Scop in Beowulf

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  • 0:00 Who Is the Scop?
  • 0:50 The Scop Is Introduced
  • 1:31 The Scop as Recorder
  • 2:41 Pitfalls of Being a Scop
  • 3:24 The Scop Finishes the Tale
  • 5:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Susan Nagelsen

Susan has directed the writing program in undergraduate colleges, taught in the writing and English departments, and criminal justice departments.

In medieval literature, the scop traveled to mead halls to recite his poems to Anglo-Saxon warriors. The poems often extolled the triumphs of the warriors, helping them celebrate their victories.

Who Is the Scop?

In medieval times, the scop was a poet who traveled around the countryside visiting mead halls. There, he'd regale the men and women with poems designed to chronicle their escapades and revel in their victories. The most important purpose of a scop was to entertain. The scop was expected to delight the audience with stories that were already known, which brought with it pressure to be exciting and engaging. He was also expected to create poems on the spot. It was not unusual to have a popular piece take two or three nights to be told in its entirety.

As we look at the poem Beowulf, perhaps first recited in the 8th century and first written down in 11th century, we will see that the scop is credited with a role in the drama that ensues over the course of the story.

The Scop Is Introduced

In the beginning of the tale of Beowulf, the scop is introduced to the reader as the entertainer of Heorot. He is also credited with the initial reason for Grendel's wrath. It is made clear in these lines:

'Then a powerful demon, a prowler through the dark,
nursed a hard grievance. It harrowed him
to hear the din of the loud banquet
every day in the hall, the harp being struck
and the clear song of a skilled poet'

We learn that the scop's booming voice singing out the story of creation and his harp playing had angered the monster, Grendel, and this anger brought him into the mead hall to wreak havoc. Grendel was determined to silence the scop and make everyone pay for having angered him.

The Scop as Recorder

While the primary role of the scop was to entertain, he was also there to chronicle events. He was expected to observe and record the triumphs and events that were considered monumental. After Beowulf has defeated Grendel, the poet entertains while Hrothgar and his men celebrate:

'They sang then and played to please the hero,
words and music for their warrior prince,
harptunes and tales of adventure:
there were high times on the hall benches
and the king's poet performed his part'

We're able to enjoy the retelling of the tale, as the warriors might have done. The poet engages us with his recitation. Later, the scop, whose job it is to record events, creates a song of praise for Beowulf. The purpose is to chronicle the victory of Beowulf over the monster and to entertain the men and women as he praises the hero.

'Meanwhile, a thane
of the king's household, a carrier of tales,
a traditional singer deeply schooled
in the lore of the past, linked a new theme
to a strict meter. The man started
to recite with skill, rehearsing Beowulf's
triumphs and feats in well-fashioned lines,
entwining his words'

Pitfalls of Being a Scop

The job of a scop was not all fun and games, however. Recording and praising the courageous behavior of warriors can be a double-edged sword. If a scop retells the escapades of a lord's men with too much enthusiasm, that might compel the men to behave in ways that would encourage the scop to write about them, which could prove troublesome. And the scop has to be careful not to offend any men who didn't live up to the challenge.

In the case of Beowulf, the lord Hrothgar has failed in his task. The monster has made him look bad for twelve years, forcing him and his men from their mead hall. The only way their honor was restored was because Beowulf was able to slay the monster. The role of the scop is to retell the battle defeating Grendel, while walking the fine line of not diminishing Hrothgar.

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