EARLIEST ENGLISH EPIC POEMS: BEOWULF

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INTRODUCTION

Beowulf is an Anglo-Saxon epic consisting of three thousand, one hundred and eighty two (3182) alliterative long lines, set in Scandinavia. It is arguably the first Anglo-Saxon epic as it is the earliest surviving epic of Anglo-Saxon literature. “Beowulf” is an important Anglo-Saxon poem to be studied in this course. The long narrative epic depicts the conquests, history and culture of the Danes.

What is an Epic?

An epic is a long narrative poem on a serious subject representing characters of heroic stature in adventures of great historical, legendary, or religious significance. The following are characteristics of an epic.

  • The setting of the work is vast in scope, covering a whole nation, the world, or even the universe.
  • The actions described in the work are deeds of great valor, often requiring super human strength, intelligence, or endurance.
  • Supernatural forces (gods, angels, demons) take interest in the action and intervene from time to time.
  • An elevated style and diction, deliberately distanced from everyday speech, is used throughout the poem.

In most epic poems, the poet begins the work by stating his topic and by calling upon the Muse of Epic Poetry for help in rising to the task. This convention is known as the invocation to the Muse, a part of which is the epic statement of theme. The poet opens his narrative in medias res (Latin expression for ‘middle of the action’). The preceding history is then supplied at various points throughout the remainder of the work by means of retrospection, similar to the flashback of the modern novel.

This is exemplified in the story of another Beowulf who has lived before the great Beowulf. There is also a retelling of the story of a good king who “throve under heaven in power and pride/till alien peoples beyond the ocean/Paid toll and tribute. A good king he!” (Lines 7-10). It is a form introduction to the heritage of greatness into which Hrothgar has grown as a Danish king. Another good example could be found in Lines 993- 1050, which is supposed to give the background of a praise song performed in honour of Beowulf after the slaying of Grendel.

It tells of a story a Danish king, Hnaef who was killed while on a visit to his sister and her spouse, Finn the king of the Jutes in Finnsburg. His people, led by Hengest, came back on a reprisal attack and killed the Jutes for this treachery but only stopped the destruction of the Jutes after a truce was reached- that king Finn would continually give gifts to the Danes to appease the death of their king and that if any Frisian attempted to refer to the unfortunate incidence, the jutes should avenge.

Meanwhile, Hengest and some Danish warriors remained with the Jutes but Hengest was ever thinking about avenging the death of his king. So, the opportunity came after winter and he murdered Finn, the king of the Jutes and returned to Danes land with the queen if the Jutes, thereby breaking the truce. Apart from using this to honour Beowulf and his men, it also performs another function which is explained in the next paragraph.

This story gives a hint of some of the cultural practices of the Anglo-Saxons such as revenge, burial rites which include pyre burning and the singing of dirge. Pyre burning refers to the burning of the dead with their belongings and treasures. This is the same way Beowulf is buried at the end of the poem. The story is therefore a prospective narrative as well, which tells the audience what is to happen later in the work or after the work.

The poet may also include many elaborate enumerations of subjects and items such as ships, warriors, armies, gifts etc; this kind of list is called an epic catalogue. In Beowulf, after the defeat of Grendel, king Hrothgar rewards Beowulf with gifts and they are described in elegant terms:

Hrothgar bestowed a standard of gold,

A banner embroidered, a bryny and a helm.

In sight of many, a costly sword…

To others on ale-bench, richer rewards,

Four such treasures fretted with gold!

Eight horses also with plated headstalls

The lord of heroes bade lead into hall;

On one was saddle skillfully fashioned

And set with jewels, the battle-seat…

And the prince of Ingwines gave all these gifts

To the hand of Beowulf, horses and armor;

Bade him enjoy them! With generous heart

The noble leader, the lord of heroes,

Rewarded the struggle with steeds and with treasure,

So that none can belittle, and none can blame,

Who tells the tale as it truly happened (lines 946 -975)

Gift-giving as part of the Anglo-Saxon culture is giving prominence in the poem. Many lords like Hrothgar are portrayed as generous leaders who do not allow the efforts and loyalty of their warriors to go unrewarded. The gifts are elaborately described in order to show both the generosity of the giver and the greatness of the acts of the hero.

The poet also uses extended and elaborate formal speeches or monologues by the main characters. These speeches are also called epic boast if they are delivered before a war takes place of whenever a great person introduces himself. Beowulf introduces himself to king Hrothgar in Lines 400-411 with an epic boast, recounting the great and heroic deeds he has performed before embarking on the quest to exterminate Grendel:

The best of my people, prudent and brave,

Urged me, King Hrothgar, to seek you out;

They had in remembrance my courage and might,

Many had seen me come safe from conflict,

Bloody from battle; five foes I bound

Of the giant kindred, and crushed their clan.etc

The boast is expected to encourage the speaker, his hearers and followers, especially the king that he has come to help. Since this is their first meeting, Beowulf takes his audience through the many feats he has performed so that they might be reassured that they have the right person for the job. Beowulf’s last boast in the poem is found just before he goes to kill the dragon, which incidentally is his last act:

I came in safety through many conflicts

In the days of my youth; and now even yet,

Old as I am, I will fight this feud,

Do manful deeds, if the dire destroyer

Will come from his cavern to meet my sword’ (Lines 2369-2373)

The poet also gives a detailed family background, epic genealogy, for many of the heroes. Importance is attached to paternal lineage. The poet refers to a hero by his patronymic, which means a form of the father’s name with an ending meaning “son of”. Heorogar, hrothgar’s brother is describes as “the son of Healfdene” (Line 450), Unferth is referred to as “Ecglaf’s son” in Line 481 and Beowulf himself as “the son of Ecgtheow”. All these are great men begotten by heroes.

