Beowulf is a primary epic. It arose out of an oral tradition like Iliad and it is not literary in origin. Beowulf embodies the general characteristics of an epic in its special way.
As all epic poems are expected to be, Beowulf is a record of the national life of the period depicted in it but only to a limited extent. At best, we can say that Beowulf is a record but a mutilated one of the ancient Teutonic life.
In Beowulf, characterization is broad and bold as is found in all epics. Beowulf has his love of glory, iron resolution, fearlessness, loyalty and dutifulness which are not shaken even he has the presentiment of his own doom in his last adventure. He has been described as ‘a king of the world of men, the middlest to his people, the most kindly and gentle and most eager for praise.’
Beowulf is heroic in spirit, chivalrous in content and humanistic in appeal. The poem celebrates of Beowulf, a Teutonic tribal lord who devote himself to the worthy cause of protecting the weak against the wicked. Beowulf fights and saves the weak and innocent people against the monsters and the dragon of his land: ‘Death is better for all earls than a shameful life.’
The whole theme is inspired with heroic idealism and bears the magnificence of epic poetry in its story and spirit.
The style of the poem is elaborated and exalted in a way which embodies the spirit of its heroic subject. Here abstract expressions are all avoided. Phrases are all concrete. The ship is ‘The foamy-necked floater’, Grendel mother is ‘The sea wolf of the depths’. The richness and vividness of details, the profusion of adjectives, the short and vigorous speeches—all these have contributed to the excellence of Beowulf as an epic.
Beowulf has no unity of action. It consists of two distinct narratives which are detached from each other. Secondly, the action of Beowulf has no entirety or completeness. Thirdly, the length of Beowulf is inconsiderable. So it cannot be called an epic in the proper sense of the term.
To a modern reader, the importance of Beowulf lies neither in its epic grandeur, nor in its technical superiority. Beowulf standout for one specific quality and this is the social picture that it presents. Truly speaking, Beowulf records the mode of living of primitive people with all thin ideas, rituals and customs. Here, it attains the height of a social epic of the primitive Teutonic people. It bears out the heroic tradition and spirit of a remote Pagan age. Beowulf the hero of the poem appears brightly with his gallantry, nobleness and unhesitating sacrifice.
Beowulf is a non-christian work of the per-christian time and as such, it is often found animated with certain pagan ideals of life. One such ideals is the spirit of revenge. Revenge is a kind of wild justice and that was the very motive of Teutonic life.
Even the somber Teutonic outlook on life is clearly perceived in the work. There is hardly any genuine gaiety in this outlook. Life appears as a grave, hard business and a sense of melancholy rings all through. The overwhelming power of fate against which man is powerless, is presented with a stocial philosophy.
Primitive Teutonic life was simple, straight forward and rather sincere. To fight vigorously, to eat and drink voraciously, to find comfort in music after hard toil and to sleep peacefully and profoundly constituted the essence of this social life and Beowulf is a perfect specimen of the primitive world in this respect.
Again, Teutonic people had their own way of pastimes and merry-making. Hunting, swimming were some of the popular sports of the primitive world.
The epic also brings out subtle the artistic attitude of the primitive people. The intellectual pleasure. Sought by primitive people in poetry and music is well indicated in the epic. The dirge, sung in honour of the dead is characteristically primitive.
Though Biblical elements abound and Christian elements are incorporated in the poem, the background of Beowulf is distinctly heathen and its philosophy markedly pagan. Pagan elements are found in the love of war, deep-rooted belief in heathen customs and ceremonies as shown in the description of the funeral of the heroes. Pagan element is also evident in the descriptions of feats and halls and in the belief in the inscrutable fate. The dead are cremated, omens are observed, sacrifices are vowed at the temple of idols.
The praise of worldly glory, the theme of blood, vengeance are the proof to a heathen past. Thus, Beowulf is clearly a heathen work which has undergone revisions by Christian minstrels.
Christian elements vary in the different episodes of the poem and are evenly distributed between the speeches and narratives. There are portions which are probably later substituted for passages originally heathen in character by the Christian compiler of the poem. However, the Christian ways, institutions rituals and simple Christian faith in providence. There are no allusions of Biblical characters except the character of Cain. In the poem, there are many references to Christianity. Hrothgar’s minstrel sings a religious poem about the creation, yet Beowulf is cremated with pagan ceremonies. Though there are no references to Christ, the Cross, angels and saints, the flood, deluge and Satan are mentioned.
The atmosphere of the poem and the outlook on life embodied in Beowulf show a curious fusion of the pagan and Christian elements. Atmosphere of gloom and horror and mysterious night and references to such sinister place, as swamps where the dragons inhabit are the combined production of sad northern landscape and the gloomy imagination of the Pagan poets. But the impression of nothingness of life and glory is not wholly pagan.