1 March 2011-Revised
Beowulf as an Epic
The Anglo-Saxon tale Beowulf was most likely written by a single poet from a Christian background. The poem as a whole exhibits the poet’s empathy for epic heroes like Beowulf, and for how they lived and died without the hope and consolation of the Christian faith (“Beowulf” 30-31). Beowulf is an epic poem that describes various characters and events from the sixth century, in particular the story of a brave warrior named Beowulf, his many heroic adventures, and his ultimate death. This poem originated from both legends and myths from other cultures that originally were passed down ...view middle of the document...
A kenning is a condensed metaphor or simile such as “whale road,” which is used in line 10 of the poem as a description of the sea. Another type of figurative language seen in Beowulf is the use of descriptive names for the different characters. For example “Hrothgar” literally means “glory spear,” and “Beowulf” means “bear” (Ogilvy 138-139). As one can see, the use of these particular kinds of figurative language helps Beowulf fit the pattern of the epic, thus reinforcing the fact that Beowulf is, in fact, an epic poem.
Another characteristic of epic poems is their inclusion of heroic battles, often fought against evil, supernatural beings. Beowulf contains many such battles, but the three most significant battles make up the central plot of the story. The first of these battles is Beowulf’s fight with the great monster Grendel. For twelve years prior to Beowulf’s arrival in the land of the Danes, no man had been able to defeat Grendel, a terrible, superhuman beast who enjoyed terrorizing Heorot and killing thanes. In Beowulf’s encounter with Grendel, Beowulf takes the monster by surprise and singlehandedly rips off his right arm, sending the enormous beast running back to his home where he ultimately bleeds to death. The second battle is between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother. Like her son, she too has superhuman strength and size, but her advantage is further fueled by a mother’s rage against her son’s killer. She beheads Aeschere and hangs his head above her lair as a trophy of her conquest. She displays this evidence for all to see who may come seeking their own revenge. When Beowulf
descends into her underwater lair, he fights “droves of sea beasts” (1510) in addition to killing Grendel’s raging mother. The final battle takes place fifty years after the death of Grendel’s mother. Beowulf fights this battle in his own homeland against a fire-breathing dragon that guards a hoard of treasure stolen from Beowulf’s people. Beowulf slays the dragon but loses a fatal amount of blood from a bite to the neck, dying as a hero (“Beowulf”). These three heroic battles help to show that Beowulf definitely fits the pattern of an epic poem.
The god-like hero is another characteristic of epic poetry. Beowulf, himself, definitely fits this role. In Beowulf’s swimming competition with Breca, the two swam for five days without stopping, with Beowulf at the same time both fighting and killing sea creatures and defeating Breca. No normal human could withstand such extreme conditions, endure such a great physical toll, and perform such brave feats. Beowulf is also willing to risk his life to come to the aid of Hrothgar and his subjects, knowing he might lose his life in return. Self-sacrifice to achieve glory is certainly one of his heroic, god-like qualities. As mentioned in the previous paragraph, Beowulf defeats three supernatural creatures---Grendel, his mother, and the dragon---to save the lives of the Danes and the...