Literary Shelf

Songs To Remember

The oral tradition of song was a very important part of medieval culture. In addition to the entertaining value they hold, songs in medieval times served many other functions. Beowulf, one of the greatest epics of that era, gives emphasis to the role of song with the introduction of the scop. Primarily a story-telling singer, the scop's role in the poem also includes the position of historian and announcer of heroic codes. Some scholars have seen the inclusion of Beowulf's self-told story to Hygelac as a scopic moment in the hero's life. We find that both the scop and Beowulf perform the gleeman's roles because of their personal characteristics, job descriptions, and respective audiences. Their specific narrations become ideal for their chosen scenarios and both Beowulf and the master scop perfectly carry out the roles requested of them. 

The role of the scop in medieval times was an important one. He did not carry out any grand duties in battle, but his part as the town historian has made a large impact on history. In the oral tradition of medieval times, the only object of record was the mind and the scop told of "great old stories [that were] glorying in word" (lns. 868-869). The poet begins by noting that the scop "spoke [of] the beginning of men and told of how the Almighty had made the earth [and the scop] knew [their] ancient origins," which makes him an exceptional historian. The scop could recount old histories and genealogies with song and thus pass on critical information to new generations. Another example of this historical display is when the scop mentions the details of the "famous Sigemund" (ln.875) Lay. By "recit[ing] Beowulf's praise'of his glorious deed[s]' [in] a well made lay" after the Grendal fight, the scop literally puts our epic hero into the history books because his songs were later transformed from an oral culture to a written one (lns.872-873). The song he created for Beowulf would be heard and rehearsed by other individuals and scops, thus engraving the courage of our hero into their minds. Moreover, since these songs were easier to remember than mundane facts, the scop provided a new method of education. Thus, in medieval times, the scop skillfully played the role of a historian along with several other duties. 

The scop also dealt with the issue of heroic codes since he sang mainly about battles and heroes. In the scop's songs, he was careful to select particular scenes and events that captured the heroic codes he wished to emphasize. The scop only brings to light "feats of courage'feuds and crimes, [and other] hardships" that provides good examples of proper conduct for future thanes (lns.876, 878,882). When the scop says that the Sigemund episode was "no small glory," he states that Sigemund was a great hero. (ln.884). Following the Sigemund Lay, the scop immediately switches to Beowulf and proclaims him to be the "dearer by far'[and] a friend to all" (ln.914, 915). Of course, comparing Beowulf's tale to the likes of Sigemund's great victory in the past, the scop simultaneously heightens Beowulf's status as a hero and defines the characteristics of a noble warrior. The scop suggests that in battle, the courageous are those that are not controlled by their fears and prove their "strength and valor, among the giants" (ln.902). Moreover, by focusing primarily on individuals, such as Sigemund, who have been successful in battle, the scop illustrates that the characteristics of honesty, trust, and kindness propel good heroes to greatness. Therefore, the scop becomes not only a historian but also a teacher of heroic codes during medieval times. 

The last and most obvious duty of the scop was to be the primary entertainer for hall feasts. When illustrating the wrath of Grendal, the poet announces that it was the scop's happy songs that invited this monster to attack Hrothgar's hall. The poet notes that "the great monster [Grendal] in the outer darkness suffered fierce pain, for each new day he heard happy laughter loud in the hall" and he was very jealous because of it (lns. 86-88). The poet suggests that the entire Grendal episode can be traced back the innocent scop because Grendal could hear the "thump of the harp, [the] melodious chant, [and the] clear song of the scop" when he looked upon the Danes (lns. 89-90). Therefore, the entertainment provided by the scop could be blamed for twelve years of devastation. However, no one blames him, or his songs, because they know that these consequences were just a result of him doing his job well. Given that the scop is only introduced when it is time for rejoicing, it seems that he is not useful in other situations. Right after Grendal's mother has been defeated, the poet states that the "harp [is] being plucked [and] good verses [are] chanted [by] Hrothgar's scop" when he is asked to sing songs and provide pleasure to his audience (ln.1065-1066). The, of course, the scop is the provider of merriment and he becomes a catalyst for entertainment. Since songs themselves are expressions of joy, his use of this mode of recreation seems very fitting for his entertaining purposes. A long speech without music or an instrumental performance would rob the audience of either the element of merriment or information. Thus, although holding other more important functions, the scop's main task is to lighten the mood of a party and help thanes acquire some well-deserved rest and relaxation. 

In this poem, Beowulf is a thane and our epic hero; however, the poet introduces scopic attributes into his character in certain sections of the epic. We see a number of roles being played by Beowulf including thane, king, and storyteller. Unlike other storytellers in the poem, Beowulf's interlude actually makes him an able scop despite his lack of experience with this craft. Although he merely "replies" to Hygelac and does not sing his tale, he does take into account the requirements that make a good teller (ln.1999). He is not as verbose with detail as our scop, however, Beowulf does put enough information about the Scyldings to help Hygelac get an idea of how Grendal "humbled those victors [and] made life a misery" for them (ln.2004, 2005). When mentioning Hrothgar, Beowulf's variation introduces the Danish king as a "kinsman of Healfdene," and this factual information makes Beowulf a historian because he remembers this genealogy of the Danes (ln.2011). Later in this scene, Beowulf modestly recalls how he "gave that enemy full hand-payment [and] return[ed] all the evils that nation had suffered" (ln.2092-2094). By giving information about his own battle, Beowulf turns himself into a good illustration of an ideal epic hero and therefore fulfills the scop's duty as an exemplifier of heroic codes. Therefore, Beowulf can be characterized as a scop because he tells a tale to Hygelac about his travels to Hrothgar's hall, provides an accurate history of the Scyldings, and allows himself to be seen as an example of a good epic hero that illustrates good heroic codes. 

