‘Epic’ – (now you see it, now you don’t)…
On the evolution of narrative; received genre descriptions and their usefulness.
The main problem with the term ‘epic’ is that the ‘originals’ do not exist, their origin and being was oral, performance; yet what we now call ‘epics’ are written texts - later amalgamations of a variety of oral tales. Also (or moreover) the definition of ‘epic’ actually comprises a number of different elements (an adventure or war-based narrative; a lengthy prose piece or long poem; the history, or myth of origin, of a tribal society or leading family group and its heroes). All these elements, however, are to be found in the Romance. In modern anthropology, or more precisely, ethnography, the myths or tales of the tribe are transcribed into prose (moreover in the translator or observer’s language) rarely is the epithet ‘epic’ ascribed, perhaps only in cases of great length (so evincing no qualitative connection with content or origin).
An interesting case
in point is
In contrast to other ‘English’ epics, the Old English, Beowulf is Germanic and markedly ‘heathen’… so in attitude closer to the Niebelungen Lied (episodes or versions of which may also be found in Celtic literature). Later, more ornate, epics are different in content and style, product of a Christianised society and literate religious stratum - also perhaps ‘self-consciously’ literary (as opposed to, or defined against, its ‘barbaric’ fore-runners?).
The transition from poetry into prose as a mode of narrative is a transition what already includes the Romance (beginning to appear as prose in the later ‘Middle Ages’ and so transforming into the Renaissance and Baroque novel). As we have seen, today we call Milton’s, ‘Paradise Lost’, an epic because of its length (placing it in the same category as Byron’s ‘Don Juan’…) perhaps rather than because of its nature as (the retelling of) the opening myth of western monotheism (which myth anyway includes a very domestic drama…). We generally do not call Spenser’s ‘Fairie Queen’ or other late Romances (including their encyclopedic parody, the ‘mock epic’, ‘Don Quixote’), ‘Epic’, despite their great length (classical antiquity and myth of origin seem to be more important to definition here). However it often appears that the ‘Epic poem’ is a modern poetic genre classification… attempted by many Romantics, although the subject matter is largely that of Romance (or ‘Medievalism’). The ambition of the ‘modern’ epic poem is most obviously found in Tennyson’s ‘Idylls of the King’, less so in Shelley’s ‘Revolt of Islam’ and a few ‘modernists’ - of which Pound’s ‘The Cantos’ is the classic example. Long or ‘epic’ novels enjoyed an ‘art-house’ heyday in the ’60s and ‘70s, and historical epics -generally family romances- have long been enjoyed in popular fiction (both forms require considerable stamina and a heroic resistance to cumulative boredom). A lengthy and ironic retelling (or downright fabrication) of history constitutes the post-modern epic.
The definition of Romance, also often narrowed to ‘chivalric romance’, emphasizes the courtly element… oft with adultery (and ending ‘in tears’); so offering Romance as the ‘tragedy’ or the ‘equivalent’ tragic literary form of the medieval or feudal period. An alternative definition broadens the definition of Romance (from its original verse home) to all and every element of non-realism in prose (exceptional hero, remarkable coincidence, near miraculous survival, the supernatural, etc). In this sense a romance is only to be differentiated from the modern novel by the latter’s greater realism. Making of the Gothic Novel a thing in categorical Limbo (although we usually think of it as part of the ‘romance’ genealogy: ‘Magic Realism’, on the other hand, is thought of as ’touched’ by romance).
Epic and Romance are sometimes differentiated by finding Epic to be based on what was believed to be a true story (in actuality, the founding myth of a community); with Romance read as fictional or exaggerated – in both cases regardless of poetic or prose manifestation. However, the ‘National Epic’ and the Romance were pretty much the same thing in the later Middle Ages… the fact that the term epic was linked to early ‘nation-building’ should give us pause for thought… Again we see that ‘Epic’ is the ‘valourised’ term for a romance which was deemed of special significance due to being present at, or constituting, the myth of origin (of a community and its claim to territory).
