An epic is best described by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as a long narrative poem in elevated style recounting the deeds of a legendary or historical hero. Epics like “Beowulf” and “The Odyssey” are perfect examples of this definition; they are each centered on the deeds and triumphs of their heroes, Beowulf and Odysseus. All epics are similar in a way that they are made up of elements. One major element of the epic is its themes. In all epics, the themes are what make and mold these narrative poems, they descriptively outline the story.
Most epics, like “Beowulf” and “The Odyssey”, have themes like battles, homecoming, identity, recognition etc. Through themes like these, morals, values and traditions relating to the main characters’ customs and culture can be introduced to the reader. The setup and purpose of the story, through the theme(s), can also be introduced. Not only are the themes identity, battles, recognition and homecoming related to “Beowulf” and “The Odyssey”, but they are also linked to other epics as well. “The Odyssey” is best described as “a guide to the Greeks, a guide to literature and a guide to the complexities of society, identity, and home”.
There were many themes, both universal and timeless that thoroughly revealed the main ideas and issues of this legendary epic. The first and more stressed theme in “The Odyssey” is identity. “In Grecian times, the identities of human beings were associated with their properties, their name and their heritage or past”. A Greeks’ household was the foundation of his or her identity. Being that Odysseus was lost in search of his seized home, until he found it, he was considered a “nobody”, or as he called himself, a “no-man”. Like his home, Odysseus has to reclaim his great name as well. Without a name a man has no meaning or value. Not only does Odysseus search for his identity, but his son, Telemachus searches as well. Without knowing anything about his past (his father, Odysseus) Telemachus feels that he doesn’t know who he is or what he’s truly worth. Odysseus and Telemachus battle with their identities for the majority of the epic, which further explains why “identity” is one of the main themes. Next, the theme that relates to the theme of identity is homecoming.
This theme supports Odysseus’s long journey home. “In Greek, the tales of returning home were called Nostoi”. To the Greeks, homecoming meant “reclaiming heritage, identity and loved ones” . There were many obstacles (Gods, people etc.) in the epic that tried to deter Odysseus from reaching his home once again. In the epic, Homer shows the reader how Odysseus feels by saying this, “sitting on the seashore and his eyes were never wiped dry of tears, and the sweet lifetime was draining out of him, as he wept for a way home”. By including the ideas of loneliness and longing to be home, Homer creates the theme of homecoming. Another important theme in “The Odyssey” is battles. As well as searching for his identity and home all throughout the epic, Odysseus also had to defend himself throughout the epic. The battles in epics help build the character. They almost always result in victories and turn the main character(s) into legendary heroes. In “The Odyssey” there was not a battle that Odysseus lost, he even defeated the almighty Poseidon, god of the sea, by returning home. He had a lot of help from the goddess of wisdom, Athena. Without the main idea of “heroes” along with battles and villains, epics would be undefined. Battles, as a major theme in all epics, are needed to keep the story moving.
Like all the themes in “The Odyssey” each is linked to the other. The theme that is linked to the most important one in this epic, identity, is recognition. Recognition in this epic focuses on Odysseus and his disguise (an old man) that is given to him by Athena to help him reclaim his kingdom and his wife. Homer shows how Odysseus plots and schemes to take back everything he once owned. The whole idea of this theme is as he goes about with his disguise, only several of those closest to him recognize something familiar about him and see that he, the old man, is Odysseus. Although, his wife Penelope did not know until he turns back to his original being. Also, recognition is gained when Telemachus doubts that Odysseus is his father. But, Odysseus eventually persuades Telemachus to accept him as his father. As stated before, in Homer’s epic, “an identity cannot be claimed until recognition of that identity from others is claimed first”.
