The nature of an epic

Before “epic” became a name used by companies to suggest their fame, it was a type of  poem. A long one describing the exploits of heroes and often involving the rise of a nation. The poetic meter made memorization of this kind of oral history easier. Because creating new epics in literature has come into vogue, it would be good to revisit the nature of an epic.

Writers tend to look at the external aspects of a legend when creating them. Epics occur in far away places, in the distant past and use a language that sounds ancient. So, authors attempting to write epic novels sometimes fill them with dramatic landscapes and archaic words. They may create  mountains so tall that the summits are perpetually in twilight or deep caves with holes to glimpse down on the glow of magnum below. They may repeat ancient words for places, calling the sea Mare Nostrum or giving place names with a primaeval ring. But, using poetic description and archaic language does not make the work an epic.

But what makes an epic is the content of the story. The main character does not initially see the adventure as leading towards their fame but as a nuisance that they must deal with. In the example of Odysseus, this local chieftain was plowing his fields when called to join the forces against Troy. He tried to feign insanity rather than join the expedition. But, his ruse was uncovered. Another key to the content of epics is found in the Arthurian legend. As a child Arthur is raised far from the castle, working as a servant and assuming he is a nobody. Heroes in an epic often have no idea who they really are.

Literary epics also repeat the situations of Joseph and Moses (described in the Bible and the Torah). Each of these men knew their background. However, both were rejected, one was sold into slavery and then imprisoned after a false accusation. The other fled to live as a menial shepherd after his people turned on him and he didn’t want to return to them. These trials served a purpose. The hero of an epic must learn humility before becoming a leader. Otherwise the hero may succumb to the same conceit and arrogance exhibited by the powers which need to be defeated.

The author builds up the epic nature of the story through events in the plot rather than the type of language used to write it. Heroes face their foes looking as if they are going to get crushed. Their might and wisdom remain unknown until it is tested. The growth required of the person who will become the hero takes time to build, which is why epics often span decades.

What creates an epic is the distance between the low stature of the protagonist and the prowess of the antagonist pitted against them. The might of the enemy makes the story, not the language, not the setting, nor the apparent strength of the hero. Because when the story begins, the hero often has none.

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