Primary or Folk Epic

Secondary or Literary Epic

General Characteristics

1. Primary epics were originally intended to be sung or recited to music: "Sing, Muse . . . ."

2. In primary epics, deities and other supernatural agencies are often involved in human affairs: "What god was it . . . ?" asks Homer in the famous epic question that opens the Iliad.

3. The poem often has national interest and has a national bias: "and brought low the souls of so many Acheans" (Iliad, Book I).

4. Primary epics seem generated by periods of upheaval, of struggle and adventure, such as the Trojan War for Homer's epics and the Moslem invasion of Europe in the Song of Roland.

5. Often, the principal characters are larger-than-life demigods (descendants of deities) or heroes of immense stature and strength. They represent such cultural ideals are endurance and cunning (Odysseus), all-round virtue or arÉte (Achilles), fair play and selflessness (Beowulf), chivalric self-sacrifice (Roland), or Christian love (Adam).

6. In both kinds of epic, single combat is a common plot device; if the warriors are equals, such as Achilles and Hector, they fight with sword and spear; if the adversaries are not equally heroic, as in the case of Odysseus and the suitors, the protagonist may use lesser weapons such as a bow. The hero often has a special weapon (e. g., Achilles' Pelian ash spear) or quality (e. g., Odysseus's ability to adopt disguises).

7. The subject of the poem is announced in the opening lines, in an invocation (in which the poet calls for divine assistance to tell his tale) and epic question in classical epics.

8. As opposed to the epyllion (such as the 892-line "Sohrab and Rustum" and Paradise Regained), the true epic is long (the Iliad and the Odyssey each contain 24 books) and dignified (courtly address and epithet are common).

9. Geographical and temporal settings are wide: the action of the Odyssey, for example, occurs across all of the known world of the Greeks over a twenty-year period. However, the action may be compressed into a matter of days (as in the case of the Iliad) or even hours (as in the case of the Song of Roland). The Odyssey takes roughly forty days.

10. Such great issues as the founding of the Roman race and the state (the AEneid) are at stake.

Elements of the Epic Style

1. Repetition: directions and reports are repeated, later incidents seem to echo earlier incidents; stock epithets are constantly applied to certain proper nouns such as "rosy-fingered Dawn" and "horse-taming Hector." Names are symbolic: e. g., Odysseus = "Man of Woe," for he both gives and receives suffering.

2. The Epic or Homeric Simile is a protracted comparison beginning with "like" or "as"; the figure, loaded with description, often holds up the action at a crucial point to produce suspense. There is a general absence of this device in Beowulf, but later English writers such as Milton and Arnold have deliberately incorporated such protracted comparisons into their works to give them weight and dignity.

3. Long, formal speeches such as challenges, inset narratives, flashbacks, and points of debate occur within the midst of the action; characters are commonly revealed in dialogue.

4. Speeches are often followed by such phrases as "thus he spoke" to emphasize that the words are those of a character and not of the narrator.

5. Elevated, literary language is the norm-even servants speak in dignified verse.

6. The manner of address between characters is circumlocutious and courtly; characters often address one another in patronymics such as "Son of Peleus" (Achilles).

7. The pace is stately, the rhythm ceremonious. Catalogues (lengthy lists, particularly of leaders and their military contingents) create a sense of grandeur.

8. Epic machinery includes bardic recapitulations (e. g., the Phaeacian poet Demodocus in the Odyssey recounts the story of the Trojan Horse), a chief god's balancing the scales of fate, a long and arduous journey for the hero, weapons of supernatural origin (such as Achilles' shield, fashioned by Hephaestus, smith of the gods), a descent into the Underworld, and nephelistic rescues (from "nephele" [Greek, "mist"] in Greek).

9. The opening of the epic will involve an invocation and an epic question. The poet opens in the midst of the action ("in medias res") rather than at the beginning.

10. Epic conventions include the simile, the in-medias-res opening, the invocation, the epic question, the epithet, the climactic confrontation between mighty adversaries, and hand-to-hand combat; these were established by Homer and emulated by Virgil.

11. Since epics were composed to honour the deeds of heroic ancestors, such poems often have an aristocratic bias: peasants and servants (unless of aristocratic birth) are insignificant. For example, the churl who discovers the Firedrake's cave in Beowulf is unnamed and is given no dialogue.