Like “The Odyssey”, “Beowulf” is also a legendary epic that includes the themes identity, homecoming, battles and recognition as its primary focus. In “Beowulf”, the themes homecoming and recognition are very closely related. When Beowulf returns to Geatland, he is greatly rewarded for his works. He reunites with King Hygelac and tells of his great adventures. Recognition is shown by Beowulf giving most of his treasure received to the King, and in return is awarded with treasure of his home from King Hygelac. Beowulf was praised and glorified for his homecoming(s) to Geatland and his return from his victories over Grendel and his mother. He wasrecognized as a “true hero”, an Anglo-Saxon hero to be exact. In “Beowulf”, Kingdoms acknowledged Beowulf by showering him with treasures, feasts and celebrations. Like God, to the Geats and Danes, he was worthy of all praises. He earned his recognition. That’s what the homecoming of a hero is all about, heroes being rewarded for their works and receiving the uttermost respect. Recognition is the actual reward received from the heroine act, whether its treasures or shouts and chants of the heroes’ name. Just as the themes homecoming and recognition in “Beowulf” are related, the themes battles and identity relate as well. The battles that Beowulf fight, in a way, reveals the person he really is and what he’s all about.
His triumph in each battle shows the reader that he is a true hero and that he’s willing to fight to be recognized and to gain a sense of self and national pride. “Beowulf” begins with a battle and ends with a final battle against the dragon. Being that he fights for the majority of the epic, and his adventures are molded from his battles, this must be included as one of the main themes. Yes, “Beowulf” and “The Odyssey” do share similar themes but each theme has a different significance for each epic. Each theme stands for something different between the two. The significance of the theme identity in “Beowulf” is that his battles help to reveal who he is all throughout the epic. Beowulf knows that he’s a hero and that he’s brave. He defeats all of the villains and saves the day, he just wants other to realize this too. But, in “The Odyssey”, Odysseus and his son Telemachus have to search for their identity. The theme recognition in “Beowulf” has the significance of Beowulf being rewarded and recognized for his great works. On the other hand, the significance of recognition in “The Odyssey” is for Odysseus to keep himself hidden as a tool to help him reclaim his kingdom.
The significance of the theme battles is very similar in each epic except Beowulf fights because he wants to be the hero (and he is), but Odysseus fights because he has to, although he too becomes a hero like Beowulf. Odysseus is trying to return home to his family and regain his identity but Beowulf is trying to gain recognition. As far as the theme homecoming, they each get the same response upon their return. The people that respect and love them are happy to see them once again. Both Beowulf and Odysseus return home with adventures and stories to tell. Likewise they each receive treasures. Beowulf receives gifts and Odysseus receives a gift that’s more precious than gold or treasures to him, his family and his kingdom are once again in his arms. During the course of my research, I realized that the themes of “Beowulf” and “The Odyssey” relates to other epics also. These epics are “The Iliad” by Homer, “The Aeneid” by Virgil, “Gilgamesh” by an anonymous author and “The Rape of the Lock” by Alexander Pope.
These epics are noteworthy as of proving my thesis because first, they are all epics and second, they all share at least one theme with “Beowulf” and “The “Odyssey”. “The Iliad”, a Homeric epic like “The Odyssey” is very popular and well known by many. Also it is very similar to “The Odyssey”. It has most, if not all the same themes and was written by Homer as well so it basically has the same setup as “The Odyssey” but more so focuses on war. This epic can best be described as a story within a story. Along with “the Iliad”, “The Aeneid”, an epic by Virgil, greatly focuses on identity and homecoming. this too is also a popular epic. Next, “The Rape of the Lock” is a mock epic by Alexander Pope intended to “lampoon” or make fun of epics. He presents the whole idea of battles, homecoming, recognition and identity like the “usual” epics but in a comical way. And last but not least, “Gilgamesh”, an epic by an anonymous author is one that takes the reader through a world of adventure.
Although all four pieces of literature I selected are epics containing more than one theme, my focus is on one specific theme for each that relates to “Beowulf” and “The Odyssey”. The theme that I’ll most focus on for “The Iliad” is the theme recognition. This theme in “The Iliad” is closely related to the glory and celebration of war and is ” the predominance of military glory over family”. As far as recognition goes, the characters more so recognize the pursuit of glory and honor than anything else. True, like every normal person the characters love their families but “they honor the pursuit of “kleos”, “glory” or “renown” that one gains in the eyes of others by performing great deeds”. War and recognition are the key factors in this piece of literature. The characters in this story focus so much on war and recognition because Homer wants the reader to see that he suggests that the characters (mortals) try to live their lives as horribly as possible so that they can be remembered well. “For if mortals’ physical bodies and material creations cannot survive them, perhaps their words and deeds can”.
