The epic is generally defined: A long narrative
poem on a great and serious subject, related in an elevated style,
and centered on a heroic or quasi-divine figure on whose actions
depends the fate of a tribe, a nation, or the human race. The
traditional epics were shaped by a literary artist from historical
and legendary materials which had developed in the oral traditions
of his nation during a period of expansion and warfare (Beowulf,
The Odyssey, The Iliad).
Epic Conventions, or characteristics common
to both types include:
- The hero is a figure of great national or
even cosmic importance, usually the ideal man of his culture.
He often has superhuman or divine traits. He has an imposing
physical stature and is greater in all ways than the common man.
- The setting is vast in scope. It covers great
geographical distances, perhaps even visiting the underworld,
other wortlds, other times.
- The action consists of deeds of valor or
superhuman courage (especially in battle).
- Supernatural forces interest themselves in
the action and intervene at times. The intervention of the gods
is called "machinery."
- The style of writing is elevated, even ceremonial.
- Additional conventions: certainly all are
not always present)
- Opens by stating the theme of the epic.
- Writer invokes a Muse, one of the nine daughters
of Zeus. The poet prays to the muses to provide him with
divine inspiration to tell the story of a great hero.
- Narrative opens in media res. This
means "in the middle of things," usually with the hero
at his lowest point. Earlier portions of the story appear
later as flashbacks.
- Catalogs and geneaologies are given. These
long lists of objects, places, and people place the finite action
of the epic within a broader, universal context. Oftentimes,
the poet is also paying homage to the ancestors of audience members.
- Main characters give extended formal speeches.
- Use of the epic simile. A standard
simile is a comparison using "like" or "as."
An epic or Homeric simile is a more involved, ornate comparison,
extended in great detail.
- Heavy use of repetition and stock phrases.
The poet repeats passages that consist of several lines in various
sections of the epic and uses homeric epithets, short, recurrent
phrases used to describe people, places, or things. Both
made the poem easier to memorize.
Aristotle described six characteristics: "fable,
action, characters, sentiments, diction, and meter." Since
then, critics have used these criteria to describe two kinds
- fable and action are grave and solemn
- characterrs are the highest
- sentiments and diction preserve the sublime
- fable and action are light and ridiculous
- characters are inferior
- sentiments and diction preserve the ludicrous
When the first novelists began writing what
were later called novels, they thought they were writing "prose
epics." Daniel Defoe, Henry Fielding, and Samuel Ruichardson
attempted the comic form. Yet what they wrote were true novels,
not epics, and there are differences.
An extended narrative poem,
- oral and poetic language
- public and remarkable deeds
- historical or legendary hero
- collective enterprise
- generalized setting in time and place
- rigid traditional structure according to
- written and referential language
- private, daily experiencer
- humanized "ordinary" characters
- individual enterprise
- particularized setting in time and place
- structure determined by actions of character
within a moral pattern
usually simple in construction, but grand in scope,
exalted in style, and heroic in theme, often giving expression
to the ideals of a nation or race.
the author of The Iliad and The Odyssey, is sometimes
referred to as the "Father of Epic Poetry." Based on
the conventions he established, classical epics began with an
argument and an invocation to a guiding spirit, then started
the narrative in medias res. In modern use, the term,
"epic," is generally applied to all lengthy works on
matters of great importance. The Rhapsodoi,
professional reciters, memorized his work and passed it on by
word of mouth as part of an oral tradition.
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