Every continent in this world have epics which reflect their cultures, beliefs, and values. Some of these are Iliad and Beowulf. In order for these literary pieces to be considered epics, they must posssess some properties a true epic must have.
First, the epic must have personalities with heroic stature or legendary significance. The hero does great things of valor and courage, or possesses supernatural powers and values like loyalty, generosity and honor. In Iliad, Achilles depicted behaviors and characteristics of a true hero. He has chiseled figures, enormous strength and power, and close relationship with the gods. He fought bravely for the Greeks even though there is a prophecy that a war would be the cause of his death. Beowulf also possesses supernatural strength as well as valor and courage. Defeating the sea monsters, Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon are proof that he has inhuman strength and ability. He fights for a must and is not afraid to die just like Achilles. Beowulf’s courage and loyalty became known to his people who composed songs about him and passed on to other generations (Jokinen). Being commemorated in songs is a sign of immortality, internationality and legendary significance in the fields of history and literature.
Second, a true epic needs a muse in order to help or guide the author throughout his work. In The Iliad, Homer starts the epic by asking the muse to recall the fight between Achilles and Agammemnon. There is also an instance wherein Homer sought help from the muses in stating the catalogues of ships. Basically, it is a list of all the different contingents that make the Achaian army, where they come from, who commands them, how many ships they have, and any other relevant background information (Shmoop Editorial Team).
Third, gods and goddesses, as well as supernatual beings must be present in the epic (Srinivasan). In Iliad, gods and goddesses are involved in action and continue to intervene in the war between the Achaians and the Trojans. Greek gods did not have restrains on intervening the Greek lives due to the fact that most gods and goddesses have children with the mortals. As a matter of fact, the gods and goddesses are considered to be a sign of hope and power for the warriors, both Greeks and Trojans. There was an instance wherein Apollo granted the wish of his priest, Chyrseis, in punishing the Greeks because Agammemnon did not want to return the priest’s daughter back. Iris, the goddess of discord, took the shape of Polites to warn the Trojans for the upcoming fight with the Achaians. In Beowulf, although there is no divine intervention, supernatural beings like Grendel, Grendel’s mother and dragon are present.
Fourth, the language of the epic style is in an elevated, rather formal language (Srinivasan). Similes, kennings, and many other literary techniques are used throughout the poem. In Iliad, Homeric epithets or miniature portraits that identify a person or thing by highlighting a prominent characteristic of that person or thing are commonly used. The “Epithets in Homer” provides some definite examples of epithets found in Iliad. Achilles is described as swift-footed, godlike, shepherd of the people, and leader of men. On the other hand, Hector is portrayed as tamer of horses, Priam’s son of glinting helmet, and glorious. Helen is given with epithets of long-dressed, lovely-haired, daughter of a noble family and daughter of Zeus who holds the aegis. Unlike Iliad which is full of epithets, the epic Beowulf is rich in kennings. Essentially, a kenning is a synonym composed of several words that may be used in place of a single word. This approach is one of the ways that color and emphasis may be added to both the written word and the spoken word (Tatum). Examples of kenning would include light of battle for sword, fighting-gear for body armor and battle sweat for blood (Kats et al.). It is a way for the poets to experiment on the rhythms and metrics especially when a poem is meant to be sung. In the “Epithets in Homer”, it is stated that the two techniques, epithets and kennings, are traditional and conventional elements in an epic – entirely appropriate to the heroic subject matter and therefore a recognizable quality of the song for the audience. They give color and fame as well as realism for animate or inanimate subjects on the epic.
Fifth, an epic must have a convention of in medias res or in the midddle of things. Starting a story in medias res is a long-held tradition in the writing of novels, the composition of oral tales and poetry, and is now practiced in the modern novel, screenplay or play (Ellis-Christensen). The style catches the attention of the reader, and subsequent parts are supplied as the story is told. In the Iliad, the story dramatically starts with the muse’s citation about the Achaians’ war against the Trojans.
Discussion on the characteristics of the epic leads to the development of the themes. Looking deeply into the work of Homer brings a conclusion that the major themes involved in Iliad are anger and honor. In Book One, Achilles’ wrath commenced when Agammemnon took Briseis away from Achilles. Achilles’ anger was rooted on the fact that his honor was deeply hurt. He is considered to be the strongest of the Achaian army yet he was easily stripped off his muse. His anger worsened when Patroclus, one of the Myrmidons and Achilles’ close friend, was killed by his mortal enemy, Hector. When he killed Hector, he dragged his body around the perimeter of the Trojan Empire. Achilles allowed his rage to move beyond death to desecration as he mutilated, time and again, the corpse of Hector (Linn, “Theme 1: Anger, Strife, Alienation and Reconciliation). Gods are also vulnerable to anger in Iliad. The judgment of the Trojan prince, Paris, ignited the anger of Hera and Athena towards himself because he chose Aphrodite to be the fairest of all. The anger of Hera and Athena brought them to the verge of helping the Greeks against the Trojans. The fact that the goddesses helped Greeks is only a superficial reason. The main reason is that they want to take vengeance, and make Paris sorry for choosing Aphrodite. Looking closely to the characters gives us an idea that the theme of anger is so powerful it even has an actual form in the person of Iris. Considering that she is the goddess of discord, Iris is the one who threw the apple during the marriage of Thetis and Peleus, thereby causing a rampage between Hera, Athena, and Aphrodite.
