I just finished reading Dante’s Paradise, translated by Dorothy L. Sayers and Barbara Reynolds for Penguin Classics, thus concluding The Divine Comedy. As I did so, I listened to Striggio’s Mass in 40 Parts as recorded by I Fagilioni, thinking the music most suitable to those moments when Italy’s Supreme Poet ascended into the Primum Mobile.
I was listening to Striggio over Spotify. Being cheap, I listen to Spotify on the free version that includes ads. According to one Spotify ad, Titanic is the greatest epic of all time. The ad immediately following declared that the new Bob Marley film is ‘epic’.
As you can imagine, this caused me no little amusement and feelings of well-educated arrogance as I read the final Cantos of a three-volume narrative poem. You see, Titanic is not an epic. And I’m not so sure Bob Marley’s life was ‘epic’, either.
Of course, I’m probably just being pedantic again (as in this post). Nonetheless, words have meanings. Is a dance an epic? Or a film? Or an excessively long novel? I understand that they are considered ‘epic’ because they contain aspects of an epic, but if we don’t even know what an epic originally was, how can we be sure that Titanic and Bob Marley are actually epic or not?
So. Not that etymology need determine usage (I understand some guy named Levi-Strauss felt etymology a waste of time), the word comes from epos, and means a Greek poem written in a certain metre; thus, an epikon poiema.
Most famously, we have the epika poiemata of Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey. As to why I’m fond of the latter read this post. I’ll post about The Iliad soon. About as ancient as Homer are the epic poems of Hesiod, The Theogony and Works and Days. Homer’s epics are narrative epics about heroic deeds, whereas Hesiod’s are ‘didactic’ — they teach us things about the world, such as the origins of the gods and whatnot.
It is the first type of epic that comes to dominate our understanding of the word (of course, Lucretius’ Latin ‘epic’ philosophy On the Nature of Things is worth a read for both poetry and content). When we think of an epic poem, we think of Homer, or of Apollonius of Rhodes’ Argonautica, or Virgil’s Aeneid. These classical epics are all heroic, mythological adventure narratives.
With this concept of heroic narrative poetry firmly fixed in our mind, when we apply the term to the poetries of other cultures, we find The Epic of Gilgamesh, Beowulf, the Kalevala, and so forth in the list. These three epics, like Homer but not like Virgil and Apollonius are ‘primary’ epics — epic poetry written down at the end of a long oral tradition; Virgil, Apollonius, and Milton are ‘secondary’ epic — epic poetry composed by a single author and midstream in the flow of literary tradition.
These heroic epics tend to be fairly long, full of lots of adventures, and frequently not a few monsters. The Odyssey gives us, most notably, the Cyclops and Scylla; the Argonautica the Harpies; Beowulf Grendel, his Mom, and the Dragon; Gilgamesh has Humbaba.
Our heroes have moral dangers and desires; their goal tends to be for their good or that of their society. Odysseus wants to reach home, his wife and child. Aeneas is seeking to settle his wandering people in a new land. Beowulf fights to protect his own people and his friends.
Eventually, poetry (sadly!) goes out fashion. Not a lot of people write narrative poems anymore, although Sir Walter Scott’s were quite popular in their day, and I enjoyed Longellow’s Evangeline. The novel has risen above all and triumphed. A long novel with grand deeds or large themes or heroic adventures or masterful narration comes to be called ‘epic.’
It’s only a stone’s throw away, then, from Titanic and Bob Marley.*
If you’ve not read a long narrative poem, I recommend you do. Almost a Virgilian, I recommend The Aeneid to you. If you’ve never read any epics, The Argonautica is short and moves at a quick pace. Homer’s Odyssey is the easier of his two for the modern mind to work around.
If you are a Christian who likes books, you should also get around to Dante’s Divine Comedy. It is fantastic, and Dorothy L. Sayers’ translation had great notes that help you perceive the allegory that runs through it.
And if you speak English, read Beowulf for Pete’s sake!
*But how we reach the point where if you do a Google Image Search for ‘epic’ you get photos labelled ‘Epic Boobs’, I can’t really say. The rot and decadence of contemporary western culture?