The Question of Genre in Byliny and Beowulf

Published: May 22, 2006

While stories about Dobrynya Nikitich, Ilya Muromets, and Sadko were being sung in Kievan Rus’ – the Slavic state dominated by the city of Kiev from the ninth until the twelfth centuries – Anglo-Saxon, or Old English poetry had already extended from oral to written production in the form of Beowulf.[1] Beowulf is a Christian reworking of oral folk tales, and was written, by an unknown author, sometime between the eighth and eleventh centuries.[2] In Beowulf’s compositional structure there are many qualities of the oral poetry that was sung by the Germanic tribes that settled in Britain beginning in the 5th century of the Common Era;[3] it is generally understood that the Beowulf author wrote his poem as an embellishment of an already-established oral tale. Unlike Russian folk epics, which did not enter literature as recorded texts until the 18th century, when folklore enthusiasts traveled to remote parts of Russia to record them, [4] Beowulf enhanced the oral tradition to achieve a degree of literariness, and status as what we know to be the first medieval English epic.[5]

The most famous literary work produced by Kievan Rus’ is The Lay of Igor’s Campaign.[6] This tale, which describes Prince Igor’s unsuccessful campaign against the Kumans in 1185, is not so much an epic, however, as “a lament over the feudal discord in medieval Russia.”[7] When looking at the Russian tradition, a closer parallel with Beowulf can be found within the genre of folk epic, or narrative songs with heroic themes. Scholars call these songs “byliny,” which is the plural form of “bylina” and is derived from the past tense of the Russian verb “to be.”[8] The term bylina was first introduced in the 1830s,[9] and the genre of byliny can be divided into three general groups: mythological epics, which originated well before the founding of the Kievan state; the Kievan or Vladimir cycle, which emerged between the tenth and fourteenth centuries and which relate events taking place under the reign of Prince Vladimir the Great; and the Novgorod cycle, with Sadko as its central hero.[10] Byliny are usually referred to as “epic poetry,” and contain plots or subjects that occur in many epic traditions, including the birth and childhood of a hero, the fight of a father and son, a battle with a monster, and the imprisoned or reluctant hero who at a critical moment emerges to save his city.

Byliny are replete with oral formulas that highlight important themes, and themes that provide necessary structural functions in the tales – for example, the journeying of the hero from one place to another. Finally, the story of the Russian bylina often begins in the royal court. The opening of the bylina “Dobrynya Nikitch and Vasily Kazimirovich” begins, “At the palace of gracious Prince Vladimir,/ Of our Sun, Vladimir Vseslavyevich,/ There was a banquet, a feast of honor,/ For many princes and boyars…Vladimir treated them all and honored them all,/ He, the Prince, greeted them all.”[11] This scene involves an assembly with a speech, which is a recurring theme throughout Beowulf; this theme, which is important to the tale’s structure – it occurs at both the tale’s beginning and end, and is central to the plot – is one that Albert Lord, one of the foremost scholars of the oral tradition, considers fundamental to the genre of oral epic.

Because byliny existed only as relatively short, disconnected songs, and were never combined to form one long narrative – which is due, perhaps, to the disintegration of the Kievan state during the period of Mongol invasion – byliny differ from the generally-accepted understanding of what constitutes an “epic.” Aristotle defined “epic” structure as simply a structure with more than one plot;[12] but when considering the epic – with the Iliad, the Odyssey, and theAeneid as some of the best known examples – most scholars expect to encounter a long story of a teleological nature, with human history and war at its center. In these stories the destiny of the hero is understood to stand in for the destiny of his people.

