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Essay: The Heroic Epic and Medieval Romance genres (The Nibelung, Beowulf)

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  • Published: 21 January 2022*
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The Heroic Epic genre is characterized as that of where the characters are performing usually very dangerous and difficult tasks where they demonstrate their great courage and undeniable bravery. It is very common as well that under this genre., the physical characteristics of the characters are described in strong detail, specially the hero in the literary work- how he looks, what he wears, what he eats, etc. Additionally, heroic epic mostly deals on the fortunes of a great hero and the interactions of this hero with the people that surround him and in some cases, with gods. Usually the heroes will have superhuman capabilities such as when the warrior or person in question has an abnormal strength but still has the potential for greatness which can be hinted through their wisdom, bravery, humility, etc. An epic hero usually engages himself in a long journey, typically to an exotic place, by choice or chance usually to battle and commonly has a reputation of being a great warrior. Even though it concentrates on a character’s achievement, it doesn ‘t necessarily concentrate on a character’s psychological or emotional maturation, as one can see in the epic poem of Beowulf, written by Seamus Heaney.
The Medieval Romance genre is commonly a literary work that compiles fictional works of chivalry and adventure from the Middle Ages. Said genre started becoming popular during the fifth and sixteenth centuries, where it could be composed in prose as well as in verse. Although medieval romance may be similar to Greek and Roman epics, medieval romance does not resemble tribal wars, in the contrast, this genre represents a chivalric period characterized by its civility. Additionally, the plot in this literary work would usually base itself around a knight faced with a hard challenge, in some cases influenced by magic, where he would have to prove himself to others. Furthermore, medieval romance is characterized by chivalry, adventure, the pursuit of courtly love, mystical events, objects or people and more importantly, the psychological or emotional transformation of the characters, as one can see in the Le Morte Darthur written by Sir Thomas Malory and in , the Nibelungenlied.
Beowulf, a key literary work in the representation of an early medieval heroic epic, exhibits the life of a young, brave warrior who eventually becomes into a brave king. Nonetheless, Beowulf’s personality and character remains unchanged even though the circumstance, surrounding him changes. On the other hand, one can observe how Kriemhild’s motifs and Hagens portrayal in the Nibelunglied alter as the plot detangles, hence they endure a psychological change throughout the narrative. This psychological change is also exhibited in Sir Thomas Malory’s literary work, Le Morte Darthur, in one of the main characters- Sir Lancelot. Even though he is portrayed as a great knight although he does not behave like one given that he dishonors King Arthur by sleeping with his wife, Queen Gwenyvere. Nonetheless, at the end of the narrative, Sir Lancelot is confronted by King Arthur, where he does not fight back given that he will not be disloyal and dishonor his king. Having said this, contrasting Beowulf, as a key example of an early medieval heroic epic, with two medieval romance literary works, Le MorteDarthur and the Nibelungenlied, one can conclude that one of the principle differences between early medieval heroic epic and medieval Romance is that whereas in the former the main characters do not change, in the latter the characters go through a psychological transformation.
Beowulf is a clear example, and one of the most famous ones for the early medieval heroic epic. This is something clear to detect given that for the major part of the poem, Beowulf is fighting some monster, in which details are described in a very physical sense. For instance, the jewels that he wears which were a gift from King Hrothgar and the confidence that Beowulf exhibits are all described in great detail.
This heroic theme can be seen through the events that led to Beowulf beginning as a strong warrior to a great king. The event that fully marks Beowulf as a hero is his triumph over Grendel’s mother. Even though there is a transformation, this transformation is just in the form of a title given that there is no significant alteration in Beowulf’s character. Although there exists his transformation from a warrior as a youthful and brave hero to a king as a mature and brave hero, he is always, nonetheless, a courageous hero.
There is one clear characteristic in Beowulf that is a constant throughout the whole poem-the courageous hero that is Beowulf. Even though Beowulf transitions from a warrior to a king, the only thing that changes is the duties he must fulfill. For instance, in Beowulf’s final battle, in which he fights against a dragon, he continues playing the role of a bold hero while risking leaving a state without a king, and hence, causing distress across the nation and compromising the nation by leaving it in a weak position. Ultimately demonstrating he will always be bold and courageous.
Additionally, Beowulf always lived up to people’s expectations. As an illustration of this can be seen when Heorot is attacked and Beowulf jumps into the other world to defeat the attacker; whereas the other warriors run in the opposite direction in a cowardly manner. Even though this was a hard mission to accomplish given that Beowulf wasn’t strong enough to defeat the mother with his bare hands or with his sword, he was assisted by a magical, giant sword he ultimately, defeats the Mother, demonstrating he is someone that can live up to certain expectations.
Another key trait in Beowulf that is not altered throughout the poem is the fact that the main reason he engages in such battles is for personal glory. For instance, when he went to fight the dragon, he knew he wasn’t fit for it as he was in his younger self. Therefore, he submitted himself to this final battle, knowing it would propably be the last one, not for the good of the people. On the contrary, he wanted to be glorified both in life and death for his courageous actions. Therefore, even if the fight against the dragon is disguised as a sacrifice for the people, it’s actually a sacrifice for Beowulf’s personal glory.

