The Epic Form in World Literature Gerz and Johns-Putra Definition and Characteristics of the Epic Form

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The Epic Form in World Literature Gerz and Johns-Putra

Definition and Characteristics

of the Epic Form

By Adeline Johns-Putra (2004)

The epic is a narrative poem with the following characteristics:

  1. of a profound national or even universal relevance;

  1. with a virtuous hero or heroes (virtuous as defined by the culture of the epic) who must go through many trials to achieve the good of an entire people;

  1. is imbued with immensity and sheer enormity in the scope and breadth of the narrative;

  1. is acknowledged by the vast majority of literary authorities over many generations for excellence of its poetic and cultural merit.

Various Significant Epics of World Literature

Researched and Compiled by Don Gerz (2005)

(Note: Epics from British and American literature purposely are not included in this chart.

Those epics might be covered in MSA's British and American literature and composition courses.)


and Author

(if the author

is known)

Region, Culture, Religion, and Approx. Date(s) of Composition

Central Character(s)

Summary, Comments,

Some Background Info, Etc.

(authors unknown - approx. 2200-2000 B.C.E.)


(Note: "B.C.E." stands for "before the common era." It is equivalent to "B.C.")

Ancient Sumeria (Present-

Day Iraq), Mesopotamian, Babylonian-Sumerian religions,

approx. 2200-2000 B.C.E.



Gilgamesh was an historical king of Uruk in Babylonia, on the River Euphrates in modern Iraq; he lived about 2700 B.C.E.
Enkidu, a companion and friend of Gilgamesh. Hairy-bodied and brawny, Enkidu was raised by animals. Enkidu looks much like Gilgamesh and is almost his physical equal. He aspires to be Gilgamesh’s rival but instead becomes his soul mate.

Although Gilgamesh was godlike in body and mind, he began his kingship as a cruel despot. He lorded over his subjects. He accomplished his building projects with forced labor, and his exhausted subjects groaned under his oppression. The gods heard his subjects’ pleas and decided to keep Gilgamesh in check by creating a wild man named Enkidu, who was as magnificent as Gilgamesh. Enkidu became Gilgamesh’s great friend, and Gilgamesh’s heart was shattered when Enkidu died of an illness inflicted by the gods. Gilgamesh then traveled to the edge of the world and learned about the days before the deluge and other secrets of the gods, and he recorded them on stone tablets. When Gilgamesh returns to Uruk, he is empty-handed but reconciled at last to his mortality. He knows that he cannot live forever but that humankind will. Now he sees that the city he had repudiated in his grief and terror is a magnificent, enduring achievement---the closest thing to immortality to which a mortal can aspire. Gilgamesh is the second longest of all epics! It is also the oldest! (

The Ramayana
(authors unknown, 1899 to 1800 B.C.E.

Ancient India, Hindu religion, 1899 to 1800 B.C.E.

(Note: The poem developed from the oral tradition between 1899 to 1800 B.C.E.)

Rama, an avatar (an incarnation of Vishnu or God)

According to Hindu tradition, Rama is an avatar, an incarnation of Vishnu or God. The main purpose of his incarnation is to demonstrate the ideal human life on earth. Ultimately, Rama slays the rakshasa king Ravana and reestablishes the rule of religious and moral law on earth known in Hinduism as dharma. It has been said that Brahma promised Valmiki, so long as the mountains and seas endure, so long shall men read The Ramayana. (

The Mahabharata
(authors unknown, traditional date: 1316 B.C.E.)

Ancient India, Hindu religion, 1316 B.C.E.

(Note: 1316 B.C.E. is the traditional date of the work. The oral tradition goes back much further.)

Literally every god, king, and seer in the Hindu pantheon...

plus many more!

The Mahabharata contains virtually all the lore and legend of the classical Hindu tradition, which is also (in typical Hindu defiance of simple-minded historicity) very much a living tradition. Here are the great creation stories: the flood, the churning of the milk ocean, and the descent of the Ganges. Here are the favorite myths and fairy tales. Here are the jokes. Here are the codes of law--moral, ethical, and natural. One of the best things about the Mahabharata is its wonderful richness of episode and detail. The Mahabharata is the third longest of all epics! (

The Iliad
By Homer

(probably sometime between 900 and 800 B.C.E.)

