What is an Epic ?

What is an Epic ?

An epic in its most specific sense is a genre of classical poetry originating in Greece known as epic poetry. However in modern terms, epic is often extended to other art forms, such as epic theatre, films, music, novels, plays, television shows, and video games, wherein the story has a theme of grandeur and heroism, just as in epic poetry. An epic may deal with such various subjects as myths, heroic legends, histories, edifying religious tales, animal stories, or philosophical or moral theories. Epic poetry has been and continues to be used by peoples all over the world to transmit their traditions from one generation to another, without the aid of writing. These traditions frequently consist of legendary narratives about the glorious deeds of their national heroes. Thus, scholars have often identified “epic” with a certain kind of heroic oral poetry, which comes into existence in so-called heroic ages. Such ages have been experienced by many nations, usually at a stage of development in which they have had to struggle for a national identity. This effort, combined with such other conditions as an adequate material culture and a sufficiently productive economy, tend to produce a society dominated by a powerful and warlike nobility, constantly occupied with martial activities, whose individual members seek, above all, everlasting fame for themselves and for their lineages. The conventions of this genre are several:
- It is a long narrative about a serious or worthy traditional subject.
- Its diction in elevated in style. It employs a formal, dignified, objective tone and many figures of speech.
- The narrative focused on the exploits of a hero or demigod who represents the cultural values of a race, nation, or religious group.
- The hero's success or failure will determine the fate of that people or nation.
- The action takes place in a vast setting, and covers a wide geographic area. The setting is frequently some time in the remote past.
- The action contains superhuman feats of strength or military prowess.
- Gods or supernatural beings frequently take part in the action to affect the outcome.
- The poem begins with the invocation of a muse to inspire the poet, a prayer to an appropriate supernatural being. The speaker asks that this being provide him the suitable emotion, creativity, or words to finish the poem.
- The narrative starts in medias res, in the middle of the action. Subsequently, the earlier events leading up to the start of the poem will be recounted in the characters' narratives or in flashbacks.
- The epic contains long catalogs of heroes or important characters, focusing on highborn kings and great warriors rather than peasants and commoners.
- The epic employs extended similes (called epic similes) at appropriate spots of the story, and a traditional scene of extended description in which the hero arms himself.

The term applies most directly to classical Greek texts like the Iliad and the Odyssey but it is clear that Roman authors like Virgil intentionally imitate the genre in works like the Aeneid. However, some critics have applied the term more loosely. The Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf has also been called an epic of Anglo-Saxon culture, Milton's Paradise Lost is called an epic of Christian culture, El Cid is an epic of Spanish culture, Longfellow's Hiawatha
is an epic of American culture, and Shakespeare's various History Plays have been collectively called an epic of Renaissance Britain. Contrast with the mock epics of Alexander Pope and later Enlightenment writers to see its influence in humorous form.

There are many genres of epic (exclusive of epic poetry): epic fantasy describes works of fantasy, such as in J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. Epic fantasy has been described as containing three elements: it must be a trilogy or longer, its time-span must encompass years or more, and it must contain a large back-story or universe setting in which the story takes place. Epic fantasy is not limited to the Western tradition: Arabic epic literature includes examples of epic fantasy such as Thousand and One Nights.

The epic film genre encompasses historical epics, religious epics, and western epics, although it has split into many other genres and sub-genres.

The female epic examined ways in which female authors have adapted the masculine epic tradition to express their own heroic visions. There are chivalric epics from the Middle Ages, national epics, and pan-national epics. The real-life stories of heroic figures have also been referred to as being epic; examples include Ernest Shackleton's exploration adventures in Antarctica.



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The goal of this website is to offer a general overview of epic poetry as a genre. You will also find links to more specialized literary topics and to individual essential works for students of English literature such the Iliad, the Odyssey and others.

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