The poet also uses long, extended comparisons which are known as epic similes that make the unfamiliar familiar by stressing its similarity to observable, common phenomena and objects. The poet also uses many epithets, adjectives or adjectival phrases used to point out a characteristic quality of a person, a god, or less frequently, an animal or an object. Beowulf calls Hrothgar “Prince of the Danes, protector of Syldings,/Lord of nations, and leader of men, (lines 412-413). He describes his breastplate as “the best of corselets that covers my breast/heirloom of Hrethel, and Wayland’s work,/Finest of byrnies.” (Lines 437-438). This implies that the armor is not an ordinary one but a potent one crafted by a skillful magical smith. Also, the rest of Beowulf’s weapons like his helmet and sword are elaborately described in Lines 1327-11349.

The poet may also rely on the use of kennings which mean metaphoric expressions employed to render vivid narrations. Examples: Grendel’s mother is tagged “battle-flasher” (Line 1407), the sun is named the “world-candle” in Line 1839 and Beowulf is called the “shoulder-companion” of Hygelac in Line1846. They are epithets deployed to intimate the audience with the qualities of these subjects.

The use of foreshadowing, which means warning about something bad that is about to happen, is also common in epic poetry. Likewise, the use of rhetorical and poetic devices such as similes, metaphors, hyperbole and irony are also common features of epic poetry.

A Summary of Beowulf

Beowulf, a warrior and hero of the Geats in Scandinavia, comes to assist Hrothgar, the king of the Danes, whose Mead Hall in Heorot has been terrorized several times by a monster known as Grendel. He is the central figure in the poem and his actions or heroic deeds qualify the poem to be called an epic. These actions are discussed below. Beowulf confronts Grendel and slays him, Grendel’s mother attacks the hall and she is being defeated by Beowulf also. Beowulf goes home to Geatland in Sweden and later becomes king of the Geats. Fifty years after Grendel’s mother was defeated, Beowulf also defeats a dragon, but is fatally wounded in the battle. After his death, his attendants bury him in a tumulus, a burial mound, in Geatland.

According to Jane Chance in her article “The Structural Unity of Beowulf: The problem of Grendel’s Mother”, Beowulf has a two-part structure which is divided into the battle with Grendel and with the dragon and the battle with Grendel’s mother. The poem opens with the story of king Hrothgar, who built a very large hall named Heorot for his people. In it, he, his wife Weathpeow, and his warriors spend their time singing and celebrating, until Grendel, a troll-like monster who is disturbed by the noise of their merriment, attacks the hall and devours many of Hrothgar’s warriors while they sleep. But Grendel does not touch the throne of Hrothgar, for it is described as protected by a powerful god. Hrothgar and his people in their helplessness vacate Heorot.

Beowulf, a brave warrior from Geatland hears of Hrothgar’s troubles and with his king’s permission leaves his home land to help Hrothgar. Beowulf and his men spend the night in Heorot. Beowulf carries no arm because he wants to be like the beast that bears no arm. After they have slept, Grendel enters the hall and attacks, devouring one of Beowulf’s men. Beowulf, who has been pretending to sleep, leaps up to clench Grendel’s hand. The two fight to a standstill. Beowulf’s men arise to help but their swords cannot penetrate Grendel’s body. Eventually, Beowulf tears Grendel’s arm from his body while Grendel shouts and runs home to die.

The following night, after celebrating Grendel’s defeat, Hrothgar and his men sleep in Heorot. Grendel’s mother, angered by the punishment of her son, appears and attacks the hall. She kills Hrothgar’s most trusted warrior, Aeschere, in revenge for Grendel’s defeat.

Hrothgar, Beowulf and their men track Grendel’s mother to her home under a lake. Beowulf prepares himself for battle; he is presented with a sword by Unferth, a warrior who had doubted him and wishes to make amends. Having stipulated a number of conditions to Hrothgar in case of his death, Beowulf enters into the lake. He is quickly detected and attacked by Grendel’s mother. Nevertheless, she is unable to harm Beowulf through his armour and drags him to the bottom of the lake where Grendel’s mother and Beowulf engage in fierce combat.

