TEL Library
Educational Content and Custom Curriculum
Oklahoma City, Ok, 73170
info@tellibrary.org

Literary Epic

Learn About This Lesson

Learning Objectives

After completing this lesson, you will be able to:

  • List the elements or characteristics traditionally associated with an epic.
  • Give an example of a modern-day epic and describe how it manifests the common elements of an epic.

Inquire: Epic Evolution of Stories

Overview

Decorative

Inferno, from the Divine Comedy by Dante (Folio 1v) by Bartolomeo di Fruosino. c.1430.

While use of the term epic, along with its various artistic manifestations, has expanded considerably in the last century; its origins are found in a specific form of storytelling and literature.

Epics are lengthy poems about significant events and deeds of heroic proportions. The form emerged from oral storytelling traditions, and epics are generally a remix of pre-existing stories and characters. Epics have been around for more than four millennia and some of the first stories ever told fall into this category.

Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking a work must have originated in a distant era to be considered an epic. In fact, some of the most successful literature and media franchises in the modern era fall directly into this category.

Today, epics, both past and present, continue to inspire us and capture our imaginations with sweeping storylines, larger-than-life heroes, and supernatural interventions.

Big Question

How is it that a genre that originated more than 4,000 years ago remains so relevant today?

Watch: That’s Epic!

Watch the following video, and find out what makes literature epic.

Click here to download an accessible PDF transcript.

Read: We Need a Hero

Background

Epics are lengthy poems about significant events and deeds of heroic proportions. The form emerged from oral storytelling traditions, and epics are generally a remixing of pre-existing stories and characters. These works are traditionally set in the past and are often based, at least loosely, on historical events and characters.

The Epic of Gilgamesh is the earliest epic and is also considered by many to be our earliest work of literature. It comes from Mesopotamia and dates back to approximately 1,800 BCE. The poem tells the story of Gilgamesh, two-thirds god and one-third human, who is a larger-than-life hero and performs amazing feats in battle. Through his travels, battles, and encounters with the gods, Gilgamesh gains wisdom and becomes a beloved ruler.

In Western civilization, the epic tradition begins in the 8th century BCE with the Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to a storyteller named Homer. These works focus on the Trojan War and its aftermath, recounting the quarrel between King Agamemnon and the warrior Achilles during the war (Iliad), and the journey home of Odysseus after the fall of Troy (Odyssey).

After its beginnings in Ancient Greece, the epic tradition continues in Western civilization with Virgil’s Aeneid in the 1st century BCE, and the Metamorphoses by Ovid in the 1st century CE. In the Middle Ages and Renaissance, we have memorable epics that include BeowulfThe Song of RolandEl Cantar de Mio Cid, and the Divine Comedy.

These were followed by notable epics such as The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost in the 16th and 17th centuries. Epic poetry continued to be popular in the 18th and 19th centuries, and proved influential in the 20th century with the development of epic fantasy fiction, such as The Lord of the Rings, as well as epic fantasy games and film.

Epics are traditionally defined by the following elements or characteristics.

  • Length — Epics are lengthy and often divided into multiple books. Examples include the Iliad with around 15,000 lines, the Odyssey, with 12,000 lines, and The Aeneid with over 9,000 lines.
  • Character(s) — Epic poems focus on the deeds of larger-than-life historical or traditional heroes. These characters, sometimes demigods, display remarkable physical and mental power, and demonstrate incredible bravery. In addition to a primary hero, epics often provide long lists and histories of other heroes or important characters, with an emphasis on high-born kings and great warriors.
  • Structure — The narrative action of most epics begins in the middle, or in medias res. As the work proceeds, we learn of earlier events, as well as details about the hero’s life through character narrative and flashbacks.
  • Subject — Epic poetry focuses on serious or worthy subjects and themes that are suitable for a sweeping saga and address the plight of all humanity.
  • Setting — Keeping with its larger-than-life hero and superhuman deeds, an epic generally takes place in an expansive setting that covers a broad geographic territory.
  • Diction and Style — Epics are written in highly stylized, formal language and employ many different figures of speech. This includes the use of extended similes to intensify the heroic stature of the subject.
  • Deity — Gods, supernatural beings, and other supernatural forces appear frequently in epics and have a direct effect on the story outcome.
  • Muse — Epics often begin with the invocation of a muse, a supernatural being, to provide proper inspiration for the poet.

