An epic poem is a long narrative poem that tells the story of heroic deeds, normally accomplished by more-than-human characters.

Facts About Epics

  • Considered to be the first form of poetry.
  • They were the product of preliterate societies or those in which reading and writing were uncommon.
  • Epic poems were relayed orally, passed down from person to person, and embellished and changed as they traveled.
  • They use epic heroes with exaggerated features and abilities. They have a larger-than-life presence.
  • Almost all epic poems use dactylic hexameter, also known as heroic hexameter.
  • Epics are often incredibly long, with the longest ever reaching 200,000 lines.
  • Authors usually include supernatural forces of some kind. That might be someone with magical abilities or a god-like character. The supernatural elements deter the hero from their goal.

Tragic Flaws

The tragic flaw is a literary device that is used by writers to complicate their characters. Flaws include pride, envy, and cowardice. Usually, especially in complex works of fiction, the tragic flaw is something grand and personal. It has far-reaching implications and can lead the character into all kinds of trouble. Some of the most common are hubris (pride), lack of judgment, envy, cowardice, ambition, over-protectiveness, self-sacrifice, selective ignorance, faith, or a lack of faith. Epic heroes usually have a tragic flaw of some kind.

Epic Example #1

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri

The Divine Comedy is a three-book epic poem composed by Dante Alighieri. It was completed in 1320. The narrative follows Dante’s travels through hell, purgatory, and heaven, or as the books divide them (and in Italian) Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso. It’s 14,233 lines long and uses cantos or poetic chapters. Here are the first few lines, as translated by H. F. Cary:

In the midway of this our mortal life,

I found me in a gloomy wood, astray

Gone from the path direct: and e’en to tell

It were no easy task, how savage wild

That forest, how robust and rough its growth,

Which to remember only, my dismay

Renews, in bitterness not far from death.

The characters encounter a great deal throughout the poem. There are numerous allusions to mythology, history, and biblical imagery. Supernatural forces are often present.

Epic Example #2

Odyssey by Homer

One of the most famous epics, and often the first one readers think of when they consider the form. It is divided into 24 books and follows Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, on his way home from the 10-year Trojan war. He faces a number of perils, including magic, monsters, and his own tragic flaw–hubris (pride). It was composed around the 8th or 7th century BCE and is 12,109 lines long. The poem wasn’t published in English until 1614. Here are a few of famous opening lines, as translated by Robert Fagles:

Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns … driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy. Many cities of men he saw and learned their minds, many pains he suffered, heartsick on the open sea, fighting to save his life and bring his comrades home

The poem engages with themes like omens, exploration and travel, and heroism. It’s a perfect example of a poem that was shared through the oral tradition. Many scholars are unsure whether Homer was a single person or multiple who added and embellished the tale.

Other Epic Poems to Explore

  • The Metamorphoses by Ovid
  • Paradise Lost by John Milton
  • Iliad by Homer
  • Aeneid by Virgil
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