Beowulf: Attempting the Epic

During the Dark Ages, with the continent being torn asunder with barbarian migration, and its institutions crumbling, it was to the European periphery that one must turn to find an interesting literary culture worthy of consideration. Of these – Iceland, Ireland, Norway, Wales – there were growing a strong collection of stories and sagas, but they were too isolated from Roman heritage for consideration here. Instead we will turn to England, whose Dark Age literature works well as a comparison with the classics, spawning, as it did, in the centuries following Roman retreat from Britannia. The Anglo-Saxons, who began to populate and penetrate the island of Britain from the south-east outward, cultivated what is today considered the founding of English literature. As such it is worth comparing that ageless epic Beowulf, against the bank of classical epics that would have, no doubt, been in the minds of Britain’s pre-Saxon occupants – the Romans.

Beowulf is the most important poem in old English literature, dealing with two heroic exploits in the life of a warrior chief. The poem is written by an unknown Anglo-Saxon poet, and is set in modern southern Sweden. It is a pointedly Dark Age work, citing the chief tribes of the Angles, the Swedes, the Franks, the Danes, and the Geatas of Beowulf himself. The tribal life, the disorganized world, the hero striving against man and nature alike. These themes sound somewhat familiar. So how does it hold up against the old epic of the Classics, those of Homer? Ultimately Beowulf taps into a man even closer to his primeval self than that of Homer, a man less sure of himself as overcoming nature. Let us highlight three instances which suggest this:

  1. Beowulf’s conflict is between man and nature. You will not find a Grendel in the Iliad. You certainly will not find a Troy in Beowulf. Troy has commerce, Troy has grandeur, and you can feel through its telling its connection with its ancient Asiatic heritage. The world portrayed in the Odyssey is closer to that of Beowulf, but the monsters encountered by Odysseus – the Cyclops, the Laestrygones – are emphasised as being removed from Greece, removed from civilisation. He can still return to Greece, and safety. Indeed, Odysseus’ return home is his escape from the wild dawn of man. Beowulf has no such luxury. He is stuck in the forest primeval, tinged with Wagnerian dream-like doom and the Sibelian struggle portrayed in Kalevala.
  2. The world of Beowulf is narrower and simple. This ties in with the idea stated above, namely ‘there is no Troy in Beowulf’. Geographical range is small. Slavs and Romans remain unmentioned, side-lined by primitive darkness. Yet in the Iliad and Odyssey we are building an understanding of the wider world with each interaction. In this gradual build Homer is not dissimilar to the books of Judges and Samuel in the Bible. Note this is not a matter of poem length, the three thousand lines of the Iliad or Odyssey against the 3,183 lines of Beowulf.
  3. Finally, Beowulf is a comparatively unskilled poem. Epic poetry is of a developed form that is not entirely fulfilled by Beowulf. It has elements that are not so dissimilar to the ballads that exist in multiple countries, such as the Serbian Maldon, that depicts the heroism of Mark Kraljevic. These songs and ballads will focus on a single deed of heroic energy or suffering. The tales of Hercules or King Arthur fit into this mould also, but they are not epics. Beowulf can be seen as a compendium of such ballads.
The Laestrygones of Homer: Bestial Man was far removed from the Civilized Greek World

Let us lay down some ground rules for what constitutes an epic. Epics are made by a single poet, and must relate the heroic adventure with the historical, geographical, and spiritual setting. It must overcome the isolated incident and embody a profound moral truth. This is the ideal of the true epic, and we can classify many of the songs and ballads of European folklore into one of three stages, depending on how it has performed against the criteria outlined above.