Ancient Greece, Ancient Greek pre-Christian religions, approx. 900 to 800 B.C.E.

Achilles, the Greek's greatest warrior

Nine years after the start of the Trojan War, the Greek (“Achaean”) army sacks Chryse, a town allied with Troy. During the battle, the Achaeans capture a pair of beautiful maidens, Chryseis and Briseis. Agamemnon, the leader of the Achaean forces, takes Chryseis as his prize, and Achilles, the Achaeans’ greatest warrior, claims Briseis. Chryseis’s father, Chryses, who serves as a priest of the god Apollo, offers an enormous ransom in return for his daughter, but Agamemnon refuses to give Chryseis back. Chryses then prays to Apollo, who sends a plague upon the Achaean camp. (

The Odyssey
By Homer

(probably sometime between 900 to 800 B.C.E.)

Ancient Greece, Ancient Greek pre-Christian religions, approx. 900 to 800 B.C.E.

Odysseus, a strong and courageous warrior, he is most renowned for his cunning

Ten years have passed since the fall of Troy, and the Greek hero Odysseus still has not returned to his kingdom in Ithaca. A large and rowdy mob of suitors who have overrun Odysseus’s palace and pillaged his land continue to court his wife, Penelope. She has remained faithful to Odysseus. Prince Telemachus, Odysseus’s son, wants desperately to throw them out but does not have the confidence or experience to fight them. (

The Aeneid

By Virgil (Publius Vergilius Maro)
(70 -19 B.C.E.)

Ancient Rome,

Ancient Roman pre-Christian religions, shortly after approx. 19 B.C.E.

Aeneas is a survivor of the siege of Troy. His defining characteristic is a respect for the will of the gods. He is a fearsome warrior and a leader able to motivate his men in the face of adversity, but also a man capable of great compassion and sorrow.

The Aeneid shares with the Iliad and the Odyssey a tone of ironic tragedy, as characters act against their own wishes, submit their lives to fate, and often meet dark ends. Most scholars agree that Virgil distinguished himself within the epic tradition of antiquity by representing the broad spectrum of human emotion in his characters as they are subsumed in the historical tides of dislocation and war. Aeneas, the central character of the Aeneid, must establish the Roman race in Italy, and he subordinates all other concerns to this mission. The Aeneid is about his journey from Troy to Italy, which enables him to fulfill his fate. (

The Epic of King Gesar

(Written down by Buddhist monks)

(It was written down in approx. 1000, but it has had a long oral tradition.)

Tibet (now part of China), Tibetan Buddhism religion, written down from the oral tradition by Buddhist monks around 1000

King Gesar, who rules the mythical Kingdom of Ling
A Cast of Thousands!

The Epic of King Gesar is a Tibetan epic poem about King Gesar, who ruled the mythical Kingdom of Ling. Believed to be over 1000 years old, the epic was passed down collectively by oral tradition among the Tibetan people. The earliest manuscript versions were written by Buddhist monks at the beginning in the 11th century. About 140 Geser ballad singers survive today who could recite large tracts of the poem in parts, mainly from Tibetan, Mongolian, and Tu ethnicities. The Axu prairie in Dege County, southwest of China's Sichuan Province, is believed by Chinese experts as the birthplace of Geser, the legendary hero of the Tibetan ethnicity. The Epic of King Gesar is considered the longest literary work in the world! Although there is no one definitive compilation, if completed it would fill some 120 volumes, containing over 20 million words in more than one million verses! (

Chanson de Roland

(The Song of Roland)

Chanson de Roland

(The Song of Roland)


(author unknown, probably lived sometime between 1100 to 1200)
Chanson de Roland


France of the French Renaissance

Christian religion (Roman Catholic),

probably at the beginning of the 1100s

Chanson de Roland


Charlemagne, 742-814, king of the Franks and a committed, militant Christian.
A loyal ally of the pope and a great conqueror.
Roland, one of "the twelve peers of France," Charlemagne's nephew and favorite, a skillful and extremely bold warrior.