Grendel’s mother seems to prevail initially, and Beowulf sensing that his sword cannot harm his foe discards it in fury. Beowulf grabs a magical sword from Grendel’s mother’s treasure, and with it beheads her. The blade of the magic sword melts like ice when it touches her toxic blood, until only the hilt is left. This hilt is the only treasure that Beowulf carries out of the cave, which he presents to Hrothgar upon his return to Heorot. Beowulf then returns to the surface and to his men at the “ninth hour”. Beowulf is greatly rewarded by Hrothgar in accordance with the culture of the Anglo-Saxons.

Beowulf returns home to become king of his own people. Fifty years after Beowulf’s battle with Grendel’s mother, a slave steals a golden cup from the lair of an unnamed dragon at Earnaness, when the dragon sees that the cup has been stolen, it leaves its cave in a rage, burning everything in sight. Beowulf and his warriors embattle the dragon. Later, Beowulf fights the dragon alone while his men wait. Beowulf fights with the dragon supported by Wiglaf and they both kill the dragon. Beowulf sustains a mortal injury during the fight with the dragon. Beowulf is buried in Geatland on a cliff over looking the sea.

Style/Epic Features in Beowulf

Beowulf is different from modern poetry. The original manuscript was written in old English and what we have now are translations of the original text. Though all translators claim to have rendered translations that are very close to the original text, there are some features that have most likely been introduced by them. For instance, whereas most translations are in verse, the translations by Thomas Arnold (1876) and J.M. Kemble (1833) are in prose, raising questions about the “poetic” quality of Beowulf. Being an oral poetry before it being converted into writing, the poem has many tales and legends about other warriors apart from Beowulf. In the first three lines of the poem,

Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements

The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,

How princes displayed then their prowess in battle (1-3).

The speaker talks about the things they have “heard of” which they now retell:

Great-minded Healfdane; the Danes in his lifetime

He graciously governed, grim-mooded, aged.

Four brains of his body born in succession

Woke in the world, war-troopers’ leader

Heorogar, hrothgar, and Halga the good;

Heard I that Elan was Ongentheow’s consort,

The well-beloved bedmate of the war-Scylfing leader (59-66).

Names and deeds of these great men are included in the epic to show the culture of heroism that was prevalent at the time among Anglo-Saxons.

Anglo-Saxon poets typically used alliterative verse, a form of verse that uses alliteration as the principal structuring device to unify lines of poetry, as opposed to other devices such as rhyme, a tool which is used rather infrequently. This is a technique in which the first half of the line (the a-verse) is linked to the second half (the b-verse) through similarity in initial sound. In addition, the two halves are divided by a caesura: “Oft Scyld Scefing \\ sceapena preatum” (Old English1-4). This is a form of accentual verse, as opposed to our accentual-syllabic verse. There are four beats in every line – and two in every half-line.

The poet also has a choice of epithets to use in order to fulfill the alliteration, The letter “h”, for example, is always pronounced (Hroðgar: HROTH-gar) and the digraph “cg” is pronounced like “dj”, as in the word “edge”. Both “f” and “s” vary in pronunciation depending on their phonetic environment. Between vowels or voiced consonants, they are voiced, sounding like modern “v” and “z”, respectively.

In addition to the fact that the poem narratives the great deeds of heroic figures, it also contains passages that are sometimes didactic and meditative geared towards teaching a moral or imparting some cultural values to the audience. Let us examine lines 19-25:

So must a young man strive for good

With gracious gifts from his father’s store,

That in later seasons, if war shall scourge,

A willing people may serve him well.

Tis by honour a man may rise

In every state. Then his hour struck,

And Scyld passed on to the peace of God

Here, the main story being told by the poet is that of the great Danish king named Scyld who had lived before Beowulf and is also shown to have been an accomplished leader. But in between the beginning of this story and the end is infused a word of advice to young people which we find in lines 19-24. This is a unique style of Beowulf as an Anglo-saxon poetry because apart from its didactic function, it shows the culture of the Anglo-Saxons that – giving gifts was a way of winning the hearts of one’s subjects as we find in this example. Again, in lines 626-628 are these words “Be mindful of glory, show forth your strength,/Keep watch against foe! No wish of your heart/Shall go unfulfilled if you lived through the fight”. Though they are the words of Hrothgar to the warriors before he left the hall for Beowulf and his men to face Grendel, they also apply to other listeners. Other meditative passages could be found in lines 928-933 and 984-987.

Another feature in the poem which makes it an epic is the narration of epic/historic tournaments and games some of which are described in lines 301-709. In these lines, some of the contests or games in which the hero, Beowulf has participated in and won are vividly described.

CONCLUSION

Beowulf is a tragedy. The tragedy of the hero becomes explicit in Part II; in his own death and in the destruction of his nation made inevitable by his death. The epic hero may defy augury, but his defiance is at the same time a resignation, recognition that man can achieve so much and that no man lives forever. Epic touches on the brevity of human life and on the wonder of man’s achievements. Epic also arouses poignancy and awe.

This article examines “Beowulf” as an epic poem during the Anglo-Saxon period. Beowulf is considered as a tragic hero in the poem. We are able to see various expeditions embarked upon by Beowulf. All these expeditions make him a result most especially as he dies for his country home.

 

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