The first stage of heroic poetry tells the story of one battle, then will stop. The second stage will attempt to form a long chronicle, such as the Icelandic sagas (though the Njala can say to have achieved third stage status, i.e. embodying profound moral truth). Beowulf is at a point where it is struggling to achieve the third stage of epic. It has three heroic tasks:

  1. Beowulf fights the giant Grendel
  2. Beowulf fights Grendel’s mother
  3. Beowulf fights the fiery dragon, and dies.

The poet must link these three events by fostering a historio-geographical sense of the world of the epic, which he ultimately fails to do. It would have been astonishing if the age which made only the most primitive churches and castles and codes of law could have produced poets with the power to conceive a large and subtle plan and to impose it on the rough recalcitrant material and half-barbarous audiences with which they had to deal. Beowulf, much like the world in which it grew, is half-way to attainment. It has Christian ideals superimposed upon a barbarous pagan substructure, yet has not shaken it off, and that which does appear is strictly Old Testament. We must remember that, after the Greek world had been cut off and the Roman world barbarised, it was left to the church to civilize European outposts such as England.

How may the Anglo-Saxons, then, written an epic that sits comfortably alongside Homer?

The Song of Roland: The Return of True Epic

One point of consideration is the subject matter. The northern epics could have used as inspiration their greatest war-like achievement, the overthrow of Roman rule. The reason is, they could not grapple with the complexity of Rome, let alone its fall, which still has scholars scratching their heads today. These tribesmen did not abolish empire. They moved in and took over gradually. The state of perplexity postponed true epic making until they themselves fought for a Caesar against the invading foe – I speak of Charlemagne, Roland, and the Muslim horde.


Christian English Poetry

English Christian poetry emerged from the Anglo-Saxon poetic tradition, as stated in Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. An important institution for the propagation of English Christian poetry was the founding of Whitby Abbey in 657AD.

Whitby Abbey
Whitby Abbey, whose founding was pivotal to early English poetry

Here both Anglo-Saxon and Latin traditions flowed together. The Old English poems of Deor and Widsith would be compiled in a similar way Caedmon would with biblical tales. Caedmon, who’s poetry now only survives in fragments, inspired a system of biblical story-telling with Anglo-Saxon style and feeling. Examples of these include Satan’s rallying speech in Genesis B is said to have effected poets all the way down to Milton; Judith, a fragment about a Jewish heroine who killed the general of the Assyrian invaders. These are the seeds English renderings of the Bible which culminate in the King James Version.


Following Caedmon we have Cynewulf, who represents the second stage in the development of primitive poetry. Among the classics he is best compared to Hesiod. We have a better idea of who these poets were than either Homer or the Beowulf poet. The composer’s own personality has become less suppressed. Phocylides, a later Greek writer of poetic proverbs, ‘signed’ each of them by putting his name into the first line. This idea of autobiographical information inserted into the poetry is seen in Cynewulf’s Helena, within which we also see a style more exposed to classical influence through its smoother rhythm and discernible structure. It’s depiction of Queen Helena’s voyage to Jerusalem has in it the beginnings of the long English sailor tradition, and his signing of his poetry in runes, suggestive of English individualism and conservatism.

Other poems portraying the English and classical synthesis can be seen in the Dream of the Rood and the Phoenix. In the former, the author begins, as with Beowulf, with a roaring ‘Listen!’. The poem is showing an England emerging out of Old Testament obstinacy, and recognises Christ neither as a powerful king nor as a moral teacher, but as a supreme and beloved person. In the Phoenix, there are also New Testament overtones. The fire symbolizes the fire of Doomsday, the rebirth of the bird images the resurrection of Christ and Christian souls into eternal life. It is an expanded description of the late Latin poem on the phoenix myth by Lactantius:


When Phaethon’s flames had kindled all the zenith,

That place remained inviolate by fire,

And when the deluge plunged the world in billows,

It overcame Deucalion’s mighty flood

There are elements here of Tennyson’s eagle, Baudelaire’s albatross, Mallarmé’s swan. A mystical symbol of breathless aspiration, like Hopkins’s falcon, and they may have also found a home in Lactantius’ misanthropic reflections: 

O fortunate in fate, of birds most blessed,

Whom God permits to give its own self birth!

And, be its sex female, or male, or neither,

Blessed the being which knows nought of love!

Death is its love, and death its only pleasure,

And, that it may be born, it yearns to die.

