Posted to the LiveJournal Medieval Studies community is a link to a Ruth Beechick’s article “Beowulf: Fiction or History.” The link is to’s homeschooling materials and Beechick’s article was originally published in The Old Schoolhouse Magazine, another homeschooling resource. The author, and therefore the piece, belongs to that sector of the homeschooling community which homeschools for religious reasons rather than, say, my cousins, who were homeschooled for the simple fact that after Second Grade, the nearest school was an hour away. Here’s a passage from near the end of the article:

Only one manuscript of the original poem exists. People found it, partly burned, in England about five hundred years after Beowulf lived. No one knows who originally wrote it. Many literature books say that it is fiction, one of the earliest examples we have of an English novel. But if someone were writing fiction, he would not name so many real people; he would invent characters as novelists do. And if someone wrote it long after the events, he would not know all those real people who lived in Beowulf’s time. It must have been first written at or near the time that Beowulf lived. All parts of the story hold together as though one person wrote it. It does not show evidence that bards sang it and added and changed as the years moved along.

One doesn’t have to be an Anglo-Saxonist to see problems with this, with claims such as “if someone were writing fiction, he would not name so may real people; he would invent characters as novelists do.” The whole subset of literature known as historical fiction does what this article claims doesn’t happen. As odd as that paragraph seems to me, one understands its context, why the author would write such a thing and why readers would accept and teach such a thing, when one reads passages such as this:

Why, then, do so many literature critics say that Beowulf is fiction? It is because they do not believe that dinosaur creatures lived at the same time men lived. Their evolutionary worldview says that dinosaurs lived long ages before men evolved on the earth. Therefore, in their minds, this all must be fiction. But with a Biblical worldview, we can see that dinosaurs entered the ark with Noah—land species at least—and they lived on the earth again after the Flood. But the post-Flood earth was not so hospitable to large creatures and they eventually became almost extinct.

Grendel, you see, is a dinosaur.

Finally, the author ends the piece with the following:

If the poet had not written the Beowulf story it would have been lost to history; we would know nothing about it. In your family history are there things you know because somebody kept it in a scrapbook or letter?

In your lifetime or your parents’ lifetime is there a story that should be passed on to descendants? When you think of a good one, write it down (Do you want to make a poem?), take pictures or draw pictures, and save it all for the future. Be sure to write the author’s name so you won’t be called an “unknown author” someday. Tell who you are, where you live, how you learned of the story, and the dates of the story and of your writing it. Then family descendants will not have to guess.

So much to say here, so much to comment on and critique. But since my students and I are currently discussing mnemonic communities and mnemonic socialization as they begin work on their first project, I’ll focus on that. As I told my students, we could drop the modifier mnemonic from community and socialization and we’d still be talking about the same thing, more or less — it’s close enough for a first-year composition course. But what “mnemonic” does is foreground what these communities do and what socialization involves. It’s about establishing habits of mind, ways of knowing, patterns of thought, and interpretive options — in other words, it’s about noetics. Our acceptance or rejection of truth-claims, values, and assumptions are dictated by and shaped by our mnemonic communities and our mnemonic socialization. These forces, however, aren’t monolithic. We exist within a ever-present and often changing network of mnemonic communities with their own forms of mnemonic socialization.

And that’s why homeschoolers of this sort choose homeschooling. The public school system represents a mnemonic community quite different from that of the home/family community, and the family regards the public school’s mnemonic socialization as a corrupting. (There’s much overlap, obviously, with the concept of mnemonic communities and the concepts of discourse communities and interpretive communities.) And this is also why a particular subset of homeschoolers seem willing to ignore the glaring fallacies of the paragraph I quoted above: this reading of Beowulf brings the text into accord with the tenets and beliefs of their mnemonic traditions (mnemonic here, again meaning “of memory (and noetics),” which allows them to use Beowulf as a tool for mnemonic socialization. In this way, we find Beowulf serving not only as an example of social memory as the author asks us to in her concluding paragraphs, we see a glimpse of the complex relationship the present has to past social memory artifacts. Oral tradition and literature do not exist as one-way transmitters of social memory; rather, they act upon us and are in turn acted upon by us. Memory Lane, as I like to say, is a two-way street.

A lot to unpack in these few paragraphs I’ve written. The ideas here are the basis of the last three chapters of my dissertation. Mnemonic communities and mnemonic socialization make up a large part of my second-to-last chapter, which is about social memory and rhetoric; I discuss oral tradition and literature as social memory in my final chapter (Beowulf is my primary text in that chapter, but I also discuss Ivanhoe and Starship Troopers to counter claims that the modern era doesn’t use literature in this way). And, finally, in my conclusion I drive home the idea that we need to revive the conception of mnemonic as having to do not only with aides to memory but about memory, about noetics.