Adventure and length are also key elements of the medieval Romance. Increasingly, the definition of the Epic seems delimited to the poetic retelling of (tribal) Myth proper by literate societies; prompting the question: apart from oral origins and tribal/classical topics (the inclusion of myth) how does the Romance differ from the Epic proper? Homer’s ‘epics’ take place in a literate society. But did they initially appear in a prior, pre-literate, social form; in a pre or proto-feudal, tribal military aristocracy of leading families (as in pre-Cromwellian Ireland)? Quite possibly; but how can we know? Neither are they (anymore) made out of founding myths; the societies they take place in are well-established (even if, like the stories told on the surface of Egyptian Pylons, the content is exaggerated or showing a marked tendency to fiction). So perhaps if we call the ‘epic’, a tribal or even classical romance, we may be using a less misleading term (also avoiding the classification, which was also a canonisation of certain ancient narratives as classic, as Epic – so evincing more value assertion, product of a received education, rather than historical acuity). As later epics copy Homer, perhaps for this reason too, we cannot call them epics…
If Epic is to be defined by content it must be as Myth. As the original tale of the group, as religious myth, founding tale of the interface of gods, immortals and humans. Homer’s work is not an epic due the always already existing state of the society he writes of… If there is no mythic quality, no originary (or pre-originary) tales of the gods are such, of the compact with the gods that founds a social order; then, given their periodisation and link to a historically specific social form we had better call them classical romances. However if epic is reduced to, or defined by, length alone; then obviously they are such!
(mythologizing is not about myth). Founding tales are attempts to provide
foundations; attempts at gap-filling – a post factum justifications. Or the
appropriation of a glorious past to suggest continuity, a noble genealogy and
reflected glory. The sacking of
So giving rise to a perennial myth, or source of myth, that of the ‘epic’ of the group, telling the tale of origin of ‘the’ group (usually at the behest of some communitarian, or otherwise racist rationale). or nation or species, as in the demand for a modern (etc.) epic, ‘inclusive’ ‘all-encompassing’ definition story, which, by definition, must be excluding; otherwise the identity manufactured is universal, and is not, except in the exclusion of external Others or internal others, about differences between people and peoples (not least the ‘internal’ differences of gender and generation)… Myths for the modern age…? Do we not have enough? Ambitious poets (and literary critics too) should perhaps read Jung if they want to play with archetypes; otherwise put, the rhetoric of eternity comes dear; belief and faith, prioritization and hierarchy, sacralisation and placing ‘outside’, the super-historical or universal as ‘beyond all question’, etc; all these tropes are required - but then these are never fully absent from any human thought and activity. Values, at a minimum, and any choice of action, require, or at least imply them. A-historicity is (always) elsewhere (perhaps the only thing that is…).
Again, the literary baggage of the term ‘epic’ is the main source of problems of definition. A bald description of the narrative form in question would find it irrelevant. Sung, chanted or recited oral narratives are a feature of all pre-literate tribes (generally performed with different degrees of rituality), and their writing down a feature of all literate ones; modern epics are by definition an oxymoron; posthumous by nature. Moreover the quest for such always appears to be associated with communitarian identity assertions or claims on land or people(s). If some claim a modern day epic is required and bemoan its loss, then others may well ask why, what does this claim involve (what else do they claim…)? Some dubious identity assertion (or property claim) is usually found to be at its root. Current politics usually has more to do with the timely revival of myths or epics (or other revivals of memory) than historical veracity or appropriate remembrance.
(Note on the Greek or classical romance or novel. The very use of terms from different historical social stages and societies already suggests the conveyor belt of literary history or influence. Indeed the inclusion of the term ‘novel’ offers us the link to the history of prose narrative that begins here (with the writing down of tales as prose from the beginning and not just a prose rendition of an originally poetic form), proceeds through the Saint’s Life, and reappear, whether as main themes, key ‘topoi’, or set-piece relation between the characters (forms of the ‘triangle’), that reappear in poetry and especially in drama, most noticeably in the Renaissance and Baroque periods, then appear again in their later day, or modern (twentieth century) equivalents in the world of film, as also in prose, most importantly in the detective, or ‘noir’ novel and the film tradition it gave birth to…).
