Analysing Beowulf as an Epic of Old English Literature

An epic is a long narrative poem dealing with some acts of heroism of heroic personalities. It is a short of heroic poetry essentially idealistic in concept and tone. The celebrated Beowulf, the most important work of Old English literature is characterized as the first great titanic epic. It is a non-Christian work of pre-Christian time. It is classed as an epic of growth-  tales clustered round some heroic character or characters.




According to Aristotle an epic must have “unite of action”, entirety of action and “greatness of action”. The very first condition i, e, unity of action is not fulfilled by “Beowulf”. It is made up two distinctive narrations. The second qualification of an epic calls for the completeness of action in all parts. The action of the epic must have a beginning middle and an end but there is no central action in the epic ‘Beowulf’. So it looks more like a collection of heroic episodes like a dramatic epic. The third characteristic of an epic relates to the magnitude of action which hardly be found in ‘Beowulf’. The poem has it the weight or dignity of an epic poem. It is more like a nursery tale full of dragons and monsters than epic.

The poem consists of 3182 lines, each line with four accents marked by alliteration and divided into two parts by a caesura. The structure of the typical Beowulf line comes through in modern translation, for example:

"Then came from the moor under misted cliffs
Grendel marching God’s anger he bore..."

There was also some other factors which may well be mentioned to show that Beowulf is not an epic, first the length of the poem is inconsiderable. A poem of some three thousand lines (3182) can hardly be taken as an epic proper.
Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf
Grendel’s vengeful mother
The second, Beowulf has a very few epic similes which are decked essential to epic poetry. Third, Beowulf looks the great style of Homer, Virgil, or Milton. But in spite of all these draw backs “Beowulf” has some epic question which one can afford to ignore. The poem has many respects an epic style. Beowulf deals with the achievements of a heroic personality. An epic is a pattern of heroic poetry. So, Beowulf is a fine specimen of primitive heroic poetry. Beowulf certainly lacks the unity of action, as it presents, two completely separate events these events are however, and concerned with one heroic character, Beowulf thus though the hero an indirect unity is achieved and is a part of the epic character of Beowulf.


The noble ending of the poem is essentially Homeric. After a glorious reign of fifty years Beowulf is mortally wound while fighting’s a dragon that was ravaging the kingdom. The poem ends with the burning of Beowulf body and treasures on a funeral pure amid the lamentation of the people. A Monumental borrow was built to perpetuate his memory. It has rightly said “Sear the literature of the world and you will find no such picture of a brave man’s death”. The funeral can match the funeral with the Trojans held for Hector. Indeed what achieves is to the Greek Beowulf is to the English man.


Thus we may conclude by saying that Beowulf though not a full-fledged epic still be regarded as a specimen of epic poetry in evolution. It is epic in kind if not in degree.


Ref: 1. History of English Literature- Albert     

         2. Microsoft Students’ Encarta 

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