Oral-formulaic Theory and 'The Hero on the Beach' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Oral-formulaic Theory and 'The Hero on the Beach'

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Many scientists, and many scholars of the humanities, may have trouble accepting that the scientific method has much to do with literature. The study of the 'Hero on the Beach', however, may be seen as a demonstration of the working of the scientific method in one of the most arcane corners of the humanities: the application of oral-formulaic poetic theory to the study of Anglo-Saxon poetry. Yes, an obscure and frightening corner, but what follows is an exciting story which demonstrates that the scientific method is perhaps the most powerful tool that we have available to us for understanding any phenomenon.

Oral-formulaic Theory - an Overview

The oral-formulaic theory of poetic composition was originally developed as a description of the method employed by illiterate Serbian and Croatian singers to produce very long extemporaneous narrative poems. The theory was originally developed by Milman Parry and his student Albert Lord. The model has led to a breakthrough in the understanding of the epic poems of the Greek poet Homer, which are now seen as being a product of a similar compositional method. The work of Parry and Lord is one of the most elaborate and successful demonstrations of the scientific method in the humanities.

How it Works

Regular discourse is built up of words that are the common possession of speaker and listener. The larger elements of speech, sentences and paragraphs etc, are original productions of each speaker, built up of the elements, words, which are readily understood by the listener. In contrast, oral-formulaic theory posits1 a specialized repertoire of more complicated elements, collected over generations of oral composition. One of these elements, the formula, may be very cautiously compared to such fairy-tale conventions as 'Once upon a time', or 'In a galaxy far, far away'. But in true oral-formulaic traditions, composition is virtually solely at the level of the formula, not at the level of individual words. In a true oral-formulaic work, virtually every word is a part of a formula.

The formulae themselves are often part of a higher level organization known as the 'theme' or 'type-scene'. An example of a type-scene is 'the arming of the warrior' found incessantly in Homer's Iliad and visible in a modern variation in the opening credit scene of Xena: Warrior Princess. A theme or type-scene is a standardized narrative element in which a character performs certain stereotyped actions that are described with particular formulae. In the Iliad for example, it doesn't matter which warrior is about to go out to battle, the order in which he puts on his armour, and the descriptions of each piece of armour, are virtually the same. Not only does every warrior put his greaves on one leg at a time, but every warrior also puts them first on the left leg and then on the right leg.

Those unfamiliar with the model and works composed using such a method may feel that there would be little room for originality. That originality is possible is demonstrated by the works of Homer, which are wholly of an oral-formulaic nature. Works of a true oral-formulaic tradition are far more complex and rich than a comparison to fairy-tale formulas would suggest, and this is why the comparison to fairy-tale convention must be cautious.

Oral-formulaic Theory in Anglo-Saxon Studies

Anglo-Saxon (Old English) poetry has been subjected to study using the oral-formulaic model for half a century with mixed results. Many of the successes in Anglo-Saxon studies have been in the identification of themes, for example, the 'Beasts of Battle' and the 'Wall of Death'. The initial excitement over the theory, however, has been sobered by the realisation that the tradition in Old English is a mix of elements of an old oral-formulaic style within a literate tradition. No longer is a work made up wholly of formulae and themes; rather, the works are largely of a modern type, composed at the level of the word, but still having a large number of formulae and themes being used when deemed appropriate by the poet. This transitional style creates problems for the critic in deciding when something is a part of the old tradition, when it is something we would call today 'original', or, in at least one case, when it is something very ordinary.

The Hero on the Beach

Where it Started

The study of the 'Hero on the Beach' oral-formulaic theme has been the source of a disproportionately large number of scholarly articles. This theme was defined by D K Crowne as:

'a stereotyped way of describing (l) a hero on the beach (2) with his retainers (3) in the presence of a flashing light (4) as a journey is completed (or begun).'

Crowne cited twelve examples of the 'theme' that he had observed in various Anglo-Saxon poems. That these elements, displayed in these twelve examples, constitute a traditional, oral-formulaic theme is the hypothesis that came to be tested over the next two decades.

One example Crowne cites in his article is that which concludes Beowulf's fight with the monsters during his swimming match with Breca:

Those sinful creatures had no fill of rejoicing that they consumed me, assembled at feast at the sea bottom; rather, in the morning, wounded by blades they lay up on the shore, put to sleep by swords, so that never after did they hinder sailors in their course on the sea. The light came from the east, the bright beacon of God.

Næs hie ðære fylle gefean hæfdon, manfordædlan, þæt hie me þegon, symbel ymbsæton sægrunde neah; ac on mergenne mecum wunde be yðlafe uppe lægon, sweordum aswefede, þæt syðþan na ymb brontne ford brimliðende lade ne letton. Leoht eastan com, beorht beacen godes; Beowulf, lines 562-70a

Crowne's argument is that Beowulf (the speaker in the above passage) is the hero on the beach; the dead monsters, described as assembled at a feast, are the retainers; the swimming match is the journey just completed; and the rising sun is the light. Certainly the elements Crowne describes may be considered to be present. Crowne has made observations and proposed an hypothesis; it remained for other scholars to make predictions and experiment.

