1. An epic usually begins in media res ...
The structure and themes of Homer's epic poem the Iliad have become the exemplar for many of the subsequent epic poems in the Western literary canon. For your assignment, consider the following "epic elements" and how they appear in the poem:
1. An epic usually begins in media res, a Latin phrase meaning "in the midst of things." The Iliad opens in the final days of a decade-long war, in the encampment of the Achaeans, who are suffering from a mysterious plague. Homer provides no formal prologue explaining how and why the Achaeans have come to this place, nor when the plague started, nor introductions of any characters. He instead goes directly to the scene which catalyzes the action of the poem, the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon:
Begin, Muse, when the two first broke and clashed,
Agamemnon lord of men and brilliant Achilles.
This is because epics weave together many elements of myth and folklore into a larger narrative. The context that is missing from Homer's opening scene would already have been known to his audience, in the same way that, for instance, the legends of King Arthur or stories from the Bible are known to modern Western audiences.
2. The natural and the supernatural together make up the setting of an epic, so that the action in the story takes place not just on earth, but also in the heavens and the underworld. In the Iliad, the events on the battlefield are often affected by the events on Mount Olympus, and gods, demi-gods, nymphs, and nature spirits all help and hinder the human characters in various ways throughout the poem.
3. The main characters of an epic are larger than life, sometimes of divine or otherwise supernatural parentage, and often possessed of superhuman abilities. The Iliad's main character, Achilles, is the son of a mortal king and a sea-goddess. He is the pre-eminent warrior of all the Achaeans, referred to as "brilliant," "godlike," and "swift-footed." His Trojan counterpart, Hector, is fully human, but also described as "godlike" and "mighty," the crown prince of Troy and his city's valiant defender. Both Achilles and Hector are characters of legendary status whose virtues and faults have tremendous impact on the course of narrative. The events of the Iliad will finally bring them face-to-face at the climax of the poem, and the clash of these two heroes determines the fates of their respective armies.
4. The structure of an epic poem is a key aspect of what makes it an epic. Epics often contain epithets, descriptive phrases attached to specific people, places, or things. These were used as mnemonics by poets in the oral traditions from which the Iliad arose, and the Iliad is full of them. Examples include "gray-eyed Athena," "rosy-fingered Dawn," "Tiryns of the mighty walls," "Zeus of the lightning bolt," and "Hector, breaker of horses." Epics also tend to contain long similes describing people, places, or things; the most famous simile in the Iliad is that of Achilles's shield, which takes up the whole of Book 18. Digressions into personal histories, genealogies, and related myths are also part of the fabric of an epic, enriching the main narrative with a large amount of background information.
If you review the text with these elements in mind, you will find many more examples than the few I've given here.