Epic Poem – Writing Across Contexts (2023)

An epic poem is a continuous narrative in verse form that retells the acts of one or more heroic persons of history or legend. The Englishepiccomes from the Latinepicus,meaning “of or relating to epic poetry,” and the Greekepos(ἔπος), meaning “word, narrative, song.”(1)

History and Development

Epic Poem – Writing Across Contexts (1)

The Epic of Gilgamesh,based on the king of Uruk, is recognized as the world’s first epic poem, and perhaps the oldest written story. The narrative is written in Sumerian cuneiform on stone tablets that date to circa 2000 BC. The early poem is regarded for introducing many of the characteristic elements of epic as a genre. These features continue to appear in storytelling throughout history and in modern literature, film, and video games.(2)

The Homeric epics theIliadand theOdysseywere first composed in Archaic Greece (circa 700-480 BC). The two well-known epics tell the stories of events during and after Trojan War. Before they were formally recorded, they were composed and performed orally in front of an audience, which bards would accommodate by adapting and extending the stories. Homeric epics were composed in dactylic hexameter, which set a precedent for later Greek and Latin oral poetry.(3)

Classical literary traditions remained popular in Europe with the influence of the Renaissance. The renewed interest in antiquity normalized Greek and Latin literary traditions, which stabilized the relevance and conventions of the genre through the following centuries. Epics from Dante Alighieri’sDivine Comedy(1320) to Edmund Spenser’sThe Faerie Queene(1590) borrowed from the traditions of ancient poets, shifting the genre for a new audience in a new world using the conventions that were regaining popularity at the time.(4)

While still holding some classical literary traditions, later epics begin to distance themselves from the epics of ancient times. Because of its rejection of military ethos, a common convention of epic poems, John Milton’sParadise Lostis often considered one of the latest traditional epics.(5)

Social and Rhetorical Functions

Because traditional epics are composed over time from within a community, they demonstrate the cultural values of their communities, using characters central to the community’s narrative history.(6) From an outside perspective, epics can define a community’s social and political values and identities (7) as well as formalize a culture’s mythological traditions.(8)

20th-century literary critics have created a model of primary and secondary epics, based on the use of martial ethos in epic poetry.

Epic Poem – Writing Across Contexts (2)

Primary epics, such as the Homeric epics,The Song of Roland,andBeowulf,are produced in cultures that value military heroism. Because these narratives are composed within a community over time, they are told by a seemingly anonymous author who wants their audience to accept the values of their hero, which are the values of the community’s culture. Like theIliadand theOdyssey, they were intended for oral delivery until they were formally recorded.(9)

Secondary epics are written by poets from cultures with strong literary traditions that value primary epics. Secondary epics include works such as Virgil’sAeneidandParadise Lost. The social conditions that these poets live in are often too complex for the audience to simply accept the values of the heroes in these poems, and so these narratives are often more critical of the aristocratic class that values military heroism.(10) Cultures that value primary epics find a sense of prestige within the genre. Primary epics were viewed as the “artistic culmination of a civilization,” and therefore their civilizations should have extraordinary epics as well.(11)

Epics are often composed during or about times of great political tension, therefore the history of epic poetry can be seen as the history of political change (12), especially in epics written during eras from which there are few primary sources.

The Modern Epic

While the Renaissance kept the epic relevant for several centuries, the traditional epic has become scarce over the last few centuries.

Long works of poetry are less possible amongst readers, even if they are written by authors who are popular for their shorter pieces, and so it is likely that the genre began to lose popularity with the emergence of the novel.

Possibly this is due to a lack of interest in traditional heroic characters. Today, audiences prefer an antihero, complex characterizations, and grey morals to the epic’s favored black-and-white judgments and extended praise of a single character. Heroes in modern literature are defined not by their morals, but by their role in the course of a narrative.(13)

Scholar Maurice Bowra says that, traditionally, epic is a “special place for those men who live for action and from the honor that comes with it.” Today, these figures are less uncommon outside of fiction, and therefore traditionally heroic characters are difficult for audiences to connect with and enjoy.(14)

Author John Sutherland writes that some Amerianc films retain qualities of epics such as western films, specifically those of John Wayne, and the Star Wars film saga.(17)

Stylistic and Substantive Elements

Some of the most well-known characteristics of epics come from their substantive elements. Epic poems often feature some kind of journey for the hero. Sometimes this journey is physical, with the protagonist traveling great distances and facing mystical obstacles as inGilgamesh, Beowulf,or evenDivine Comedy.(18) In other stories, such asIliadandParadise Lost,the journey is more spiritual.

