An epic is a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters. Whether male or female, the men and women in these poems are the best humanity has to offer. They show extreme courage and outshine their contemporaries in their bravery. A character has to be large mentally and spiritually large enough in order to be the subject of an epic poem.
Epic poems are the product of preliterate societies or those in which reading and writing were uncommon. Writing might’ve been part of society, but not to the extent it is today. Therefore, stories were told orally, passed down from person to person, and embellished and changed as they travelled. Scholars believe that Homeric epics, like the Odyssey, were originally oral in nature. Epic poems are also considered to be the first form of poetry.
The Characters in Epic Poetry
When considering epic poetry, more than likely your thoughts immediately go to the two works attributed to Homer, the Iliad and the Odyssey. The main characters of these works–Odysseus, Achilles, Hector, Agamemnon, Priam, Helen– they are all heads above other men and women of their time for their bravery, and of course in Helen’s case, for her beauty.
Aside from their courage and beauty, these characters are more often than not representatives of some set of values. These could belong to an entire region or a small group of people. There is a lot hinging on the plotlines of those in epic poems. Take, for example, Gilgamesh from the oldest recorded epic, the Epic of Gilgamesh. (Written in Mesopotamia in 1800 BC). He is the king of the Uruk and commonly recognized as a real historical figure.
But, in the epic, he takes one a larger than life presence. He battles with a rival, Enkidu, and eventually embarks on a journey to find the secret of eternal life. The form of the epic plays straight into the major themes of Epic of Gilgamesh as it is through this poem that the ancient king found eternal life. His story, in what is surely an exaggerated form, is still told almost 4,000 years after it was written.
The Form of Epic Poetry
Just as the characters in epic poetry have to be grand enough to stand up to the form, so too does the form have to do justice to the character. The verse is normally elaborate and therefore able to exaggerate the already otherworldly qualities of the characters of an epic.
Almost every epic in the Western literary canon makes use of dactylic hexameter. This pattern is also referred to as heroic hexameter. This metrical pattern can be seen in Virgil’s Aeneid as well as Ovid’s Metamorphosis and Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Each line, ideally, if the poet stuck to the pattern 100% of the time, is made up of six feet. These feet would consist of one long and two short beats, or one stressed and two unstressed. But, poets often use spondees rather than dactyls, two stressed syllables followed by one unstressed. Enjambment and caesura are also common features.
Epic poems are also noted for their length. The longest ever written was the Indian Mahabharata. It was 200,000 lines of verse as well as some lengthy prose passages. Shorter, but still considerable are the Odyssey with 12,110 lines and Dante’s The Divine Comedy with 14,233 lines. The latter is separated into three distinct sections and describes the poet’s own journey through Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Paradise/Heaven).
Supernatural Forces in Epic Poetry
The heroes in epic poetry are often assisted, or stymied, by known or unknown supernatural forces. This is a literary technique known as dues ex machina. It refers to the intervention of a god or more than natural force into a narrative. This technique is usually applied in order to push the story towards a certain conclusion or change up what could be a predictable series of events. The most obvious examples come from the Iliad in which the two sides, the Greeks, or Achaeans, and the Trojans, are assisted to different agrees by different Gods in the Greek Pantheon.
Take for example the relationship that Athena, the goddess of Wisdom, has with the Achaeans. She fights on their side in part because of her love and appreciation for Menelaus, a commander of the Greek army, husband to Helen, and brother to Agamemnon, but also because of her anger at Paris and Helen who started the war.
The gods appear in this epic poem in the same way humans do. They can fight, physically, alongside them, but they are also able to control the elements and influence the outcome of events.
Examples of Epic Poetry
Paradise Lost by John Milton
One of the most widely read epics today, Paradise Lost tells the story of Satan’s fall from heaven, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and Satan’s attempts to fight a war against the angels remaining in Heaven.
The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri
As mentioned above, The Divine Comedy is an epic the details the poet’s own journey through the various stages of the afterlife. He’s led on this journey by Virgil, the poet responsible for the epic poem (that continues the story of the Trojans after the conclusion of the Iliad), the Aeneid.
The Metamorphoses by Ovid
Ovid’s most famous and lasting work, The Metamorphosis was written in 8 AD. It is made up of 11,995 lines and spans 15 books. It is usually considered to be an epic but there are such a variety of themes and tones tapped into within the poem that it is sometimes classified in other genres. The poem tells around 250 individual stories within its lines. Altogether, they depict the story of the creation of the world to the birth of Julius Caesar.