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.
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.
No, not those muses (I knew your brain would go there). The muses were not five gospel singers – and that’s the gospel truth.