The protagonist in an epic, the hero, is often an important cultural figure who makes strong moral judgements throughout the narrative. Often this is accompanied by panegyric, or extended praise, of the hero.(19) This element in particular is helpful for studying historic societies. Seeing iconic figures make definite and consistent moral decisions demonstrates the values of that figure and the culture he comes from to an audience.

Martial ethos is also an important aspect of epic poetry. Many epics revolve around battles or other militaristic events. In early epics, these battles are presented with a tone of heroic triumph, though later poets are more likely to challenge the martial ethos within their cultures.(20)

Epics also share a number of stylistic choices. Epics, particularly Classical works, often begin with an invocation of a muse. The opening of the first book of theOdysseyreads:

Tell me, O Muse, of the man of many devices, who wandered full many ways after he had sacked the sacred citadel ofTroy. Many were the men whose cities he saw and whose mind he learned, aye, and many the woes he suffered in his heart upon the sea, seeking to win his own life and the return of his comrades. Yet even so he saved not his comrades, though he desired it sore, for through their own blind folly they perished—fools, who devoured the kine of Helios Hyperion; but he took from them the day of their returning. Of these things, goddess, daughter of Zeus, beginning where thou wilt, tell thou even unto us.

Homer, Odyssey, from Perseus DIgital Library (21)

Traditionally, this call is said to bring inspiration as well as guidance to the poet as they compose.(22) A thrid person omnicent narrator is also common in epics.(23) Tough the opening of a peom may be a more personal interaction between the poet and a spiritual guide, the voice of the author steps awa for the majority of the narrative.

Many epics also beginin medias res, meaning “in the middle of things” in Latin. The audience is introduced the narrative in the middle of an event or conflict. If necessary, any prior details are given to the audience later in the story, often in a series of flashbacks or and any necessary prior details are given later in the story. This device is effective in drawing and keeping the audience’s attention.(24) This would have been particularly useful in contexts where epics are told aloud in public places, where a compelling introduction would help to draw a crowd.

References

  1. Epic.” Oxford English Dictionary.
  2. The Epic of Gilgamesh.” University of Idaho.
  3. Epic.” poets.org.
  4. Coyle, Martin. (1991). Encyclopedia of literature and criticism. Detroit: Gale Research. p. 179.
  5. Coyle, Martin. (1991). Encyclopedia of literature and criticism. Detroit: Gale Research. p. 178.
  6. Coyle, Martin. (1991). Encyclopedia of literature and criticism. Detroit: Gale Research. p. 177.
  7. Zax, Talya (2020. “Looking at Epic Poetry Through 21st-Century Eyes.” The New York Times.
  8. Epic.” poets.org.
  9. Coyle, Martin. (1991). Encyclopedia of literature and criticism. Detroit: Gale Research. p. 178.
  10. Coyle, Martin. (1991). Encyclopedia of literature and criticism. Detroit: Gale Research. p. 178.
  11. Coyle, Martin. (1991). Encyclopedia of literature and criticism. Detroit: Gale Research. p. 178.
  12. Zax, Talya (2020. “Looking at Epic Poetry Through 21st-Century Eyes.” The New York Times.
  13. Sutherland, John (2011) How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 33.
  14. Sutherland, John (2011) How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 33.
  15. Tablet.” The British Museum.
  16. Una and the Lion.” Art UK.
  17. Sutherland, John (2011) How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 34.
  18. MasterClass Staff (2021). “Poetry 101: What Is an Epic Poem?MasterClass.
  19. Sutherland, John (2011) How Literature Works: 50 Key Concepts. New York: Oxford University Press. p. 32.
  20. Coyle, Martin. (1991). Encyclopedia of literature and criticism. Detroit: Gale Research. p. 177.
  21. Homer. The Odyssey with an English Translation by A.T. Murray, PH.D. in two volumes. Cambridge, MA., Harvard University Press; London, William Heinemann, Ltd. 1919.
  22. MasterClass Staff (2021). “Poetry 101: What Is an Epic Poem?MasterClass.
  23. MasterClass Staff (2021). “Poetry 101: What Is an Epic Poem?MasterClass.
  24. MasterClass Staff. (2021). “In Medias Res.” MasterClass.
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