Elements of epic as myth and romance type adventure, again regarding Homer as a writer of romances (as opposed to transmitting pure myths of the gods and origin of the group), can be justified if we compare them to medieval narratives. Furthermore, Homer’s poems are not like Gilgamesh and other narratives that are clearly (as far as we can tell) the direct descendants of myths of origin. Regarding transmission, it may also be useful to note that many Indian myths also include a romance (war and adventure) element; as in the Bhavaghad Gita, written later, probably passing though many versions, the history of which we do not have (the Pantrachantra now survives as a translation from another language, Arabic, arriving not in the original Sanskrit, but in Persian). The difference between the myth of origin of a given community or tribal group on the one hand, and the adventure or romance element, on the other, as another type of story, is important: but in reality, as in later story-telling, all are combined (pure myths may handed down and summarised in records, or may be incorporated into other, romance type, narratives). Long romances without the element of the myth of origin are not Epics (unless we change the definition to include ‘supplementary epics’, fake epics written recently to unify groups, to provide ‘myth’ long after its period of provenance or proper genesis had gone). Epic, is it a long story, based upon history, or upon myth, or drawing on a mythic element to support realism and symbolism in novel? Or is it usually just another form of romance (also often rather long) in the sense of featuring high-born heroes, adventure and (epic) battles? (This is a matter of noting the different ingredients and their later historical evolution - including their literary use or recycling).
In all literate cultures with a long history the originals have long since vanished, reappearing, ghost-like, as traces remaining in the ‘epics’ of a literate social elite (Indian society); material that owes its survival to its being re-appropriated by the dominant religion and caste to suit its didactic purposes, its justifications and claims.
If we look for the survival and uses of Myth (or the term ‘Myth’) in later literature, we may be lead into other blind alleys. Mythic force, the sense of the shadow of a larger structure or field of reference, allegorical perhaps is not always the result of the appropriation of myth proper (direct reference to, or borrowings of, mythic figures are of course obvious, although occasionally concealed, perhaps unconsciously in the repetition of situations, the exaggerations of individual prowess, however remains a ‘romance’ element). As for example in the case of Goethe’s Elective Affinities, where what we are offered is an invisible foundation which drives the realism and gives it its (after Walter Benjamin) ‘mythic’ or ‘symbolic’ force; that is, it adds a layer of second meaning (an allegorical echo or layer of extended connotation) to the (literal) realist text… enlarging its meanings and significance. Yet the ghost in question (the ‘Myth’) is the Saint’s Life. It is the Saint’s Life that functions as the ‘absent’ base, shadow or ghost text. More specifically the topos that is repeated is the triangle as it is inherited from the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles featuring elements of martyrdom and sacrifice and ultimately (although in a different form) foregrounding narrative elements from the classical romance or classical novel (see, for example, the ‘Life of Apollonius King of Tyana’, the similar sounding but quite different, ‘Apollonius King of Tyre’, and ‘The Ephesian Tale’). Indeed the early Christian Romance, or Saint’s Life, re-founds the topoi (which will then re-echo through Western literary history) along with a new ideological and social context. So not so much a question of the persistence of ‘myth’ (Benjamin’s point); as of prior literary topoi and their appropriation. To use of the term ‘Epic’, like the use of the term ‘Myth’, of literature in the modern epoch, is to ignore literary history, which provides ready answers to the sources of ‘epic’ or ‘mythic’ effects in modern prose and poetry. As with the ‘romance’ element, the source is closer to home, the literature of the feudal period and its appropriation of the sacrificial elements from the Saint’s Life and narrative elements from the Classical novel. In Drama, which in the Renaissance received massive influence from the prior ubiquity of the Saint’s Life (along with form and plot from Seneca), it is the sacrificial element, or the ‘sacrifice of the same’, the essence of martyrdom, which is inherited (in modern agit-prop or political drama) and which drives the story and its message (whether read as pointing the ‘moral’ or as mere ‘propaganda’).
