond worca, se pe wel penced. (287-289)

T.A. Shippey comments in “The World of the Poem” that :

Translating this ought not to be difficult…. The problem here is caused by the fact that proverbs are not merely linguistic phenomena…. the hidden factor is the extralinguistic frame; we have been taught in childhood when to use proverbs, what their metaphors mean, who to say them to, and how to take them. It is this nonverbal knowledge that we need to be able to understand the coastguard’s ‘gnome.’ Reluctance to reconstruct such intangibles and dogged staring at the text have led literary critics into controversy (Shippey 34).

So let’s cross-reference six translators and determine how serious a discrepancy exists here. Howell D. Chickering translates the troublesome part of the passage: “must know the distinction between words and deeds, keep the difference clear” (Chickering 65). E. Talbot Donaldson: “who thinks well must be able to judge each of the two things, words and works” (Donaldson 6). Kevin Crossley-Holland: “one whose mind is …

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… multiple synonyms, vague references, etc.


Alexander, Michael. Beowulf A Verse Translation. New York: Penguin Books, 1973.

Chickering, Howell D. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.

Crossley-Holland, Kevin, trans. Beowulf The Fight at Finnsburh, edited by Heather O’Donoghue. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

Donaldson, E. Talbot, trans. Beowulf The Donaldson Translation, edited by Joseph Tuso. New York, W.W.Norton and Co., 1975.

Heaney, Seamus. Beowulf, A New Verse Translation. New York: W.W. Norton

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