Beowulf and Epic Poetry

Beowulf is an epic poem that focuses on a hero’s quest.  Written sometime between 600 and 1000 CE, the poem tells the story of a man named Beowulf who takes up the challenge to kill Grendel, a demonic force attacking Hrothgar’s mead hall.  What ensues is a story of courage eventually overcome by forces beyond the hero’s control. 

Beowulf fights three major battles:

  • Grendelis the first, who is terrorizing Heorot.
  • Grendel’s Mother is second.  She seeks revenge after Grendel’s death. 
  • The third is the Dragon that eventually takes Beowulf’s life.

One question is how might we classify Beowulf?  Heroic characters typically fall into one of three major categories:

  • Heroes (sometimes called Pure Heroes) undergo the heroic quest and are purified by it.  Their flaws are removed and they become somehow perfect.  They are often, then, uncompromising in their principles and moral code.  Thus, they survive and bring the treasure they sought back to their own society for the purposes of making people’s lives better by enacting the proper moral code.  Heroes succeed and often become god-like, even if only figuratively.
  • Tragic Heroes undertake a quest, but cannot overcome their flaws.  Instead of being purified by their quest, they are destroyed by it because of their willingness to compromise themselves and their principles.  Often, their societies are left in ruins as a result, too. 

These two serve as models of action.  In other words, the idea is that they become role models to either imitate or avoid. 

  • A more modern version is called the Antihero, and is actually the figure we’re more familiar with.  Antiheroes manage to succeed, at least partially, despite the fact that they are not purified in their quest.  Thus, they are often morally ambiguous, sometimes willing to compromise certain principles for the sake of practicality or revenge. 

The Antihero becomes a much more ambigous characters.  Often, he achieves the results he or society wants, but he might do so in troubling ways. 

Beowulf himself is often regarded as a Pure Hero.  But, do you think that he embodies other traits?  Look for scenes from Youtube or Google Video from the 2007 film version, particularly the battle with Grendel’s mother.  You’ll find a very different portrayal of Beowulf than that which is in the poem.  Where might the film producers have found the idea to turn Beowulf into an Antihero? 

Discussion questions to be completed this week (10/6 – 10/10):

  1. What stages of the Hero’s Quest are followed in Beowulf?  Keep in mind that the progression won’t be perfectly linear.  Which do you think get more emphasis and why?
  2. If Beowulf is some form of Hero, then who/what constitutes the Villain (or pure evil)?  Clearly, Grendel and his Mother qualify, but how and why?  And is the Dragon a villain, or just an excuse for more blood and guts?
  3. Who might qualify as a Beowulf’s Shadow character?  Why?
  4. Who would qualify as the Wise Mentor?  Why?
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7 responses to “Beowulf and Epic Poetry

  1. I think the stages followed by Beowulf are calling, trial, treasure, death, and return with treasure. I think his trials get more emphasis then anything else. This is because he has more than one fight during the story to show how strong he is. Plus his fights make him well liked in the city where he killed and in the city where he lived.

    I think grendel and his mother are clearly villians because they terrorized and killed the people of denmark. They act as villians because I think they were shun by the society of Denmark. The author depicts them as real people, having emotions such as anger and jealousy. This is why they act out in rage and what in turn makes them the villians of the story. I dont think the dragon acts as a villian, it was a good way for the author to end the story and have the stage of death by the hero.

    I think Wiglaf is Beowulfs shadow character because he could be classified as beowulfs “side kick”. He is the only one that will help beowulf in his fights and shows the true code of a warrior.

    I think King Hrothgar acts as Beowulf’s mentor, because he is like a father figure to Beowulf. He is also kind of the model for Beowulf when he goes back home and ends up taking over the role of king in his own town.

  2. Trenton Beckinger

    The stages that the book followed were: Call to adventure, Trial, Death, Descent to Underworld, Conquers to get treasure and returns with treasure. I think that the Trials had the most emphasis. The trials revealed the most characteristics about Beowulf, and other characters.

    Grendel and his mother are villains because they are the obstacles that Beowulf face in order to become a hero. As far as the dragon, I don’t believe it was thrown in there. I think the dragon was to solidify Beowulf’s classification as a Tragic Hero. Had the dragon not been part of the story, we would never know if Beowulf had overcome his arrogance and pride, thus we would never know what type of Hero he was.

