Is it fair for a reader to make assumptions correlating and dissecting two great works together, because they are both classified as epics? Paradise Lost and Beowulf, written by John Milton and an unknown author respectively, fall into this category. Beowulf, the oldest surviving poem of the English language, and Paradise Lost written in the 1600’s, have centuries separating their every detail. And yet, both are presented as great epics stretched past their origins, while maintaining a clear boundary between the protagonist and antagonist; one is based off a nonfiction tale, and the other a true story from the bible, further displaying their general themes and motifs consistently contrast each other. Despite written as an epic, the legacy each poem leaves behind could not be more different.
Perhaps easily spotted from the very beginning, both epics are embellished way beyond the original meaning of the poem. Beowulf pummeling a large dragon can be immediately deemed as fiction, in the same way the opening narrative of Paradise Lost portrays a great spiritual battle in which the emotionally motivated angels have the appearance of humans. Thoroughly executing his “life purpose”, Milton gave Genesis a new meaning past the Bible’s intentions. Many theologists have deemed that because Beowulf was originally spread as an oral tale, it is incredibly likely Beowulf started as a simple man fighting an earthly force, or even his own mind. Following the same narrative, Paradise Lost has been deemed as an epic based on the Bible, and not an extension of it; simply an intellectual’s perception of the truth. Stretched past their origins, Beowulf and Paradise Lost have been embellished in order to pursue the author’s narrative.
Another major similarity entwining the two poems is a clear contrast between antagonist and protagonist. Beowulf, the mighty hero defeats incredible threats of the monsters battering helpless minor characters.
“I’ve never known fear; as a youth I fought/ In endless battles. I am old, now,/ But I will fight again, seek fame still,/ If the dragon hiding in his tower dares/ To face me” (Beowulf 606-611)
Similarly, the original contrast laying the framework for all great literature; where the theme of good and evil is portrayed, is showcased through God and Satan. Paradise Lost is no exception, following the precedent established by the Bible. The righteous new humanity is protected and loved by God, while tempted and tainted by Satan.
“See with what heat these Dogs of Hell advance
To waste and havoc yonder World.” (Paradise Lost 616-617)
Easily establishing how the plot will prevail, the authors of the two epics prepared the reader for a well known contrast, by displaying the clear battle between good and evil.
While the origins of Paradise Lost and Beowulf began as truth and devolved into fiction, the general themes of the poems differ wildly. The Knight’s Code, and more specifically loyalty to the code is engraved into the reader’s brain again and again. If one thing stays consistent in Beowulf’s life, it is his dedication to staying faithful to the Hero’s Code, putting all other ideals on a lesser importance.
‘My days/ have gone as fate willed, . . . / As I knew how, swearing no unholy oaths,/ Seeking no lying wars. I can leave/ This life happy; I can die, here,/ Knowing the Lord of all life has never/ Watched me wash my sword in blood/ Born of my own family.’ (Beowulf 2694-3182)
Contrastingly, the prevailing theme portrayed in Paradise Lost is Milton’s obsession with disobedience. Starting with Satan’s disobeying God, leading up to his rebellion, Milton uses the mistakes Satan makes to show the similarities between humanity and Satan. In the same way Satan rebels, Adam and Eve disobey God’s one rule by listening to Satan’s temptations, consuming the forbidden fruit. Even when Milton writes the narrative for Satan’s backstory, Milton effectively portrays his own issues with disobedience onto Satan, enforcing Satan’s obsession with hierarchy; making further disobedience possible. Following a heroic code, and the act of disobedience, the themes of these epics could not be more different.
Lastly, the most important contrast between Beowulf and Paradise Lost lies in the legacy the poems leave behind. Revolutionizing the way storytelling occured in England, Beowulf forever changed literary history with the introduction of the epic style, the anonymity of its author, and becoming one of the first tales to be made into a historical account by a monk, who started the trend of placing christian values into the old epics. Regardless of the original plot of Beowulf, the poem has embodied the perception of who told the story for decades. On the other hand, Paradise Lost leaves a legacy perhaps more influential the Beowulf. While Milton intended to stir up religious questioning in order to influence the reader to have a personal, spiritual encounter with Christ; Paradise Lost’s legacy has given the reader the ability to take into account another perception of the Bible, and not just the original story they were taught. Particularly important during the time of the Protestant Reformation, this realization influences the reader to push the boundaries of their own beliefs, further bringing them closer in their own spirituality, while denouncing principles they believe to be wrong. Ageing as two of the most influential poems in all literary history, Beowulf and Paradise Lost further immortalized the necessity of the epic.
Comparing two seemingly similar styles of poem can be dangerous to the reader if the correct context is not taken into account, but also holds the ability to evaluate classical works without the pressure of their reputations. Beowulf and Paradise Lost compare and contrast in their own ways, while remaining within the style of an epic poem. Written in completely different time periods, the poems have managed to be embellished beyond original intent, portray clear struggles between good and evil, while having separate themes and legacies. Beowulf and Paradise Lost remind the reader of the importance of taking a literary work within its context, and evaluating it through all possible boundaries.