So what is left? Heroism, the central role of the all-conquering hero or heroes as representatives of a given, or putative, community; length, as with visual culture, images and statues, big is better (hyperbole); and history, also often of some length (the Trojan war) – and bearing a dubious or distant, or anyway severely ornamented, relation to reality. It appears that the repeated use of the Epic element or genre is in fact the rhetorical appropriation of the mythic element in poetry, so offering the ‘epic poem’ as lengthy, using history, long in span of time, with a hero and with elements of myth acting as a kind of symbolic decoration (as we can see in its continued use in the Romance and then in the literatures of Realism as a ‘background’ flavour or colouring which conveys metaphysical ‘depth’). In short the use of myth-type material is to accumulate significance. In opposition to the (ideal type of the) Lyric to represent interiority, express emotions etc, putative ‘epic’ poetry is said to be ‘objective’ or external (but actually accessing myth as a form of subjective rhetorical colouring, as ‘connoting the universal’ or some such similar appeal to the ‘outside’ as in the function of the rhetoric of eternity). ‘Epic’ is used to describe exterior, historical, social events on a larger scale; yet, its rhetorical, metaphysical cement is its appeal to a-historicity and the elevated imagery of ‘purple prose’. Why use mythic elements in poetry and prose, in the (post) modern period? Why try to construct a ‘modern’ myth? Is it a matter of perceived loss and retrospection? A misguided notion of the ‘unity’ supposedly found in prior social forms? Result of a misplaced use of a ‘classical’ education; the appropriation, from renaissance humanism to twentieth century modernism, of classical civilization (cleansed of certain inconvenient facts) as a caste marker of civilised or, more precisely, elite status - increasingly defined against the rise of mass culture? (‘…of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these…’). Only a little above the attitude expressed in a ‘boy’s own story’.
Epic/Ethics. It is possible to go further and argue that given the degree of brute thuggery expressed in many so-called ‘epics’ ; ranging from the amoral pranks found in other narrative traditions (the indigenous American, ‘trickster’, the Euro-Asian, Reynard the Fox, and similar types in African story telling) to brute bullying and other stupidities of the strong. With respect to an ethics of narrative, such narratives perhaps do not deserve the elevated status accorded to them. So perhaps it might even be argued that there is no good reason for the classifying of Homer’s work as ‘epic’: length it certain has; but it is clearly not made up from tribal Ur-myths (although it samples what came before, came to be called ‘classical’, ancient Greek, mythology). In heroic poems or romances, the question of divine intervention, is explained by the difference between classical paganism and Christianity: romances anyway feature the supernatural. (Although the actual importance of heroism may be questionable, as in the German romance or ‘epic’, the Das Lied des Niebelungen, where it is the question of feudal loyalty that determines the actions of individuals and our final sense of where ‘right’ lies).
And in fact the term ‘epic’ as it is used today generally refers to a subset of modern poetry; describing a particular (long, employing aspects of myth, exemplifying heroic endeavor) form of the modern poem (as in the examples given above and any Medieval and Renaissance Romances employing religio-mythic material (The Fairie Queen, The Divine Comedy), together with Milton’s Paradise Lost, as Ur-text of the modern epic and inspiration to the Romantics and their Modernist followers. The term ‘epic’ as used in the recent period on, ‘bourgeois epic’ and ‘epic theatre’, obviously refer to a very different creature – perhaps coloured by an rhetorical (or indeed subjunctive) appropriation. In these senses the term is borrowed from the idea of the epic as the written form of the ‘folk’ or tribal myth or origin. Further differentiated by period and social form: tribal origin, classical (Homer, Virgil), or feudal (Romance) modes of appropriation), and degree of use of myth and the supernatural. The original (oral) work being described as such (although in actuality, so before modern day anthropology, the written forms would always already be appropriations), so avoiding the term would avoid any confusion with modern day pretenders.
Already in the 19th century the ‘Classical-Romantic’ re-finding of the term ‘epic’ (in Goethe and Schiller, amongst others) had a special temporal meaning… as a ‘naïve’ proto-realist form of narrative. (See also ‘Time and Literary Genre II.’).
Although the style and approach (attitude?) associated with Post-modernism does offer a way, albeit self-conscious and ironic, which offers a kind of a parody of the epic idea; although its use as a pastiche which questions the terms of its own aims and existence would be more appropriate a definition or role… an appropriation ‘forwards’ and not just a ‘repetition backwards). As, for example, in Rushdie’s founding histories of India and Pakistan, as of the blind spots of religion at its founding moments, or the mock epic (literary appropriation of ‘epic foundationality’) of the family history (itself a literary appropriation).