    The first shadow character that comes to mind is Unferth. When challenged by Unferth, Beowulf went on a huge ramble of how great he was. This was the first instance in which we saw Beowulf’s flaw, arrogance.

    King Hrothgar was a wise mentor to Beowulf. He tried to tell Beowulf the dangers of Pride, although the message never got through to Beowulf.

  3. 1) Beowulf describes many of the stages of a Hero’s quest. The first one is his call to adventure, which is when Beowulf hears about the misfortune at Heorot, but then he does not ever refuse this challenge. After he killed Grindal he proves himself by completing his trial and Hrothgar reminding him that there are flaws in people and that he has to avoid them is kind of like his death and treasure, because it reminds him that he is not immune to these things, so he needs to watch what he does. Then he returns home with these treasures and uses them to be a good king. Ultumently he does not concur both worlds, because he does end up dying in the end.
    2) Grindal and his mother are the villains or the sign of pure evil, because their only real intent in life is to do evil and create destruction and mayhem. Although the dragon was a major problem in the kingdom, the bloodshed there was could have been prevent if the looter had been smarter and not taken the gold cup, because then the dragon would not have noticed anything wrong and would not have been a threat. Since he did take the cup the dragon did become a problem and therefore had to be taken care of, because he was causing destruction.
    3) Unferth is Beowulf’s shadow character, because based on what he says in the book, Unferth is Jealous of Beowulf and wants to make him look bad and in the process he exposes that Beowulf needs to be smarter about his decisions.
    4) Beowulf’s wise mentor is Hrothgar, because after Beowulf slays Grindal’s mother he warns Beowulf about the dangers of power, about the fragility of life and how no one is immune to danger and in saying these things to Beowulf, it allows Beowulf to ponder these things and put them into action.

  4. 1) The stages in Beowulf’s journey are his call to adventure: hearing about Grendal’s terrorism at Heorot; death, descent, and treasure is when Beowulf has to fight Grendal and his mother and then bring Grendal’s mother’s head back as proof. And then Beowulf ends up ruling a kingdom, so that means he’s a master of both worlds of a sort.
    2)Grendal and his mother are “pure evil” in the sense that they terrorise people and they are described as monsters. Their only intent in life is to cause problems and destruction everywhere they go.
    3)The shadow character is Unferth because he is envious of Beowulf and would do anything to make him look bad in front of others.
    4)Beowulf’s mentor is Hrothgar because he teaches Beowulf things about ruling a kingdom and warns him about the effects power can have on man.

  5. 1) The order of the stages goes: call to adventure, trial, death, then the descent to the underworld, conquering with the treasure, then return with the treasure. The trial is most important because there are multiple fights to show that he is very strong.
    2) Grendel and his mother were the “pure evil” in the story. Its b/c they act that way and the people of Denmark had shunned them. The dragon is not a villain because it had helped Beowulf get over various aspects of himself as a Hero.
    3) I think Unferth, because he helps Beowulf with various aspects of himself as well as seems like his side-kick in the process.
    4) Hrothgar is Beowulf’s wise mentor. He warned Beowulf about power and how life is, where he did not put them into action later on down the line.

  6. Janelle Wheeler

    1. I think the stages are: call, trial, death, descent in the underworld, return with the treasure. I believe the trial is the most important because that is when he is able to learn something about himself.

    2. Grendel and his mother are villians because they harm the people and pose an obstacle in which Beowulf must overcome. I believe the dragon was not a villian because he would not have been an issue and Beowulf not stolen the cup.

    3. Unferth because he is always trying to impress Beowulf and show to Beowulf that he is worth the time.

    4. Hrothgar because he taught Beowulf about power and how to rule a kingdom.

  7. 1. The order of the stages I believe is the call to adventure, trials, death, and return with boon. In the book Beowulf, Beowulf confronts three different challenges and I believe the trails were the most emphasize out of all the stages.
    2. Grendel and his mother constitutes as the villains because they are the descendants of Cain. The dragon I believe was just an addition to the book and merrily put in the story for the blood and guts.
    3. Unferth is the shadow character in beowulf because he tries to show Beowulf’s faults and weaknesses.
    4. Hrothgar because he taught Beowulf that power is not something to take for granted.

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