Epic is probably one of the most fascinating forms of ancient narratives and its contribution to the growth and evolution of literature cannot be overestimated. To seek a clear definition of an epic would be a futile attempt since there appears to be lesser consensus on its definition than we have on tax cuts today. Philosopher, writers and oral masters since the times of Aristotle to Seamus Heaney have argued about various critical features of an epic, and while all agree it's a long narrative eulogizing the heroic deeds of the protagonists, there appears to be no agreement among on a clear definition that could highlight other essential features of epic narrative. Roughly epic is a term used by historians for "a number of works belonging to the earlier Middle Ages, and to the medieval origins of modern literature. "Epic" is a term freely applied to the old school of Germanic narrative poetry, which in different dialects is represented by the poems of Hildebrand, of Beowulf, of Sigurd and Brynhild." (Ker: 3)
While some critics consider epic a form of oral traditions that is transformed into a literary narrative, other view "...the heroic epic as a cultural rather than a literary phenomenon. Epic poems grew out of appropriate cultural conditions, the so-called Heroic Age bridging nomadic and sedentary stages of civilization..." (Oinas: 1)
One reason for this disagreement and lack of consensus on definition of the term epic originates from the character of protagonist and the attributes he is assigned. Who is an epic hero? How is he different from other heroes and is he supposed to be a virtuous being, absolutely free of faults or is he someone like Aristotle's tragic hero who brings on his own downfall due to his character flaws. The answer to this question has given rise to a passionate debate on the definition of epic as W. Macneile Dixon (1912) explained: "The discussion of the hero's character exhibits similar disagreement. Unlike the hero of tragedy, who should not, according to Aristotle, be either faultless or a ruffian, the epic hero should be perfectly virtuous, says Tasso, but, argues Dryden, it is not necessary that the manners of the hero should be immaculate; they are practically good if they are of a piece, and though Achilles is the protagonist of the Iliad we must abhor his cruelty to a dead enemy, and the sale of that enemy's body, Hector's, to his father Priam." (3-4)
However there are some characteristics that closer study of epic heroes reveals. They all exhibit a fearless spirit and are often more courageous in face of danger than is good for them. They may or may not have character flaws for while Sir Gawain exhibit weakness on some occasions in Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight, Beowulf was an epitome of virtue and morality. His character flaw however doesn't interfere with his blind ambition and his courageous pursuit of his goals. The nature of those goals may however differ from epic to epic. We shall now discuss Beowulf in great details and show what were usually considered essential features of epic poem and heroes.
Beowulf is an epic poem written somewhere between 750-1000 A.D. Exact year is not known because the poem was anonymously written but from what historians have learned from style of writing and language suggest that it was written during or after seventh century. The language is a form of England that is almost impossible to understand today and for this reason readers usually rely on translations of the work. The language which is called Old English or Anglo Saxon however has been used skillfully and creatively to depict various themes in the true poetic style of those days.
Commenting on the language of the poem, critic Heaney Seamus (2000) writes: "The fact that the English language has changed so much in the last thousand years means, however, that the poem is now generally read in translation and mostly in English courses at schools and universities. This has contributed to the impression that it was written (as Osip Mandelstam said of The Divine Comedy) "on official paper," which is unfortunate, since what we are dealing with is a work of the greatest imaginative vitality, a masterpiece where the structuring of the tale is an elaborate as the beautiful contrivances of its language. Its narrative elements may belong to a previous age but as a work of art it lives in its own continuous present, equal to our knowledge of reality in the present time."
Surprisingly, while the language itself was old, the poetic descriptions are thoroughly modern. In one scene near the end of the poem, a Geat woman loudly mourns the death of her beloved hero, Beowulf and the scene is described in such a way that it appears to be coming from straight from some modern poet or writer. This aspect of the poem is responsible for keeping it fresh and young and modern readers can thus relate to it quite easily. In this particular scene, it is so easy for a modern reader to fathom the depth of her grief:
On a height they kindled the hugest of all/funeral fires; fumes of woodsmoke/billowed darkly up, the blaze roared/and drowned out their weeping, wind died down/and flames wrought havoc in the hot bone-house,/burning it to the core. They were disconsolate / and wailed aloud for their lord's decease./A Geat woman too sang out in grief;/7with hair bound up, she unburdened herself/of her worst fears, a wild litany/of nightmare and lament: her nation invaded,/enemies on the rampage, bodies in piles,/slavery and abasement. Heaven swallowed/the smoke.
The poem, it is believed, was written in England however the events it describes all take place in Scandinavian region and when they took place is not known. The author assumes we are familiar with the date of occurrence of these events and therefore chooses not to pay attention to those details. For this reason, we are in the dark both about the date of these events and their reality/authenticity. Whether these events actually occurred is one question that critics and readers have pondered for a long time with no concrete answer. However some are of the view that even if these battles never took place or are symbolic in nature, they must have been inspired by some real events. Many critics also believe that the poem must have existed as an oral tale before it was written down. But since the source of inspiration is missing or unknown, modern critics have started focusing more on the content and language of the poem to learn something about the true intent and purpose of the epic and also about the date of its origin.
Critics have some disagreement over the actual source and date of the epic; they however unanimously agree that Beowulf is a magnificent work of art. It is not simply a lyrical tale of gallantry and courage and neither it is merely a poem about good vs. evil where the former triumphs in the end. It is actually a work "of cultivated craftsmanship, sophisticated rather than primitive in form, and definitely influenced by literary and religious tradition. The influence of the Christian faith is marked and pervasive. There are evidences, also, which seem to support opinion that the author of the Beowulf was familiar with the works of Virgil, and that the structure and development of the poem were influenced by epic tradition as illustrated in the Aeneid... The material, then, from which the story and setting of the Beowulf were fashioned was in its origin Continental. Of this alien and pagan material the Old English poet has shaped a poem courtly in mood, suggestive of epic tradition, and Christian in spirit. It is a mark of the poet's skill that the elements derived from these various and varied sources, from chronicle and legend, from folk-tale and lay, have been deftly integrated, and fused into a new unity."
(Charles W. Kennedy x-xi)
The story that the epic illustrates is simple yet extremely colorful and rich. It combines every important element of medieval poetry and weaves it into a fairy tale that turns surprisingly realistic near the end. Unlike most others similar tales including Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, the protagonist in Beowulf is a man of limited powers who dies in the end during a feud with the dragon. The theme revolves around the traditional good vs. evil conflict but it has been presented in a manner that makes it surprisingly fresh and original. The story begins when Beowulf, a warrior in the land of Geats and a man of honor, decides to rid the Danes of a man-eating monster, Grendel. Geats is shown to be situated somewhere in southern Sweden and Beowulf is a well-known warrior of this place. He is a man of good repute, known for his courage and gallantry. When he returns from Danes after successfully clearing the land…