Beowulf is a fascinating epic poem that was composed between 975 and 1025 A.D. by an unknown Anglo-Saxon author (Chase 9). The story revolves around a brave Geatish warrior, Beowulf, who comes to the aid of King Hrothgar of Denmark after hearing that his people have been living in fear of a monstrous troll called Grendel. Frustrated by the loud, joyful sounds coming from the feasting hall that King Hrothgar had built for his people, Grendel attacks the Danes every night, killing them in their sleep.
From a formal perspective, Beowulf is regarded as an epic poem because 1) it is written in verse, 2) it features a particularly elevated language and 3) it relates the actions of a glorious hero in a narrative form (Steinberg). According to Aristotle (XXVI), epic poetry is very similar to tragedy in that they are both concerned with imitation and depict people as better than they actually are; however, while tragedy imitates by means of melody and spectacle, epic relies exclusively on words to achieve mimesis. From a thematic perspective, an epic poem should contain five elements, namely a hero who succeeds where everybody else has failed, extraordinary deeds that allow the hero to exhibit his superior strength and / or valor, a journey (across a vast land or into the underworld), supernatural elements (demons, deities, time travel, cheating death etc.), and an omniscient narrator.
Beowulf contains all of these elements: the main character is a resourceful warrior who manages to tear Grendel’s arm off as soon as he arrives in Denmark, thus proving to be stronger and smarter than the many Danish warriors who confronted the monster before him. Beowulf’s bravery emerges several times throughout the poem: after defeating Grendel, the hero dives into a lake inhabited by sea monsters to reach the cave where Grendel and his mother live; once there, he kills the monster’s mother, whose anger and resentment pose a threat to the Danes; many years later, a much older and weaker Beowulf saves his own people from a terrifying dragon. All of Beowulf’s foes (including Grendel’s mother, who fights like a true Amazon) possess superhuman abilities that would frighten any ordinary man. However, being Beowulf an epic hero, he would do anything to ensure the safety of his friends, including losing his own life. The story involves two journeys across the sea (although relatively brief): at first, Beowulf has to sail from Geatland to Denmark in order to kill Grendel and rescue the Danes; after completing his mission, he returns to his homeland, where he spends the rest of his life. Also, the events are reported by an omniscient author who has full access to the character’s thoughts and feelings.
Despite being a mortal man, Beowulf takes it upon himself to fight three supernatural villains (after all, Grendel’s mother is portrayed like a demonic creature who lives at the bottom of a swamp) without any divine assistance. Thanks to his courage, strength and superior skills, he succeeds in protecting those who cannot protect themselves, which is what makes him a true hero. In the final act of the poem, he agrees to confront a fire-breathing dragon knowing that this quest will probably be his last. After receiving a fatal wound from the dragon, Beowulf manages to stab him in the belly and before dying, he thanks god for the treasure that he has won and retrieved for the Geats. As a result of his victories and ultimate sacrifice, Beowulf is loved and celebrated by people across Scandinavia, who regard him as the human embodiment of the ideals that characterize their culture, i.e. skillfulness, bravery and generosity.
- Aristotle. Poetics (335 B.C.). 2013, https://www.gutenberg.org/files/1974/1974-h/1974-h.htm. 10 December 2018.
- Chase, Colin. The Dating of Beowulf. University of Toronto Press, 1997.
www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/j.ctt1287v33. 10 December 2018.
- Steinberg, Theodore Louis. Twentieth-century Epic Novels. Newark: University of Delaware Press.