Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

The Epicness of Poetry

Beowulf, The Iliad, and The Odyssey.  How could you get through public education and not have to study at least one of these? (Actually, I did–but that’s a different post). In our hurry-up world t’s not often we sit down and commit to reading 3,000 plus lines.  Welcome to Epic Poetry 101.

We tend to think of these triads of classic adventures as stories or myths.  Actually they are all poems.  Really long poems.  This is what makes them epic.

A brief pause…

Understanding Epic.

Today’s meaning:


Actual Meaning: (thanks



A long poem, typically derived from oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of…
Of, relating to, or characteristic of an epic or epics.
noun. epos – epopee
adjective. heroic – epical

Back to our blog post…

Now that epic real definition versus epic contemporary understanding is out of the way, moving on to epic poetry will make much more sense. Epic poetry is epic because it is BIG. It’s big in scope, deed, theme, length–it’s just, well, epic (dude). Plus, it’s so big that it is italicized (or underlined or bolded) instead of the usually “quotes around poems” bit of mechanics.  Yup, this poetry is so big that it gets to change the punctuation rules.

Although technically I should address Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey first, I’m going with Beowulf, not so much because it’s considered the foundation of English literature and it introduces the dragon slayer archetype as well as mix pagan and Christian thematic elements–I choose it first because of Gerard Butler made Beowulf come to life for me.


If you’ve never studied Beowulf, you should–don’t believe the Angelina Jolie version is Beowulf.  Nope. T’snt at all. Gerard Butler’s version isn’t either. So heads up Hollywood, we need a REAL version of this monumentally important epic poem.  Here’s to get you started…

Beowulf Key Facts ala Sparknotes:

full title  ·  Beowulf

author  · Unknown

type of work  · Poem

genre  · Alliterative verse; elegy; resembles heroic epic, though smaller in scope than most classical epics

language  · Anglo-Saxon (also called Old English)

time and place written  · Estimates of the date of composition range between 700 and 1000 a.d.; written in England

date of first publication  · The only manuscript in which Beowulf is preserved is thought to have been written around 1000 a.d.

publisher  · The original poem exists only in manuscript form.

narrator  · A Christian narrator telling a story of pagan times

point of view  · The narrator recounts the story in the third person, from a generally objective standpoint—detailing the action that occurs. The narrator does, however, have access to every character’s depths. We see into the minds of most of the characters (even Grendel) at one point or another, and the narrative also moves forward and backward in time with considerable freedom.

tone  · The poet is generally enthusiastic about Beowulf’s feats, but he often surrounds the events he narrates with a sense of doom.

tense  · Past, but with digressions into the distant past and predictions of the future

setting (time)  · The main action of the story is set around 500 a.d.; the narrative also recounts historical events that happened much earlier.

setting (place)  · Denmark and Geatland (a region in what is now southern Sweden)

protagonist  · Beowulf

major conflict  · The poem essentially consists of three parts. There are three central conflicts: Grendel’s domination of Heorot Hall; the vengeance of Grendel’s mother after Grendel is slain; and the rage of the dragon after a thief steals a treasure that it has been guarding. The poem’s overarching conflict is between close-knit warrior societies and the various menaces that threaten their boundaries.

rising action  · Grendel’s attack on Heorot, Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel, and Grendel’s mother’s vengeful killing of Aeschere lead to the climactic encounter between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother.

climax  · Beowulf’s encounter with Grendel’s mother constitutes the moment at which good and evil are in greatest tension.

falling action  · Beowulf’s glorious victory over Grendel’s mother leads King Hrothgar to praise him as a worthy hero and to advise him about becoming king. It also helps Beowulf to transform from a brazen warrior into a reliable king.

themes  · The importance of establishing identity; tensions between the heroic code and other value systems; the difference between a good warrior and a good king

motifs  · Monsters; the oral tradition; the mead-hall

symbols  · The golden torque; the banquet

foreshadowing  · The funeral of Shield Sheafson, with which the poem opens, foreshadows Beowulf’s funeral at the poem’s end; the story of Sigemund told by the scop, or bard, foreshadows Beowulf’s fight with the dragon; the story of King Heremod foreshadows Beowulf’s eventual ascendancy to kingship.

If you are up for reading the poem:

Gutenberg Project

If you want an entertaining analysis:


If you want to skip Beowulf and go to The Iliad and The Odyssey

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