Voice & Point of View in Beowulf

Instructor: David Boyles

David has a Master's in English literature. He has taught college English for 5+ years.

''Beowulf'' is the oldest known work of English literature, and it contains many elements that can be alien to modern readers. One of these is the voice and point of view of the narrator, which comes from the oral storytelling tradition.

The Narrator in Beowulf

Beowulf is considered the oldest work of English literature still surviving. It was probably written sometime in the 7th century and exists in a single copy that was found in a library in the 15th century. Though it is considered a work of English literature, it is written in an ancient form of English, called Old English, that is unrecognizable to modern English speakers. Therefore, we typically read it today in translation.

And the language isn't the only thing that makes Beowulf challenging for modern readers. It doesn't follow many of the storytelling conventions that we are used to. For example, while modern stories usually build up to a conflict between the hero and the bad guy, in Beowulf there are three bad guys that our hero fights, and these fights occur 50 years apart.

But one of the most difficult things for a modern reader might be the presence of the narrator, or the person telling the story. The narrator has a voice and point of view that are often very different from modern narrators. When discussing literature, voice refers to the use of specific patterns of speech and word choice that are used and point of view refers to the narrator's position in relation to the story and what he knows or does not know.

Oral Tradition

The Beowulf narrator's unusual use of voice and point of view is probably due to the fact that it is coming out of an oral storytelling tradition, as opposed to a written one. In the time Beowulf was written down, all writing was done by hand and usually done on animal skins with expensive ink. Books were extremely rare and only accessible to a small, educated group of people.

Therefore, the way stories got passed along was not in writing but through oral storytelling. Traveling storytellers, known as bards, would travel from town to town telling stories of the great heroes of the past. We don't know anything about the person who wrote Beowulf or where it came from, but it is likely that the story was passed along in this oral tradition for a long time before someone had the ability to write it down.

The fact that the stories were passed orally and drew on a familiar group of characters and tales gave rise to certain specific techniques of voice and point of view.

Voice in Beowulf

Since oral stories had to be memorized, bards developed techniques to help make the story more memorable, while also allowing the individual storyteller room to improvise. The most obvious technique for memorization in Beowulf is its use of alliteration, or repeating the same beginning sound in a series of words. For example, here are the first few lines, from Leslie Hall's translation:

'Lo! the Spear-Danes' glory through splendid achievements

The folk-kings' former fame we have heard of,

How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.

Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers

From many a people their mead-benches tore.'

You can see how each line has a repeated beginning sound: S in the first line, F in the second, P in the third, and so on. This gives the narrator a very unnatural and formulaic voice. You always know you're hearing a story that has been passed down, not something someone is making up on the spot.

Another formula of oral storytelling in Beowulf is the use of kennings, or poetic descriptions of everyday things. So, in Beowulf the sea might be called the 'whale road' or a corpse might be a 'raven harvest.' These evocative images might have been another way for bards to remember the story and once again give it a formal, detached voice.

Point of View in Beowulf

The narrator in Beowulf is what we would call an third person omniscient narrator. He is omniscient because he knows everything that is going to happen and third person because he is removed from the story. The omniscient third person narrator is still a common technique in modern writing, but the narrator in Beowulf uses his omniscience in unusual ways.

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