Where it Went

After Crown's article, scholars predicted that if the collection of details were a theme then they would show up in other Old English works. This prediction proved fruitful and the 'theme' was observed in the Old English 'Finsburh' Fragment, 'The Dream of the Rood,' Guthlac, and the Phoenix. Scholars also suggested that the 'theme' might be derived from an ancient Germanic tradition of poetry. If this were true, then perhaps the 'theme' could be observed in the literature of closely related Germanic languages. Soon the same collection of details were found in the Old High German poems the Nibelungenlied and the Hildebrandslied. Other scholars pursued the theme into later English literature, postulating that the tradition may have survived into the Middle English period. The alliterative Morte Arthure and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight both showed examples.

It was at this point that the successful predictions began to look suspicious. Suddenly, poetry was abandoned and the 'theme' was found in at least one Icelandic prose saga, the Fóstbrœðra Saga. Then J. A. Dane, in a radical article, argued that the 'theme' appears in the Ancient Greek Iliad which is a far earlier work and in a different tradition than the Germanic examples. Although Dane's article is less intelligible than many others (even this one), he raised valid points and questions concerning the nature of what critics had termed the 'theme' of the 'Hero on the Beach.'

Where it Stopped

As the definition of the 'theme' stood at the end of the 1980s, any hero who stood still for a moment was in danger of being cast in the role of being 'on the beach.' This state of affairs was pointed out in the 1987 meta-analysis 'The Critic on the Beach' by John Richardson, who pointed out that virtually any literary character will at some point be in a situation which could be interpreted as fitting the definition of the 'theme.' Richardson went on to point out that the 'Hero on the Beach' is not a literary device but may be seen as a 'critical description' of what Joseph Campbell calls a 'threshold situation'. After the appearance of 'The Critic on the Beach', published discussions of the 'theme' seem to have virtually ended.


The story of the 'Hero on the Beach' is an example of the scientific method at work in the Humanities: evidence was observed and an hypothesis was advanced by Crowne; the hypothesis was tested repeatedly in a number of circumstances; and finally, when the number of successful experiments proliferated to an unreasonable extent, a new hypothesis was advanced by Richardson to explain the observations.

While the 'Hero on the Beach' has been rejected as an oral-formulaic element of literature, oral-formulaic theory remains a powerful tool for understanding Old English poetry and a great many other poetic traditions. There is a academic journal and a centre at the University of Missouri-Columbia, each devoted solely to this study.

Further Reading

  • Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949), pp. 77-89.
  • Colin Chase, review of Dane's article, Old English Newsletter, vol. 17, no. l (1983), p. 87.
  • Michael D. Cherniss, 'King Harald on the Beach: An Oral-Formulaic Theme in Old Norse Prose', MLA Convention, Houston, December 27-30, 1980.
  • D. K. Crowne, 'The Hero on the Beach: An Example of Composition by Theme in Anglo-Saxon Poetry', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 61 (1960), 371.
  • J. A. Dane, 'Finnsburh and Iliad IX: A Greek Survival of the Medieval Germanic Oral-Formulaic Theme, the Hero on the Beach', Neophilologus, 66 (1982), 443-449.
  • D. K. Fry, 'The Hero on the Beach in Finnsburh', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 67 (1966), 27-31.
  • D. K. Fry, 'The Heroine on the Beach in Judith', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 68 (1967), 168-89,
  • D. K. Fry, 'Themes and Type-scenes in Elene 1-113', Speculum, 44 (1969), 35-45.
  • F. J. Heinemann, 'The Hero on the Beach in Fóstbrœðra Saga', Neophilologus, 68 (1984), 557-61
  • Alexandra Hennessey Olsen, 'Guthlac on the Beach', Neophilologus, 64 (1980), 290296.
  • James D. Johnson, '"The Hero on the Beach" in the Alliterative Morte Arthure', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 76 (1975), 271-81.
  • F. Manning and S. Warren, 'The Hero Under the Beech', Comparative Literature in Canada vol. 17, no. 2, pp. 14-15.
  • Alain Renoir, 'Oral-Formulaic Theme Survival: A Possible Instance in the "Nibelungenlied"', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 65 (1964), 70-75.
  • Renoir, 'The Armor of the "Hildebrandslied". An Oral-Formulaic Point of View', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 78 (1977), 389-95.
  • John Richardson, 'The Critic on the Beach', Neophilologus, 71 (1987), 114-119.
  • Richardson, 'The Hero at the Wall in the Wanderer', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 89 (1988), 280-285.
  • Eiichi Suzuki, 'Oral-Formulaic Theme Survival: Two Possible Instances and Their Significance in Sir Gawain and the Green Knight', Studies in English Literature (English Literary Society of Japan), English Number, 1972, pp. 15-31.
  • Janet Thormann, 'Variations on the Theme of "The Hero on the Beach" in The Phoenix', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 71 (1970), 187-190.
  • Carol Jean Wolf, 'Christ as Hero in The Dream of the Rood', Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 71 (1970), 202-210.
  • And finally, a comprehensive reference: John Miles Foley, Oral-Formulaic Theory and Research: An Introduction and Annotated Bibliography, NY: Garland Publishing, 1985.

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