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Epic Conventions in Beowulf

Instructor: Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth has an MEd in reading and language arts and has written K–12 language and literature lessons for many major US textbook publishers.

Epic conventions are features that are found in multiple epics and are therefore considered to characterize the genre. In this lesson, learn about how epic conventions play a role in 'Beowulf.'

Conventions as a Guide

Suppose you saw any of the following:

  • A man in a tuxedo climbing on the monkey bars.
  • A woman in a formal gown wading in the ocean.
  • A child going to kindergarten in a three-piece business suit.

What would you think if you saw women wading in the ocean in formal gowns?
two women wading in gowns

None of these choices would be illegal or immoral. What's unexpected about them, besides the fact that they're probably impractical, is that they flaunt conventions, which are norms for ways of doing things.

Now, look at it the other way: Clothing conventions are givens, part of the expectations connected to certain social situations. Formal wear at a formal event - a prom, a wedding, a funeral - allows everyone who follows the convention to fit in. People driving by who catch a fleeting glimpse would have an idea of what kind of gathering was going on based on the way people were dressed.

Epics, spoken and written across thousands of years, do not all share the same conventions. For example, epics stemming from the oral tradition have different characteristics than written literary epics. Nevertheless, certain features cross time and culture to characterize epics, and these are what are known as epic conventions.

Types of Conventions

Conventions cover a number of different aspects of epics. Let's examine some that apply to Beowulf.

Formal Conventions

Conventionally, the form of an epic is that it is a long narrative poem. At 3182 lines, Beowulf qualifies as long. It is ''narrative'' because it tells a story, a sequence of events, even though it has both foreshadowing and flashbacks through song and anecdote. And though some of the translations of Beowulf from the original Old English into Modern English are in prose, the original and a number of translations are poetry, although the features of Old English poetry are different than what is typical in Modern English. Each poetic line in Beowulf is composed of two half-lines, connected by alliteration of a word in each half-line that falls on a stressed syllable.

The original manuscript of Beowulf is a long narrative poem written in Old English.
Folio 137r of Beowulf from the Cotton MS Vitellius A XV manuscript.

Content Conventions

Epics are known for focusing on certain content, including a heroic figure who takes part in deeds worthy of a hero and undertakes a perilous journey. Beowulf has all that. Dispatching nine sea monsters after swimming in full armor while carrying a sword for five nights surely counts as both heroic and perilous. But Beowulf is not a ''been there, done that'' kind of hero.

When he goes after Grendel's mother, Beowulf jumps, again in full armor, into the reptile-infested pond where she lives, and although it takes him most of a day just to reach the bottom, he ultimately slays her as well, again combining perilous journey with heroic deeds. Although the journey to Heorot is not perilous, the slayings of Grendel and the dragon both count as heroic, despite Beowulf not seeing Grendel die and his having Wiglaf's help with the dragon.

Storytelling Conventions

The way an epic is put together is also the source of certain conventions. One feature is an episodic, rather than continuous, telling. The introductory section takes place in the mythic past, helping us understand Hrothgar's importance by sharing information about his ancestors. We then make a leap in time to the attacks on Heorot, and the decision of Beowulf to intervene, 12 years later. While the incidents in Heorot are continuous, the slaying of the dragon occurs after a huge leap of time: 50 years later. But while this is a leap in the life of Beowulf, this jump over the years of Beowulf's rule allows the epic poet to focus on Beowulf's deeds of heroism.

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