Olsen notes that studies of orality in composition of Old English poetry have become common. She also sees that these studies are, in many ways, boujnd to the studies of Homeric literature (Olsen 1986, 548). In this article she surveys the ideas of oral and written composition, the origin of oral-formulaic theory, the definition of a formula in composition, and the idea of themes and type-scenes in Old English literature (Olsen 1986, 549).
A basic scholarly question is “whether Old English poetry was composed - or at least presented - orally or was composed in writing for reading in a manuscript” (Olsen 1986, 550). Olsen observes that there is disagreement about the amount of difference between oral and written literature, and that the two forms may, in fact, be complementary to one another. Further, the way literature is performed or presented may be more important than its mode of composition, as evidenced by oral presentation of works within monastic communities which valued writing and produced written copies of texts (Olsen 1986, 551). In Anglo-Saxon England, there was certainly a strong tradition of oral poetry, but we do not know whether the works were composed orally or in writing. Both Beowulf and Caedmon’s Hymn have elements that suggest influence of Latin poetry, but the extent to which that reflects alterations made within monastic communities is unclear (Olsen 1986, 552). While Olsen cites various scholars who divide poets into different levels of literacy, she also observes that the scholarly community doesn’t normally deal with the question of oral poetry becoming preserved and distributed in writing. The Christian elements in Beowulf may provide some insight into content accretions in a culture where the religious views have changed but the poetic forms have not (Olsen 1986, 557).
Olsen recognizes “that the interface between oral and written composition is extremely complex” (Olsen 1986, 557). To analyze the debate with oral composition proponents, Olsen surveys the contributions of two foundational movements, German Higher Criticism and the work of and following Milman Parry and Albert B. Lord (Olsen 1986, 558). The German higher critics observed formulaic elements in Old English poetry. Standard types of characters could be identified, as well as standard situations. While some scholars attempted to show common authorship, many in the early 20th century attributed these elements to oral formulas, rather than to one author (Olsen 1986, 559). While Olsen finds some scholars who considered the use of stock formulast o show lack of creativity, others condiered it as a not to their literary tradition, thus a sign of erudition (Olsen 1986, 560).
The research into oral formulas, according to Olsen, was revolutionized in 1923, with Milman Parry’s MA thesis, dealing with the Homeric Question. “Parry’s great contributions were to describe a continuing traditional process in which an oral epic poet worked and to conceive of the oral poet as a literary artist working within a tradition” (Olsen 1986, 561). Parry’s description of formulaic speech and its metrical aspects is of value to scholars of Anglo-Saxon poetry as well. Much 20th century research in the non-literate Slavic cultures found patterns which Parry had identified in Homer. Albert Lord, inspired in part by Parry, sought and found similar formulaic elements in Beowulf (Olsen 1986, 562). Olsen finds that the oral-formulaic theories, by the mid 20th century, were uniformly applied to Old English literature, for better or worse (Olsen 1986, 563). This practice was followed by a new emphasis, dating approximately from the 1970s onward, on seeking out the implications of oral-formulaic theory beyond simply describing it in literature. Olsen repeatedly refers to John Miles Foley at the forefront of the movement (Olsen 1986, 564).
The formulas themselves of oral composition are worthy of note. Olsen observes that while Parry had found a grammar which had some artificial elements due to the exigencies of the Homeric meter, so others have identified an artificial Old English dialect as well (Olsen 1986, 565). The formulaic language appears to serve as the idiom of the poet or singer, who can function fluently in this nonstandard dialect. Olsen observes that the formulae do not necessarily require specific vocabulary or case usage but that they serve metrical needs (Olsen 1986, 566). Scholars have also considered whether the metrical formulas are entirely a matter of conscious study. It is entirely possible that the grammatical patterns are a matter of an automatic mental framework which emerges when the poet is thinking poetically (Olsen 1986, 568). However, Olsen observes that many scholars would advise caution. It is not necessary that the syntactic formulae be limited to oral composition. It is entirely possible to use the same elements in written composition (Olsen 1986, 569). The realization of the confusion caused by distinctions between oral and written poetry has led to ongoing scholarly debates. Olsen particularly points out studies which have attempted to define specific functions of different formulaic patterns (Olsen 1986, 573). Meanwhile, various other scholars attempted to identify thematic and expressive uses of the stock formulas. It seems these scholars recognize that it is not merely the meter and patterns of words that make poetry meaningful, but the message communicated (Olsen 1986, 576).
Olsen next turns her attention to the thematic elements found in oral poetry. A theme, as identified by Lord, is an idea group. The themes thus can interact and lead to one another so as to make up the overall structure of the poem work (Olsen 1986, 578). Olsen specifies that in Lord’s usage there is a relatively specific definition of “theme” which may not be precisely the same as a general concept (Olsen 1986, 579). Significant disagreements have existed about the source of various themes. It is valid to ask whether there are some themes which are native to Old English poetry, while some themes exist in a more universal set of contexts (Olsen 1986, 580). Olsen describes numerous elements which the scholarly community would identify as themes. For instance, she mentions the narrative of a wooden projectile reflecting on the tree from which it was made. Another common theme is a wolf or a bird of prey as the one who follows carnage (Olsen 1986, 581-582). These narrow themes can be found almost as stock elements of Old English poetry. Studies of these themes resemble, in some ways, the comments which art historians make on (allegedly) symbolic elements in works of art.