An epic journey contains few obstacles for the hero to overcome.   True or false?

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klaydyer's profile pic

klaydyer | College Teacher | (Level 1) Adjunct Educator

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False. One of the defining characteristics of an epic journey, in fact, is the recounting of the obstacles that the epic hero must overcome. Interestingly, most epics are structured around a three-obstacle format, which holds true in Beowulf as he battles Grendel, then Grendel's mother, then the dragon.

What is important to note, too, is the underlying nature of each of these obstacles, which do have subtle differences. Grendel is a direct threat to humanity, which positions Beowulf as a defender of humanity against a rampaging force. Grendel's mother is revenging the death of her son, which is a noble thing and one that Beowulf must respect, and in some ways pay homage to, as part of the battle (overcoming the obstacle).

The Dragon, though, is a bit different: it pillages the village because of the actions of a mistreated slave within Beowulf's kingdom. But the treatment of slaves is, in part, a reflection of the of the leadership of the village, which might be lacking a bit given that Beowulf is always off fighting grand battles instead of looking after local politics. In this sense, the Dragon is an obstacles that Beowulf almost causes himself, so it is a much less noble battle than the previous two.

mwestwood's profile pic

mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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False.  By its very definition, an epic is an adventure involving supernatural help and heroic deeds among other elements. Therefore, there must be conflicts and obstacles for the the main character to overcome, or he would not be termed a hero, and he would not need supernatural assistance. In short, an epic would be a dull tale, indeed, without conflicts and obstacles for the main character to overcome; moreover, dangerous adventures are necessary for the main character to become a hero and an inspiration to all.

Even today, the adventures of "Super Heroes" are extremely popular. That a man or woman can rise to a height not normally achieved is certainly inspiring and exciting to all ages. As testimony to this excitement and inspiration, tales such as the ancient Greek Odyssey and the Anglo-Saxon epic poem Beowulf remain popular even today. Beowulf is a great pagan warrior renowned for his courage, strength, and dignity. In one stirring adventure, he sails to Denmark where the king, Hrothgar, has built a hall, but on the first night that he and his warriors sleep there, the monster Grendel attacks and kills thirty of his men. Once Beowulf arrives (a dozen years later while Grendel yet terrorizes the hall), he and his fourteen men defeat this monster.

Here is a quick summary of this part of Beowulf that exemplifies obstacles for a hero to overcome:

Hrothgar, the Danish king, builds a hall, Herot. The first night they sleep there, Grendel—a monster—attacks and kills 30 of them. The attacks continue, keeping Herot empty and Hrothgar sorrowful for 12 years. Beowulf sails to Denmark with a band of 14 men to defeat the monster. One night while the men sleep, Beowulf lies awake, watching for the monster. When Grendel clutches at Beowulf, this monster is immediately seized by the mighty Beowulf. Grendel

That shepherd of evil, guardian of crime,
Knew at once that nowhere on earth
Had he met a man whose hands were harder;
His mind was flooded with fear....

Although Grendel escapes, Beowulf has severed its "Arm, claw and shoulder and all," so it has been soundly defeated and Beowulf is a hero.

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