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The Greek noun "epos" is derived from the verb "epein," to speak, suggesting that the early Greek epics were recited, although Homer and Virgil specifically refer to "singing." The epic is always a poem of immense proportions. The classical epic uses dactyllic hexameter (-uu or —): the first line of the archaic Greek Odyssey, for example, scans -uu -uu -uu -uu -uu -u (short a weak foot). While the anonymous Anglo-Saxon Beowulf uses the alliterative line; the Germanic Nibelungenliedis stanzaic, and has rhyming couplets, while Dante uses terza rima (e.g., aba bcb cdc etc.), and Milton adapts Marlow's "Mighty Line," Shakespearean Blank Verse (Iambic Pentameter, unrhymed) to the epic.

Although the setting is vast, even cosmic in such Christian epics as The Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, it is usually tighter in the others, although again a vast geographical setting is implied by flashbacks, inset narratives, and so on. Homer chose a more grandiose physical setting for his Odyssey than he did for his Iliad which had involved only the beach and plain before Troy and the home of the gods, Olympos; the later poem utilizes the whole Mediterranean world, and Virgil's poem has a similar setting. The Song of Roland, El Cid, and Beowulf have much narrower settings, but that of the Nibelungenlied is larger (Burgundy, Iceland, and Hungary). The setting of an epyllion is necessarily more contracted, so that Milton's Paradise Regained is limited to Israel and Arnold's "Sohrab and Rustum" to the banks of the Oxus River in Persia.

Established by Homer in the eighth century B. C., the In Medias Res convention for the opening of the narrative enables the epic poet to compact his action into days or months, although the entire plot involves years; for example, the number of days in the Beowulf is few, but these are well over fifty years apart. The poet himself is usually separated by centuries from the action of his work, as the following chart indicates:

PoemDate of ActionDate of Composition
Iliadfall of Troy, 1184 B. C. 700 B. C.

Odysseyten years after the fall of Troy, 1174 B. C.700 B. C.

AEneidfrom the fall of Troy, 1184 B. C.19 B. C.

Beowulf circa A.D. 500A.D. 800 (m.s.,1000 A.D.)

Nibelungenliedcirca A.D. 500A.D.1200

Song of Roland August 15, 778 A. D.end of 11th century A. D.

Paradise LostTraditional date of creation, 4000 B.C.A.D. 1667

The heroic songs about Spain's El Cid, on the other hand, probably originated within his own life-time, and Dante's epic takes place over the Easter weekend of 1300. The oral tradition is better illustrated by the Homeric epics, since the longer the interval between action and composition, the greater the chance of elaboration, exaggeration, and the addition of legendary material. During the five hundred years in which the Troy story was oral, the tales grew in dimension, until a redactor whom we call Homer amalgamated the vast body of heroic lays into two coherent epics.


The Primary or Folk Epic has no known antecedents, but is rather a spontaneous production from heroic ballads and legends (e. g., Iliad, Odyssey, Gilgamesh, Beowulf, etc.).

The Secondary or Literary Epic deliberately sets out to imitate the style of a primary epic, to which it either consciously or implicitly refers (e. g., Argonautica and AEneid); Paradise Lost is almost tertiary since it builds on Dante, Virgil, the Bible, and Homer.

Oral formulaic epics were composed to sung or recited; literary epics such as Hilton's were designed to be read from a book. The kernel of the epic is an historical personage or event.

We must be careful to distinguish between MYTH and EPIC. Although both imply a story ("mythos" means "a tale"), the basis of the former is universal and that of the latter national or local. A myth usually involves divine characters and accounts for some aspect of creation, either initial or ongoing. An epic will utilize cultural myths, but will impose upon them a literary form with a set of conventions, among which are the hero, the conflict, the theme, the setting in time and space, and the language.

Some of the Mediaeval Romances (such as Chaucer's "Palamon and Arcite") come close to being epics, but, although a romance may involve a single hero set against a mythological background in a lengthy narrative poem, its emphasis will be on the love story rather than on the heroic struggle. A romance will tend to be more contemporary and less grandiose than an epic.

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Last modified 21 February 2005