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... [continues]
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