3/24/2019

"Beowulf" as an epic.


Beowulf cannot be called a true epic. Though certain episodes and the sustained gravity of tone tend to make Beowulf a historical poem, the incidents of the plot are romantic and
supernatural. Adventures of monsters and dragons are more like a nursery tale than a heroic narrative. There is no perfection of technique as in the Homeric epic. There is also want of epic unity. There is striking incongruity between realism of some pictures and
the obstinate idealism which gradually turns the strong armed fighter into a sort of saint. The hero has no seriousness of the type shown by Achilles. He has folklore characteristics. His change at the end conflicts with the epic idea of objective description. As a matter of fact, Beowulf anticipates later mediaeval adventures and chivalrous romances.

But still Beowulf is a specimen of epic poetry in an evolutionary stage and the poet never abandons the noble epic tone. The epic style requires concrete phrases instead of abstract
expressions, figurative way of describing things by picture esque compounds, permanent epithets and repetitions, uniform stately movement of rhythmic language and broad periods. Of these requirements we find enough in Beowulf. Beowulf is the earliest
hero in English literature with his love of glory, adventure in foreign land. He is gifted with iron resolution, fearlessness and dutifulness. His another quality is his spirit of self-sacrifice. He declines the throne in favour of his infant cousin.

Beowulf, however, holds a special position in the Anglo-Saxon literature, because it is the only complete extant epic of its kind in the ancient Germanic language. Nowhere else has a traditional theme been handled in a long narrative poem with a background that
reveals the culture and society of the heroic age of Germanic people.
It is impossible to determine conclusively whether Beowulf was the only Anglo-Saxon epic. It can at least be said that it is a poem
theatrically impressive in its handling of narrative verse, remarkable successful in rendering that combination of heroic idealism and heroic fatalism which seemed to have part of the Germanic temper. It is structurally weak and provides insufficient unity of tone to hold
together effectively the central episodes and many digressions that abound in the poem. On the surface, Beowulf is a heroic poem celebrating the exploits of a great warrior whose character and actions are held up as a model of aristocratic virtue. It reflects the
ideal of that state of society which is called the heroic age. Rightly speaking, Beowulf is neither and epic nor a ballad. It is a mixture of
historical events, heroic legends, heathen myths and Christian religion.

Beowulf cannot be a national epic, for neither its characters, nor its events belong to Anglo-Saxon England. There is however no trace of the story in continental Germanic cycles. Only the similarity of incidents of observed with certain Scandinavian sagas.

The origin of the story was perhaps derived from the expedition of the Goths led by Hygelac over the Franks. Hygelac fell in that battle. In this battle Beowulf was a soldier of the defeated army and distinguished himself by valour. King Hygelac has been the identified with Cochilacus reported in the history of Gregory to have led an expedition to the Rhine in the first quarter of the 6th century A.D. Gordon identifies Hygelac as a King of South Sweden. Beowulf is supposed to have accompanied him and achieved some
glory in that disastrous campaign. There was consequent celebrity of the hero and heroic lays were composed upon him.

Beowulf has a marked difference from the general tone of Norse literature in its lack of violent strangeness, in its rather tamed
wildness and in its predominant moral tendencies. Beowulf was probably at first a poem of short independent lays which was sung by the minstrels. They were welded together into a final form probably by a Christian compiler. He introduced many digressions and carefully removed Pagan references in it and infused a Christian
spirit in the 7th and early 8th century.

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