When one examines Bede’s tale of Caedmon with Irish tale-type 2412B in mind, the resemblance of its plot to that structural pattern is quite evident. Equally obvious is that Bede’s tale departs from that type in regard to some important details. These points of divergence will be worth attention in due time, but first the tale as Bede tells it should be summarised. Since an exact and neutral précis of this account is required, rather than trying to provide one myself I will draw on Daniel Paul O’Donnell’s summary of Bede’s chapter.(FN) His entire summary will be cited (with one incidental omission in paragraph 4) even though, as is important to keep in mind, the parallel I am adducing pertains only to the first two of his four paragraphs. Likewise, the text of Caedmon’s Hymn is included here, as in O’Donnell’s summary, even though it is only peripherally relevant to my claims:
1. According to Bede, Caedmon was an old lay herdsman in the religious community of Streanxshalch (Whitby Abbey). Although the singing of vernacular songs was a customary entertainment at the abbey, Caedmon himself never learned to sing, and, as a result, used to leave feasts before he could be called upon to do so. Having left such a gathering one night and returned to his stables, Caedmon fell asleep, whereupon he was addressed in his dream by “someone” (Bede uses the Latin indefinite pronoun quidam), who asks him to sing for him. Explaining that he cannot, and, indeed, that he has just left the feast for that reason, Caedmon at first refuses. When the visitor insists, however, he gives in. Asking for a subject, he is told, Canta […I principium creaturarum, “Sing […] about the beginning of created things.” Almost immediately he begins his famous Hymn, which Bede paraphrases in Latin for the benefit of his readers:
Nunc laudare debemus auctorem regni caelestis,
potentiam Creatoris et consilium illius,
facta Patris gloriae: quomodo ille,
cum sit aeternus Deus, omnium miraculorum auctor extitit,
qui primo filiis hominum caelum pro culmine tecti,
dehinc terram Custos humani generis oninipotens creauit.
[Now we must praise the Maker of the heavenly kingdom, the power of the Creator and his counsel, the deeds of the Father of glory and how He, since he is the eternal God, was the Author of all marvels and first created the heavens as a roof for the children of men and then, the almighty Guardian of the human race, created the earth.]
2. When Caedmon awakes, he remembers everything that happened to him. He adds additional verses to his song and reports his vision and his new skill to his steward. Brought to the abbess, Caedmon describes his dream and sings his Hymn. He is then assigned a sacred text to translate into verse overnight by way of a test. When he proves himself able to do so, he is ordered to join the religious community.
3. In the course of his training, it is discovered that Caedmon’s gift extends to all holy subjects: upon hearing a passage of church history or doctrine, Bede tells us, Caedmon is able after a brief period to turn his lessons into carmen dulcissimum, “most melodious verse.” In addition to the Hymn, his works are said to include poems on a wide range of subjects: the creation of the world, the beginnings of mankind, the biblical Genesis, the flight from Egypt and entry into the promised land, the incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension of the Lord, the coming of the Holy Spirit, the teachings of the apostles, the terrors of hell, joys of heaven, and an account of God’s gifts to mankind.
4. The last part of Bede’s account concerns Caedmon’s exemplary life in the abbey. […] Bede reports that Caedmon was humble and obedient to the monastic rule and extremely zealous in his work against those who were not. After an illness of fourteen days, he is said to die like a saint: able to predict the hour of his own death, Caedmon asks to be moved to the hospice in which the terminally ill are lodged even though his own condition seems anything but serious. He gathers his friends and servants around him and asks if they have any outstanding quarrels with him. Told that they do not, he prays briefly, asks for the Blessed Sacrament, and finally expires just before nocturn.
Readers following my present argument may disregard paragraphs 3 and 4 of the preceding summary, which tell of Caedmon’s later career and death. This part of Bede’s history is steeped in the topoi of hagiography, as others have pointed out (Shepherd 1954; Wieland 1984; Stanley 1998). Paragraphs 1 and 2, however, mirror the structure of Irish tale-type 2412B. In the Irish tale, a man withdraws from company because he cannot sing or tell a tale; he has a remarkable experience of some kind; he returns to that same company to perform a song or story based on his strange experience; and he is recognised as a person who will always be known by that song or story (my italics). In Bede’s account, Caedmon withdraws from company because of embarrassment about his lack of poetic talent; that night he has a remarkable dream-vision and spontaneously produces a fully formed song; the next day he performs his song before the company of monks, to their amazement and delight; and thereafter he is recognised as the author of his Hymn, a work that preserves his fame even today.
John D. Niles. Bede’s Cædmon, ‘The Man Who Had No Story’ (Irish Tale-Type 2412B), Folklore, August 1, 2006, Vol. 117, Issue 2, pp. 143-144.