What makes Beowulf an epic poem?

Factors that make Beowulf an epic poem are that it is a book-length poem in verse, focuses on a single hero, includes battles or conflicts, reflects many aspects of its culture, is lofty in language, and features a tragic death.

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According to poets.org, an epic poem is:

a long, often book-length, narrative in verse form that retells the heroic journey of a single person or a group of persons. Elements that typically distinguish epics include superhuman deeds, fabulous adventures, highly stylized language, and a blending of lyrical and dramatic traditions.

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According to poets.org, an epic poem is:

a long, often book-length, narrative in verse form that retells the heroic journey of a single person or a group of persons. Elements that typically distinguish epics include superhuman deeds, fabulous adventures, highly stylized language, and a blending of lyrical and dramatic traditions.

Beowulf qualifies as an epic poem on several of these criteria. First, it is book-length, and it is a story that is written in the verse format. It tells the tale of the main character, Beowulf’s, heroic journey to slay the monster and then much later kill the dragon. During the poem, he has several adventures and accomplishes nearly superhuman deeds, as when he kills Grendel.

Grendel is a monster that lives at the bottom of the swamp. One night, Grendel kills some of King Hrothgar’s soldiers while they are asleep. This leads the King’s people to fear Grendel, as the monster terrorizes them over a period of more than a decade. Not surprisingly, King Hrothgar wants to find a way to rid himself and his kingdom of the monster forever to escape Grendel’s monstrous, violent fury.

Beowulf learns about Grendel and leaves his home in Sweden to help King Hrothgar protect his kingdom and get rid of the monster. Beowulf has had many prior victories that make him the ideal person to tackle Grendel. Ultimately, Beowulf is victorious and kills the monster, who returns to the swamp to die.

This is not the end of the story, however. Despairing over the death of her son, Grendel’s mother wants to avenge his death, and Beowulf must do battle once again. Although there is peace for a period—Beowulf even ascends to the throne upon the death of the king—it is short-lived. Ultimately, Beowulf must do battle again against the dragon.

In short, reflecting its epic journeys and epic battles, plus the heroic actions of the protagonist Beowulf, the poem qualifies as an epic one. Moreover, as Beowulf proves himself to be a hero who voyages over a long journey to kill Grendel against odds that he will succeed, it is a story about an epic journey and epic undertaking.

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Epics focus on the achievements of a particular individual. In Beowulf, the reader or listener is given an opportunity to follow the events and heroic achievements of the protagonist in the poem. The poem revolves around the battles fought by Beowulf until his death.

Exaggeration is an important feature of epics because it highlights the supernatural abilities or prowess of the hero. Beowulf’s strength is supernatural, and he is able to defeat both Grendel and his mother with his bare hands. He is also able to dive and stay underwater for hours without any form of technological assistance.

The setting is also vast, as seen when Beowulf travels to fight Grendel and challenges Grendel’s mother in some underwater underworld full of other monsters.

Beowulf can be defined as a blend of myth and heroic legend, which are features of an epic poem.

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Beowulf can be considered an epic poem for a number of reasons, some of them outlined in the answer already given. Here are some additional reasons for considering Beowulf an epic:

  • Epics often focus on single heroic figures (in this case, Beowulf).
  • Epics often deal with war or with one-on-one combat, as in the three battles featured in this poem.
  • Epics often involve heroic quests, as in Beowulf’s journey to Denmark.
  • The hero of an epic poem often embodies the highest values of his culture.
  • An epic poem is often “encyclopedic,” in the sense that the poem reflects an enormous number of different aspects of the culture from which it springs.
  • An epic poem often contains, within itself, other genres of poetry, such as the lyric.
  • Epic is often closely related to history as a genre.
  • Epics often arise out of oral traditions in poetry, as is certainly the case with Beowulf.
  • Epics often involve interactions between heroes and gods. In Beowulf, the Christian God is not immediately present in the poem but is often mentioned and discussed.
  • Epic poems are often lofty in their styles of language, as is certainly the case with Beowulf.
  • Epic poems often use so-called “epic formulas” – that is, phrases that are repeated and that are used in a variety of contexts. 
  • Epic often features a certain amount of boasting, as when Beowulf is provoked, by Unferth, into boasting about his exploits as a youth.
  • Epic poems often feature tragic deaths, as in the tragic death of Beowulf himself.

For a fuller account of some of these features of epic, see the appropriate article in The Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetry and Poetics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

 

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When one discusses what makes Beowulf an epic, one is engaging in analysis of what literary critics call genre, a way of classifying literary works by similarities in style, theme, and other features. Traditional epic is a genre with roots in oral culture. The earliest epics (Gilgamesh, Iliad, Beowulf, etc.) are often considered paradigmatic of the genre. Typically, epics are long narrative poems recounting warlike and heroic actions, with the leading characters being kings, princes, or other important people. The emphasis of epic is normally on action rather than psychology. There is usually some sort of religious or divine or supernatural element in  epics. Thus Beowulf displays many of the features typical of the epic genre, and is referred to as an epic.

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