"Narrative and Cognition in Beowulf," by David Herman (University of North Carolina) and Becky Childs (University of Georgia). Forthcoming in Style

Focusing on Beowulf as its tutor-text, this paper explores ways in which narrative functions as a "cognitive artifact," i.e., something used by humans for the purpose of supporting or enabling cognition. Drawing on ideas from several fields of study, including narrative theory, discourse analysis, cognitive science, anthropology, and literary criticism, we argue that like other narratives Beowulf provides crucial representational tools helping humans make sense of the world. More specifically, our paper uses Beowulf to show how stories afford resources for thinking in five broad problem domains: "chunking" experience into workable segments, imputing causal relations between events, managing problems with the "typification" of phenomena, sequencing behaviors, and distributing intelligence across groups. Our paper's overall aim is twofold: to characterize the Beowulf poet's epic account as a cognitive artifact in its own right, but also to characterize the more general representational processes that subtend and make possible all such narratively organized accountings. Our overarching assumption is that theorists can gain insight into processes of narrative thinking by studying achieved narrative products--in the same way that linguists arrive at hypotheses concerning the human language faculty by studying attested linguistic behavior.

Testifying to the longlastingness of stories as a tool for thinking, Beowulf reveals how narrative--from before the start of literate culture--has served as a support for the formulation, systematization, and transmission of communal as well as personal experiences and values. Further, with its inclusion of multiple embedded narratives; its representation of stories as a means of making promises, saving face, and negotiating other aspects of social existence; its shifts between homodiegetic (or "first-person") and heterodiegetic (or "third-person") accounts of one and the same set of events; and its use of nearly parallel life-stories for the Danish king Hrothgar and for Beowulf as king of the Geats, the poem itself represents and thus helps illuminate the cognitive functions of storytelling. [D.H. and B.C.]