Questions of literary analysis, particularly the question of genre, are often unclear in relation to ancient medieval literature; regarding the nature of oral tales, there is what Albert Lord calls a “terminology battle.”[13] He dislikes and refuses the term “folk epic,” because he believes that “folk,” today, has a derogatory connotation – something simple, plain, parochial, and uneducated. Also, since a limited number of documents have survived until the present day – very few medieval Russian documents remained after the invasion and burning of several cities; Beowulf represents ten percent of the Old English poetry that remains today – one encounters difficulties when trying to impose a modern understanding of literature and literary production on an earlier historical period. Russian folk tales have generally been avoided by scholars, due to their oral nature and the difficulties encountered in trying to analyze and categorize them.[14] Though Beowulf has achieved national epic status in Britain,[15] its identity as an epic is sometimes questioned: in his famous essay, “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics,” Tolkien asserts that “Beowulf is not an ‘epic,’ not even a magnified ‘lay,’…[but] rather [an] elegy.”[16] Regardless of the contention around the classification of medieval works as “epic,” a comparison of Beowulf with byliny, particularly “Dobrynya and the Dragon” and “Dobrynya and Vasily Kazimirovich,” can highlight some of the themes and characterizations that are native to the epic genre, and can help question or justify the modern classification of byliny as “epic poetry.”

The legend of Dobrynya Nikitch – the bogatyr, or warrior, who is known as the “dragon slayer” in the Russian tradition[17] – strongly characterizes the Kievan cycle of byliny. “Dobrynya and the Dragon” depicts Dobrynya’s battle against the enemy of Holy Russia – a monster that holds Russian and Christian people captive in his cave.[18] In Albert Lord’s analysis of the themes that provide a necessary structural function in the oral epic, he writes, “the basic story patterns of epic dragon-slaying, in which the hero fights the dragon who blocks the roads or guards the treasure…[contrasts with] the dragon-slayer type in the folktale, in which the hero saves a maiden about to be sacrificed to a monster.”[19] In “Dobrynya and the Dragon,” the act of dragon slaying falls somewhere between the folktale and the epic, because the premise under which he is sent to slay the dragon is to save a maiden, but the slaying of the dragon is important to the society in which Dobrynya lives, and can be read as a Christian allegory.

At first, Dobrynya, as a character, looks very different from the traditional epic character. While Aeneas is aware of his destiny as the founder of Rome, and Beowulf sets out with the clear aim to kill Grendel and save the Danish people, Dobrynya’s journey away from home, to the mountains where the dragons live, is without purpose; though it appears to be a quest for heroic confrontation, unlike the epic quest, it is not a goal-oriented process. At first there appears to be nothing that sets Dobrynya, who is of peasant birth, apart from the common man, or on par with the epic hero. Though he disobeys his mother and rides to the Saracen Mountains, where he kills little baby dragons, this adventure appears more as an adventure for its own sake, than as a quest with historical necessity.

Likewise, the structure of “Dobrynya and the Dragon,” like the structure of all of the byliny in the Dobrynya legend, begins without locating itself within human history. One of the primary qualities associated with “epics” is that they typically represent the establishment and protection of a civilization. The foundation of Rome is at the heart of Virgil’s Aeneid; at the heart of Beowulf is the preservation of the Dane and Geat societies. An epic quality of Beowulf is its relationship with history: the tale begins with a description of the rise of the Danes, and then describes Grendel’s attacks on the Danish hall; it is not until line 344 of the text that the hero, Beowulf, is introduced by name. Though this history is fictionalized, many people and events described in Beowulf were probably real, dating from between 450 and 600 in Denmark and southern Sweden. In contrast, “Dobrynya and the Dragon” begins without historical markers.[20] Instead, the tale jumps into Dobrynya’s journey to the Puchai River and his encounter with the accursed dragon. After the dragon deceives Dobrynya into not killing him, Dobrynya appears at the court of Prince Vladimir, who then sends him on a mission to rescue the prince’s niece from the dragon.

