Beowulf as an Epic

The Old English Beowulf holds a unique place as the oldest epic narrative in any modern European tongue. Although Beowulf is primal, nothing is primitive about it. It is above all a work of artifice; though if we accept C. S. Lewis’s classification of “epics of growth” and “epic of art”, Beowulf is obviously an epic of growth. Modern scholars like Milman Parry and A. B. Lord, working on the origins of epic poetry have come to the conclusion that like other great epics of the ancient civilizations, Beowulf was also an oral epic, written down by trained clerics. Like other oral epics, Beowulf has a formulaic character, using words, ideas and other stylistic features. The same formulaic character can be found in the epics of Homer. But Beowulf has other important epic qualities.

The Iliad is also a striking example of the unity, which is essential to epic. Aristotle, who insisted on the principle of unity in epic, pointed to the Iliad as a perfect example of a poem, in which everything is subordinated to the central action. Equally important for an epic is a unity of consciousness, a unity of ethos. Aristotle emphasises that the action of an epic should have its own logic and intrinsic significance.

Beowulf is inclusive because it comprehends life and death, peace and war, man and god. It begins with the mysterious arrival of Scyld, the founder of the Danish dynasty and ends with the death of Beowulf. The poem shows not only the life cycle of the hero, but also of the nations like the Danes and the Geats, Beowulf’s people. It presents human society at peace in Hrothgar’s hall and at war in Sweden and elsewhere. As for men and gods, Beowulf does not keep its universe to the narrowly human level. Grendel and its mother represent evil, which is traced back to the first murderer, Cain and therefore to the devil.
As for objectivity, Beowulf is fair, even sympathetic to the monsters; but as they are not human beings their fall cannot be tragic. So the opportunity for objectivity in this case is limited. But every single one of the numerous human deaths in the poem is given its full significance. But it must be admitted that the anonymous poet of the poem does not achieve Homeric impartiality.

Beowulf also has a unity of consciousness, which arises out of its objective presentation of life in the heroic world. The picture of heroic society and its ideals and values portrayed by the eighth century English poet is consistent with the idea of Germanic culture given by the first century Roman historian Tacitus in his book Germania. Beowulf is about the ancient Germanic society, whose comitatus system and loyalty to heroic values greatly impressed the Roman historian.

Another characteristic feature of epic is that its action should be self-evidently significant. The main story of Beowulf has been condemned as unworthy of an epic by critics like W. P. Ker and R. W. Chambers. According to them, it celebrates, not human battles, which are the subject of the great epics of Homer and Virgil, but a silly nursery tale. But the most influential twentieth century critic of Beowulf, J. R. R. Tolkien however argues that the monster-fights in the poem, far from being trivial, does have indeed a great symbolic significance. The three fights involved encounters with evil in three different shapes. The hero himself represents mankind, which according to the primitive view was surrounded by hostile forces of darkness. The anonymous poet of the poem has, therefore, chosen for his theme the human challenge to evil and the glorious and tragic potentialities of that challenge.

The style of the poem is appropriately great for an epic. Apart from his dependence on formulas, the poet shows a particular gift for lofty and picturesque expressions, which give his narrative an exulted status. There are magnificent descriptive passages, for example, the hero’s voyage to the bottom of the lake to kill Grendel’s mother or the splendour of Hrothgar’s hall. As for the formulaic style it can be illustrated by the very opening words of the poem; ‘Hwæt’ is a formula calling listeners to attention. The poem had also like other great epics long rolling speeches in the true epic tradition.

It used to be said by the earlier critics of the poem that it lacks true epic unity in its structure, because there is a yawning gap of sixty years between the first and the second parts of the poem. But Tolkien has shown that the structure of the poem is deliberately built on the principle of contrast—the two parts contrasts the heroic life in youth and in old age respectively.

Finally, it can be said that though Beowulf is not a full-fledged epic, it may still be regarded as the specimen of epic poetry in evolution. It is an epic in kind, if not in degree. (824 words)


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