An Epic poem is a lengthy narrative poem told on a grand scale. According to Webster’s New World dictionary, “epic is a long narrative poem in a dignified style about the deeds of a traditional or historical hero or heroes; typically a poem like Iliad or the Odyssey with certain formal characteristics.” The story usually involves forces of natures and uses long character arcs. Protagonists meet with obstacles and disaster, action and triumph.
We’ve compiled a short guide on all you need to know about Epic poems.
Characteristics of an Epic
There are several characteristics of an epic that distinguish it from other forms of poetry:
The first and most obvious characteristic of an epic is the length of the poem. An epic is an extensive and prolonged narrative in verse, so really it is more like a novel than a poem. Most famous epic poems have been broken down into multiple books. For example, Homer’s epics are divided into twenty-four books and John Milton’s Paradise Lost has been divided into twelve books.
• Another way to spot an epic is its protagonist. An epic focusses on the achievements of a historical or traditional hero. Epics explore the valour, deeds, bravery, character and personality of the protagonist.
• Exaggeration is also a key part of an epic. The poet often uses hyperbole to exaggerate the character and powers of the hero.
• Supernatural elements are an essential part of an epic. Poets use characters like gods, demons, angels, fairies, supernatural forces like natural catastrophes to fill the reader with awe and wonder. Milton’s Paradise Lost, Homer’s Iliad and Beowulf are all full of these elements.
• The theme of morality is always present in an epic poem. The poet uses their writing as a sort of moral lesson their readers. Paradise Lost is a good example of this; John Milton uses the poem to justify the ways of God to man through the story of Adam.
• The language in epic poems is always quite lofty, poets never use common or colloquial language. The language itself adds to the overall sublime and epic feel of the poem.
• Use of Epic Simile is another feature that we often see in an epic poem. Epic simile is a far-fetched comparison between two objects, which runs over several lines to further describe the valour, bravery and epic stature of the hero. It is can also be called Homeric simile (after Homer of Iliad fame).
The epic poem is often set in multiple settings. The actions of the hero can span across continents and even other realms or worlds. An epic also usually has an omniscient narrator who sees and knows all.
Types of Epic
There are two main types of epic: folk and literary.
Folk epic is an old form of epic poem that was originally told in oral form. Over time authors tried to preserve them by writing them down in hard copies. This meant that the story changed slightly depending on who was writing it down. So nobody really knows about the exact authorship of the folk epics. The folk epic type of poetry is different from literary epic poetry simply because the former is based on a particular mythology, while the latter is based on the ideas of the author. In the literary epic, the poet invents the story, while the folk epic is bases on the mythology of the locality, like folklore for example. The folk epic is basically in oral form, while the literary epic is in written form. The author of the literary epic is a well-known personality, while the author of the folk epic could be anyone!
In An Introduction to the Study of Literature William Henry Hudson says:
“The epic of growth is fresh, spontaneous, racy, the epic of art is learned, antiquarian, bookish, imitative. Its specifically ‘literary’ qualities-its erudition, its echoes, reminiscences, and borrowings- are indeed, as the Aeneid and Paradise Lost will suffice to prove, among its most interesting characteristics for a cultured reader.”
Let’s look at the following lines from Beowulf:
Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements
The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,
How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.
Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers
From many a people their mead-benches tore.
Since first he found him friendless and wretched,
The earl had had terror: comfort he got for it,
Waxed ’neath the welkin, world-honor gained,
Till all his neighbors o’er sea were compelled to
Bow to his bidding and bring him their tribute:
An excellent atheling! After was borne him
A son and heir, young in his dwelling,
Whom God-Father sent to solace the people.
Literary epic is usually known as art epic. It is an epic, which imitates the conventions of the folk epic, but gives it a written shape. It is absolutely opposite to the folk epic. They were written unlike the folk epics, which came all the way down to us through oral tradition. The literary epics tend to be more polished, coherent, and compact in structure and style when contrasted with the folk epics. Literary epics are the result of the genius of the poet. That is why they have great significance from literary point of view.
William Henry Hudson says in An Introduction to the Study of Literature:
“The literary epic naturally resembles the primitive epic, on which it is ultimately based, in various fundamental characteristics. Its subject-matter is of the old heroic and mythical kind; it makes free use of supernatural; it follows the same structural plan and reproduces many traditional details of composition; while, greatly it necessarily differs in style, it often adopts the formulas, fixed epithets, and stereo typed phrases and locutions, which are among the marked feature of the early type."
Look at the lines taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost:
OF MAN’S first disobedience, and the fruit
Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste
Brought death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden, till one greater Man
Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,
Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top
Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire
That Shepherd who first taught the chosen seed
In the beginning how the heavens and earth
Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill
Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed
Fast by the oracle of God, I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.
(Paradise Lost by John Milton)
Epic Poetry in the Modern Day
You might think that the epic poem is a thing of the past, and who could blame you, Paradise Lost was written in 1667 so you wouldn’t really call epic poetry modern. But there many tropes of epic poetry in current TV series and films, and they’re big business.
More and more of us tune into these shows that have sustained narrative voices and long character arcs, much like epic poems do.
Take Game of Thrones, for example, this series stretches across years of narrative and its audience are still enthralled. In a way it’s like a modern Paradise Lost; an epic narrative featuring heroes, villains, moral lessons that spans over many chapters.
Instead of being restricted to written word, the epic style can now be translated to on-screen drama that has legions of fans.
Even Forbes thinks there’s big business in modern day epics: “it's gone viral. Instead of one old blind guy memorizing colossal tales, we're crowdsourcing our favorite myths, characters, themes, and narratives. The big budgets and star-making studios surrounding the adaptations of these tales create the illusion that their success is ultimately a top-down phenomenon, but it's not.”
While you may not find yourself reading Homer’s Iliad on a Friday evening you might be one of many settling in to watch Game of Thrones, Twilight or The Vampire Diaries or other shows keeping the epic style alive.
Next time you’re watching a film or TV show see if you can spot any tropes of epic poetry, we bet you’ll find more than you think!
The great thing about poems is that there are many kinds of poetry once you have tried Epic poems. Give the other styles a go, Limericks are short poems, traditional Haiku poems are elegant, to communicate an idea use one of the kinds of Sonnet, If you have musical talent try the Ballard poem with some music, If you like to be on stage try to perform slam poetry in front of an audience or learn about free verse poetry which is pure free speech. With so many kinds of poetry, you will find a style for you.