The differences between the scop and Beowulf begin with their respective audiences. The scop's audience is very different from Beowulf's because they requires distinct attributes. Our entertainer has a two-part audience: the thanes of the hall for whom he takes his "place on the mead bench" and the readers of Beowulf (ln.1066). For the most part, the audience of the scop requires essentially the same characteristics from him. Understandably, they ask for a song that provides a combination of entertainment and interesting information which is precisely why he introduces the Sigemund Lay and the "famous hall-sport [about] Finn's sons" (ln.1067-1068). The readers of the epic probably have not heard the tales of the scop and to them his detail is appreciated. However the thane audience could have been exposed to some of his material since a lot of these stories were commonly known. Given that this second type of audience has not heard the tale of the scop's song already, then, of course, the scop's attention to detail is welcomed since a mere overview might leave some confused. The scop talks about the "killing of a dragon" by Sigemund who he went "beneath gray stones' [and] drove a sword through the slithering beast." (lns.886,887, 890-891) The adjectives and imagery here provide interesting detail for the scop. He can afford to spend long passages on descriptions of people and places that might be left out in a reiteration. If the tales of his songs have already been heard by the thane audience, since many songs were "known to all nations," then the scop can still afford a little bit of detail because a substantial amount of time has probably passed since they have heard this particular story (ln.899). The audience may also be interested in this scop's specific interpretation of the story. Both audiences what to see the skill of the scop. Therefore, both parts of the scop's audience have similar requirements for his performance and this makes his job a little easier. 

While the scop's audience primarily demands similar requirements, Beowulf's job as a teller is challenging because his audience expected different characteristics from his story. Beowulf's audience consists of King Hygelac, who requires a reenactment of the hero's episodes with the monsters, and the readers of the epic poem, who have already heard his battle story and ask for a new twist of information to hold their interest during his tale. Of course, Beowulf has to be innovative in his storytelling process because he must juggle and fulfill different requirements. He directs his attention first to Hygelac and briefly tells of the "dancing in hall" that was done by "Grendal and [himself]" (ln.2002-2003). After providing Hygelac with a few details of the battle, Beowulf moves on to a digression for the readers and finally returns to the main story again for his king. Beowulf injects the story of Freawaru being "promised' to the gracious Ingeld" in order to "settle [Hrothgar's] share of killings and feud" (ln.2024-2025, 2027-2028) especially for the reader audience since this detail is new to them. The events of the fight with Grendal and his mother are reiterated for Hygelac while the digression of Freawaru is purposely introduced to regain the attention of the epic readers. Given this structure, Beowulf is able to accommodate both his audiences and simultaneously become a decent narrator. Therefore, Beowulf's audience plays a major role in the kind of story he chooses to tell and thus separates him from the scop.

A third contrast seen between Beowulf and the scop is the s of their perceived titles. It seems that both the scop and Beowulf are characterized by their primary occupations. The scop believes himself to be an entertainer and therefore, he must be more animated, creative, and polished in his storytelling than Beowulf. The scop has to put more action and drama into his tales since he has had practice and success with these techniques. Given that the security of the scop's job rests on his success, he has added pressure to perform. Beowulf, on the other hand, has no such pressure from Hygelac. The poet suggests that since the scop can "find new words, bound them up truly [to] skillfully var[y] his matter and style," he can ensure himself better payment and return engagements (lns.871,874). Moreover, most stories of this medieval period dealt with warriors and battles and in order to deviate from the usual storytelling, the scop's creativity was welcomed. If the scop could find different ways of telling similar tales, he would be a success. Even though he is said to be "a thane of the king," the scop is not seen in battles where he can performing other duties besides entertainer (ln.868). Therefore, since the scop's primary job description is to be a performer, he has more pressure to perform because he has practiced this specific art form and his job rests on his success. 

By contrast, the first time Beowulf is mentioned in the poem is when the poet calls him "Hygelac's thane. " (ln.194) This primary job description does not include the requirement of entertainment. Given that he is described as being the "strongest of all living men," Beowulf is seen as a superior warrior and not as a scop (ln.196). The scop must excel as an entertainer in order to continue at his post, while Beowulf's primary duty has nothing to do with storytelling and he can thus have imperfections in this craft. Unlike the scop, the role of storytelling must be a difficult task for Beowulf because it is not a part of his everyday life. Therefore, Beowulf does not sing his story, have an elaborate style or perfect diction, but he does manage to get his story across and complete his task. And, since most people, including thanes, knew how to speak and relate stories, Beowulf reenactment is not unusual. Therefore even though being a scop is not Beowulf's primary job description, asking our hero to be a scop does not seem unreasonable. While the scop is only obliged to be an entertainer, epic heroes, like Beowulf can be well rounded in their actions. The ability to do multiple jobs is one of the factors that differentiate Beowulf from our master scop. 

In the end, we find that even with their differences, Beowulf and the scop both engage the audience into their respective stories and therefore become a success. While the scop seems to have mastered his duties as entertainer, Beowulf is characterized as a jack of all trades who has the ability to do a variety of different jobs with ease. We find that both Beowulf and the master scop carry out the same tasks in different ways. While accommodating to their respective requests, they end up serving similar roles because their stories contain like elements. The poet illustrates that these characters not only conduct their roles as storytellers, but go forth to serve many other important functions for their generation and ours.

1. Chickering, Howell D., Jr., Beowulf: A Dual-Language Edition. Garden City, New York: Anchor 
Books, 1977.   


More by :  Tanvi Patel

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