The epic of Beowulf also depicted anger as its theme. Mostly, it is on the side of the supernatural beings. To cite some examples, consider Grendel and its mother. Grendel’s reason for its rage is due to the noise made by the continuous merriment of the people at the mead hall. He was so disturbed that it comes to the point of killing those people in the hall. On the other hand, the reason for the wrath of Grendel’s mother is to have revenge on Beowulf for killing his son. It is a motherly instinct even for an animal to take revenge to someone who has done something bad to their loved ones. Hrothgar may also show some sort of anger to himself because he cannot do anything about the situation. He is a king yet he is useless in his own way. He even asked the assistance of Beowulf in getting rid of the monster.
Moving on, the next theme is all about honor. Honor is very important to heroes and warriors because it is the thing that differentiates them to a normal human. In Iliad, honor is removed from the Greeks when Paris took Helen away from Menelaus. The incident resulted to a 10-year old war because a warrior’s honor is proven in the battlefield. They continued to fight until they regained the honor the Trojans have taken away from them. The confrontation of Achilles with Agammemnon also speaks of honor. Seizing Briseis away from Achilles is like seizing away his honor. He is considered to be the strongest of the Achaian army yet he was easily stripped off his muse. There came the time when Agammemnon needed the help of Achilles. Agammemnon gave him worldly treasures but Achilles refused because it will further disrupt his honor. The theme about honor is also viewed with the Trojans particularly Paris. Paris is viewed here as a person who lacks honor because of seizing Helen away from Menelaus. Taking someone’s wife is a dishonorable act for a man especially if he belongs to a noble family. Although the family believed that hospitaliy is obligatory, Paris’s case is different. Honor is also measured by the relationship of the hero with the gods. If he failed to follow the gods and made his own decisions, he had to live with the shame of his mistake, and when he erred, he would lose approval and honor (Linn, “The Hero and Homeric Culture).
Basically, in an epic, to be a hero means to be a warrior. According to James B. Jacobs, a warrior is respected by his people, a warrrior is loved by his people (Barnhart). An author says that an epic hero lives in an honor/shame society (Jokinen), wherein good name is equated to honor and respect. Therefore, a man’s prized possession is his name and he must do all what it takes to protect it. Honor may be the reason why Beowulf killed the dragon so that he will be loved and respected by his kingdom more. An honorable person also values equality. He/She does not take advantage over the weakness of his/her enemy. Beowulf showed honor during his fight with Grendel when he fought bare-handedly with the monster. Beowulf’s supernatural strength is equal with Grendel’s monstrous power but Beowulf managed to defeat Grendel. To be honorable also means not to cheat or lie. Hrothgar, the Danish king and the builder of Heorot, lied to his subordinates about the truth behind Grendel. He did not tell them that Grendel was the fruit of his relationship with the witch. He was not responsible for his own actions that he passed on the killing of his own son to Beowulf.
If I will be able to choose an epic, I will choose Iliad by Homer. Iliad is a good literary piece that depicts the war betweeen the Greeks and the Trojans. I like the depictions of the gods and goddesses, and how they manage to help the mortals in their war. It so amazing that a war lasted for 10 years only because of a golden apple. The story is well known and it speaks of different values like love, betrayal, obsession, and courage. It has a good timeline and at the same time a page turner because you cannot wait what will happen to every character in the story. Homer is such a great writer because he managed to put all these wonderful ideas together. His work, Iliad, is a good reading material for it is full of descriptive words that make the readers develop their imaginative skills. I will continue to use Iliad for the next semester. Since it is a Homeric epic, it is a great example of how an epic should look like. It shows how literary techniques like epithet can have a great impact on the story itself. It also helps enhance the reader’s critical thinking skills as well as his/her ability to focus on a great literary piece like this.
Barnhart, Tracy E. “What Makes A Warrrior?” Scribd.com. np. nd. Web. 20 May 2010
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Linn, Bob. “Theme 1: Anger, Strife, Alienation andd Reconciliation.” ClifffNotes on The Iliad. Wiley Publishing. nd. Web. 20 May 2010.
Shmoop Editorial Team. “The Iliad Book 2 Summary.” Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc. 11 November 2008. Web. 19 May 2010.
Srinivasan, A.V. “Characteristics of an Epic.” avsrinivasan.com. np.nd. Web. 20 May 2010
Tatum, Malcolm. “What is a Kenning.” wiseGEEK.com. Web. 21 May 2010