Beowulf credited with being a quintessential piece of epic. An epic is a long and highly stylized 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. Epics are often of national significance in the sense that they embody the history and aspirations of a nation. Beowulf conforms to most qualities of an epic poem and is branded as only epic of the English nation.
An epic hero is a larger-than-life mortal figure from history or legend. The epic hero illustrates traits, performs deeds and exemplifies morals that are highly valued by that society. In his quest to assist the Danes, Beowulf exhibits bravery, physical strength and mental cunning when battling monsters, which makes him appear superhuman and far superior to the average man. His loyalty and generosity toward his subjects -- the Thanes -- and kingdom of Geatland were of paramount value to the Anglo-Saxon culture.
One of the great qualities of the epic is the unity of design. Beowulf has this rare kind of unity of plot, though in a bit different manner than some of the recognized epics. There is a perfect unity in the first part which deals with Beowulf ’s expedition in Denland. The innumerable episodes and digressions are quite consistent and relevant, filling up the epic plan and opening out the perspective of the story and the sequel dealing with Beowulf’s adventure with the fire-spitting dragon does not hang loosely and it is an indispensable part of the main story.
Another great quality of the epic is what Dr. Tillyard terms ‘choric’. This means that an epic should serve as the mouthpiece of an age, or of a nation or a religion, and not merely of its author. Beowulf amply shows this quality. It reflects the ideals of that state of society which goes by the name of Heroic age. And in this respect it bears a striking resemblance to the Odyssey. The tradition of the courtly gestures very much in vogue in those days, the hierarchical position of persons in the society, the trend of showing courage and endurance, sense of pride in noble heredity, etc are very aptly reflected in this work of art.
Beowulf is full of all sorts of references and allusions to great events, to the fortunes of kings and nations which seem to come naturally, as if the poet had in his mind the whole history of all the people who were in any way connected with Beowulf. W.P. Ker says that it is these historical allusions which make Beowulf a true epic poem.
Regarding the form also, Beowulf conforms most standard of epic convention. For example, It opens with a prologue in the true epic manner. Linguistically also Beowulf attains the epic grandeur. Beowulf is characterized by the formality, dignity and vigorousness of speeches, the massing of detail and elaboration of description.
According to Sopford Brooke Beowulf has an epic quality in this—that the purify cation of the hero—the development of his character to perfection. When Beowulf appears again after fi fty years of silence, we fi nd in him the same courage, heroism and moral dignity as we have seen before. But he has grown wiser, and nobler with the waning of his physical strength. He has become the father of his people the image of a great and worthy king. And at last he dies for the sake of his subjects, and wins an undying fame. The moral triumph is attained and fate, not Beowulf, is really conquered in the contest. This is the purifi cation ofthe soul, and the ever-recurring theme of many epics.
All these characteristics show that Beowulf has a stronger claim to be an epic. Though there is some lack of characteristics, indeed those characteristics are lesser in significance. Therefore we can safely say that Beowulf is not only a milestone in the history of English literature but it is actually a true great epic and it occupies an important position in the realm of world literature.