Beowulf as Epic
What makes an epic? Is Beowulf an epic? ? ? ? What is an epic poem, and how does it differ from other kinds of poetry or storytelling? How have epic poems traditionally been transmitted from generation to generation? How do tellers remember these long and complicated stories? According to Robert Harris’s Glossary of Literary Terms, he defines an epic as the following: Epic. An extended narrative poem recounting actions, travels, adventures, and heroic episodes and written in a high style (with ennobled diction, for example).
It may be written in hexameter verse, especially dactylic hexameter, and it may have twelve books or twenty four books. Characteristics of the classical epic include these: ? ? ? ? ? ? ? The main character or protagonist is heroically larger than life, often the source and subject of legend or a national hero The deeds of the hero are presented without favoritism, revealing his failings as well as his virtues The action, often in battle, reveals the more-than-human strength of the heroes as they engage in acts of heroism and courage
The setting covers several nations, the whole world, or even the universe The episodes, even though they may be fictional, provide an explanation for some of the circumstances or events in the history of a nation or people The gods and lesser divinities play an active role in the outcome of actions All of the various adventures form an organic whole, where each event relates in some way to the central theme Typical in epics is a set of conventions (or epic machinery). Among them are these: ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ? ?
Poem begins with a statement of the theme (“Arms and the man I sing”) Invocation to the muse or other deity (“Sing, goddess, of the wrath of Achilles”) Story begins in medias res (in the middle of things) Catalogs (of participants on each side, ships, sacrifices) Histories and descriptions of significant items (who made a sword or shield, how it was decorated, who owned it from generation to generation) Epic simile (a long simile where the image becomes an object of art in its own right as well as serving to clarify the subject).
Frequent use of epithets (“Aeneas the true”; “rosy-fingered Dawn”; “tallmasted ship”) Use of patronymics (calling son by father’s name): “Anchises’ son” Long, formal speeches by important characters Journey to the underworld Use of the number three (attempts are made three times, etc. ) Previous episodes in the story are later recounted Examples: ? ? ? ? ? Homer, Iliad Homer, Odyssey Virgil, Aeneid Tasso, Jerusalem Delivered Milton, Paradise Lost Handout: Elements of an Epic While reading Beowulf, complete the chart of elements. Discussion Questions and/or possible essay topics: . What stories and movies fit this description / pattern? Hint: Troy – Brad Pitt; Luke/Leia … what other trilogies have been made popular? 2. Use the Elements of an Epic (chart handout) and map the elements from a contemporary movie/book that you think is an epic. 3. In the examples you came up with, what is the hero’s relationship with his homeland (whether that place is ancient Greece or the imaginary Middle Earth)? 4. Why would traveling bards localize elements of the stories they told as they traveled from one city or town to the next? 5.
Does changing the time, place, or details such as the style of dress in the “updated” story affect the main elements of the story, or the story’s message? 6. Why do story tellers (including movie directors) change the story to bring it closer in time and space to its audience? 7. Define “oral tradition” and “literary tradition. ” 8. Write a short essay explaining at least one mnemonic device that would have helped bards in remembering poems that were thousands of verses long. 9. BEOWULF is set in a male-dominated world full of violence and danger.
What role does patriarchal history play in this world? Why does it matter to the warriors who their ancestors were? 10. How is BEOWULF structured? How does this structure relate to the theme or themes of the work as a whole? 11. What role does the mead-hall play in Anglo-Saxon warrior culture? What is the proper relationship between a lord and his warriors? What examples can you find throughout Beowulf? 12. What is the role of women in the heroic culture of Beowulf? 13. How does treasure function in Beowulf?
How do the characters and the poet seem to feel about the element of gold, as it appears throughout the poem? 14. What role do the digressions play in Beowulf? What light do they shed on the main action? 15. Is Beowulf an ideal hero and king? Is there anything lacking in his character? 16. Would you say that the characters in Beowulf are as psychologically complex those in modern works of literature? Do they undergo any development as the poem progresses? References (APA) Harris, Robert(2010). A Glossary of LIteratary Terms. Retrieved 27 December 2011. http://virtualsalt. com/litterms2. htm