What is an Epic Poem?
Epic poetry is a form focusing on long narratives, often used to tell stories of exceptional people, both real and fictional.
We are all familiar with the term ‘epic’—it is synonymous with greatness, and indeed that is what epic poems try to convey. The term itself is Ancient Greek in origin, from the word epikos, meaning word, story, or poem.
The oldest recorded epic is the earliest complete story we have to hand, the Epic of Gilgamesh dating back potentially to 2500BCE. Originally recorded during the Neo-Sumerian Empire, the Epic of Gilgamesh details the life of Gilgamesh. Though a recognised historical figure, the story is a work of fiction, lionising the character as a legendary hero.
Because of the epic’s origins in one of the oldest societies recorded, it is no wonder epics can be found across the world. Most will be familiar with the Homeric epics—The Iliad and The Odyssey—but epics can also be found throughout Asia and Europe.
The first epics were almost certainly pre-writing, and as such would have been told verbally by bards. Many of the surviving epics are written in such a way that they are easy to recall, through the repetition of descriptions, such as “the wine dark sea” in Homer’s Odyssey, or through the use of short, simple sentences. Many of these epics were episodic, with each episode being equal in importance and length.
Homer’s epics were most likely transcriptions of these oral performances, many decades after the original writing. Milman Parry and Albert Lord both investigated the Homeric epics and their importance in Western literature. Most Western epics—including Virgil’s Aeneid and Dante’s Divine Comedy—owe a tremendous debt to Homer, borrowing elements such as dactylic hexameter and narrative structures.
There are six narrative elements to an epic:
- A hero of legendary status, who is already an icon—perhaps even partially divine in origin, such as the child of a god—and able to complete what others attempt;
- Deeds of strength and valour, usually to a superhuman degree;
- Vast settings that covers multiple countries;
- Supernatural forces, such as gods, demons, monsters, or time travel;
- An elevated style that remains consistent throughout—though the style may change, it must remain at a suitably high level and certain characters may speak in fixed metres that distinguish themselves from others;
- An omniscient narrator—the poet knows all motives and secrets, regardless of the characters’ awareness.
There are also several conventions that epics tend to draw on:
- It begins with a stating of themes and setting, called the proposition—this could be a statement of purpose, or a question the epic seeks to address;
- An invocation to a muse—this is predominantly featured in classical European epics, and is not present in epics from others cultures, such as the Hindu Bhagavata Purana;
- A narrative that starts in media res—the action has already begun;
- The use of Enumeratio, or the epic list—catalogues and genealogies used to place the scope of the epic within the broader, global world;
- Repetition of epithets—stock descriptions used throughout the piece.
Different languages tend towards different poetic structures. Ancient Greek and Latin poems were written in dactylic hexameter; Old English, German and Norse poems were written in alliterative verse, usually without rhyme; Italian, Spanish and Portuguese long poems were usually written in terza rima. Since the 14th Century, English epics have used iambic pentameter and royal rhyme, with Spenserian Stanzas and blank verse being introduced in the 16th Century.
Epics are used to tell long stories. Traditionally these have been serious, though humorous epics have emerged, with new interest in modern times. Some of these are mock epics that subvert the traditional character of the epic for absurd or humorous purposes.
Although the setting of the epic is usually thought of as historical, this is because many epics were written in the Greek and Roman eras. Epics can be contemporary, or even futuristic—sci-fi epics have become fairly commonplace.
Poetry novels can also be thought of as a kind of epic, with their sustained style and narratives.
It is important to remember that there are many cultures that have used the epic. It’s tempting to think of the epic in the restrictive Graeco-Roman tradition, but Eastern Europe is finally seeing recognition for their epic tradition, and the most influential Indian works often fall under the banner of the epic. As with most forms, the poet should become familiar with the form through reading before attempting to duplicate it. With the epic it is important to read widely.
© 2019 Connor Sansby
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Connor Sansby is a Margate-based writer, editor, poet and publisher through his super-indie Whisky & Beards publishing label.