Beowulf is the earliest epic poem written in the English language. Although it is generally regarded as an epic poem, it is worthwhile to consider how far this long narrative poem about the exploits of Beowulf conforms to the Aristotelian conception of epic. An epic should be universal, taking in all of life and representing it in such a way that the general truth of the presentation is universally recognized. The scope should embrace war and peace, man and god, life and death in a comprehensive and encyclopedic way. And its presentation should be objective; its scenes, events, and characters should form an interconnected and solid-reality being presented from a consistent and impartial viewpoint. The action of an epic should have the logic of its own and an intrinsic significance.
An epic also celebrates the rise of a nation and the exploits of its heroes, thus boosting up the national honor.
If these are the qualities of an epic – inclusiveness of scope, the objectivity of treatment, the unity of ethos and an action of significance, Beowulf is not merely a poem about a hero but an epic.
The inclusiveness of scope is evident in Beowulf. The poem begins with the miraculous arrival of the hero – Scyld and the founding of the Scylding dynasty of the Danish people.It ends with the death of the hero – Beowulf and the imminent destruction of the Geatish people. the poem shows the life cycle of a people in the Danes and the Geats. It shows us a human society of peace in Heorot and at war in Sweden and elsewhere. Hrothgar’s Hall – Heorot – is the scene of the sharing out of food, drink, and gold. Heorot is the symbol of the world; therefore its dangers and its destructions symbolize the trials and tribulations of the human life. When the scop in the Heorot sings about the creation, the Heorot assumes epic significance; it becomes a human microcosm of the divinely created world.
In an epic, the supernatural; plays an important past. Most of the epics are concerned with the cross purposes of men and gods. The Iliad, The Aeneid, and other classical epics have a divine dimension which transforms even the most ordinary human actions into actions of extra-human significance. In Beowulf, the supernatural dimension is provided by the monsters and the Dragon. Grendel and his mother are described by the poet as being. The forces of primeval evil are connected with Satan and his brood.
If objectivity is one mark of an epic poem, Beowulf stands the best admirably. This objectivity comes from the faithful presentation of life in the heroic world. The old Germanic world is crystallized into generic scenes through which an objective picture of the life and culture, beliefs, and customs, rites and rituals are presented to us in vivid colors. From The Iliad, we come to know a lot about the Greek and the Trojan ways of life. In the same manner, Beowulf is the mirror to the ancient Scandinavian world. The scene of sea-voyage, welcome feast, fight, and reward has the stamp of genuine on them. The elaborate and time-honored usages of hospitality which Beowulf gets at Hrothgar’s palace are worth studying from this point of view. There is I, in fact, an element of idealization and standardization, but the reader is convinced that there is a consistency in the description which is a sterling quality of an epic narrative.
The simplicity of form and regularity of style are present in Beowulf. Perhaps the most important stabilizing factor in preserving the epic synthesis is the consistent manner in which nature is presented. We are aware that these people are surrounded by water; that they have to fight against the waves.
Beowulf’s journey through the ocean like Odyssey takes on a symbolic epic significance. The poem thus does not end as a mere folk tale of adventures; it becomes the image of human life on this perilous earth.
Some critics think that Beowulf is too an anecdotal to have the unity of an epic. There are too many digressions in the form of subsidiary stories concerning blood-feuds of the past. Moreover, there is a definite break towards the middle of the poem. There is a gap of fifty years between the two adventures of Beowulf – the killing of the Grendel’s mother and the slaying of the Dragon. This militates against the epic unity of narrative. But if we look at the axiomatic significance of the story, these digressions cease to be a weakness; rather they contribute to the unity of the theme. It is the story of a heroic man’s fight. The main subject-matter of Beowulf is the human challenge to death and the glorious and tragic, potentialities of that challenge. It is this unity of the theme that binds the poems together and makes it an epic.