Beowulf as an Epic Poem

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In the following essay, Helen Conrad-O'Briain discusses the epic elements of and analyzes the Anglo-Saxon epic techniques the Beowulf poet used in the poem. She also compares the character of Beowulf with other epic heroes and reviews several of the themes of the work, including the role of God and providence and the futile, transitory nature of human existence. Michael Alexander, a translator of Beowulf, begins his entry on the epic in A Dictionary of Modern Critical Terms with Milton's "great argument" and "answerable style," that is, an important theme and a style to match, to define epic. He continues, "classically trained critics, expecting art to see life steadily and see it whole, look for an idealized realism and debar folklore and romance elements." Paraphrasing and then quoting the critic Northrup Frye, Alexander accepts that "these stories recapitulate the life of the individual and the race. The note of epic is its objectivity: 'It is hardly possible to overestimate the importance for western literature of the Iliad's demonstration that the fall of an enemy, no less than of a friend or leader, is tragic and not comic.'" According to this definition, Beowulf somehow combines the elements which define the epic with other elements which seem to come from the world of "Jack the Giant Killer" and "Three Billy Goats Gruff." Beowulf is, indeed, on one level a very simple story told with great elaboration. A man of great strength, courage, and generosity fights three monsters, two when he is a young man, the third in his old age. Other more complicated human events precede these, others intervene, others will follow, but those more realistic events are all essentially background. To some earlier critics as to W. P. Kerr in Epic and Romance, the choice of a folktale main narrative was a serious fault. Monsters lacked the dignity to carry the "great argument" with "answerable style." But Beowulf is a true epic in its breadth of interests and sympathies, even though it is centered on the career of one man killing three monsters. The action and the characters of this apparently simple story have the strength to embody the experience and ideals of the original audience. The monsters participate in evil and disorder as no human, even Heremod, could, but the evil that originates purely within the human heart is not overlooked. Transforming both the fairy tale monsters and the sordid power politics of the background is the objective recognition of human struggle for understanding and order. This is the hallmark of human experience seen through the lense of epic technique. In Beowulf the narrator and characters use human experience to understand the human condition and to find the noblest way to live their lives. In part Beowulf's epic inclusiveness comes from the narrator's often short observations, which place the poem in a larger, transcendent context. The narrator periodically reminds the reader of the over-arching providence of God as in lines 1056-58: "except that God in his wisdom and the man's courageous spirit withstood him. The Lord God ruled over all men, as he now yet does." In part the epic breadth comes from the characters, particularly Beowulf and Hrothgar. It is Beowulf's generosity of spirit and imaginative sympathy for individuals, which introduce characters like the old man mourning his executed son or the young girl Freawaru facing a political marriage. It is that same generosity of spirit and sympathy which allows him to speak objectively of the "sin and crime on both sides" in the war between the Geats and Swedes (lines 2472-73). Hrothgar, the old king of the Danes, a man who has known triumph and disaster, looks back across his long life and reaches into the workings of the human heart and out into the realities of time and circumstances to understand human sorrow and evil. The inclusiveness of Beowulf reaches backwards and forwards in time. The short narratives embedded in the main narrative...
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