Definition of Epic: is Beowulf an epic?

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       It may be noted at the beginning that the world's great epics group themselves into two divisions, which may be roughly defined as the natural and the artificial. "The spontaneous or self-created epic is a confluence of traditions, reduced to symmetry by the hand of a master. Such are The Iliad, the Odyssey, the Great Indian epics etc. In such instances, it may be fairly said that the theme has chosen the poet, rather than the poet, the theme. When the epic is a work of reflection, (artificial epic) the poet has deliberately selected his subject and has not in general, relied so much upon the wealth of the existing materials as upon the capabilities of a single circumstance. Such are the epics of Virgl, lasso and Milton. Dante perhaps stands alone as the one epic poet who owes everything but his Creed to his invention. The traditional epic, created by the people and only moulded by the minstrel, has become one of such paramount importance that the literary epic has been in danger of neglect" (R. Garnett) The division has also been made into the primitive and later', from the standpoint of time.

Beowulf (Epic)
Beowulf (Epic)

     Now, Beowulf obviously belongs to the former group, primitive traditional or natural. Of its actual authorship there is little evidence. It grew out of the traditional legends, loosely connected, which were at last reduced to an apparent unity or harmony by the intervention of a conscious artist. It was probably a monk who finally handled the story and infused Christian sentiments into a Pagan story. The Pagan and Christian elements in the poem go all together and are incongruous. As a critic said, "This is, indeed, a poem which has come of a cold cell in a Northumbrian cloister". The gloomy outlook on life and nature as revealed in the poem is from the religious poet, while the glorification of exploits, courage and endurance is essentially in the Pagan vein.

      Beowulf cannot be called a true epic. Though certain episodes and the sustained gravity of tone tend to make Beowulf a historical poem, the incidents of the plot are romantic and supernatural. Adventures of monsters and dragons are more like a nursery tale than a heroic narrative. There is no perfection of technique as in the Homeric epic. There is also want of epic unity. There is striking incongruity between realism of some pictures and the obstinate idealism which gradually turns the strong armed fighter into a sort of saint. The hero has no seriousness of the type shown by Achilles. He has folk-lore characteristics. His change at the end conflicts with the epic idea ot objective description. As a matter of fact, Beowulf anticipates later mediaeval adventures and chivalrous romances.

      But still Beowulf is a specimen of epic poetry in an evolutionary stage, and the poet never abandons the noble epic tone. The epic style requires concrete phrases instead of abstract expressions, figurative way of describing things by picturesque compounds, permanent cpithets and repctitions, uniform stately movement of rhythmic language and broad periods. Of these requirements we find enough in Beowulf. There are expressions like "to prepare the murder bed" for to "kill", "seawood" for the ship and many Iigurative ways of describing things by picturesque compounds. The manner is epic, dignificd and elaborate with the of vision, vigorous speeches, richiness of details in descriptions, specially of wild scenes, of terror and gloom as well as of court and its manners. Diffuseness in the treatment of stories and in the general construction of the plot is also found. Inspite of grandeur, there is simplicity and directness in characterisation as well as in ideas. Broad and well-defined characterisation with a faithful representation of national life and manners is the interesting characteristic of Beowulf. Beowulf is the earliest hero in English literature with his love of glory, adventures in foreign land. He is gifted with iron resolution, fearlessness and dutifulness. His another quality is his spirit of self-sacrifice. He declines the throne in favour of his infant cousin. The poet's own description of the hero as a King of the World", "to his people most kindly", "for praise most eager", "of men the mildest", is evidentiy a summing-up of the attributes of an ideal hero as conceived by the Teutonic people. Other characters are less complex. There are few but firm outlines in the portrayal of two other characters - Hrothgar and Wislaf. General treatment is in the epic manner but the speech are not long and vigorous. The sustained epic dignity appears in the movement of the narrative which carries away petty incongruities. The narrative is marked by rapid movement.

      Beowulf however, holds a special position in the Anglo-Saxon literature, because it is the only complete extant epic of its kind in the ancient Germanic language. Nowhere else has a traditional theme been handled in a long narrative poem with a background that reveals the culture and society of the heroic age of Germanic people. It is impossible to determine conclusively whether Beowulf was the only Anglo-Saxon epic. It can at least be said that it is a poem theatrically impressive in its handling ot narrative verse, remarkably sucessful in rendering that combination of heroic idealism and heroic fatalism which seemed to have part of the Germanic temper. It is structurally weak and provides insufficient unity of tone to hold together effectively the central episodes and many digressions that abound in the poem. On the surface Beowulf is a heroic poem celebrating the exploits of a great warrior whose character and actions are held up as a model of aristocratic virtue. It reflects the ideal of that state of society which is called the heroic age. Rightly speaking, Beowulf is neither an epic nor a ballad; it is a mixture of historical events, heroic legends, heathen myths and Christian religion.

      Beowulf cannot be a national epic, for neither its characters, nor its events belong to Anglo-Saxon England. There is however no trace of the story in continental Germanic cycles. Only the similarity of incidents is observed with certain Scandinavian sagas.

      The origin of the story was perhaps derived from the expedition of the Goths led by Hygelac over the Franks. Hygelac fell in that battle. In this battle Beowulf was a soldier of the defeated army and distinguished himselt by valour. King Hygelac has been identified with Cochilacus reported in the history of Gregory to have led an expedition to the Rhine in the first quarter of the 6th century A.D. Gordon identifies Hygelac as a King of South Sweden. Beowulf is supposed to have accompanied him and achieved some glory in that cdisastrous campaign. There was consequent celebrity of the hero and heroic lays were composed upon him Beowulf has a marked difference from the general tone of Norse literature in its lack of violent strangeness, in its rather tamed wildness and in its predominant moral tendencies. Beowulf was probably at first a poem of short independent lays which was sung by the minstrels. They were welded together into a final form probably by a Christian compiler. He introduced many digressions and carefully removed Pagan references in it and infused a Christian spirit in the 7th and early 8th century.

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