Beowulf

Genre

Main ideas Genre

Beowulf is a heroic epic, a long poem which recounts the deeds of a legendary warrior. In a heroic epic, the warrior protagonist sets a moral example: through his story, the value and meaning of a society’s ethical code can be examined. For instance, Virgil’s Aeneid tells the story of Rome’s legendary founder Aeneas in order to examine the limitations of dutifulness, which was an important and traditional value in Ancient Rome. The ethical code in Beowulf is the warrior code of ancient Northern Europe. This code was already becoming a thing of the past (at least in England) when the poem was written. As a result, Beowulf is both a study of a particular ethical code, and also a study of the fact that all human ethical codes—all human values—are flawed and impermanent. For this reason, the famous Beowulf-scholar (and author of Lord of the Rings) J.R.R. Tolkien suggested that the poem should be labeled an “elegy” rather than an “epic.” An elegy is a poem about mourning. Beowulf can be seen as an elegy because it mourns a heroic set of values which have been lost, and which may have been tragically misguided in the first place.