There are ten basic elements that help to classify a poem as an epic. Although Beowulf does not contain all of these elements, it has enough of them to still identify it as an epic.
There are ten characteristics of an epic: the central character has heroic or superhuman qualities, the action takes place on an immense scale, the action involves the fate of an entire population or the whole human race, gods or semi-divine creatures aid one side or the other, the author announces his theme in opening, a character calls on the muses to help him, the poem begins "in media res," the style of poem is often noble and majestic, the characters speak in long set speeches, in some cases there is literary inventory that forms part of a descriptive passage.
The main character in a true epic possesses heroic or superhuman qualities. As the central character, Beowulf was a brave, powerful warrior. Beowulf believed that his fairness and bravery would help him to conquer the fiercest of opponents. He had the strength of ten men and was willing to go into any battle because he knew that he was stronger than any other being, man or beast. Before his battle with Grendel he claimed, "Grendel is no braver, no stronger than I am!" When Grendel and Beowulf met, he was true to his word and tore the beast's arm from the rest of its body and sent Grendel running cowardly toward its hellish home. While fighting Grendel's mother, Beowulf was able to slay the beast with a single swing from an immense sword, that was so massive, few men could even lift it. Prior to his confrontation with Grendel, he stated, "I could kill him with my sword; I shall not, Easy as it would be . . . I will meet him wit...
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...rk, George. Beowulf. Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1990.
Leyerle, John. "The Conflicting Demands of Heroic Strength and Kingly Wisdom." In Readings on Beowulf, edited by Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.
Shippey, T.A.. "The World of the Poem." In Beowulf - Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Shippey, Thomas A.. "Structure and Unity." In A Beowulf Handbook, edited by Robert Bjork and John D. Niles. Lincoln, Nebraska: Uiversity of Nebraska Press, 1997.
Tharaud, Barry. "Anglo-Saxon Language and Traditions in Beowulf." In Readings on Beowulf, edited by Stephen P. Thompson. San Diego: Greenhaven Press,1998.
Tolkien, J.R.R.. "Beowulf: The Monsters and the Critics." In Beowulf - Modern Critical Interpretations, edited by Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
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