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Beowulf, as a heroic epic poem


as a
Heroic Epic Poem

Beowulf as a Heroic Epic Poetry

Beowulf, as a heroic epic poem

Answer: An epic is a long narrative poem dealing with some acts of heroism or heroic personalities in a grand style. Beowulf, the old English extant heroic poem, is regarded as the Anglo-Saxon epic.

But there is a controversy whether Beowulf, as an epic, can be compared with Homer’s Iliad or Odyssey or Milton’s Paradise Lost. This controversy is due to the fact that Beowulf shares some epic features and yet it has some aspects, which convince one that it is not an epic at all.

An epic poetry must have, according to Aristotle, three salient characteristics- the ‘unity of action’, ‘the entirety of action’ and ‘the greatness of action’.

In other words, the different legends and incidents in an epic must converge into a single theme. Besides, Aristotle also says that the epic must treat some noble and heroic performances, worthy to be remembered by subsequent generations.

Judged by these standards, Beowulf does not impress us as a true epic. It certainly lacks the ‘unity of action’, so much emphasized in Aristotle, since it is made of two separate narratives. There is, on the one hand, the encounter of Beowulf with Grendel and his mother and, on the other, there is the account of Beowulf’s heroics struggle with a furious fire breathing monster.

These two incidents are entirely detached and might have formed two entirely different poems. The ‘unity of action’, which is so minutely observed in the ancient epics Iliad, Odyssey and The Aeneid, is violated in the narrative of Beowulf.

Again, so far as the ‘completeness of action’, that means that the epic must have a beginning, a proper middle and an end, is concerned, Beowulf cuts, among other epics, a sorry figure. This is because the central action of the long narrative poem looks more like a collection of heroic episodes than an organic epic. Thus, Beowulf seems to be an artistic failure, as for, the magnitude of action in an epic poetry is considered.

Despite all these shortcomings, Beowulf has many qualities, which place it on the line of the Homeric and Miltonic epics. It bears an epic dignity, as well as reality, despite the fantastic character of the main story.

Beowulf also celebrates the virtues of heroism and heroic self-sacrifice, thereby attaining the magnitude of an ethical theme. Beowulf manages the accomplishment of a chivalrous character. It satisfies the crude form of the epic that all legend and incidents must revolve round some heroic characters.

Like an epic, which is the pattern of heroic poetry, Beowulf is a fine specimen of primitive heroic poetry. However there is no proof that Beowulf, the hero of the poem, at any point existed, his precursor Hygelac was a genuine lord. Beowulf, however, fulfills this vital condition of epic poetry.

If this poem lacks the ‘unity of action’, it is only in appearance, since it is achieved through the hero. Moreover this sort of unity is nothing irrelevant to epic poetry. The allegation of the critics that Beowulf acts the magnitude of action fails to hold water, since the magnitude of action is to be found in Beowulf’s valiant combat and heroic death.

Notably, Beowulf dies heroically to vindicate the noble principles of heroism and self-sacrifice. Again, though the poem has a very few epic similes, and does not possess the grand style of the reputed epics; it is not altogether deprived of the grandeur of epic poetry. Actually, the vigour of description and the amplitude of imagination give much grandeur to the poem. Moreover, in the use of picturesque landscape, rich epithets and vigorous speeches Beowulf is evidently a trailblazing epic poetry.

To cap it all, it may be pointed out that Beowulf is an epic poetry, though it has some contradictory elements that distinguish it from the traditional epics. It is evidently, so to say, an example of epic poetry in development.


Read also:

👉 Beowulf | The role of sea  

👉 Anglo-Saxon Christian Poetry | or Religious Poetry  

👉 Anglo-Saxon Elegy |or Old English Lyric Poetry 

👉 Middle English Allegorical Poetry | 

👉 Raja Ram Mohan Roy | Contribution to Indian Literature  

👉 English Literature and American Literature | Differences between them 

👉 Received Pronunciation (RP) | Distinctive features, criteria and major problems  

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