Homer is trying to stress the fact that the mortals should make a huge impact on their life, something that no one will forget and what better way to do it than with recognition and glory. In this epic, the characters usually end up in a situation where they have to choose between their family and their glory. And of course by most, glory is chosen. Hector, one of the great warriors in the Trojan army chooses to win the great glory of his father no matter the cost, even though he could orphan his only son. Hector knows that if he fights among the front ranks then he will end his quest for kleos and receive great recognition from all. Hector willingly sacrifices his life. No other theme can best describe the entire epic, “The Iliad”, like recognition. Homer put so much emphasis on it that it’s very obvious to see that recognition honor and glory (kleos) are “The Iliad’s” main themes that overshadows all the others. Although it’s not one of the main themes, identity still is considered a theme in “The Aeneid”. The theme identity in “The Aeneid” is very similar to the theme identity in “The Odyssey”. In this epic, the first part discusses the wanderings of the Trojans from Troy to Italy. While traveling, the “wanders” were considered homeless.
Ancient culture suggests that “a homeland is one’s source of identity”. So being that they did not have a permanent home, like Odysseus, they were ” no-men”. Being homeless means that one is not stable with his or her situation as well as identity, in this epic this caused the men to suffer. Like Odysseus, the Trojans were in search of their identity and for them alone, a place where they belonged. But Odysseus knew where he belonged, at home with his family. Each time they landed on a different island they would get frustrated because they were not sure if it was their place (which was Italy) . The only reason why identity is considered a theme in this epic is because the Trojans were unsure of themselves. It took them some time to reach their desired destination. It is also considered a theme because again as a part of ancient culture, to have a home is to have an identity. Another theme that is related to “Beowulf” and “The Odyssey” and other epics is battles. The theme battles agrees with the epic “The Rape of the Lock”. This narrative piece of literature is not the “usual epic”; it is considered a mock epic because it lampoons the themes and oral traditions of the usual epics.
Being that “The Rape of the Lock” is a mockery of the usual epics, everything about it is silly and strange, yet still makes sense. For example, Cosmetics, clothing and jewelry substitute for armor and weapons. One of the battles is an intense game of cards, which of course results in the victory of the protagonist, but even still that isn’t the point. The point is to take the usual themes from the usual epics and twist them around to show mockery. “The majority of the great battles of this epic are related to gambling and flirtatious tiffs”. Although the characters in this epic fight over silly things, Alexander Pope still gets his point across to the reader. Finally, the last epic that has a theme that relates to those of “Beowulf” and “The Odyssey” is “Gilgamesh”. Homecoming is the theme that best defines this epic more than the others do. Like in most epics, Gilgamesh went on a journey and like Odysseus, on his way home a goddess propositions him. When he refuses her proposition, the goddess delays his homecoming by sending enemies out to destroy him.
But of course Gilgamesh defeats them and returns to his homeland Uruk. When he gets there he praises the town walls and worships the land as he walks. This epic is a bit different as far as homecoming than “Beowulf” or “The Odyssey” because once Gilgamesh finally reaches his home, he doesn’t care about honor, glory or recognition, he’s just glad to be alive, glad to see something as simple as the walls of his town once again. But of course like the other epics he does reunite with his loved ones and friends. The only problem is that this theme (homecoming) for this epic isn’t as solid as it could have been, there was no big feast or treasures waiting for him at home, just his precious town walls and loved ones. In conclusion, not only are the themes identity, battles, recognition and homecoming related to “Beowulf” and “The Odyssey”, but they are also linked to other epics as well.
“The Iliad”, “The Aeneid”, “The Rape of the Lock” and “Gilgamesh” each contain one of the themes that their stories concentrate on the most. “The Iliad” is mostly related to recognition because the characters recognize the pursuit of glory and recognition more than anything else in their lives. “The Aeneid” mostly relates to identity because the Trojan soldiers are homeless which leaves them searching for an identity due to their culture. “The Rape of the Lock” concentrates on the mockery of the “usual battles” of an epic as well as other themes and “Gilgamesh” somewhat focuses on the theme homecoming because of his eagerness to return home and all of the obstacles and villains he has to face to get there. Although each epic was surely different, they all still had something in common, they all had themes that related to those of “The Odyssey and “Beowulf”.