Written between the 8th and 11th century, “Beowulf” is the oldest known poem written in Old English. The poem is a prime example of a literary epic, focusing on the heroic quest of its title character, Beowulf, a Scandinavian warrior. The key aspects that make “Beowulf” an excellent example of an epic poem relate to his narrative, length, some of the common “epic” devices it uses, and its description of magic and mystical characters and creatures.
Two of the most obvious characteristics of epic poetry are its length and narrative quality. Unlike lyric poems, which can be short reflections on a single object or person, epic poems are quite long -- often the length of a novel -- and they present a narrative or story that features many objects and characters. “Beowulf” contains more than 3,000 lines, and more than 30 characters. The lengthy poem tells the complicated story of the eponymous hero Beowulf’s battle with Grendel, Grendel’s mother and a dragon.
Lists, Speeches and Themes
Epic poems often feature lengthy lists known as “epic lists” and long speeches by main characters. “Beowulf” includes epic lists of the hero’s lineage as well as the regions over which his kingdom has dominion. Additionally, there are several lengthy speeches by characters ranging from Beowulf to Grendel and Grendel’s mother. There also are several “narrative” speeches in which the narrator reflects on the theme or meaning of the narrative action in the poem. The majority of these latter speeches occur between Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel and his battle with the dragon 50 years later that results in his fatal wounding.
“Beowulf” focuses on the rule of its title character, the ruler of the Geats in Scandinavia. Although Beowulf already is a well-renowned hero as the poem starts, his greatest challenges are described over the course of the poem. These include his protection of Hrothgar from the brutal attacks of the monster Grendel as well as the retributive attacks of Grendel’s monstrous mother. Beowulf returns home after these battles to become king of his people. Fifty years after his defeat of Grendel’s mother, Beowulf must protect his people from a marauding dragon that is destroying the countryside because a thief stole a golden cup from its lair. Although Beowulf is successful in defeating the dragon, he is mortally wounded in the battle. The poem concludes with Beowulf’s burial.
Descent Into a Magic Underworld
A significant aspect of Beowulf’s heroic quest is his descent into the underground lair of Grendel’s mother after she attacks Hrothgar’s mead hall to avenge her son’s death. Beowulf is armed with an apparently magical sword called Hrunting, which proves to be no match for Grendel’s mother’s power. Ultimately, Beowulf is able to behead Grendel’s mother -- as well as Grendel, whom he finds deeper in the lair -- using a magical sword he discovers in the lair’s treasure. The description of both the magic as well as the trip into and out of an underworld are common aspects of epic poems.