The poem is a legendary account with some basis in reality. In 778, the rear guard of Charlemagne's army was slaughtered in the Pyrenees mountains. At a moment when Charlemagne's army was stretched out in a long column of march, Basques came rushing down on the last part of the baggage train and the troops who were marching in support of the rearguard and so protecting the army which had gone on ahead. The Basques forced them down into the valley beneath, joined battle with them and killed them to the last man. Charlemagne seeks out an immediate and satisfying revenge that also completes his conquest of Spain. The campaigns in Spain must be seen within the greater context of Charlemagne's life and times. Charlemagne lived during an era when the tide of Islam seemed unstoppable. Islam, a religion not yet three centuries old, had swept up the world of North Africa and the Middle East. These newly Moslem kingdoms were richer, stronger, and culturally and technologically well ahead of the kingdoms and tribes of Europe. Moslem Spain, to cite one example, was one of the most magnificent parts of Europe: Islam had brought the benefits of sophisticated culture, science, and institutions. Europe itself was not yet fully Christianized. In many places, particularly in the north, pagan and barbarian tribes still maintained strongholds. The Catholic Church seemed threatened on all sides. The Roman Empire had fallen several centuries before, and life had become less ordered, more dangerous, and far more difficult. Charlemagne was a devout Christian and a fierce warrior, who expanded his Frankish borders until he ruled a Christian empire including large areas of present-day Germany and France, as well as a foothold in Spain. The pope crowned him emperor in 800, recognizing him as a new ruler of the old Western Roman Empire. (

Divina Comedia

(The Divine Comedy)

By Dante Alighieri


Italy (Florence and Ravenna) of the Italian Renaissance,

Christian religion (Roman Catholic),


Dante, the author and protagonist; the focus of all action and interaction with other characters
Virgil, Dante’s guide through the depths of Hell

The plot of The Divine Comedy, which consists of three parts: Inferno (Hell), Purgatorio (Purgatory), and Paradiso (Heaven), mirrors the flow of a classical comedy, progressing from the horrors of Hell to the joys of Heaven. Despite his seeming modesty, however, Dante was confident that his poetry surpassed that of any other vernacular writer and that he could use the high, tragic style to perfection. The Comedy is not exclusively “high” or “low”; rather, it is a truly universal work. It deals with one of the great questions of humanity: the existence of an afterlife and the consequences of our lives on Earth. For Dante, this question was worthy of calling upon philosophers and poets alike, and of utilizing every available style. (

Orlando Furioso
By Ludovico Ariosto


Italy (Reggio in Emilia and Ferrara) of the Italian High Renaissance, Christian religion (Roman Catholic),


Argalia and Angelica, brother and sister, prince and princess of India, who came to the court of Charlemagne.
Orlando and Rinaldo, Charlemagne's two best knights
Astolpho, cousin to Orlando

The story follows the adventures of knights and ladies, the title episode beginning at the point in Canto XXIII when Orlando learns that Angelica has fallen in love with and married Medore, not only an infidel, but a poor one at that. He loses his mind and wanders around the country killing people, animals, trees, and destroying houses and just wreaking havoc. Everyone is saddened by Orlando's condition. Finally, in Canto XXXIV, his cousin Astolpho, who has been having adventures with his flying horse, is privileged to visit Heaven. In Heaven Saint John informs him that the loss of Orlando's wits is his punishment for abandoning the righteous cause of Charlemagne's wars to lusting after an enemy woman. Astolpho gets Orlando's wits back and restores them to him. (

Gerusalemme Liberata
(Jerusalem Delivered)

By Torquato Tasso

Italy (Parma), of the Italian High Renaissance,

Christian religion (Roman Catholic),


Godfrey of Bouillon, who marches his multinational army across Europe, Asia Minor, and finally into the Middle East