After Dobrynya leaves the court of Prince Vladimir, he laments to his mother: “Our Sun, Vladimir of capital Kiev,/ Imposed a great service on me-/ I have to get Zabava, Potyata’s daughter,/ From the cave, from the dragon’s cave.”[21] When Dobrynya encounters the dragon a second time, the story goes:

He fought with the dragon for three whole days,
But he couldn’t kill the accursed dragon.
Finally Dobrynya wanted to ride away-
A voice from the heavens then announced to Dobrynya:
“Hail to you, my young Dobrynya, Nikita’s son!
You’ve fought the dragon for three whole days –
Fight with the dragon for three more hours.”[22]

It is at this point, in the middle of the story, that “Dobrynya and the Dragon” takes on some of the attributes of the traditional epic. The only historical marker in the story, Prince Vladimir, singles out Dobrynya as the only man capable of rescuing his niece. The reliance of Vladimir on Dobrynya can be compared with the reliance of Hrothgar, king of the Danes, on Beowulf. In Beowulf it is written, “far-famed in battle, the prince of Bright-Danes/ and keeper of his people counted on Beowulf,/ on the warrior’s steadfastness and his word.”[23] Beowulf never doubts himself, never steps down from his duty, even when his battle will likely lead to his death, as it does in the end of the poem. He is “the mightiest man on earth,/ highborn and powerful,” and that distinction is never changed or lost.[24] When Beowulf decides to attack the dragon that has been menacing his people, he announces: “I risked my life/ often when I was young. Now I am old,/ but as king of the people I shall pursue this fight/ for the glory of winning.” The author of the poem writes that this is Beowulf’s final boast, and this is the last time that he will stand before his men, because his death is inevitable. This inevitability is characteristic of the epic genre, because it is not the outcome of the epic that is important – it is generally known from the beginning – but the relationship of that inevitable outcome to human history. In contrast, though Prince Vladimir gives Dobrynya an epic task, Dobrynya is not brave or steadfast; he is, instead, the reluctant hero. Even in the moment of battle, Dobrynya wants to step down from his responsibility and abandon the challenge; it requires the intervention of a voice from the heavens to keep him at his task.

When Dobrynya does finally kill the dragon, he leads the captives out of the dragon’s den, and announces, “No longer will the dragon carry away Russian captives/ And Christian people.”[25] It is in this role as a rescuer of Christian people, from the Kievan state as well as other countries, that he can be understood to be an epic hero. The tale concludes with Dobrynya’s marriage to Nastasia, the daughter of the Lithuanian king Nikula, who is then “brought into the Christian faith.” Members of the historical school of folklorists, who study documents in an attempt to align the figures and events of folk tales with actual figures and events, associate Dobrynya with the historical Dobrynya, who was the uncle of Prince Vladimir I, the prince responsible for the official Christianization of Kievan Rus’. This association supports the interpretation of “Dobrynya and the Dragon” as an allegory of the baptism of Kievan Rus’,[26] and the triumph of Christianity over paganism. Though this interpretation is contested by those who do not recognize sufficient Christian imagery in the story, the understanding of “Dobrynya and the Dragon” as an allegory of Christianization gives the events of Dobrynya’s journey trans-personal and collective significance. This significance points to Dobrynya’s role in the preservation of his society, and is essential if “Dobrynya and the Dragon” is to be heard, or read, as an epic work.

In contrast with “Dobrynya and the Dragon,” “Dobrynya Nikitch and Vasily Kazimirovich” appears to be more closely aligned with the generic terms of the epic. The tale begins with Vasily Kazimirovich’s boast that he will go to Tsar Batur Batvyesov, in the distant Polenyetsian land, to pay him the Kievan taxes. Many scholars associate the tale with the historical events of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when Russian princes were required to collect tribute from their people and take it to the Tatar Khan; this was a dangerous mission that often led to the deaths of the Russian envoys.[27] After making his boast, Vasily roams the streets cheerlessly, regretting his proclamation, as he realizes that the trip will be perilous; Dobrynya sees his sullen face and asks, “Why are you coming so cheerless from the feast?/ Why are you coming so cheerless and so joyless from the feast?…did you brag too much about riding somewhere?/ I won’t betray you during battle/ Or during a time of quick death.”[28]

