• “An extended narrative poem,
usually simple in construction, but grand in scope,
exalted in style, and heroic in theme, often giving
expression to the ideals of a nation or race. ”
• Sidelight: Homer, the author of The Iliad and The
Odyssey, is sometimes referred to as the "Father of
Epic Poetry." Based on the conventions he
established, classical epics began with an argument
and an invocation to a guiding spirit, then started the
narrative in medias res. In modern use, the term,
"epic," is generally applied to all lengthy works on
matters of great importance. The Rhapsodoi,
professional reciters, memorized his work and
passed it on by word of mouth as part of an oral
• Aristotle described six characteristics: "fable,
action, characters, sentiments, diction, and
meter." Since then, critics have used these
criteria to describe two kinds of epics:
• Serious Epic
• fable and action are grave and solemn
• characters are the highest
• sentiments and diction preserve the sublime
• verse
• Comic Epic
• fable and action are light and ridiculous
• characters are inferior
• sentiments and diction preserve the ludicrous
• verse
• When the first novelists began writing what were later called novels,
they thought they were writing "prose epics." Daniel Defoe, Henry
Fielding, and Samuel Richardson attempted the comic form. Yet
what they wrote were true novels, not epics, and there are
• The Epic
• oral and poetic language
• public and remarkable deeds
• historical or legendary hero
• collective enterprise
• generalized setting in time and place
• rigid traditional structure according to previous patterns
• Comic Epic
• written and referential language
• private, daily experiences
• humanized "ordinary" characters
• individual enterprise
• particularized setting in time and place
• structure determined by actions of character within a moral pattern
The hero is a figure of great national or even
cosmic importance, usually the ideal man of
his culture. He often has superhuman or divine
traits. He has an imposing physical stature
and is greater in all ways than the common
The setting is vast in scope. It covers great
geographical distances, perhaps even visiting
the underworld, other worlds, other times.
The action consists of deeds of valor or
superhuman courage (especially in battle).
Supernatural forces interest themselves in the
action and intervene at times. The intervention
of the gods is called "machinery."
The style of writing is elevated, even
Additional conventions: certainly all are not always present
Opens by stating the theme of the epic.
Writer invokes a Muse, one of the nine daughters of Zeus. The poet
prays to the muses to provide him with divine inspiration to tell the
story of a great hero.
Narrative opens in media res. This means "in the middle of things,"
usually with the hero at his lowest point. Earlier portions of the story
appear later as flashbacks.
Catalogs and genealogies are given. These long lists of objects,
places, and people place the finite action of the epic within a
broader, universal context. Oftentimes, the poet is also paying
homage to the ancestors of audience members.
Main characters give extended formal speeches.
Use of the epic simile. A standard simile is a comparison using "like"
or "as." An epic or Homeric simile is a more involved, ornate
comparison, extended in great detail.
Heavy use of repetition and stock phrases. The poet repeats
passages that consist of several lines in various sections of the epic
and uses Homeric epithets, short, recurrent phrases used to
describe people, places, or things. Both made the poem easier to
• Although length and complexity are
hallmarks of the epic poem, the most
important element is the hero. The hero of
an epic is a human being with
characteristics a society admires and often
wishes to emulate. The hero is male,
attractive, and unusually strong and able.
He is a trained solider or warrior and
believes in and follows the code of honor
for which he is willing to sacrifice his life.
He fights for the noble cause: those who
cannot defend themselves, usually women
and children; the preservation of a society;
honor; and the noble way of life.
• The hero is considered better in most respects than the
common man.
• However, the hero is also in many ways the same as the
ordinary man. He has the same longings and desires as
any man might have: the desire to be beloved and
respected by his own people; the desire for some degree
of wealth or material comfort; the desire for a family with
children, especially sons like himself; the desire to stand
out above his fellow human beings in some way; the
desire not to being shame to himself or his family in any
way. The hero also hopes that the divine will favor him
and his cause.
• The Epic Hero is a larger-than-life hero who embodies
the values of a particular society.
• An epic hero is superhuman. He is braver, stronger,
smarter, and cleverer than an ordinary person
• The epic hero is on a quest for something of great value
to him or to his people
• The villains who try to keep the hero from his quest are
usually uglier, more evil, and more cunning than anyone
we know in ordinary life
• The epic hero is often of mixed divine and human birth
and so possesses human weakness
• The divine world (the gods) interferes with the human
• written in Old English sometime before the tenth
century A.D., describes the adventures of a great
Scandinavian warrior of the sixth century.
• A rich fabric of fact and fancy, Beowulf is the oldest
surviving epic in British literature.
• Beowulf exists in only one manuscript. This copy
survived both the wholesale destruction of religious
artifacts during the dissolution of the monasteries by
Henry VIII and a disastrous fire which destroyed the
library of Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (1571-1631).
• The poem still bears the scars of the fire, visible at
the upper left corner of the photograph. The Beowulf
manuscript is now housed in the British Library,
• Comitatus is the basic idea that everyone protects the
king at all costs even if it means a warrior giving up his
own life.
• If a king is killed, the warriors must avenge the death of
the king or they can no longer serve as warriors for the
next king. It is an idea that coexists with the interlacing
• You will see the comitatus theme all through Beowulf
and all of the Anglo-Saxon poetry. The diction (ringgiver, hearth-companion, etc) indicates the idea as well
as the behavior.
• Notice how there is the motif of eating, sleeping, dying all
the way through the text, and all of it is done as a "team"
even to the passing of the cup uniting the group of
• They stayed in the meadhall while the king slept in an
adjoining "apartment" so they could constantly protect
• You will even see the idea in the avenging of Grendel's
death by his mother. Some of the same actions on her
part are the same as the actions of the warriors.
• Beowulf is also a good text to demonstrate how
comitatus died with the Anglo-Saxon period. Notice how
at the end of the text only Wiglaf follows Beowulf into the
battle with the dragon.
• When Beowulf goes into the various battles, there is a
progression of the comitatus dying with the behavior of
the warriors: the warriors stand on the bank waiting, the
next time they are sleeping and the third time only Wiglaf
goes with him.
• Early Germanic heroic poem
• Oldest exiting poems in the English
• Old English (Anglo-Saxon)
• Time – 525 AD
• Author unknown
• Written 8-10 Centuries
• Mead – drink similar to beer; fermenting
honey, instead of grain
• Scop (shop) – Tribal historian who
remembered stories from the past and
retold and recited them.
• Thane – Warrior
• Wyrd – Fate; man has a choice to act or
not to act a certain way; he had to abide
by the consequences of his choice
• Wergild
– Payment for the murder of a kinsman
– Each man had his “price,” or worth according
to his station in life
– Payment in place of life
– Ecgtheow, Beowulf’s father, who was exiled
after killing a man. Hrothgar (king of the
Danes) paid his wergild
Trained – used traditional poetic forms
Heroic vs religious
Run-on lines common in religious poetry
Associated with monastery
Christian tone
Missionaries to England
Pope Gregory advised missionaries to England
not to obliterate the pagan beliefs at once; work
through them.
• Poem fuses pagan and Christian ideas