Gerusalemme Liberata is, nominally, a poem about the First Crusade in the eleventh century C.E. The First Crusade was ordered by Pope Urban II in 1094 as a way for European Christians to "liberate" Jerusalem from the Muslim Turks who had conquered the city several years earlier. The leader of the First Crusade was Godfrey of Bouillon (in modern-day Belgium) and he marched his multinational army across Europe, Asia Minor, and finally into the Middle East. He surrounded Jerusalem and eventually defeated the Turkish armies stationed there. (

Notes on the Epic Form in World Literature

By Adeline Johns-Putra of the University of Exeter
August 17, 2004. This article is a copyright of The Literary Encyclopedia.
The simplest definition for the epic is a long, heroic, narrative poem. However, the epic means much more than this, for the very word connotes a special status—a profound national or even universal relevance as well as greatness, not merely in the scope and breadth of the narrative but in its poetic merit. The problem, however, with describing the epic in terms of its special status is that this easily becomes a prescription rather than description, a demand that poems (or, later, novels, or even films) must be good enough to be epic. It does not account for works that aspire to epic status yet apparently lack excellence. More importantly, the vagueness of these terms fails also to explain the complexity of the epic tradition, which consists of a variety of texts that sometimes challenge expectations of what is epic and do not, as a body, possess any significant coherent attributes.
In other words, the epic as a genre demonstrates the complexity implicit in the concept of genre itself, and in the materials with which the concept attempts to deal. Modern genre theory has, fortunately, evolved from the relatively simple idea of a genre as determining a list of fixed criteria. For example, structuralist critics such as Tsvetan Todorov posit that genre provides over-riding rules of discourse, in much the same way that language possesses a context (langue) in which utterances (parole) can have meaning. Meanwhile, the reception theorist Hans Robert Jauss has suggested that genre is shaped over time by changes in writers’ and readers’ expectations: genre in this sense is a contract between author and reader, a set of procedures by means of which sense is made, and, on occasion, violated. These two models are useful in showing us how the epic genre works, for epic offers a set of ideas and contexts for writers to work with as they communicate with their readers. As writers both imitate and innovate with previous epic texts, the epic tradition becomes a collection of diverse, albeit related, texts. Thus, the idea of epic evolves over time, with various attributes accruing to it, some maintained and others abandoned.
To define and discuss the epic, then, is to describe its long history. Lengthy narratives of heroic action have emerged in many cultures over time, from the Hindu Ramayana (19th century BC) and Mahabharata (16th century BC), to the eighth-century Beowulf, to the epics of the Ainu islands off Japan, whose exact date is unknown but which were written down in the eighteenth century. The earliest known epic is the Babylonian-Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, which was first written down in about 2000 BC but was being performed as early as 2200 BC.
The Western epic tradition is traceable to the Homeric epics, the Iliad and the Odyssey, which can be verifiably dated to at least the eighth century BC. There is little precise information about the composition of these epics, about the poet the Greeks called Homer, or whether just one poet was responsible for each or both of these poems. What is assumed is that they were composed by one or several bards before being more or less fixed and written down around the time of the invention of Greek writing in the eighth or seventh centuries BC. It is also known that they formed part of a lost “Epic Cycle” telling of events surrounding the Trojan War.
The action of the Iliad concerns a number of days in the ten-year siege of Troy, an attack begun by the Greek leader, Agamemnon, after the abduction of Helen. The story, however, is really about the brilliant Achilles, who becomes resentful and disillusioned at the injustices inflicted upon him by Agamemnon. His withdrawal from battle has tragic consequences for both himself and his fellow Greeks, while his resumption of war leads to their victory and the brutal slaying of the Trojan prince, Hector. The Odyssey takes place well after these events, and narrates Odysseus’ long and eventful quest to return home after the war. As these brief synopses may suggest, the poems are concerned with the great deeds of a single, monolithic hero, yet their model of heroism is no simple one. Achilles’ disillusionment with war and Odysseus’ yearning for peace and domesticity implicitly critique the code of martial glory and bravery contained in these epics. The Homeric heroes may be great, but theirs is a complicated greatness.
It is not just the epic hero who conveys greatness, but the epic poet. The reputation enjoyed by the Homeric poems and therefore by their creator was, from the fifth century BC onwards, inestimable. Greek philosophers may have discussed and debated the nature of literary forms such as epic and tragedy, as Aristotle did in his Poetics, but they agreed largely on the excellence of Homer; his poems were valued not just for their artistic merits but for the breadth of knowledge they conveyed. By the time the Roman Empire came into being, then, Homer had long been venerated as a central figure in Greek culture, and Greek culture was finding respect among the Romans for its sophistication. The Romans, striving to emulate the Greeks’ philosophical and artistic prowess, sought to reproduce this in their own language. The Aeneid of Virgil, written in the first century BC, is a direct response to Homer’s epics, as well as the first text to be almost unanimously considered of comparable worth to the Iliad and the Odyssey. Virgil’s epic is an amalgamation of the two Homeric texts, merging the themes of war and homecoming into the story of the foundation of the Roman Empire by the exiled Trojan prince Aeneas. In addition, it is not only a continuation of the genre but a significant innovation, for it explicitly yokes epic heroism to ideals of nationhood and leadership. Although Aeneas is a multi-dimensional figure, he is aligned with moral values, such as piety and duty, with a clarity with which neither Achilles nor Odysseus had been.

