Recording the Formula
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So began the battle of the Oral Formula in the field of Old English poetry. Milman Parry and Albert B. Lord’s oral-formulaic theory, which applied the Yugoslav compositional technique to the texts of classical epics, served as a basis for Francis P. Magoun’s study of Old English narrative poetry. In his 1953 article, “Oral-Formulaic Character of Anglo-Saxon Narrative Poetry,” Magoun presented the formulaic half-lines of the opening of Beowulf as evidence of the poem’s oral composition. The article initiated a new scientific approach to the search for the Anglo-Saxon oral bard and was followed by a vast number of studies, which viewed the text of Old English narrative poems, such as Beowulf, as a record of an extempore performance of a poet trained in the use of traditional formulas to rapidly create an epic.1
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