Wednesday, February 13, 2013

What is an Epic?

Ok, I'll let this one go.
The word "epic" gets bandied around a lot on the internet these days and I admit that it makes me very sad to see the meaning of the word watered down and used in ridiculous ways. The truth is that the word epic comes from the Greek meaning "word, story, poem" and was traditionally used to refer to a lengthy narrative poem. Homer wrote epics. The word does not refer to something you think is neat or impressive. It is not an adjective to be shoved willy nilly in front of the words "win" or "fail" as if they weren't opposites.

Of course, we've appropriated the term for things other than narrative poetry that aren't so stupid. I'm a pretty big fan of Epic Fantasy. But then, I think we've been defining Epic Fantasy too loosely. If we're going to use the term "epic" for prose rather than poetry, that's understandable. Long narrative poems just aren't really a viable method for storytelling these days. But I do think that our prose version of the epic should at least participate in some of the other characteristics that set the epic poem apart.

This definition of the epic is from A Handbook to Literature by William Harmon and C. Hugh Holman:

Epic: a long narrative poem in elevated style presenting characters of high position in adventures forming an organic whole through their relation to a central heroic figure and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race.

Let's look at some of these elements. 

An Elevated Style 

Within the context of poetry, that's pretty self explanatory. Poetry is an elevated style. But what would this mean in the context of a prose tale? The idea brings to mind passages from certain works that express ideas and emotions so strong, so grand, so glorious that you want to shout them into a thunderstorm or while swinging a sword above your head. Words that stir you. For instance, it used to be that whenever we had a storm around here my husband would feel the need to go outside and proclaim into the gale:

And thou, all-shaking thunder,
Strike flat the thick rotundity o’ the world!

Which is, of course, a line from Shakespeare's King Lear. Just the other night I read some lines from the classic fantasy novel The Worm Ouroboros which gave me distinct chills:

And now, let the earth be afraid, and Cynthia obscure her shrine: no more words but mum. Thunder and blood and night must usurp our parts, to complete and make up the catastrophe of this great piece.

Or this from Time and the Gods by Lord Dunsany:

Far over the waters, and on the wings of the prayers beats the light of an inaccessible star. No hand hath touched it, none hath journeyed to it, it hath no substance, it is only a light, it is the star of Hope, and it shines far over the sea and brightens the world.
An elevated style, I think, is using the power and the sound and rhythm of words to conjure up in our hearts things of grandeur and beauty. Things greater than anything we are likely to experience in our day to day lives. 

Central Heroic Figure and Characters of High Position

Achilles. Beowulf. Odysseus. Gilgamesh. Rama. Siegfried. 

The great epics feature huge casts of characters, but the nexus of the story is the Hero. The character whose words and actions can move mountains and ultimately drive the story. The Hero of an epic is a larger than life character and usually embodies the values of the culture from which the epic is born.

The Hero is not, of course, the only character of importance. Given the vast scope of most epics there will be many other actors in the drama having their own adventures and escapades either with the Hero or on the side. But all the parts of the tale come together through their relation to the Hero. He is, in other words, the glue that holds the epic together.

But why, one might ask, should an epic specifically be concerned with "characters of high position".

Well, keep in mind that the art form of the epic goes back thousands of years to times and places where it was only those of high position who would have participated in adventures on a scale grand enough to influence the history of a nation and justify an epic. Everyone else was too busy wondering where their next meal would come from. Also, which type of tale would you rather be entertained with at the end of a long day toiling in the fields? A story about Joe who lives in the next village and has the exact same cares and faces the exact same conflicts as you? Or the tale of mighty Achilles overcoming the great Hector outside the walls of Troy? I know which I'd prefer.

Still, we live in a different world now. People of "high position" who can change the course of a nation or influence a culture can come from anywhere. To incorporate this idea into a modern prose epic one can choose to focus on the individuals in a story that have the most at stake and the most influence over their world. The characters whose actions and words have powerful ramifications within their culture are the characters of "high position".

Episodes Important to the History of a Nation

My husband suggests that a better choice of wording in this part of the definition would be "episodes important to the identity of a nation or race". In other words, epics are born out of a culture as well as helping to shape the culture. Reading the ancient epics gives us insight into the mind and heart of the cultures of the ancient world. These epic poems developed from the tales told by the people as part of their cultural identity. They reflect what was sacred to the people, what made them Greeks or Romans or Anglo-Saxons, etc.

Stories don't have quite the same relationship with culture these days. Not only because there are hundreds of thousands of books published every year allowing us to be really picky about which ones we readers turn into successes, but also because culture just doesn't mean the same thing these days. The world has become, at the same time, a much bigger and much smaller place. Bigger because we're not confined to villages anymore. Smaller because the unknown and unexplored has all but vanished. Which is why, I believe, a lot of us have turned to the realms of fantasy and science fiction for those things which once would have been part of the cultural epic.

To achieve the same kind of importance and meaning in a prose epic today an author almost has no choice but to create their own setting. An epic should involve circumstances and events that have far reaching consequences and it should be played out across a vast and lofty canvas. 

Artist's rendition of mythological Ireland, where the sagas of the Age of Heroes happened.

I'll be honest. I think there's too much "epic fantasy" out there that doesn't count as epic in any way. I think we need more truly epic works of fiction. And the reason I am exploring this topic is because it is my goal to write some. Toward that end, I'll probably spend some time talking about particular epics and examining some of the other common elements of the ancient epic here in future posts. Wish me good fortune!


  1. Great post. It had me thinking about what I define as "epic." I agree on the Odyssey and Iliad accounts as well as Shakespeare's plays. There are few fantasy series that truly feel epic to me outside of The Lord of the Rings, or possibly some of the long series out there by different authors. I think Star Wars and Star Trek both fit into the epic definition . . partly because of the length and breadth of their series in book and screenplay form, and because of the way they've influenced large parts of culture.

    1. Star Wars might count. Star Trek I can't quite see. The Lord of the Rings is a given. I'll have to explore the question of what modern works do qualify as epic in my opinion in another post.

  2. Kind of like putting Mozart and Paul McCartney in the same category of 'musicians', right? Those writers and composers need a different category.

    1. No, "musician" is a very general term and perfectly suits both of them. "Epic" is a specific literary form but the meaning of it has been corrupted and applied to generally.

  3. Good luck! I enjoy fantasy, but the thought of writing a huge, epic tale overwhelms me.

    1. Well, we need all kinds of fiction out there to choose from. I feel my calling is toward the epic. :)

  4. "Epic" is today's "awesome." I really wish that awesome still retained its meaning, because, in that meaning, it's a grand word. Inducing fear. But, you know, ice cream is awesome. And pizza is awesome. And, well, it's awesomely epic.
    What can you do? It's like standing in the tide with a bucket.

    1. Agreed. I guess I'm just a glutton for punishment.

  5. Very interesting discussion. I almost agreed with you on the bigger/smaller world thing, until I remembered that they're *still* coming across new species, and that we haven't explored the depths of the oceans, and...
    Which leads me to say, I wish there were more epic stories/poems out there!


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