The two men immediately enter into a brotherhood and reliance on each other, which can be compared with the friendship of Oliver and Roland in The Song of Roland: Vasily is loyal, but Dobrynya is brave. Dobrynya decides that they will not, in fact, deliver the taxes to the tsar, but “[they’ll] demand from the Dog Batur Batvyesov,/ [They’ll] demand taxes and tribute from him.”[29] In this story, Dobrynya appears steadfast and resolute, and never questions himself. After three challenges, Dobrynya defeats Tsar Batur, and the latter agrees to pay tribute to Russia. The final scene is another feast in the court of Prince Vladimir, in which the prince announces, “‘Thanks to you, my daring good youths!/ You’ve served me with loyalty and truth,/ With devoted loyalty and truth.”[30] Though this event – forcing a Tatar ruler to pay taxes to Russia – does not have historical basis, it can be seen to symbolize the power of Kievan Rus’, a state that achieved a golden age before being invaded by the Mongols. Dobrynya and Vasily embody the characteristics – truth, loyalty, and bravery – that the Rus’ identified with the epic heroes.[31]

Many scholars read the genre of byliny as a prototype for the epic genre, the genre into which they may have developed if Kiev, and its once golden culture, had not fallen prey to Mongol conquest. Because of the disconnected nature of byliny, it is difficult to place them within the context of epic poetry. If byliny had been combined to form full epics – if, for example, the stories of Dobrynya had been combined into one narrative – then perhaps a true epic level would have been achieved. It is possible, however, to look at an epic outside of its thematic qualities; to define oral epic by its means of formulation – through a specific kind of singer – and by its use of formulas to highlight themes. Though Albert Lord, in his Singer of Tales, does not discuss Russian byliny, he uses these criteria to identify South Slavic oral epics.

Again, it is possible to discern these formulas in Russian byliny, but not within one bylina itself; because of the short length of each bylina, it is necessary to compare several byliny with each other to understand the scheme of their oral formulaic structure. Finally, another way to look at the epic is from a historical standpoint: the epic is not concerned with the personal history of the individual; the events of the hero’s journey have a non-personal significance and are of value to the whole community. Through the hero’s journey an impersonal objective reality is revealed behind the singular events of the hero’s life. In this sense, Beowulf, without question, deserves the label of “epic.” The story of Beowulf is about the rise and fall of a civilization, about the effect of time on human experience and the passing of an era, which occurs with Beowulf’s death in old age, after decades of leading his people. When measured up against these last criteria, it is difficult to determine that Russian byliny are, in fact, epic poems. While there are glimpses of epic qualities in the Dobrynya tradition – the allegory of Christianization, the heroic deeds of Dobrynya in the names of Prince Vladimir and Kiev – the stories of the byliny are too short and undeveloped to be read on their own as full examples of human concerns or efforts, or as symbols of an age in Russian history.


[1] While there are other heroic poems of the same period as Beowulf that have survived until today, Beowulf is the longest, and considered the most important. Alfred Lord, in The Singer of Tales, focuses on Beowulf’s qualities as a work of oral formulaic.

[2] Though the “Christian” allusions in the text are only to the Old Testament, it is believed that the writer of the text was Christian.

[3] Niles, 90. “Tradition and Design in Beowulf.”

[4] Wosien, 14.

[5] Beowulf is one of the oldest surviving epic poems in what is identifiable as an early form of the English language. The English people are descendants of Germanic tribes called the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. Jutes and northern Saxon tribes came from what is now southern Denmark and northern Germany. Thus, Beowulf tells a story about the old days in their homeland.

[6] Even though the authenticity of the lay is debated, most scholars consider it authentic.

[7] Zenkovsky, 168.