 We have surveyed the state of English poetry between the Saxon and Danish invasions. It can be categorised into five waves:

  1. The pagan poetry of Beowulf – primitive, devoid of Graeco-Roman influence
  2. Caedmon and later seventh century writings – fuses Anglo-Saxon style on Latin biblical subjects
  3. c 800 – Cynewulf adapts material from Latin Christian prose as subjects for Anglo-Saxon poems
  4. The Phoenix – a blend of Latin poetry and Latin Christian prose
  5. The Dream of the Rood – New and original poetry built from themes introduced to Britain through Latin Christianity

The phoenix, miraculously reborn in the image of Christ, symbolizes the miraculous rebirth, in surroundings once barbarous, of Graeco-Roman culture transformed through Christianity.

Anglo-Saxon Prose

Poetry nearly always looks backward, in form or matter or both, to an earlier age. Prose is more contemporary, reflecting the needs and problems and powers of its time. The prose of the period, therefore, was mainly educational. It remained resolutely religious, through the earliest teachers of Christianity. The spread of Christianity across the British Isles is a strange tale of outliers and rogue agents. Characters with passion, zeal, and conviction acting out of a spirit of strident belief. It was not as organised a mission as is sometimes believed. St Patrick probably, and St Columba certainly, were not Roman Catholics. The most interesting in this tradition is the Celtic priest Palagius (c. 360-420). Palagius went away from the Augustine view that man was depraved from birth. He focussed on the plausibility of man to be good, and that obligation implies ability. The implication that man could live without sin was too much for church authorities, who sent emissaries to clamp down on such fringe thoughts.

All of this lays the background for the synod of Whitby (664), a great debate in which the Romans came out on trust. Roman missionaries included the figures of Theodore, an Asiatic Greek from Tarsus who was later to become bishop of Canterbury, and Hadrian, teacher to the first Saxon scholar, Aldhelm. He was followed by a scholar and chronicler of greater fashion: the Venerable Bede (c.672-735), whose Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation has been aforementioned.  Bede obtained his schooling from Irish and north British churchmen, and his opus spanned the history of Britain from Caesar (55BC) until 731AD. Bede’s work was conducted on genuine research, both from earlier annalists and the verbal tradition, and as a scholar he was both an Englishman and Latinist. He was chiefly responsible for the introduction of BC/AD dating and, was the first Englishman who transcended his age and who, as Dante saw, belonged to all humanity.

Successors to Bede include the figures of Alcuin of York (b. 735) and Scotus Erigena, or John ‘the Gael’, who was more of a philosopher than a churchman. The centres of Irish and larger Celtic learning were hit a significant blow by the Viking attacks after 787, to such an extent that a place of worship for Thor was set up in the holy city of Armagh. England faced a similar threat in the Danes, the resistance to whom was led by King Alfred (848-901), founder of the English nation. We owe much to the survival of an English culture of learning to his efforts. Negotiating a peace with the Danes in 878, he allowed for a breathing space in the fighting and a chance to revive British civilization within the territory that remained under his influence. The cultural losses had been significant. British history, world history, geography – all had to be revived. The work could only have been achieved by a man of great status and conviction, and thankfully England had this in Alfred.

Through Alfred four key subjects were allowed to flourish:

Alfred, England’s first ‘Great Man’: Liberator from Danes, translator of Classics
  1. The practice of the Christian religion
  2. The Christian history and the continuous national existence of the English people
  3. World history and geography, explained and interpreted from a Christian point of vie, using as his source the fifth century’s Spanish writer Orosius’ History against the Pagans and Augustine’s City of God. The former included verbatim narratives of two great exploratory voyages carried out by the sailors Ohthere, in the White Sea, and Wulfstan, in the Baltic.
  4. Lastly, but certainly not least, moral philosophy, using as his source Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, which Alfred translated himself.

Alfred would have, no doubt, have found much in Boethius’ life and struggles with which he could relate.