Perhaps it is better to talk about storytelling, narrative, and its functions in a given society (at a given time), and its evolution in a given historically continuous cultural block: Western writing, Chinese and Eastern culture, Indian culture, Moslem (Arab and Persian) culture, along with what is left of African, Pre-Columbian and Aboriginal cultural forms (as well as the other cultures these blocks have influenced or absorbed). And then note their fecund interrelation or cross-fertilisation. Also worth noting are the forms and functions of a mode of storytelling in a given context, a given social form… (beginning with tribal myth and its association with ritual, the inclusion of some topoi into the classical epic and novel, and then again into feudal verse and prose novel, the Romance, so into the evolution of the modern novel and its popular competitor from the late-twentieth century on, the film - noting the conveyor belt of themes from oral verse to written verse to prose to drama, again into prose and finally into film, our modern form of drama…).
Thematically speaking, just as all societies and social formations have a central story of agon, expressing the contradictions and conflicts of their culture (expressed through the crises suffered by individuals or characters), appearing now as tragedy now as comedy, depending on the outcome, and just as all have some version of the Lyric as expressive of desire, of love-based (usually unhappy) or other inner emotions (the Complaint), so all have Romance type, adventure (sword and sorcery, the frontier, fantasy or gothic or sci-fi). This type of story is often combined with romantic (desire/marriage plot) elements – and often based upon mythic or historically-dubious figures. What we have been taught to call ‘Epic’ is based upon an oral tradition of tales of the tribe, precisely their founding Myths and associated stories of heroes and immortals, tales told in a pre-literate culture, but accessible by us now after the advent of literacy - so not consisting of any original versions. Stories from one time, written down in another… the result, not surprisingly, reflects that historical and social difference, the difference of two social forms and their ideological and religious difference (as in the case of pagan or tribal tales written down by cultures converted to Christianity or Islam). So not just a matter of being written down after a specific oral performance (as some modern-day bards’ or minstrels’, that is, singer-song writers’, work - as in the case of Leonard Cohen). So perhaps we should call them myths and specify their type, region, tribe, then add their mode of recording or inclusion into a literate culture, their point of entry into recorded history, and so (perhaps) their manner of ‘becoming epic’. Further noting their concomitant literary, historical (or perhaps ideological) appropriation and influence thereafter…
Epic definition: if the genre is origin myth, and the period is tribal to early Neolithic or Bronze age civilisation (retrospectively supposed) then the writing down of the myth must take place in a literate society, so, at the very earliest, Late-bronze to Iron Age - or taken down by anthropologists from an already literate society (tribal totem tales, etc). If the content (qualitative definition) is limited to military feats or key events in ‘history’ (the usual definition) then all epics are, in effect, versions of the chanson de geste martial history genre - perhaps also totemic in the sense that they champion a tribal or group identity, usually collective and proto-national or imperial. So the feudal epic (fundamental agon: honour codes; fealty versus family or self) is not an ‘epic’ but a feudal military romance. Otherwise we have a feudal epic romance – with constitutive fundamental agon and role in culture as different to earlier ‘epics’ (tribal or classical). Again note that the written myth as epic is actually largely mythical; mythical, that is, in the sense of romance, as somewhat ‘fantastic’ (that is, largely untrue, as in the case of The Song of Roland). Otherwise we are left with the quantitative as sole factor of genre name: by length alone (so permitting us to call Milton, through Byron to Pound’s ‘Cantos’ and David Jones’ as representing verse, with Tolstoy and the like from the world of prose, all lumped together as ‘epics’). And, in fact, in the interests of clarity, we can see that three rather different possibilities or ingredients contribute to the definition of ‘epic’: periodization (epoch and social structure); quality (content and genre) and quantity (brute length). Myth, or origin tales (tales of men and gods regarding the foundation of human society – that is, of a particular society, tribal leading to empire) are not epics, but often are found to be included… If we exclude myths and origin tales, then the tribal romance of warfare is (on the parallel of the largely 12th century chanson de geste, as ‘typical’) the definition of Epic (and this is largely the case, or default, received, definition). However this specific dating in a particular form of feudal society (as well as the presenting of the content of such a society) might well suggest to us, ‘feudal epic’, as a more precise and historically legitimate term (combining time, quality and length). Perhaps even better, that is, more precise, would be to use ‘military romance’ in order to distinguish between purely martial narratives and the ‘courtly romance’ which is, anyway, itself hardly free from military exploits (the Arthurian cycle, Tristan, Gwain, etc.). The same applies to the sometimes historically intervening (prior) period of imperial expansion (Greece, Rome) imperial or classical military romance is also a better term for these, like Virgil’s, The Aeneid, which often offer a belated attempt at myth-building by constructing an origin tale… In this sense El Cid offers a feudal, later day Chanson de Geste, with definite historical elements as the birth of a feudal empire (or empire of feudal origin). Better to combine period with style and content, and use feudal or tribal aristocratic as key terms of description, together with the general term ‘Romance’ for a longish tale, in verse (or, usually later, in prose) and all tales with heroes heroines, larger than life feats of valour and military matters, fictional or historical. Again, The Song of Roland, like the content of many Saint’s Lives (Roland refers to his men as martyrs) and indeed like the Ur text for martyr tales or gesta, The Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, is also largely fictional - so indeed a ‘Martial Romance’. So leaving the term ‘epic’ as a quantitative definition only… descriptive, not a basic form of classification or genre; epic in scope or brute length (or expressive, “that was… ‘epic’… ”).
