Guide to Literary Terms Epic

Epic

Epic (sometimes called heroic poem) - a lengthy narrative poem in which the action, characters, and language are on a heroic level and the style is exalted and even majestic. Early epics often stemmed from oral traditions. The major characteristics of an epic are:

1. a setting remote in time and place
2. an objective, lofty, dignified style
3. a central incident or series of incidents dealing with legendary or traditional material
4. a theme involving universal human problems
5. a towering hero of great stature
6. superhuman strength of body, character, or mind
7. superhuman forces entering the action

The word is from the Greek epikos which was derived from epos, meaning “word,” “narrative,” or “poem.”

The ancient Greeks recited epics but sang lyric poetry. The epics summarized and expressed the nature or ideals of an entire nation at a significant or crucial period of its history. The char- acteristics of the hero in an epic are national, rather than individual, so that the exercise of those traits served to gratify the sense of national pride. Epics may also synthesize the ideals of a great religious or cultural movement such as Dante’s The Divine Comedy did with medieval Christianity in the Fourteenth Century, or Paradise Lost written in 1667 by the Englishman John Milton to represent the ideals of Christian humanism. Usually, epics are the result of a number of ballads or lays, or short ballads, gradually joined together by poets or bards. An example is a thane beginning to compose a lay about Beowulf in the epic poem of the same name:

And sometimes a proud old soldier
Who had heard songs of the ancient heroes
And could sing them all through, story after story,
Would weave a net of words for Beowulf’s
Victory tying the knot of his verses
Smoothly, swiftly, into place with a poet’s
Quick skill, singing his new song aloud
While he shaped it, and the old songs as well -
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Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey, and The Aeneid of Virgil are ancient epics. In modern writing, specific novels are referred to as epic, such as Melville’s Moby-Dick and Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath.