Beowulf is a work of Old English poetry which has been around for hundreds of years. Until Tolkien, famous for his Lord of the Rings series, brought it into English literature classes, however, it had not been studied except in Germanic language courses (Zealand). There are only eight major Beowulf questions, according to Davis, who lists them at the beginning of his article. One of those, the discussion of Beowulf as an epic, was of particular interest.
Four articles discussed Beowulf as an epic, or as a not-epic: Zealand’s “Beowulf Tradition,” Lawrence’s “Beowulf and the Epic Tradition,” Brady’s “Structure of the Poem,” and Davis’ “The Art of Old English Poetry.” All four of these articles dealt specifically with Beowulf. All four of the articles included a discussion of the dating of Beowulf. All four argued for the unity of the poem. And all four of the articles presented strong arguments for their views. However, they differed in more ways than they agreed.
Even though all the works presented a discussion of the dating of Beowulf, their dates differed tremendously. Davis argued strenuously for a dating of 400 AD, which, according to Brady is impossible a date because of the syncretistic aspects. Zealand supports the possibility of an early dating with his references to King Aethelbert and Queen Bertha and the Roman missionaries to England, but argues for a dating of 800 to 1050 AD. Lawrence argues that the meter suggests a mid-600s date. Even though they all present a dating of the text, none of them agreed on what that date was.
Only half of the articles felt that Beowulf was an epic, or at least a good one. Zealand and Lawrence both argued that Beowulf “reflects the manners and ideals of a heroic age” (Lawrence) and that its digressions are part of what make it an epic poem. Brady and Davis, on the other hand, felt that it is not an epic. “Beowulf is evidently not a well conducted epic” (Brady) and Davis argued that the work will “turn out to be no epic at all.”
Zealand and Brady used the same points, the digressions within the poem, to argue that it was (Zealand) and was not (Brady) an epic poem. Zealand’s argument was that the digressions created the scope necessary for the qualification of the poem as an epic. Brady, on the other hand, argued that the digressions proved it was not an epic because they were off-topic.
The beginning of the poem is also a source of disagreement. Brady and Davis both refer to the portion of epic which usually invokes the Muse. Beowulf does not have this clearly Greco-Roman reference and so, they argue, does not qualify as an epic poem. But Zealand and Lawrence say that the presentation of Scyld and his history invokes within the native listeners the same understanding and situation that Homer created through his invocation of the daughters of Zeus.
While all four of the authors agreed that the character of Beowulf is heroic, they disagreed on what this meant. Zealand and Lawrence argued that the heroism of Beowulf proves that it is an epic. The main character of an epic must be “of great importance” (Zealand) and have “superhuman courage” (Lawrence). Davis and Brady, however, argued that while Beowulf is a hero, he is not a hero on great national importance and the epic poem requires a national hero.
So Beowulf is or is not an epic poem written in 400 AD or 1050 AD or somewhere in between. Its digressions make it an epic, or they keep it from being an epic. Its lack of invocation of a Greek goddess may or may not keep it from being an epic. While the main hero is a hero, he may or may not be an epic hero. The most interesting aspect of these articles was how the authors used the same information to come to opposite conclusions.