In sum, the ‘Epic’: Usually long, found in verse form, with a long narrative, one main story (not collection of bits): however this usual, minimal, or default definition of epic is also true of romance… unless definition is restricted by being an early written form of a foundational myth or national epic; however the national epic is basically a romance in its style of telling (its historical period and much of its content) and generally unlike earlier epics based upon myths of origin. To restate the following key distinctions: length; verse form (and relation to prose forms); content and history. Regarding brute length and its manifestation as parody and pastiche (appropriation): foremost ‘Don Quixote’, an epic prose romance (parody of romance tradition). Also of epic length: Spencer’s ‘Fairie Queen’ and other romances (‘Jerusalem Libertad’) down to and including epic novels, ‘Clarissa’, ‘War and Peace’, ‘Joseph and his Brothers’… and the ever popular ‘pulp’ family history as epic romance (sic). If the verse/prose distinction suggests differentiation of verse narrative from the novel or prose narrative, then they may share the same content (the form of expression is different, but the content of expression is pretty much the same). However between epic and romance, history is everything; in which case we may well refer to them as long verse (or prose) narratives with a specific content as apposite to a specific historical period (depicted time and time of writing/recording) - or even call the epic, the romance of the late tribal or (early) classical period. The extended definition of romance (all long verse forms that include myth or supernatural features – including exaggerated human powers) is useful. However in more recent times it is its prose manifestation (or more precisely the content of that manifestation) that has been contrasted against realism… (as a self-conscious ‘definition against’ by realists…). The same really cannot be said of ‘epic’ as a definition: really best restricted to a myth of origin, as tribal, recorded in latter literate ‘classical’ civilizations (unless, minimally, it is as a synonym for works of great length). So, practically, we might distinguish between: Narratives (verse, but also prose) in different epochs, different social forms, such that: Tribal societies (myths of origin, Celtic myth/aristocratic warrior caste or families, into written culture); Classical civilization/city states into empires (myths of origin and other heroic tales/aristocratic warrior caste or families, into written form); Feudal (romance, including ‘national epic’ and Saint’s Life); market societies/empires and city states into nation states with accelerated urbanization, commodification and industrialization (novel, long ‘epic’ poems, sometimes historical, ‘foundational’ in intent (from Milton to Ezra Pound and on…)).
So avoiding the term ‘Epic’, and perhaps ‘Romance’ too (at least not without a qualifying adjective indicating historical provenance, ‘Greek’, ‘Byzantine’, ‘classical’, ‘medieval’, ‘renaissance’, ‘Baroque’, or, more recently ‘family’ and ‘mock’). Avoiding them in favour of more precise descriptions; this might be the best, and least confusing, solution to the problem.
‘Epic’: a ‘rhetorical term’: the rhetoric of hyperbole again; in the history of writing as in the history of visual culture, of art and sculpture; make it, make them big, to make them mean more, to claim status, sub-lunary or supernatural… to reference a culture’s top levels, its last word or meta-set.
If you can see it… it is not an epic (an always already posthumous classification). The time for its realization is indeed long gone…
Copyright Peter Nesteruk, 2013, 2016