12. The action occurs in an heroic past, generations earlier, when deities freely interacted with humans. The events of the poem permeate the national consciousness —everyone in the audience already knows most of the details of the story.

13. In the time of Homer, emotions and great natural forces are personified as deities.

Characteristics of the Epic Hero

The form of the poem suggests that the material dealt with should be "events which have a certain grandeur and importance, and come from a life of action, especially of violent action such as war" (see C. M. Bowra, From Virgil to Milton, p. 1).

1. The hero is introduced in the midst of turmoil, at a point well into the story; antecedent action will be recounted in flashbacks.

2. The hero is not only a warrior and a leader, but also a polished speaker who can address councils of chieftains or elders with eloquence and confidence.

3. The hero, often a demi-god, possesses distinctive weapons of great size and power, often heirlooms or presents from the gods.

4. The hero must undertake a long, perilous journey, often involving a descent into the Underworld (Greek, "Neukeia"), which tests his endurance, courage, and cunning.

5. Although his fellows may be great warriors (like Achilles and Beowulf, he may have a commitatus, or group of noble followers with whom he grew up), he undertakes a task that no one else dare attempt.

6. Whatever virtues his race most prizes, these the epic hero as a cultural exemplar possesses in abundance. His key quality is often emphasized by his stock epithet: "Resourceful Odysseus," "swift-footed Achilles," "pious AEneas."

7. The concept of arete (Greek for "bringing virtue to perfection") is crucial to understanding the epic protagonist.

8. The hero establishes his aristeia (nobility) through single combat in superari a superiore, honour coming from being vanquished by a superior foe. That is, a hero gains little honour by slaying a lesser mortal, but only by challenging heroes like himself or adversaries of superhuman power.

9. The two great epic adversaries, the hero and his antagonist, meet at the climax, which must be delayed as long as possible to sustain maximum interest. One such device for delaying this confrontation is the nephelistic rescue (utilized by Homer to rescue Paris from almost certain death and defeat at the hands of Menelaus in the Iliad).

10. The hero's epic adversary is often a "god-despiser," one who has more respect for his own mental and physical abilities than for the power of the gods. The adversary might also be a good man sponsored by lesser deities, or one whom the gods desert at a crucial moment.

11. The hero may encounter a numinous phenomenon (a place or person having a divine or supernatural force) such as a haunted wood or enchanting sorceress that he most use strength, cunning, and divine assistance to overcome.

Notes on Epic Poetry

An epic or heroic poem falls into one of two patterns, both established by Homer: the structure (and allegory to life) may be either war or journey, and the hero may be on a quest (as Odysseus is) or pursuing conquest (as Achilles is). Features of legend building evident in epic include the following:

1. the hero's near-invulnerability (Achilles' heel, the spot on Seigfried's back);

2. the hero's fighting without conventional weapons (as in Beowulf's wrestling Grendel);

3. the hero's inglorious youth (again, Beowulf affords an example);

4. the hero's auspicious birth (for example, Christ's or Buddha's), an attempt at the reconstruction of the early life of a notable adult (ex., stories of Jesus' childhood);

5. transference of the deeds and events associated with one hero to another of similar name (for example, Saint Patrick and Sir Gawain). Such events would include the gods' arming a hero (a metaphor for wondrous strength so great it must have seemed to have divine origins) and the hero's descending to the Underworld (a metaphor for facing and overcoming death);

6. historical inclusiveness: the poem presents a whole culture in microcosm —although the action is localized (for example, Troy and its environs in Homer's Iliad), flashbacks and inset narratives widen the epic's geographical and chronological scope to include the whole of that race's world and culture heroes;

7. the hero is a dramatic protagonist in each scene of a play (notice the emphasis on dialogue and set speeches) that is too big for any stage.

Milton employed the epic machinery of Homer and Virgil while attempting to redefine their heroic ethos from that of the man of action to that of the man of patient endurance and love. In attempting to make this shift Milton was recognizing that the heroic poem is essentially non-Christian since it is based on the deeds of a man of physical action, a warrior and military leader. Although an epic may be either a folk original (primary), passed on for centuries through the oral tradition, or imitative and literary (secondary, it must be unified in plot and action, and not episodic like Dante's Commedia.

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Last modified 21 February 2005