Traditional Elements of the Epic Poem "Beowulf"
"Beowulf" is the oldest piece of English literature and is credited with being a quintessential piece of epic poetry. This epic poem was originally performed in the oral tradition by wandering minstrels called scopes ("shopes") until it was transcribed between 700 to 900 A.D. by an unknown author. The purpose of these oral tales was to record historical events, tracking the exploits of a larger-than-life hero who embodied national ideals while utilizing various themes and literary elements unique to the culture and genre.
Archetypal Epic Hero
An epic hero is a larger-than-life mortal figure from history or legend. The hero, usually a warrior, participates in a journey, faces adversaries, forms alliances and returns home significantly transformed. The epic hero illustrates traits, performs deeds and exemplifies morals that are valued by that society. In his quest to assist the Danes, Beowulf exhibits bravery, physical strength and mental cunning when battling monsters, which makes him appear superhuman and far superior to the average man. His loyalty and generosity toward his subjects -- the Thanes -- and kingdom of Geatland were paramount to the Anglo-Saxon culture as a model of leadership.
Themes in Beowulf
Emblematic Anglo-Saxon beliefs and codes of conduct are the predominant themes in the text. In the traditional theme of good vs. evil, the good -- Beowulf -- is pitted against evil, specifically demons, dragons and any creature from the underworld or Hell. Reputation is also an important theme. The text is primarily an account of heroic action. Beowulf's heroism is tied to the Anglo-Saxon/pagan belief that when mortals die, reputation is the only way to achieve an after-life. Beowulf represents the pinnacle for an Anglo-Saxon warrior and marks the prototype of a warrior king. The driving force in Beowulf is the theme of loyalty. The final episode chronicles this characteristic when Beowulf is fatally wounded, and Wiglaf is gifted the kingdom for remaining by his side.
Several literary devices in "Beowulf" denote its inclusion as Anglo-Saxon epic poetry. Beot is an Anglo-Saxon boast or promise. Typical beots claim to make the first strike or blow in battle or claim a sought-after spoil of war or the ability to slay a monster. Kenning is a short, condensed metaphor. It is a hyphenated compound word that incorporates figurative language in place of a single noun. For example, "king" is replaced by "gold-giver," while a "boat" is a "wave-walker." Caesura is the division of a line by instituting a pause. Where the pause is inserted will determine the type of Caesura -- initial, medial and terminal. Finally, epic simile is an explicit comparison to conceptualize an idea, often using "like" or "as," that reveals an unexpected likeness between two opposite things. For example, the ship sailed over the sea like a bird in flight.
Epic poetry tells the narrative tale in dark, austere and lofty language to create a formal tone. The narrator uses an episodic format that lacks back story, transitions between scenes and exhibits underdeveloped characterization to further support the idea that these tales serve predominately as historical narratives rather than mere literature.
- An Anthology of Beowulf Criticism; Lewis E Nicholson
- A Beowulf Handbook; Robert E. Bjork and John D. Niles, eds.
Peter Caruso has taught English at the secondary school level for more than 20 years. Currently he teaches seniors and dual enrollment for Mesa Community College and tutors English at Rio Salado Community College. He has been published in NASSP.