In writing the Aeneid, Virgil also repeated certain Homeric conventions and crystallized these into specifically epic traits. Aided by critical comments, such as those of Horace in his Ars Poetica, a range of formal epic characteristics emerged from the classical age. These include: the invocation of the muse, usually at the commencement of the epic; the use of “supernatural machinery,” or the presence and intervention of the gods; the catalogue, such as Homer’s listing of the Greek ships; epic similes (lengthy and detailed similes whose meanings indirectly enhance the narrative); and the division of the poem into books of twelve or twenty-four—Virgil chose to write his epic in just twelve books out of deference to Homer, whose narrative was by then conventionally divided into twenty-four.
Classical epic—in terms of both practice and theory—resonates strongly in the poetry and criticism of the Renaissance. An early example of Renaissance epic, and one that shows nicely the twin strands of innovation and imitation in the epic genre, is Dante’s Divina Comedia of the fourteenth century, a poem about the poet’s journeys through hell, purgatory and finally heaven. Although sui generis in many ways, particularly in the autobiographical nature of its narrative, it demonstrates a preoccupation with epic—with Virgil rather than with Homer, who was rediscovered in the later Renaissance—and rewrites epic heroism as a personal, spiritual quest.
Meanwhile, as the Renaissance progressed, the influence of medieval chivalric romances such as the Chanson de Roland combined with the legacy of the classical epics to produce the great epic romances of the Renaissance, such as Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered, and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene , each of which combines epic and romance in varying degrees. Apparent in all these is the recasting of epic heroism into allegories of good versus evil, thus establishing the epic hero as primarily a knight in the service of Christian morality. With John Milton’s Paradise Lost, the moral conflict is taken to its logical end, that is, to apocalyptic proportions, and the nationalistic tendencies of the epic established by Virgil are expanded to the level of the cosmological. Though not straightforwardly “heroic” due to its lack of a single hero, there are more than enough epic conventions in Milton’s poem to signal its generic intentions. These are adapted to fit with the text’s subject matter. Thus, the poet invokes both the classical muse Calliope as well as the Holy Spirit, and the great military counsels of both the Iliad and the Aeneid are recalled in the debate that takes place in hell between the devils. It must be noted here that Milton’s introduction of blank verse as a vehicle for epic expression was a formal innovation that would become an established epic convention in its own right.
It is a commonplace of epic scholarship that Paradise Lost changed forever the trajectory of epic. The subsumption of the heroic, and indeed the epic, into the biblical made subsequent epic attempts untenable—crudely put, it seemed as if there was nowhere for epic to go after Milton. The effects of this in the eighteenth century are best captured by Alexander Pope’s preference for translating and mocking epic over writing it. Pope’s monumental translations of the Iliad and the Odyssey and his mock epic The Rape of the Lock demonstrate perfectly how epic continued to be venerated though no longer to be viable. In addition, Pope’s Homeric translations consolidated the heroic couplet as an alternative metrical form for epic.
Paradise Lost is not the only work significantly to affect the epic form in the eighteenth century. Cervantes’ Don Quixote, though perhaps not itself an epic, did provide a critique of the heroic modes of romance and hence epic, and thus enabled innovations in the genre. Henry Fielding’s novels Joseph Andrews and Tom Jones, labeled by their author “comic-epic-poems in prose,” are notable challenges to the epic tradition, suggesting a new heroism based not on outstanding leadership and chivalry but on everyday sincerity. Such heroism, of course, was also recognizable in the relatively new form of the novel, with its emphasis on managing the gulf between the interior and the exterior, the self and society. Indeed, there is a case to be made for reading the novel as the channel into which the epic impulse flowed in the modern age, for heroism based on public action would seem to be untenable in a time in which the primacy of individual consciousness and will were being so openly acknowledged. This is the argument put forward by both Georg Lukács (Theory of the Novel, 1914) and Mikhail Bakhtin (in his essay “Epic and Novel,” 1941) who posit separately that the epic age has been conclusively superseded by that of the novel.
