Definition of Epic

An epic is a long narrative poem that is elevated and dignified in theme, tone, and style. As a literary device, an epic celebrates heroic deeds and historically (or even cosmically) important events. An epic usually focuses on the adventures of a hero who has qualities that are superhuman or divine, and on whose very fate often depends the destiny of a tribe, nation, or sometimes the whole of the human race. The Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid are considered the most important epics in western world literature, although this literary device has been utilized across regions and cultures.

Epic comes from the ancient Greek term epos, meaning story, word, poem. The Epic of Gilgamesh is considered by many scholars to be the oldest surviving example of a work of literature. This epic, traced back to ancient Mesopotamia in approximately 2100 BC, relays the story of Gilgamesh, an ancient king descended from the gods. Gilgamesh undergoes a journey to discover the secret of immortality.

Characteristics of an Epic

Though the epic is not a frequently used literary device today, its lasting influence on poetry is unmistakable. Traditionally, epic poetry shares certain characteristics that identify it as both a literary device and poetic form. Here are some typical characteristics of an epic:

  • written in formal, elevated, dignified style
  • third-person narration with omniscient narrator
  • begins with invocation to a muse who provides inspiration and guides the poet
  • includes a journey that crosses a variety of large settings and terrains
  • takes place across lengthy time spans and/or in an era beyond the range of living memory
  • features a central hero who is incredibly brave and resolute
  • includes obstacles and/or circumstances that are supernatural or otherworldly so as to create almost impossible odds against the hero
  • reflects concern as to the future of a civilization or culture

Famous Examples of Literary Epics

Epic poems can be traced back to some of the earliest civilizations in human history, in Europe and Asia, and are therefore some of the earliest works of literature as well. Literary epics reflect heroic deeds and events that reveal significance to the culture of the poet. In addition, epic poetry allowed ancient writers to relay stories of great adventures and heroic actions. The effect of epics was to commemorate the struggles and adventures of the hero to elevate their status and inspire the audience.

Here are some famous examples of literary epics:

  • The Iliad and The Odyssey: epic poems attributed to Homer between 850 and 650 BC. These poems describe the events of the Trojan War and King Odysseus’s return journey from Troy, and were initially conveyed in the oral tradition.
  • The Mahābhārata: epic poem from ancient India composed in Sanskrit.
  • The Aeneid: epic poem composed in Latin by Virgil, a Roman poet, between 29 and 19 BC. This is a narrative poem that relates the story of Aeneas, a Trojan descendent and forebear to the Romans.
  • Beowulf: epic poem written in Old English between 975 and 1025 AD. It is not attributed to an author, but is known for the conflict between Beowulf, a Scandinavian hero, and the monster Grendel.
  • The Nibelungenlied: epic narrative poem written in Middle High German, c. 1200 AD. Its subject is Siegfried, a legendary hero in German mythology.
  • The Divine Comedyepic poem by Dante Alighieri and completed in 1320. Its subject is a detailed account of Dante as a character traveling through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.
  • The Faerie Queene: epic poem by Edmund Spenser published in 1590 and given to Elizabeth I. This poem features an invocation of the muse and is the work in which Spenser invented the verse form later known as the Spenserian stanza.
  • Paradise Lost: written by John Milton in blank verse form and published in 1667. Its subject is the expulsion of Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden as well as the fallen angel Satan.

Difference Between Epic and Ballad

Both epic and ballad works date back to ancient history and were passed down from one generation to another through oral poetry. However, these literary devices feature significant differences. An epic is an extended narrative poem composed with elevated and dignified language that celebrates the acts of a legendary or traditional hero. A ballad is also a narrative poem that is adapted for people to sing or recite and intended to convey sentimental or romantic themes in short stanzas, usually quatrains with repeating rhyme scheme. Ballads typically feature common, colloquial language to represent day-to-day life, and they are designed to have universal appeal to humanity as a group. Epic works, however, focus on a certain culture, race, nation, or religious group whose victory or failure determines the fate of an entirety of a nation or larger group but not all of humanity.

