What Makes The Epic Epic

We’ve all called something epic – it’s now associated with awesome, big, spectacular – but, as a literary term, the epic means something very specific. Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, the unknown author’s Beowulf, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself aren’t epics because they’re long pieces of poetry, but rather, because they all share a very specific elements which puts them into the epic category.

The movie Epic and epic poetry have nothing in common, I’m sorry to say.

First, epic poems open with what’s called a in medias res, Latin for “in the midst of things.” Beowulf opens with a kingdom in need of a Grendel extermination. The reader doesn’t start with the birth of Beowulf, but rather we start with a scene ripe for action.

The setting of epics are vast. Think the exact opposite of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which mostly takes place in one room. Epics are epic in part because of the vastness of their settings. The Odyssey spans oceans and continents, for example.

Almost all epics call to a muse to set the tone of the piece of poetry to come.
[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRq7lLawQB4&w=480&h=360]
No, not those muses (I knew your brain would go there). The muses were not five gospel singers – and that’s the gospel truth.

For the Greeks, there were nine muses that could be called on for inspiration. For writers of epics, Calliope, the muse of epic poetry, would more than likely be the muse called on for inspiration. Beowulf, while considered an epic, does not necessarily have a calling to a muse, but that is probably due to the unknown author of Beowulf‘s attempts to turn the tale into a Christian, rather than pagan, epic.

Towards the beginning of epics, the theme is usually stated. In Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself, the first line of the poem states “I celebrate myself, and sing myself.” There’s no mistaking what this epic is about, with both the title and the opening line being about song and self.

Epics also make use of epithets, or descriptive terms and names of things within the epic. Homer used a lot of these in all of his work, from “the wine-colored sea” to “mighty” and “son of Kronos,” Zeus.

Epic catalogs, or long lists, can be found in epics. Milton’s Book 1 of Paradise Lost lists the devils in hell and all the names people have called them and worshiped them by. For Milton, this creates a huge scope for his epic. It goes beyond geographic location and into heaven and hell itself, spanning beyond man’s concept of time.

Okay, so, being really long with formal speeches is a requirement of an epic, but it is just one of many. Just because a work is long, doesn’t make it an epic, but an epic does need to be long. Every work listed in the intro of this post is, in part, an epic because of its size and its long winded writing.

Gods and the supernatural also love to interfere with mortals within epic poetry. The Odyssey is a classic example of Gods not allowing a mortal to complete his quest. From cyclones and witches to Poseidon himself, Odysseus ain’t getting home before his ten years are up.

The heroes within epics are crafted to be reflective of the society they are part of. The hero within an epic stands for things considered good within his society (let’s face it – epic heroes are overwhelmingly hims). Beowulf is written in a period of transition, from pagan to Christian, so he embodies characteristics valued by both societies at different points within the epic, making it truly unique.

Finally, epics feature these great heroes heading into an underworld or hell, literally, especially in Milton’s Paradise Lost. Beowulf also has Beowulf descending into a dragon’s fiery cave.

So, the next time you call something “epic,” just think about the poetic tradition you are invoking. And, on a side note, see if you really can turn it into an epic. I’d love to read it.


  1. Pingback: Politics and Poetry: John Milton | The Poetics Project

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