Epic, among the earliest and most universal of genres, is found in a developed form among the most ancient written records of cultures from China to Greece, and has been recorded as oral narrative on every inhabited continent. From these roots in Western culture a varied yet unbroken tradition of heroic narrative has grown. Epic’s form has changed with human society, reflecting our literary, social and psychological development. This study aims to explore the effects in epic literature in English of one such development, namely the internalisation of writing, at two stages of this process as they are manifest in Beowulf and Malory’s Morte Darthur. Every culture has particular noetic processes, that is, methods of structuring and storing knowledge. Writing has profoundly influenced noetic development, so that primary oral cultures (without writing), chirographic culture (with writing) and typographic cultures (with printing) are profoundly different. Parry and Lord’s oral formulaic theory, and Havelock and Ong’s noetic theory describe the characteristics of primary oral thought and poetic discourse. Beowulf’s noetic paradigm is vocality; it is written, yet still largely rooted in the oral tradition and meant to be heard. The Morte shows loosening ties between poetic creation and extra-linguistic tradition in a mix of oral and literate traits. This study traces in Beowulf and the Morte seven characteristics of orality, namely stereotypical/formulaic expression, ceremonial appropriation of history, standardisation of themes, epithetic identification, heavy/ceremonial characters, agonistic style and copiousness. In all seven characteristics, the early signs of literate noetics just discernable in Beowulf are more developed in the Morte, as would be expected. Between Beowulf and the Morte, the form and the function of poetic discourse change. In primary oral epic, words make things real and function as communal memory. Epic discourse forms individuals as communal, ethical, technological beings, and enables human society to give expression to things unknown. Primary epic is in some ways one of the fullest expressions of language’s nature and possibilities. Writing, which relieves the burden of memorisation, frees energy for the development of certain of these functions. The development, made possible by writing, of abstract conceptualisation and then analytical logic is seen in Beowulf’s deathbed musings on heroic worth, which broaden into Malory’s extended critique of chivalry. The opposition of concepts becomes more important than the opposition of persons, and so from agonistic rhetoric grows scientific logic. This development spelled the end of primary epic, and other genres based on logic and analytical syntax developed to fulfil its didactic and prescriptive roles, from charters to essays. The evolutionary role of oral epic, which enabled communal desires to be expressed, passed to romance, but this genre too died with the advent of Enlightenment rationality and modern depth psychology. Fantasy, perhaps, succeeds romance in this function. The study ends with concluding remarks about the future of epic; with the shift from typographic literacy to secondary orality, epic is showing a rebirth in film and literature, notably in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings.
Dissertation (Magister Artium (English))--University of Pretoria, 2007.