Examples of Epics in Literature

Modern readers may consider any lengthy tale of an ancient hero who embarks on a significant journey to be an epic work. However, though this type of heroic story is common in various forms of literature, prose narratives aren’t considered part of the realm of the epic tradition. It’s rare for modern poets to choose epic as a literary device; however, epic poetry remains one of the most influential forms of literature.

Here are some examples of epic poems in literature:

Example 1: Inferno (first canticle of The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri)

i am the way into the city of woe,
I am the way into eternal pain,
I am the way to go among the lost.

Justice caused my high architect to move,
Divine omnipotence created me,
The highest wisdom, and the primal love.

Before me there were no created things
But those that last forever—as do I.
Abandon all hope you who enter here.

This passage is from the first canticle of Dante’s Divine ComedyInferno, in which the character Dante makes a journey through Hell guided by the ancient Roman poet, Virgil. As Dante approaches the Gate of Hell, he finds these lines inscribed. The poetic lines represent the “voice” of Hell in telling Dante and the reader of Hell’s nature, origin, and purpose. This indicates the pathway of what is to come for Dante on his journey through the epic poem. The inscription describes Hell as a city, structured as a contained geographical area bound by walls and harboring a population of souls suffering various levels and means of torment. This is a parallel for the canticle Paradiso and its portrayal of Heaven, which is described by Virgil as the city of God.

In addition, the inscription warns that Hell is a place of eternal woes, pain, and loss. Dante witnesses God’s intense punishment of those who sin, lending to Dante’s journey an otherworldly setting that crosses a span of time and memory. The last line of the inscription is an example of the elevated language and tone of Dante’s epic poem. Dante’s character, as well as the reader, are told to “abandon all hope” upon entering the gate of Hell, implying there is no escape from the Inferno with hope intact. Dante’s epic poem is one of the most influential works in the history of literature.

Example 2: Orlando Furioso (Ludovico Ariosto)

This dog won’t hunt. This horse won’t jump. You get
the general drift. However, he keeps on trying,
but the fire won’t burn, the kindling is wet,
and the faint glow of the ember is weak and dying.
He has no other choice then but to let
It go and take a nap on the ground there, lying
Next to her—for whom Dame Fortune has more
Woes and tribulations yet in store.

Ariosto’s epic poem of 1532 is an interpretation of the battles between the Saracen invaders and the Franks. Orlando Furioso is a brave warrior tasked to save his people, indicating a heroic character who is courageous and resolute. However, he suffers from a period of madness due to the seductions of Angelica. This circumstance represents an obstacle for the hero to overcome as a means of fulfilling his journey and destiny in ensuring the salvation of his people. The pairing of valiant duty and passionate love is common in epic poetry. In Ariosto’s work, Furioso ultimately recognizes passion as a weakness not befitting of a knight and he therefore returns to placing the importance of duty before any other action.

Example 3: Don Juan (Lord Byron)

Between two worlds life hovers like a star,
‘Twixt night and morn, upon the horizon’s verge.
How little do we know that which we are!
How less what we may be! The eternal surge
Of time and tide rolls on, and bears afar
Our bubbles; as the old burst, new emerge,
Lash’d from the foam of ages; while the graves
Of Empires heave but like some passing waves.

Some poets, including Alexander Pope, wrote mock-epics to satirize heroic verse and its elevated stature which became epic works of their own. In “Don Juan,” Byron utilizes the elements of epic as a literary device to reinvent the story of the title character from the Spanish legend of “Don Juan.” However, in Byron’s work, the story of Don Juan is reversed. Rather than portraying the infamous character as a womanizer, he is presented as someone who is easily seduced by women. This allows Byron as a poet to satirize the legend and character of Don Juan in addition to the epic form of poetry as well.

However, though Byron’s epic poem is satirical, it is also masterful in its sixteen cantos of ottava rima or eigth rhyme. “Don Juan” features 16,000 lines in which Byron cleverly utilizes elevated language and tone as a nod to traditional epic poetry, but also intersperses a vulgar style of writing as well to subvert the epic tradition.