[8] Although folklorists disagree about the precise generic classification of Russian epics and their relationship to other narrative songs, they nevertheless delineate several epic subgenres largely according to thematic distinctions. Heroic epics are usually concerned with fighting the enemies of Kiev. Many other byliny include themes of bride taking, confrontation with a monster, etc. There are other subgenres, including religious verse, which involve saints’ lives blended with folklore, historical songs which became fully developed in the 16th century and relate events of actual historical persons in Muscovite Russia.

[9] By I. P. Sakharov.

[10] These three groups apply to medieval epics, and do not include byliny about Peter the Great, Lenin, etc.

[11] “Dobrynya Nikitich and Vasily Kazimirovich,” lines 1-8.

In this small passage from the text, it is possible to see the repetitions that occur repeatedly throughout the byliny. On sentences, events, or characterization that are important, the lines are usually repeated for emphasis, and to stress the important themes; in The Singer of TalesLord identifies this formulaic structure as central to oral epic.

[12] Aristotle’s PoeticsThe Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, page 106.

[13] The Singer of Tales, 6.

[14] Ivanova, 69.

[15] A national epic is an epic poem or similar work which seeks or is believed to capture and express the essence or spirit of a particular nation; not necessarily a nation-state, but at least an ethnic or linguistic group with aspirations to independence or autonomy. National epics frequently recount the origin of a nation, a part of its history, or a crucial event in the development of national identity.

[16] Beowulf, 127. An elegy can be understood as a poem of mourning, from the Greek elegos; a reflection on the death of someone or on a sorrow generally.

[17] Bailey, 81.

[18] “Dobrynya and the Dragon,” lines 75-77.

[19] Epic Singers and Oral Traditions, 200.

[20] No bylina includes the “back story” that one finds at the beginning of Beowulf. Though some of the byliny have more clear historical markers, including references to princes (that may or may not be exact references; often “Prince Vladimir” just refers to an unspecific prince), all of the byliny begin in the moment, without first describing the past.

[21] Lines 159-62.

[22] “Dobrynya and the Dragon,” lines 263-9.

[23] Beowulf, 609-11.

[24] Beowulf, 197-8.

[25] Lines 320-1.

[26] Which occurred in 988, under Prince Vladimir the Great.

[27] Baily, 107.

[28] 93-100.

[29] 126-7.

[30] 372-4.

[31] Propp, 6.

Works Cited

Astaf’eva, L. A. Syuzhet i Stil’ Russkikh Bylin. Moskva, 1993.

Baily, James and Tatyana Ivanova. An Anthology of Russian Folk Epics. London,

England: M.E. Sharpe, 1998.

Heaney, Seamus, trans. Beowulf: A Verse Translation. New York: Norton and Company, 2002.

Ivanova, T. G. “Malie” Ochagi Severnorusskoi Bylinnoi Traditsii. S. Peterburg, 2001.

Kalugin, Viktor. Geroi Russkogo Epoca. Sovremenik: Moskva, 1983.

Lord, Albert B. Epic Singers and Oral Tradition. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991.

Lord, Albert B. The Singer of Tales. New York: Atheneum, 1965.

Niles, John ed. Old English Literature in Context. New Jersey: Rowman and Littlefield, 1980.

Propp, Vladimir. Russkii Geroicheskii Epoc. Moskva: Labirint, 1999.

Wosien, Maria-Gabriele. The Russian Folk-Tale: Some Structural and Thematic Aspects. Verlag Otto Sagner: Munich, 1969.

Zenkovsky, Serge A. ed. Medieval Russia’s Epics, Chronicles and Tales. New York: Meridian, 1974.

The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. Eds. Leitch, Cain, Finke, Johnson, McGowan, and Williams. New York, New York: Norton Company, 2001.


About the author

Shannon Meyerhoff

Shannon Meyerhoff recently completed her BA in English literature and Russian studies at the University of Pennsylvania.  She will be working in Moscow beginning this summer, and plans to go to graduate school in the near future.

View all posts by: Shannon Meyerhoff