When many students think of poetry, flowery language, angst, and catchy song lyrics may come to mind. However, in the study of British literature and epic poems, the visualizations change to larger than life chivalric heroes setting out on impossible missions battling supernatural forces. In the study of famous epic poems common themes like justice, bravery, and loyalty tend to reappear, but upon a closer look at epic poetry as a genre, one can discover that the works often reveal ideals and values intrinsic to the culture and people living in the period in which they were written.
Defined by the Oxford Dictionary, an epic is “A long narrative poem celebrating the great deeds of one or more legendary heroes, in a grand ceremonious style”(oxforddictionary.com). Also, according to Literary Devices, the word is derived from the “Ancient Greek adjective, epikos,” which means a “poetic story” (LiteraryDivices.com). The hero of the epic often represents the values of a certain time period, culture, country, or religion. And the earliest surviving epic poem dates back from the “Third Dynasty of 2100 BC” which is known as the Epic of Gilgamesh (briticanica.com).
Another one of the oldest surviving poems is Beowulf, and it one of the most quickly identified in the genre of epic poetry. Although its authorship and composition date are debatable, it is considered a notable work of Old English literature. Upon closer study of Beowulf, one can identify traits valued in the Anglo-Saxon culture like strength, valor, and honor. Since Beowulf was passed down in story-telling form, one can easily envision patrons slugging back mead and celebrating the heroism and conquest of Beowulf. The Anglo-Saxon history dates back to the early 5th century and is filled with warlike details of invasions, battles for power, kings, saints, and social classes. The Anglo –Saxons were ruled by leaders who maintained their position through battle and wars and were expected to defend their people with honor and celebrate victories in excess. The modern-day reader can get a glimpse into this life when reading Beowulf. An example to prove that Beowulf is representative of the Anglo-Saxon culture, the Anglo-Saxons heavily valued righteousness and truth. Much like the character Beowulf, they were the type of people who enjoyed boasting and bragging. Furthermore, in chapter 11 Unferth taunts Beowulf with the memory of a swimming contest that he once lost to Breca. However, to prove his boastfulness, Beowulf then explains that he actually did win the match because he had single-handedly fought and defeated a pack of sea monsters in the course of the contest (530-532). Another example of an Anglo-Saxon trait being demonstrated in the poem is when Beowulf showed that loyalty was a significant value to the Thanes. At various times, characters within the epic placed more importance on loyalty to the king than anything else including one’s own life or their family. With loyalty, comes celebration. After Beowulf comes to the rescue of King Hrothgar by defeating Grendel, the king bestows gifts and treasure at a great feast which is directly reflective of Anglo-Saxon’s belief in bravery and generosity. Furthermore, Beowulf is a rather explicit representation of the Anglo-Saxon people and culture, providing readers with an excellent adventure and an understanding of what people enjoyed and cared about during such times.
Another example of epic poetry reflecting its time period can be found in the Faerie Queene. Spenser’s writing can be tied to social, political, and historical events involving Queen Elizabeth I and Elizabethan England. In a letter, Spencer explained he wrote the Faerie Queene as an allegory which allows characters and events to have symbolic meaning. The poem’s setting is in “Faerie land” which is ruled by the Faerie Queene which Spencer says represents his own monarch, Queen Elizabeth. Also, the virtues presented in the books of the poem seem to be held in esteem by the people of the Elizabethan time period. Spenser lived in a reformation period of England when the roles of the Catholic Church and Protestantism were being defined. In Books, I and III, the knights Redcrosse and Britomart characterize two virtues important to the church including holiness and chastity. Also, these characters also show the importance of heroism during this time period. The Faerie Queene overall provides readers with the understanding that in Elizabethan England the people placed much importance on religion, justice, and loyalty. For example, Spencer points out the importance of religion to Redcrosse’s life and identity when he states, “And on Redcrosse’s breast a bloddie crosse he bore, for deare remembrance of his dying Lord” (1.I.2). The narrator of The Faerie Queene gives the insight of the importance of justice and that it is truly respected in the epic when “That all the world with goodnesse did abound…justice state high ador’d with solemne feasts and to all people did diuide her dred beheasts…most sacred virtue she of all the rest” (5. proem.9-10). Lastly, an example of when The Faerie Queene emphasizes loyalty Redcrosse and Guyon “with right hands plighted, pledges of good faith” maintaining their link of loyalty as they part ways (2.I.34)
Besides the epics poetry of Beowulf and the Fairie Queene, the Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer is greatly celebrated because of its reflection of fourteenth-century medieval England. The work is built around a diversified group of travelers on a pilgrimage. The variety of characters used reveals a lot about the social class structure of the time period. The knight displayed chivalry and “truth, honor, and freedom” as any stereotypical knight would during the time period (45-46). In addition, the nun has many descriptions giving her an innocent appearance, “pleasant,” and “amiable” (138). Lastly, the monk exemplifies the religious attitude of monks during the time period that follows the “rule of Saint Maure or of Saint Beneit” (173). Furthermore, these characters and stereotypes show readers the prevalence of the class systems and types of people during the Medieval Times. Another hint to the time period is that the travelers were on a Christian pilgrimage with several characters representing dimensions of the church and its corruption. For example, the monk was no ordinary monk, he loved hunting, which is an extreme contrast to the regular life of a monk (166). Another example of a corrupted character is the friar who initially has a façade of a higher-than-holy character that later portrays as greedy and hypocritical. Overall, the Canterbury Tales creates a portrait of social classes, and shifting economy, and diversifying religious beliefs from the time period.
Overall the great pieces of epic poetry including Beowulf, Faerie Queene, and the Canterbury Tales, all show characteristics and virtues of the culture and time period of their creation. While Beowulf creates a passionate epic hero that the people could cheer on, Faerie Queene uses allegory to give readers a glimpse of Elizabethan England. Canterbury Tales weaves together a variety of characters that show the diversity and dimension of medieval England. Together virtues and characteristics like heroism, bravery, loyalty and religion from great works reinforce and educate the masses on the beliefs which then build a nation, a nation that like today that loves its superheroes.
Originally published 15.10.2019
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