Is Beowulf an Heroic Elegy or an Epic Narrative?
There is considerable debate as to whether the poem Beowulf is an epic narrative poem or an heroic elegy. Which is it. This essay intends to present both sides of the story.
Some great literary scholars think that the poem is an heroic elegy, celebrating the fantastic achievements of its great hero, and also expressing sorrow or lamentation for the hero’s unfortunate death. In “Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics” Tolkien states:
We must dismiss, of course, from mind the notion that Beowulf is a “narrative poem,” that it tells a tale or intends to tell a tale sequentially. The poem “lacks steady advance”: so Klaeber heads a critical section in his edition. But the poem was not meant to advance, steadily or unsteadily. It is essentially a balance, an opposition of ends and beginnings. In its simplest terms it is a contrasted description of two moments in a great life, rising and setting; an elaboration of the ancient and intensely moving contrast between youth and age, first achievement and final death (Tolkien 34).
Another literary scholar attacks the proposition that the poem is a narrative epic as many critics say: “For the structure of the poem is not sequential, but complemental; at the outset certain parts of a situation are displayed, and these are given coherence and significance by progressive addition of its other parts’ (Blomfield 60). These attacks on the epic-narrative theory regarding the poem Beowulf leave one with the only choice left – that the poem is an heroic elegy, a poem celebrating the achievements of its hero Beowulf, and at the same time a poem of lamentation and sorrow and mourning over the death of that great hero.
In Part I of Beowulf the poet establishes Beowulf as an incomparable superman and celebrates his greatness. The occasion for this was the unfortunate situation which Grendel had created in the court of King Hrothgar, Heorot, where there was considerable sorrow due to the uncontrollable ravaging of the monster:
So Healfdene’s son brooded continually
over his sorrows; the wise men could not
ward off the trouble. The strife was too great,
hateful, long-lasting, that had come to the nation,
cruel spirit’s envy, gigantic night-evil.(189-93)
Fortunately Beowulf was ready and willing to sacrifice himself to repay the debt of Ecgtheow, Beowulf’s father, to Hrothgar. This Geat warrior possesses almost miraculous qualities: “He was the strongest of men alive in that day, mighty and noble.” Upon spotting Beowulf approaching, the sea-guard of the Danes says, “Never have I seen a greater man on earth…” King Hrothgar of the Danes says of Beowulf, “Seafarers who took gifts to the Geats say that he has the strength of 30 men in his hand grip.” Beowulf chooses to fight Grendel by...