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The epic can be defined in terms of both its style and content. In terms of style, it is usually long, and it has a tone of importance: the epic suggests that there is something of decisive significance being conveyed in its words. Likewise, the content consists of narrating the life and actions of a hero who is important to the culture and nation as a whole. In a way, then, the epic is closely related to mythology.  

Explanation of an epic

When we hear the word ‘epic’, we think of ‘legendary’, ‘awesome’, and ‘incredible’. But in literary terms, what is an epic?

An epic is a long narrative poem that usually deals with important subjects matter like events of cultural significance and heroic actions. Though it is technically a poem, they switch scenes and feature dialogue, making them quite unlike any other form of poetry in the literary world. According to scholar Albin Lesky, due to the extended speeches, monologue, and other dialogue, Plato called epic poetry a cross between narrative and dramatic literature.

Ten characteristics of epics

Traditionally, there are ten major characteristics that epics possess.

1. Epics begin in medias res, meaning ‘in the middle of things’. Epics start right in the middle of all the action.

2. Epics take place in large, sprawling settings. They often cover across several nations and often reference the entire world or universe.

3. In the beginning of an epic, the hero will invoke a muse, or a goddess of inspiration. This signifies that the hero is seeking inspiration and courage to do what they have to do.

4. In addition to the invocation of the muse, epics also begin with a statement of the theme.

5. Epics contain long, extended lists, called epic catalogues.

6. In addition, epics also use epithets.

7. Epics always depict intervention from the gods in human lives.

8. Long, formal speeches are common in epics.

9. The heroes in epics are supposed to be the values of society personified.

10. Epics often end by the hero’s tragic decent into the Underworld.

Great examples 

Epics have the characteristic of being so long with large sections of dialogue because they reference the ancient oral tradition of epics. Epics were traditionally passed down from master to student, or among generations of family members. The ‘rhapsode’, or storyteller, would sing their epic in public. Epics contained elements of folklore, myths, and real life.

Epics are centered on the protagonist hero, the story’s main character. This comes from the heroic era, which took place before the founding of Rome and the Archaic Age of ancient Greece. Typically, the heroes at the center of epics are bound by a code of honor. 

Epics are written in dactylic hexameters and the language in epics is formulaic. Prolonged speeches are common in epics and the material tends to be more elevated, meaning it does not spend much time dwelling on trite everyday details.

There are several popular examples of epics that most people know of and are familiar with. Perhaps the most popular epics come from the ancient Greeks; Iliad and The Odyssey, a two part major epic. Iliad is set during the Trojan War, accounting battles and events that are said to take place during this time. Covering only the a couple weeks of the last year of the war, Iliad touches on many Greek legends and gods.

Other famous epics include: Paradise Lost, a poem by John Milton that chronicles the biblical fall of man, in which Satan himself falls from Heaven and begins trying to take man with him; Beowulf, the oldest surviving poem written in Old English, about a hero’s life-long battle to defeat a monster; and The Epic of Gilgamesh, known as the first great work of literature, dating back to ancient Mesopotamia. 

A different type of epic poetry is epyllion. Epyllia are short narrative poems that always contain mythological or romantic themes. The word epyllion translates literally to ‘little epic’, though it now applies to shorter hexameters poems that were popular in the Hellenistic period. In addition, the word can also refer to poems influenced by Ovid during the English Renaissance. 

Literary history is full of epics that offer rich accounts of man’s history and legends and will continue to be treasured pieces of literature in the future.

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