Boethius: Alfred’s Model for Remedy

It is fitting that Boethius’ name itself comes from the Greek βοηθεῖν, meaning to assist or relieve injury, considering the legacy of his life and works. His want for scope for his talents rather than to grow old uselessly, is something Alfred would have sincerely admired. Born about 480AD, and brought up by the distinguished pagan statesman Symmachus, he was both rich and noble, highly educated and devoted to Greece, he fell into trouble with the ruling Ostrogothic king Theodoric on the charge of inviting the eastern Roman emperor Justinian to drive out the barbarian. Under these auspices, he was executed in 524. The manner of his death is particularly gruesome, and an indication of the fall of civility that had occurred on the Italian peninsula under the Ostrogoths. A cord was slowly tightened round his brain, and that, while enduring this torment, he was clubbed to death.

His work, The Consolation of Philosophy, was the last in a long line of classical philosophical works from the classical age, to the extent that Boethius is considered by many, the last of the Romans. It is written in the form of a cross between Platonic dialogue, namely the Gorgias, the Phaedo, and The Republic, and Menippean satire. The prose is late latin, interspersed with verse reflective of the choruses of Seneca’s tragedies. In it, Boethius is visited in his cell by the figure of Philosophy, and is brought back to the fold of God’s providence as the dialogue progresses. Starting from the position of having forgot the truth of the world, he re-discovers it by drawing out errors from his sick soul, and applies the remedy of truth, guided by Lady Philosophy.

Boethius There are also traces of Cicero’s philosophical writings, namely Tusculan Discussions (dealing with man’s great unhappiness) and the Dream of Scipio (a revelation of immortality), which permeate indirectly through Boethius’ reliance on Neoplatonic thought. He can also be seen to have inspired the, much later, German philosophical tradition founded by Kant. The analogy here is between Boethius’ comparison of the physical universe as a rational system to moral law, and Kant’s declaration that the two greatest things in the universe were ‘the starry sky above, the moral law within.’ Kant’s perspective that wickedness, however powerful, was bound to sink and disappear before ‘the army of unalterable law’.

Boethius and Philosophy
Boethius and Philosophy: Salvation through Contemplation

Boethius’ influence was widespread and long-lasting, particularly throughout the Dark and Middle Ages. He had faced the same problem which recurred for a thousand years, and he faced it nobly. A good man, killed by vicious tyrants. Like Kant and Alfred, modern man can still find great resource in reading The Consolation, and by identifying their struggles with the Roman hero. It is medicine for any man who feels himself suffering from a mortal disease of the soul.

King Alfred’s translation of Boethius is interesting from the point where he makes amendments or omissions. He discards much of the difficult argument of book 5, and, unlike Boethius, mentions Christ by name. He brings in angels, the devil, Old Testament history. With Alfred the treatise is much more firmly a Biblical Christian affair.

After Alfred

Alfred’s work could not mask the decline war had brought on English scholarship since the time of Bede, the great king admitting:

“Now no man can get full play for his natural gifts, nor conduct and administer government, unless he has fit tools, and raw material to work on…Also he must have means of support for the three classes”

The last great pre-Norman educator in England was Aelfric (c.955-1020). In his time, English became a literary language – the earliest in Europe. During the tenth century a number of English versions of the gospels were produced: the Lindisfarne Gospels, the Rushworth Gospels, the West Saxon Gospels. These gospels were also gravely endangered by the Danes, the Lindisfarne Gospel being removed from its home for safety when it was washed overboard in a storm; but, like the culture to which it belonged, it was recovered almost undamaged when the tide ebbed.

There was throughout the Dark Ages in Britain the fostering of the great mythos that does not come from Graeco-Roman source, that of Arthur and his knights, the gallant band who resisted the heathen and the forces of darkness. It is easy to see how the tale caught on. Thus was England’s taste with the classical tradition curtailed until the Norman conquest, itself another disaster of war and turmoil, had settled with a clear bridgehead to the Continent, through which the Classics could slowly filter through once more.