Epic poems comprise a world of larger-than-life heroes where the gods intervene, hospitality is seen as law, and poets are considered as indispensible members of society. By studying just three of many epic qualities, the poems can be interpreted and appreciated not just as a literary form, but as a way to peer into cultures which reflect our history and origins. They entertain and teach. Countless generations have enjoyed epic literature through works such as Beowulf and The Odyssey. These poems abound with the actions of epic heroes.
Although heroes are usually found in most styles of literature, the epic hero is distinctive in the scale of his attributes. An epic hero is courageous and bold, an outstanding achiever; he exhibits superhuman qualities and is favoured of the gods. Like Odysseus before him, Beowulf comprises many qualities of the epic hero, particularly in the superhuman characteristics. Only a “super” human could grapple the monster Grendel with “a handgrip harder than anything he had ever encountered in any man on the face of the earth” (l.750-752). The amazing grip eventually results in Beowulf ripping the arm from Grendel’s socket where “Sinews split and the bone-lappings burst” (l.816-17). Such vengeance is a common response in the epic world.
Without our modern day justice system, people of the epic age were often responsible in seeing to their own justice through the auspices of revenge. Their very survival and continuation depended upon their response. Although their response is not often swift; it is assured. Revenge upon Grendel taking over the Mead Hall must wait twelve years for the arrival of Beowulf to help King Hrothgar in reclaiming the Hall. Similarly in The Odyssey revenge upon Penelope’s suitors who take advantage of Odysseus’s absence by helping themselves to Ithaca’s resources, comes after a long period of time. Yet revenge can also be swift as in the case of Grendel’s mother’s reaction to her son’s death. The following night she “sallied forth on a savage journey, grief-wracked and ravenous, desperate for revenge” (l.1277-78). No matter the timing, revenge is a common theme in the epic where one must take care to respond to preserve honour of self and family.
Honour and one’s word are important features of social character. A specific feature called arête, or excellence, involves a warrior’s standing “in the eyes of others, which is gained not only by words and deeds, but also by gifts and spoils relative to those of others” (p.33 CP). The formal boast in Beowulf is another element of honour in the epic. The hero speaks grandly about his intentions yet, in the same vein, he must be prepared to back them up. Beowulf boasts prior to his battle with Grendel; “But he will find me different. I will show him how Geats shape to kill in the heat of battle” (l.601-03). This is proven correct later in the story when Beowulf defeats Grendel. Despite what we might view as overly violent or questionable behaviour on the part of epic heroes they believed hospitality laws were to be observed all cost.
Hospitality is an essential ingredient of epic life. For fear of offending the gods, hospitality is extended to all visitors in case the guest is a god in disguise. Such care for one’s guests proves to Telemakhos’ benefit when he welcomes in a disguised Athena. Claiming to be a warrior named Mentes, she informs Odysseus’s son that his father is still alive. He feels as if “ … she put a new spirit in him, a new dream of his father.…” (l.359-60), and Telemakhos is given new hope to search for his father Odysseus. Near the beginning of the Beowulf story when the hero reaches the Danes’ shores he is questioned by the coast-guard. Not only is Beowulf and his armed party allowed to pass, but they are assured their ship will be well guarded. Because gods intervene regularly in the affairs of men such hospitality customs were seen as necessary.
Intervention of the Gods
Vengeance and benevolence are exhibited regularly in the gods’ behaviour in Homer’s poems. Because Odysseus blinds the Cyclops Polyphemis, Poseidon’s son, the god of the sea delays Odysseus’s return to Ithica on many occasions, yet all through the epic, Athena aids Odysseus even to helping him regain control of his beloved Ithica. When the hero finally returns home and kills the suitors who have plagued Penelope for twenty years the suitor’s relatives are bent on revenge. Athena orders the fighting to end and is backed up by a thunderbolt delivered by Zeus. Peace once again reigns on Ithica.
The gods are an obligatory part of the ancient world and permeate every aspect of life. Even the telling of the epics by the ancient poets are dependent upon calling on the Muses who are the daughters of Zeus and Mnemosyne. This calling upon the Muse, or invocation of the Muse, is another tradition of the epic. Most epics open with a request to their Muse; “Sing in me, Muse, and through me tell the story of that man ….” (l.1-2) begins the epic tale of the Odyssey.
Equally important is the prestige attached to the vocation of the poet. The epic poet was the record keeper of his day – an essential member of the community, vital in keeping track of genealogies and histories. The oral tradition of story telling is an art that was practiced and learned. Great respect, freedom and trust was given to the poet. Poets have the power to bestow immortality through their memory and oral talents. Beowulf and his exploits are added to the legends of Sigemond; “Such was Beowulf in the affection of his friends and of everyone alive.” (l.912-14). Yet the poet’s powers encompassed more. It was thought they were able to weave spells through their word art, as evidenced in Penelope’s opening words in the first book of The Odyssey, “Phemios, other spells you know, high deeds 0f gods and heroes, as the poets tell them…” (l.377-78). The poetic oral tradition where the art of memory and word join into valuable artistic expression has all but disappeared.
Our knowledge of our past is greatly enhanced by the tradition of the epic. The stories, around for millennia, have often proved to hold basic truths as shown through the efforts of archaeologists such as Schlieman in his quest for Troy, or through the more modern efforts of the digs in Sutton Hoo where Anglo Saxon burial mounds attest to the reality of Beowulf-like kings. Because of epic poems, our archaeological finds of today derive more meaning from the bits of bones and treasure. The ancient stories flesh out the tangible pieces, and give us a clearer understanding of our ancestors. And even though the oral tradition has almost died, their stories live on through the written epic to entertain and enlighten.
1) Course pack EGL 315 Pre-Renaissance European Masterpieces:
Saint Mary’s University, Halifax, NS: 2002
2) The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Beowulf,
W.W. Norton & Company, New York, NY: 2000
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