 

Reflect: Are You an Epic Skeptic?

Poll

Loading

What aspect of the epic appeals to you most?

Thank you for voting
You have already voted on this poll!
Please select an option!

Expand: Modern-Day Epics

The epic is certainly important for its many influences on the development of literature in Western civilization, but it has also had a significant cultural impact in 20th and 21st century fiction and media. Here are several examples.

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Lord of the Rings

This trilogy of fantasy novels, while not told in verse, qualifies as an epic in every other category. The Lord of the Rings tells the story of an unlikely hero, Frodo Baggins, and his journey to save Middle Earth from the Dark Lord Sauron by destroying the One Ring. He is accompanied by loyal companions and, together and individually, they manage against all odds to defeat both Sauron and his massive armies. Note how The Lord of the Rings contains all major elements of the epic.

  • In spite of his humble origins, the hero manifests larger-than-life goodness and innocence. His purity of heart allows him to carry the One Ring, a talisman of supernatural power.
  • The novels contain larger-than-life characters — Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli —  who accompany the hero on his quest and perform deeds of superhuman strength and willpower.
  • The novels contain an abundance of god-like beings with supernatural powers.
  • The setting of the story is vast, encompassing the entirety of Middle Earth.
  • The story of the trilogy begins in media res, essentially the middle chapter of the larger narrative Middle Earth.
  • The themes of Lord of the Rings are of weighty and universal importance: good versus evil, friendship and loyalty, and love.
  • The language of the novels is highly stylized. Character speech is formal and the insertion of lengthy songs and poetry are common.

 George Lucas: Star Wars

Another example of a modern-day epic, from the late 20th century, is the original Star Wars film trilogy. This movie epic tells the story of Luke Skywalker and his quest to defeat the Galactic Empire and the immensely powerful Darth Vader. Luke is aided in his quest by loyal companions, and is ultimately guided by The Force, a supernatural, spiritual element.

The scope, characters, and subject of the movies make Star Wars a classic modern-day epic.

  • In spite of his seemingly inconspicuous circumstances at the beginning of the trilogy, Luke proves himself an epic hero by his goodness and strong mind, which allow him to harness The Force.
  • Characters that assist Luke in the series, such as former Jedis Obi-Wan and Yoda, possess supernatural and superhuman abilities.
  • The Force, a key element – both supernatural and spiritual –  in the series, represents the fundamental struggle between good and evil.
  • The setting of the story encompasses large portions of space and entire confederations of planets.
  • The original Star Wars trilogy begins in the middle of its own narrative, as well as that of the larger saga of the Galactic Republic, which is told in subsequent trilogies.
  • The primary themes of the series are universal: good versus evil, life and death, and loyalty and love.
Toolbox

The 20 Greatest Epic Poems of All Time 

A selection of great epics with brief description.

Epic

An overview of the epic, its characteristics, and history.

The Odyssey 

The complete text of the epic poem in multiple formats.

Ulysses 

The complete text of Joyce’s novel, based on The Odyssey.

The Iliad 

The complete text of the epic poem in multiple formats.

 

Glossary

AJAX progress indicator
  • epic
    A lengthy poem or, in modern times, a prose work about significant events and deeds of heroic proportions, generally set in the past and often based, at least loosely, on historical events and characters. 
  • figure of speech
    Inventive or figurative words or phrases used to accentuate the effect of what is being said 

License and Citations

Content License:

Lesson Content:  Authored and curated by Rob Reynolds, P.h.D. for The TEL Library.  CC BY NC SA

Media Sources:

 LinkAuthorPublisherLicense
DecorativeOdysseus bei den LaestrygonenImmanuel GielWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
DecorativeInferno, from the Divine Comedy by DanteBartolomeo Di FruosinoWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
British Museum Flood TabletBabelStoneWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
Calliope, Muse of Epic PoetryCharles MeynierWikimedia CommonsPublic Domain
House Home Quirky Movie HobbitStockSnapPixabayCC 0
Star Wars por Grzegorz Domaraszki GabzJorge FigueroaFlickrCC BY 2.0