The Bedford Glossary of Critical and Literary Terms - Ross Murfin 2018


Epic: A long and formal narrative poem written in an elevated style that recounts the adventures of a hero of almost mythic proportions who often embodies the traits of a nation or people. A distinction is generally made between traditional (folk or primary) epics and literary (art or secondary) epics. Traditional epics are derived from oral tradition, whereas literary epics are the work of a single poet, written in conscious imitation of the traditional style.

Epics typically share a variety of characteristics: (1) the protagonist is a hero of great stature and significance (whether historical or mythic) with the two traditional virtues of bravery (fortitudo) and wisdom (sapientia); (2) the setting is on a grand and vast scale, often encompassing the known world at the time of the epic’s composition; (3) the plot entails noble, fantastic, and even superhuman efforts; (4) supernatural entities usually involve themselves in the action and in the affairs of the hero, who often must descend into an underworld before he can claim victory; and (5) the writing exhibits an elevated style designed to complement and heighten the already mythic stature of the characters and their actions.

Epics also generally involve certain conventions. These include: (1) invoking a muse’s aid during the argument and posing a question to her; (2) starting the narrative in medias res; (3) introducing the roster of characters in a formal manner and giving them speeches revealing their principal characteristics and attitudes; and (4) using epic similes.

Today, the term epic may also be used more generally to refer to any event involving heroic actions taken in broadly significant situations.

EXAMPLES: Homer’s The Iliad and The Odyssey (both c. 850 B.C.) are traditional epics, as are Beowulf (c. A.D. 700), an epic in Old English, and La chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland) (c. 1100), an epic in Old French. Virgil’s The Aeneid (c. 15 B.C.), Dante Alighieri’s Divina commedia (The Divine Comedy) (1321), and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (Orlando Enraged) (1516) are literary epics. James Joyce’s novel Ulysses (1922) and Derek Walcott’s long poem Omeros (1990) are twentieth-century works in the epic tradition. Both are based on The Odyssey, as is Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish television movie by the same name (1997).

An example of epic in its most general sense appeared in a 2006 Washington Post story stating that “The 32-minute tape [from the voice recorder of United Flight 93, one of the planes hijacked on 9/11] captures an epic struggle as passengers surged forward to retake the plane, using whatever low-tech weapons they could find.”