Beowulf as an epic

How far is Beowulf epical?

To answer the question it is imperative to judge the work by the standard set by Aristotle for an epic proper. He laid down three conditions or qualifications for this poetic genre: unity of action; entirety or completeness of action; and magnitude of action. One should also compare it with such authentic primary epics as 'The Iliad', and even with an epic of art like 'Paradise Lost'.


Its first striking drawback is its smallness of length and range. It is a poem of only 3182 lines, which is extremely inadequate for an epic. Milton's 'Paradise Lost' is ten times longer, having Twelve Books. The Iliad is also vast in bulk.

Unity, entirety and magnitude in Beowulf:

Beowulf obviously lacks unity of action, since it is made up of two distinct narratives, which might respectively be called 'Grendeliad' and 'Fifty Years After'. To preserve the unity of action in a long narrative, Milton opens his Paradise Lost with an infernal council plotting the Fall of Man, which is the main action he proposes to celebrate, and he puts the other great actions which precedes it in point of time in the form of episodes in Books V, VI and VII. But in Beowulf there is no effort to preserve unity, nor it is necessary, because there is structural backbone in the small couple of episodes. It also fails to satisfy the condition of entirety of action, by which Aristotle meant that the epic narrative should have a beginning, a middle and an end. In 'Iliad' we see the wrath of Peleus' son in its birth, its continuance, and its effects. But Beowulf has no entirety of action, there being no central action in the poem. Moreover, it fails miserably in the test for magnitude of action. The wrath of Achilles was fraught with such consequences that it embroiled the kings of Greece, cost the lives of Trojan heroes, and engaged all the gods in the faction. Aeneas' settlement in Italy produced the Ceasars and gave birth to the Roman Empire. But Beowulf deals with the fights waged by its hero with dragons and monsters. It has not the weight and dignity of and epic poem, and, compared to 'The Aeneid', The Iliad' and 'Paradise Lost' it reads somewhat like a nursery tale. Finally, an epic should be studded thickly with epic similes, and there is none in Beowulf. 

Yet there are some epical qualities in Beowulf which cannot be ignored by an impartial critic. W. P. Ker points out that 'the first two-thirds taken by themselves from a complete poem with a single action; while in the orthodox epic manner, various allusions and explanations are introduced regarding the past history of the other people famous in the traditions'. He argues: 'The adventure at Heorot, taken by itself, would pass the scrutiny of Aristotle or Horace, as far as concerns the lines of composition'.

The use of concrete in preference to abstract expressions adds to the grandeur of its style, e.g. 'joy-wood' (harp), 'laid low with blade' (wounded with sword). The same effect is heightened by use of adjectives which are akin to permanent epithets in Homer. Thus, Hrothgar is 'the Prince long-famous', 'the King of the noble race'. Beowulf is 'the hero terrible in battle', 'the mighty shield-warrior'. One should note the abundance of picturesque compounds or kennings such as 'war-adder' (for an arrow), 'whale-road' (for the sea), 'the foamy-necked floater' (for the ship, and so on.

Like all ancient epics, in this poem too we find short vigorous speeches, swiftly moving narrative, vivid descriptions of wild scenes of terror and doom as well as of the court-life and festivities. The passage (lines, 1357-77) describing the lair of the approach to the underworld found in Book VI of Virgil's 'Aenied'. The epical diffuseness of treatment is noticeable in such digressions as the word-combat between Beowulf and Unferth, the king's Orator, regarding the swimming contest. Beowulf is largely epical in its presentation of national life and manners both in its material and moral aspects. Its characterisation is also broad and bold as is found in all epics. The delineation of Beowulf's character as a national hero-king is magnificent, especially in its evolution through trial into purification: 'a king of the world, of men the mildest, to his people the most kindly and gentle, and most eager for praise'. Indeed 'what Achilles is to the Greek, Romulus to the Roman, Charlemagne to the French, Beowulf is to the Englishmen'.

These considerations lead to the reasonable conclusion that though Beowulf is not a full-fledged epic, yet it may be called a specimen of epical poetry in evolution. It is an epic 'in kind', if not 'in degree'.