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◌  Carl Sagan as the hero on the beach

14 November 2011

In the last century, the concept of the oral tradition came into mainstream Western academia. Philologists – halfway between modern scholars of linguistics and literature – had wondered in their Victorian way whether Homer was real, and when they looked at living myths of comparable complexity they found that they had no single authors but were reinvented a little in every telling. This helped explain a strange feature of the Homeric poems: the poetically void repetition of epithets, the adjectives interchangeably attached to often-mentioned things, say godlike Achilles and lion-hearted Achilles. These suddenly made sense when seen as ways for a poet, thinking while speaking, to push and pull within the hexameter and make room for more spontaneous phrasings in the rest of the line.

In 1960, D. K. Crowne published The Hero on the Beach: An Example of Composition by Theme in Anglo-Saxon Poetry, saying that there was a larger and more abstract kind of formula, a kind of thematic epithet, and used as the type specimen a situation in Beowulf and elsewhere: the warrior-hero (or equivalent) standing on a beach (or equivalent) in the presence of his companions (or equivalent) and a notable light or brightness (often flashing or sparkling).

There was a wave of enthusiasm for this idea, and many scholars identified it and other repeated situational themes in the Anglo-Saxon and other oral traditions. Then there was a trough, and in 1987, John Richardson published The Critic on the Beach, which argued that the spotting criteria of the hero on the beach had so much wiggle room that it was basically unfalsifiable, and all it really said was that main characters go through transitions near other characters and vividly described things. This is hardly news – in almost any interesting story, oral and Anglo-Saxon or not, there’s something that can be taken this way.

I don’t know. The theme of the hero on the beach could be real or imaginary. But I do know that Carl Sagan at the beginning of Cosmos stands on a beach surrounded by nature and life and hope while the sunlight sparkles on the water.