Three Facts About the Epic Poem "Beowulf"

"Beowulf" is the oldest of the epic poems produced in Great Britain with its manuscript still extant and its heroism rooted in tradition. That simple sentence encapsulates three "facts" about "Beowulf", but these brief statements, if analyzed, lead to the larger facts about this particular work.

Beowulf's Provenance

One fact about "Beowulf" is its provenance. Preserved as the oldest Anglo-Saxon poem written in the vernacular of Old English rather than Latin or Greek, "Beowulf" stands as one work that is quintessential to British Literature, just as the "Iliad" of Homer is quintessential to ancient Greek writings. While it is far shorter than, say, "The Odyssey" -- a mere 3100 lines compared to the 22 books of Homer -- it is a foundational piece, since so many authors of British literature, from Shakespeare to Ian McEwan, borrow its epic elements.

Beowulf's Archetypes

This leads to a second fact about "Beowulf," its establishment of archetypes. The hero is a stranger in a strange land; this archetypal character is replicated as Othello in Shakespeare's play, Valentine Smith in Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land," Ahab in Melville's "Moby Dick" and even Kal-El in DC comics, better known as Superman. He goes on a quest for glory, a situational archetype familiar to everyone from readers of Kipling to fans of Indiana Jones. And, like Odysseus and Aragorn in "Lord of the Rings," he slays archetypal monsters.

Beowulf's Hubris

The third fact about "Beowulf" is that its titular character demonstrates the same weaknesses found in tragic heroes of Greek plays: he suffers from hubris or a god-defying pride. He begins as a stalwart youth, dismembering Grendel barehanded; he ends as a ridiculous old fellow clothed in pounds of useless armor, all of which melts on his back. His battle with the dragon is a fiasco; Wiglaf must assist in the monster's demise. Only at the epic's end when he is dying does Beowulf express concern for his community; most of his previous deeds have been self-serving.

Facts and Great Literature

The facts in the case of Beowulf enhance the work's greatness. The manuscript's survival puts it at the forefront of literary history; its archetypes make it a fountainhead for works to come. Most vitally, its flawed hero continues to speak to us as readers, for it is in his weaknesses, particularly when he is old and infirm, that he is most like us.

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