Beowulf and the Fate of Music

Yes, that's English. Image courtesy of the British Library.

Yes, that’s English. Image courtesy of the British Library.

Before medieval European civilization developed anything as novel as a “book,” “scroll,” or “codex,” there was the mind of the storyteller. The storyteller was given a special seat by the fire, fed for knowledge, and oft given full attention. The storyteller was the source of news from other lands, stories about the past. Anyone could become a storyteller, if they sat by the fire and cast the spell of speech, or song. Some did it more often than others. Some did it better than others, conjuring images and compelling deeds through utterance. For some, it became an identity. As speaking hominids, our growing community of storytellers created our first communal memory, our first library. Our library was populated with epic masterpieces, like the Epic of Gilgamesh, Enûma ElišBeowulf, The Iliad, and The Odyssey, to name a few. In time, these songs were written down. Yet for centuries before they were written down, they were performed. Beowulf was a tale sung by a single performer, over a matter of hours or even days, communicating a complex narrative, resplendent with emotion and commentary.

From a historical perspective, Beowulf is such a significant document because it is a record of the gradual transition of a pre-print, aural culture committing itself to the marching lines of the written word.

“What you print, is nothing compared to the effect of the printed word. The printed word sets up a paradigm, a structure of awareness, which affects everybody – in very very drastic ways – and it doesn’t very much matter what you print, as long as you go on in that form of activity.” – Marshall McLuhan,  June 1977, Televised ABC Radio National Interview, “The Medium Is The Message.”

The oldest existing manuscript of Beowulf is a handwritten document, set down in a local dialect, chronicling the way in which the generations-old song was sung in that area. Someone decided, This is important enough to write down. It was no longer sufficient to remember and perform Beowulf. Maybe people didn’t have that kind of time anymore, who knows? The tale became printed, chosen to become an exact record, no longer polished by generations of poetic license.  Though, in retellings change had been its nature.

The written text of Beowulf is a fascinating artifact of Medieval European culture’s transition from oral to written. The oldest manuscript of the epic tale is dated at approximately 1000 AD. The song is believed to have been composed 3 centuries before (700 AD), as a tribute and eulogy to a dead king. Think of it: for about 300 years, the long and meticulous story of Beowulf was sung – performed – to a small listening audience. And this was not as novel a feat as we consider it now. Back then, there was no Gutenberg press, no widespread literacy. Song was the way important stories got around. In pre-electrical times, the mesmerizing flicker and glow of the campfire was the first television. Similarly, bardic telling was the first “book,” a massive idea, organized by memory, with no manuscript of which to speak.

Nobody’s Homer

This sort of thing, the transition from oral to written culture, has happened before (and it will happen again). Consider The Iliad and The Odyssey. Two bardic lays about Mycenaean Greeks during the Trojan War, occurring sometime around 1100 BC. To our best current historical knowledge, Homer was the blind bard who finally committed the songs to written words around 850 BC. Interestingly, we do not know this for sure, because, like Beowulf the oldest existing manuscripts of The Illiad and The Oddessy also date from around the year 1000 AD, 1,850 years after Homer.

Heavyweight epic poems of the classical and medieval ages were not committed to handwriting until after they had been sung for centuries. These to-be classics where everywhere, living books, volumes of thought, floating around in bardic minds.

Marshall McLuhan Would Be Proud?

According to the Ben Bagby production, Beowulf takes about 5 hours to perform. A lot of information was stored in that song. Before print culture, vocalization was the primary form of storage and transmission of human narrative. These days there are so many forms of narrative transmission that songs are merely regarded as pieces of pop albums. But our popular song verse-chorus-verse-bridge comes from an older singing tradition, an ancient, living, aural cycle, longer in detail, less compressed in relish.

The pop song of today is built to deliver a Beowulf in 4 minutes or less, if it’s a hit.  The bardic lay now electronically sped up and infinitely replicated into the rhinestone glitter of chart-topping glamour. Think of a modern singer-songwriter, prolific and talented. One songwriter, like Harry Nilsson or Bob Dylan, has hours of songs. Stevie Wonder could sing his own songs, with no repeats, for longer than it would take Ben Bagby to sing Beowulf.

The Bards Are Back, Baby!

New bards, with fresh rewrites of The Illiad, The OddessyBeowulf, and beyond.  This, I think, is part of what McLuhan was referring to when he wrote of an “electrical retribalization” of the west. Marshall McLuhan called the electronic media “an extension of our central nervous system,” leading to a new turn back to an aural culture. Like the refugee librarian nomads at the end of Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Those fellows each remembered an entire book, every word, every detail cover to cover.

“A single conversation across the table with a wise person is worth a month’s study of books” – Chinese proverb

The cycle seems repetitive, the way McLuhan frames it. “Retribalization” implies nothing new. Consider the long dynastic ages of Egypt and China, both examples of aural-to-print revolutions in previous historical incarnations. For me, the question becomes, What historical incarnation do we resemble now?  I think we’re going visual, an emoticon era, new hieroglyphics based on mutually incomprehensible languages.

“The [television] image is constituted by millions of these resonating particles. There are no pictures on television. There are no snapshots, there’s no shutter, there’s no camera. There is an outpouring of these small bits of information, in patterns, that are entirely active and dynamic. So, they resonate. He was saying [Tony Schwartz, in The Responsive Chord] that the Television image is not primarily visual, but a resonating form of experience.” – Marshall McLuhan,  June 1977, Televised ABC Radio National Interview, “The Medium Is The Message.”

T.V. Is A Song

Got data?

Is our auditory sensorium building a new picto-aural communal library, parallel to the book, accessible via the ability to learn from electronically listening to others?  Think of the way you tell a story from memory. Images and clouds of scenes are strung together by a storyteller’s vocalization, which captures the details of the story with dynamic precision. In that library, how will you find your books, and choose your teachers? Will the storytellers sing for their supper, again? Doesn’t Stevie Wonder deserve better? Will retribalization make fiat currency incidental, as people learn to exchange value on an individualized, localized scale? Run with it.

Thank you for reading. Reading rules!


About Suhail Rafidi

Suhail Rafidi is a novelist and educator whose works explore the destiny of human values in a technological landscape. You can find him on Twitter, too, @shelldive.
This entry was posted in Authors and Writing, Book Reviews, Books, Music and Musicians, Poetry, Sociey and Culture, Technology and Culture and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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