There are ten basic elements that help to classify a poem as an epic. Although Beowulf does not contain all of these elements, it has enough of them to still identify it as an epic.
There are ten characteristics of an epic: the central character has heroic or superhuman qualities, the action takes place on an immense scale, the action involves the fate of an entire population or the whole human race, gods or semi-divine creatures aid one side or the other, the author announces his theme in opening, a character calls on the muses to help him, the poem begins “in media res,” the style of poem is often noble and majestic, the characters speak in long set speeches, in some cases there is literary inventory that forms part of a descriptive passage.
The main character in a true epic possesses heroic or superhuman qualities. As the central character, Beowulf was a brave, powerful warrior. Beowulf believed that his fairness and bravery would help him to conquer the fiercest of opponents. He had the strength of ten men and was willing to go into any battle because he knew that he was stronger than any other being, man or beast. Before his battle with Grendel he claimed, “Grendel is no braver, no stronger than I am!” When Grendel and Beowulf met, he was true to his word and tore the beast’s arm from the rest of its body and sent Grendel running cowardly toward its hellish home. While fighting Grendel’s mother, Beowulf was able to slay the beast with a single swing from an immense sword, that was so massive, few men could even lift it. Prior to his confrontation with Grendel, he stated, “I could kill him with my sword; I shall not, Easy as it would be . . . I will meet him wit…
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…rk, George. Beowulf. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Leyerle, John. “The Conflicting Demands of Heroic Strength and Kingly Wisdom.” In Readings on Beowulf, edited by Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.
Shippey, T.A.. “The World of the Poem.” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Shippey, Thomas A.. “Structure and Unity.” In A Beowulf Handbook, edited by Robert Bjork and John D. Niles. Lincoln, Nebraska: Uiversity of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Tharaud, Barry. “Anglo-Saxon Language and Traditions in Beowulf.” In Readings on Beowulf, edited by Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.
Tolkien, J.R.R.. “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics.” In Beowulf – Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
An Analysis of the Epic Poem, Beowulf – The World of Beowulf
The World of Beowulf
The poem Beowulf depicts a world inhabited by semi-civilized societies that are very loyal to members of their group, that are transitory, that have little security, that are made prey of, by even single monsters of huge strength (Thompson 16).
In the poem the families or tribes that have banded together have formed their small societies. Ralph Arnold in his essay “Royal Halls – The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial,” says: “Lust for gold as a symbol of royal wealth and for gold to give away probably accounted for much of the warfare in which the early English kings indulged” (91). Such little societies are motivated by their selfishness, as they repeatedly attack any weaker societies in the area so as to increase their stockpile of treasure and arms, or to avenge a misdeed from somewhere in the past:
That is the feud, the hatred of tribes,
war-lust of men, (2999-3000)
Consider Beowulf’s revenge of the murder of Heardred, son of Hygelac, by the sons of Othere. And the awaited revenge on the Geats by the Swedes in retaliation for Wulf and Eofor’s killing of Ongentheow. Hygelac, going “to the land of the Frisians, attacked the Hetware,” provoking a feud between the Geats on one side and the Franks, Frisians and Mereovingians on the other side. Beowulf’s father had killed the Wylfling Heatholaf, thus beginning a feud; consequently the Geats “for fear of war, would not have him.” But Hrothgar, young king of the Danes, “paid money to settle your father’s feud, sent treasure … to the Wylfings.”
Even the monsters in the poem are motivated by vengeance: Grendel seeks vengeance on the human race because they have joy and God’s favor whereas he has only God’…
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…ly, creating the feeling of insecurity and transitoriness:
The monstrous woman
avenged her son, snatched and killed
one man boldly. There Aeschere died,
wise old counselor, in her fierce attack (2120-23)
The poem Beowulf depicts a world of loyalty, of great uncertainty and insecurity, and of transitory life.
Arnold, Ralph. “Royal Halls – The Sutton Hoo Ship Burial.” In Donaldson Translation, edited by Joseph F. Tuso. New York, W.W.Norton and Co.: 1975
Chickering, Howell D.. Beowulf A dual-Language Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1977.
Thompson, Stephen P. “The Beowulf poet and His World.” In Readings on Beowulf, edited by Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.