An epic is a lengthy narrative poem recounting in
lofty language the feats of a heroic personage
whose achievements either contribute to the development
of a race or nation or reflect the ideals of
a culture. Typically, the narrative announces the
moment in the story at which the epic begins and
then proceeds chronologically to the tale’s completion.
The epic hero is characteristically courageous,
chivalrous, and proud. He is also accomplished on
the battlefield, a seeker of glory who fears disgrace
more than death and who may be more than a little
pessimistic about the fate of mankind. Other
characteristic elements of an epic include a central
mission or journey upon which the hero embarks;
encounters with mythic beasts, sorcerers, or deities
that may be either threatening or auspicious;
promises of immortality; and a descent into the
Epic poetry has its origins in the oral tradition
of storytelling. In ancient times, minstrels would
travel to the courts of noblemen and entertain
their patrons by singing of great heroes and their
exploits. Some of the poem was memorized and
some was improvised, and the songsters often reused
fixed descriptions or expressions for recurring
subjects, such as sunrises and sunsets, meals,
and the equipping of a hero with weapons.Metrical
patterns and specific rhythms were also employed
to help bards remember the words.
According to classics scholar W. F. Jackson
Knight, specific types of literature arise from different
social conditions, and oral poetry pertaining
to action and adventure tends to be generated in a
heroic age. This, according to Knight, is a time
when an emerging culture is influenced by a more
sophisticated and advanced neighboring culture
and spawns an audacious, individualistic upper
class that thrives on warfare and glory. The deeds
of the heroes of this time are retold and in later
generations develop into an epic tradition.Ancient
Babylonia, Greece, Germany, Britain, and other
countries have all produced epic literature.
Epics may be divided into two types. Folk epics
are those that accumulated over time from works of
various unknown poets, while classical epics are the
product of a single known author. By far the bestknown
folk epics are the Iliad and the Odyssey
(both eighth century B.C.), attributed to the Greek
poet HOMER. Both poems begin with the traditional
invocation of the muse, along with a statement of
the purpose of the work, and feature numerous references
to supernatural phenomena and deities.
True to the oral tradition, Homer used numerous
stock phrases (such as “swift-footed Achilles,” “resourceful
Odysseus,”“the wine-dark sea, and “rosyfingered
dawn”) to create his epic adventures. The
Iliad tells how the great Greek warrior Achilles, insulted
by his army’s leader during the Trojan War,
withdraws from the battlefield to sulk in his tent
with disastrous consequences for the Greeks. The
Odyssey follows the hero Odysseus’s adventurefilled
and mishap-laden efforts to return home to
Ithaca after the war with Troy.
Other well-known folk epics include GILGAMESH
(ca. 2500–1300 B.C.), the first great epic
ever written, which relates the exploits of a semidivine
Babylonian king; the MAHABHARATA (ca.
400 B.C.–ca. 400 A.D.), an ancient Indian poem
centering around royal brothers who battled for
the throne; BEOWULF (A.D. 900s), an Old English
tale of a dragon-slaying warrior; KALEVALA, the
2,000-year-old Finnish national epic; El Cid (ca.
1207; see CID, EL), concerning a Castilian warrior;
and the medieval romances SONG OF ROLAND (ca.
1130–70), about a paladin in Charlemagne’s
court, and NIBELUNGENLIED (12th century), based
on German folk legend.
Among the important classical epics are VIRGIL’s
Aeneid (19 B.C.), whose protagonist is a Trojan
hero; DANTE’s Divine Comedy (1321), which takes
the reader through hell, purgatory, and heaven;
The Faerie Queene (1590–96) by Edmund Spenser,
an allegory of moral virtues; and Paradise Lost
(1667), John Milton’s account of man’s expulsion
from the Garden of Eden.
See also EPIC OF SON-JARA.
English Versions of Epic Works
Gilgamesh: A Verse Narrative. Translated by Herbert
Mason. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
Homer. The Anger of Achilles: Homer’s Iliad. Translated
by Robert Graves. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday
& Company, 1959.
———.The Odyssey. Translated by Robert Fagles. Introduction
and notes by Bernard Knox.New York:
The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian
Epic. Translated by Ramesh Menon. New
York: North Point Press, 2004.
Virgil. The Aenied. Translated by David West. London:
Penguin Books, Ltd., 1990.
Works about Epic Literature
Miller, Dean A. Epic Hero. Baltimore, Md.: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 2002.
Yamamoto, Kumiko. Oral Background of Persian
Epics: Storytelling and Poetry. Leiden,Netherlands:
Brill Academic Publishers, 2003.