Epic poetry

For other meanings of epic, see epic (disambiguation).

The epic is a broadly defined genre of poetry, which retells in a continuous narrative the life and works of a heroic or mythological person or group of persons. In the West, the Iliad, Odyssey and Nibelungenlied; and in the East, the Mahabharata, Ramayana, and Shahnama are often cited as examples of the epic genre.


Epic versus narrative

One factor that distinguishes epics from other forms of narrative poetry is scale: epic poems tend to be too long to be read or performed in a single sitting. A second distinguishing factor is stylistic: epic poems are written in what might be termed high style, avoiding popular metres and verse patterns. For example, an epic written in English would not use the ballad form.

Thirdly, epic poems always deal with persons and events that are considered to be historically real by the poet and their audience. Epics are, essentially, the tale of the tribe. In oral cultures, the learning and performance of epic poems frequently formed an integral part of the education of the poet and, by extension, the audience. This assumed historicity is important for distinguishing epic from other long narrative forms such as allegory.

The fourth distinguishing factor in the definition of an epic is what is termed the epic hero cycle. The hero in an epic poem tends to follow a predictable cycle of events that is repeated in epics from every sort of culture. Although the cycle may repeat upon itself and vary slightly in order from epic to epic, the general points of the cycle include:

  • a charge (e.g. from a god to complete a quest)
  • a test (to test worthiness to complete said quest)
  • various mythical, human, or animal helpers
  • a main antagonist, often supernatural
  • a magical/unreal world, unable to be visited by a normal human, that the hero visits (e.g. the underworld or the world of the gods)
  • an escape from the quest/low point (the hero questions the validity of his quest and seeks to escape from his responsibility)
  • a resurrection (either from being dead or from a dead-like state of mind, such as an unwillingness to complete the quest, and may also be a hero who was thought to be dead who was rediscovered)
  • and a restoration (e.g. a king restored to his throne).

George Lucas' original Star Wars trilogy, in particular, follows this cycle exactly, and some have cited it as the reason for its mass appeal.

Early epics

The first recorded epic is the Sumerian Gilgamesh. The longest epic (and, in general, work of literature) of all time is the Tibetan Epic of King Gesar, which has been collected as a work composed of roughly 120 volumes, with more than one million verses, totaling over 20 million words, making it 25 times the size of the ancient Greek epic, the Iliad. The Mahabharata, whose 100,000 verses make it four times the size of the Bible and seven times the size of the Iliad and Odyssey combined, is considered the second-largest literary work.

Oral epics or world folk epics

The first epics are associated strongly with preliterate societies and oral poetic traditions. In these traditions, poetry is transmitted to the audience and from performer to performer by purely oral means. World folk epics are those epics which are not just literary masterpieces but also an integral part of the weltanschauung of a people. They were originally oral literatures, which were later written down by either single author or several writers.

Studies of living oral epic traditions in the Balkans by Milman Parry and Albert Lord demonstrated the paratactic model used for composing these poems. What they demonstrated was that oral epics tend to be constructed in short episodes, each of equal status, interest and importance. This facilitates memorisation, as the poet is recalling each episode and using them to recreate the entire epic as they perform it.

Parry and Lord also showed that the most likely source for written texts of the epics of Homer was dictation from an oral performance.

See also list of world folk-epics.

Epics in literate societies

Literate societies have often copied the epic format, and the earliest known European example is Virgil's Aeneid, which follows both the style and subject matter of Homer. Another obvious example is Tulsidas' Ramacharitamanas, following the style and subject matter of Valmiki's Ramayana.

Epic non-poetry

By extension, the word "epic" is used in reference to any fictional work that follows the broad stylistic and thematic conventions of epic poetry, namely high language, historical or pseudo-historical settings, and hero-worship. Examples of non-poetic epics are Beau Geste, The Great Indian Novel and Star Wars.

Notable epic poems

See also


External links

da:Episk de:Epos el:Έπος es:Epopeya eo:Eposo fr:pope io:Epiko id:Epos he:שירה אפית lv:Epika nl:Epiek ja:叙事詩 pl:Epos sk:Epos sl:Ep sr:Епика zh:史诗


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