Notwithstanding this, the epics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries must be accounted for somehow. It is perhaps more accurate to note that the questions of selfhood and subjectivity that, according to both Lukács and Bakhtin, help to modulate the epic towards the novel are evident in the epic attempts of both the Romantic and Victorian ages. It could therefore be said that, in the nineteenth century, epic and novel coincide at several interfaces. The epic’s concern with self is most obvious in The Prelude by William Wordsworth, in which the poet is imagined as an epic hero of sorts, his quest being—according to the subtitle given to it by Wordsworth’s wife—the “growth of a poet’s mind”. Other nineteenth-century epics heroicize the poet to varying degrees, from Lord Byron’s Don Juan to John Keats’s unfinished Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh. Barrett Browning’s epic about the female poet’s journey toward both literary success and personal happiness is a significant challenge to previous alignments of epic heroism with masculinity, whether through its martial, nationalistic, or chivalric associations.
Meanwhile, the early twentieth century is most notable for epics that continue in the attempt to capture the essence of human experience but, in the spirit of modernism, insist that this experience is necessarily incoherent and disjointed. James Joyce’s novel Ulysses is the keynote of this movement, with its “stream-of-consciousness” technique and its narrative of a day in the life of the ordinary Leopold Bloom. H.D.’s Helen in Egypt and, more recently, Derek Walcott’s Omeros also combine epic influence with a modernist ethos of fragmented and shifting subjectivities; both constitute attempts at representing the epic in feminist and post-colonial modes respectively.
The epic impulse is most evident in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, however, in the medium of film rather than literature. The desire for grand historical narratives has been evident in cinema from the first, for example, D. W. Griffiths’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and Cecil B. de Mille’s famous extravagant productions. Hollywood in particular has tended consciously to produce versions of epic, in narrating either classical or biblical content, as in The Ten Commandments (1956), Ben Hur (1959), and Spartacus (1960). In the past two decades, special effects advances, especially of the digital variety, have resulted in blockbusters also labeled epic, such as Titanic and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-04). These two tendencies, that of imitating literary classical content and that of employing a breadth of scope and vision, have merged in recent epic films Gladiator (2000) and Troy (2004), the latter being a film version of Homer’s Iliad.
In the twenty-first century, then, the question “What is epic?” has no easy answer. The term “epic” describes a bewildering range of texts, in the loosest sense of the word, for it finds itself applied to Hollywood blockbusters as well as “real-life” events such as sporting contests, corporate takeovers, political elections. The history of the epic shows that the epic has come, to us, to connote the immensity of life, and resonates with questions of morality, social responsibility, and subjectivity. The range of texts that have, over time, been designated as epic attest to the indeterminacy of the genre beyond these vague notions of greatness and specialness, as well as the impossibility of providing a simple definition of the word “epic."

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