Beowulf as an Epic
An epic is a long narrative poem, on a grand scale about the deeds of warriors and heroes. It is a polygonal, 'heroic' story incorporating myth, legend, folk tale and history. Epic are often of national significance in the sense that they embody the history and aspirations of a nation in a lofty manner.
Basically, there are two kind of epic- 1) primary or oral epic which is the spoken form of the poem (these are mainly the old English poem) and 2) secondary or literary epic which is the written form of the poem.
Beowulf is an epic poem because it has the characteristics of an epic poem and they are the followings:
The first and foremost characteristic of epic poem is its large size. For example, the Beowulf is a poem consisting of 3,182 lines which size is bigger than other poems. Though some critics claimed that epic poem must carry more than 10,000 verse lines.
Secondly, singing in feasts. In epic one can find description of a musician which is a common symbol of oral epic. After finishing eating and drinking in a feast the musician is inspired by the happiness of the people to sing about famous men. For example, in Beowulf-
"a traditional singer deeply schooled
in the lore of the past, linked a new theme
to a strict meter." (Beowulf, line- 868-870)
Epic always has a central mighty hero of superman quality or a person of national or international significance. He fight for a nation or for raise his fame. Example can be given of Beowulf who is a young brave warrior. He not only fights with Grendel, the horrible demon, with bare hand but also with his mother under water. Also he slaughter nine sea-monsters. Finally, he fights with a fire-breathing dragon at an old age.
Exaggeration is also an important part of an epic. The poet uses hyperbole to express the power of hero, such as,
"a thane, they declared, with the strength of thirty
in the grip of each hand." (Beowulf, line- 380-381)
According to many critics the superhero character Hulk is the imitation of Beowulf because it is impossible for a living man to have the strength of thirty men.
Supernaturalism is a common feature of every epic. In an epic one can find supernatural element such as, God, demon, angles, etc. In Beowulf the sea-monsters, Grendel and Grendel's mother who are demons are the examples of supernatural elements. Some critics believe that it is the belief of animism.
Another characteristic is the journey by water or sea. For example, in Beowulf, at first the great king of Denmark, Scyld was found by the Danes in a ship with treasure and after his death, his dead body is put in another treasure ship and released it on sea. Secondly, Beowulf along with his kinsmen came to Denmark across the sea. Moreover, there was a story of the swimming competition between Beowulf and Breca on sea during which Beowulf killed 9 sea monsters. Besides, Beowulf fights with Grendel's mother under water. However, according to some critics, this characteristic is so common because during that time people mainly used to journey by sea as there were no vehicles or well-constructed roads.
Cosmic setting is also another important characteristic. Cosmic setting is mainly different places where the action happen. It covers different places rather one place. For example, in Beowulf there are more place without land. Like under water where Grendel, his mother and other monster leave. Also Beowulf fight with Grendel's mother under water. The cave of the dragon with treasure is another hidden place outside the society.
Another characteristic is feasts which is really common in epic. One can find the idea of feast for several time in Beowulf. For example, at first because of the noise of joy in the feast Grendel attacked Heorot. Secondly, after Beowulf's arrival Hrothgar hold a feast for welcoming Beowulf and his kinsmen. Next, after killing Grendel again they hold a feast.
Finally, it can be said that Beowulf is an epic poem because it has the characteristic of an epic poem. But it is an oral epic because of the 2nd characteristic, because singing is a common characteristic in an oral epic.