The epic poem
The word “epic” come from the Greek noun épos, which means “the poets’ oral exposition”. The two major epic poems in the Western tradition are The Iliad and The Odyssey, attributed to the Greek poet Homer. Later examples of epic poems are Virgil’s Aeneid and the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf.
- The main features of an epic poem are:
- Long narrative
- Elevated style
- Celebration of the deeds of a hero
- Presence of supernatural events and characters
- Description of an aristocratic, military societ
- Typical scenes: the banquet, the battle, the voyage, the funeral
It is a poem of 3, 182 lines. It is the longest surviving poem in Old English, the name given to the language of the Anglo-Saxons. It is also the first important example of poetry in a European language that is not Latin or Greek.
There are a couple of references in Beowulf to historical events in Denmark from the 6th century, but almost all the poem is based on legends, not history.
The version of the poem we have now was probably composed between 700 and 750. It was composed in England but the story takes place in Sweden and Denmark. This means the Anglo-Saxons went on telling traditional stories from the Germanic world even after they had invaded England.
Like other early poetry in other cultures, Beowulf was first transmitted orally, for centuries, before finally being written down. In Anglo- Saxons times only very few people could read or write, and there were very few books, which all had to be written by hand. Printing books in Europe was only invented in the 15th century.
In Beowulf there are several references to the Anglo-Saxon performer (called scop, pronounced as shop) in Old English – who gave oral performances of poems on special occasions, singing and chanting them while playing an instrument like a harp or lyre. The scop memorised stories, he could also invent new versions by putting together lines from different stories he had memorised.
The first written version of Beowulf is a manuscript from about 1,000 which is kept in the British Museum in London. The person who wrote it down might have been a bard himself, or the poem might have been dictated to him.
The story of Beowulf is a simple one: it deals with the legend of Beowulf, a young Scandinavian hero who fights two gigantic monsters, Grendel and his mother, in order to bring happiness to the Danish kingdom of Heorot, ruled by king Hrothgar. The final events of the poem take place fifty years later when Beowulf is the old king of the Geats. The old hero succeeds in killing a fire breathing monster, a dragon, but he is mortally wounded and he gives his young retainer, Wiglaf, his dying voice and his armour. The gold he won for his people is returned to the ground. No one shall inherit it: the gold and the glory are buried with him.
The society described in the poem is heroic. A lord, in war or peace, is the “shepherd of his people” and he gives them shelter, food and drink in his hall; the warriors “earn their mead” and their armour by their courage and loyalty in war. The greatness of a human being is judged by his deeds and his noble ancestry.
Other themes are the passing of time, the cult of fame and a deep feeling for nature. The Christian allusions in the poem are late interpolations in the text.
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