“I risked my life often when I was young. NOW I am old, but as the King of the people I shall pursue this fight for the glory of winning.”1678)

It’s so absurd for him to fight the dragon that the only logical explanation as to why he does this is for his personal glory.
Beowulf also exhibits a confident personality throughout the poem. For instance, at the beginning when he is chosen to fight Grendel he portrays himself as a man with no fear. He does so by saying he will fight her with his bare hands, no tools for assistance included,

“I hereby renounce sword and the shelter of the broad shield, the heavy war-board: hand-to-hand is how it will be… ” (628)

As a trophy for his success, Beowulf ripped Grendel’s arm and brought it back as a token for his bravery and self-confidence
Hence, even though the circumstances around Beowulf changed and he grew older, he did not endured a psychological transformation. On the contrary, he remained being a confident and courageous warrior, and eventually King, whose main purpose in battle would always be personal glory.
The Nibelung is an epic Germanic poem that once translated into English means “song of the Nibelungs”. The song of the Nibelungs can be described as one with a strong literary tension, not only because of interactions between historical events and myth but also because of the clash of the Heroic Epic genre with the Medieval Romance genre.
Parts of this poem are based on historical events such as when in 437 A. D. the Huns arrived to the Kingdom of Burgundy. Some similarities lay in the characters where Gunther represents the king of Burgundy, Dietrich represents Theodoric the Ostrogoth and Attila the Hun represents Etzel the Hun. Nonetheless, although some aspects rely on historical events, the narrative of this poem does not limit itself to just the retelling of historical events given that it also incorporates myth and legend, transforming this narrative into a fictional one. Such mythological events can be portrayed when Siegfried, who poses as the hero, uses his Cape of invisibility to assist Gunther on his love conquest for Brunhield, Queen of Iceland. Brunhield, herself, also represents a mythological aspect of the story because of her super- natural strength. In fact, she would test her admirers through three different tasks:

“Over the sea there dwelt a queen whose like was never known, for she was of vast strength & surpassing beauty.

With her love as prize, she vied with brave warriors at throwing the javelin, and the nobel lady also hurled the weight to a great distance and followed with a long leap; and whoever aspired to her love had, without fail, to win these three tests against her, or else, if he lost but one, he forfeited his head.”
However, Siegfried only agrees to assist Gunther on his quest, if in return, Gunther promises his sister’s, Kriemhield the Princess of Burgundy, hand in marriage. Gunther’s Vassel, Hagan, advises the king against this, but the deal is done, and as a result, Kriemhild and Siegfried enter into union. Brumhield, on the other hand, is not convinced of Gunther’s ability to have completed the tasks. Gunther was then forced to seek Siegfried’s help once again, where Siegfrid ends up stealing Brunhild’s ring, which he gives to his beloved Kriemhild. Unfortunately, Kriemhild disrespectfully reveals Siegfrid’s actions to Brunhild, and, in the process, shames her publicly for unknowingly sleeping with a man who’s not her husband, in this case, Sigfrid. As a result, Hagan starts plotting a revenge against Siegfried for ridiculizing Brumhild, Gunther’s (his king) wife. After Hagen executes his revenge, the tables turn and Kriemhild starts plotting hers.
Not only has Hagen murdered Kriemhild’s husband, but he, accompanied by Kriemhild’s brothers, also hid the Nibelung hoard from her at the bottom of the Rhine. As a result, Kriemhild is seeking revenge against Hagen and to do so, she agrees to marry Attila the Hun ( King of the Huns), the most powerful man with the greatest army behind him. Hence, Kriemhild, originally portrayed as a gentle princess, has now turned into a mischieving women who desguises her thirst for the gold as grief for her husband, Siegfrid. This is so because she applies the camaleon effect on her motifs, claiming she wants Hagen days to end because of the fact that he killed Siegfrid when in reality she just wants the hoard that is being kept from her. Clouded by her greed, she invites her brothers to Attila’s court and has them killed. Now, only one person in the world knew where the hoard is hidden- Hagen, which refuses to disclose the location. In a midst of an outrage, Kriemhild murders Hagen.
Ultimately, Hagen demonstrates his loyalty and true value. He does so by sacrificing his life and going down as Gunther’s Vassel without betraying his allegiance to the king. Therefore, Hagen, once an impulsive and quite violent man, developes into a civil and honorable one. On the other hand, Kriemhild was primarily characterized as a docile and disciplined princess. In spite of that, as the narrative was coming to an end, she began showing her true colors: a woman of such superficial extent, that she used her grief as an excuse to seek revenge against a well-morale man (Hagen) who kept a treasure hidden from her. Hence, Kriemhild is the tragic flaw that emerges from a loving bride to an avenging queen in this medieval romantic literary work.
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