The Epic Definition Types Characteristics

The Epic Definition Types Characteristics

The Epic Definition Types Characteristics

The Epic Definition Types Characteristics: It is imperative to know the etymology of the word epic. The word epic has been derived from the Greek word epikos, which means a word, song or speech. An epic is well-defined as a long story in verse dwelling upon an important theme in a most elegant style and language. According to Webster’s New World Dictionary, “epic is a long narrative poem in a dignified style about the deeds of a traditional or historical hero or heroes; typically a poem like Iliad or the Odyssey with certain formal characteristics.” An epic is much like a ballad in all its features. However, its length is one thing that differentiates the epic from the ballad. An epic is a long narrative in verse, while ballad is a short story in verse.

Epic Definition

Britannica Encyclopedia explains the word epic as:

“epic, long narrative poem recounting heroic deeds. …. literary usage, the term encompasses both oral and written compositions. The prime examples of the oral epic are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.”

Characteristics of an Epic

There are several characteristics of an epic which distinguish it from other forms of poetry. They are discussed below:

  • The first and foremost characteristic of an epic is its bulky size. An epic is an extensive and prolonged narrative in verse. Usually, every single epic has been broken down into multiple books. For example, Homer’s epics are divided into twenty-four books. Similarly, John Milton’s Paradise Lost has been divided into twelve books.
  • Another essential feature of an epic is the fact that it dwells upon the achievements of a historical or traditional hero or a person of national or international significance. Every epic extolls the valour, deeds, bravery, character and personality of a person who has incredible physical and mental traits.
  • Exaggeration is also an important part of an epic. The poet uses hyperbole to reveal the prowess of a hero. He doesn’t think twice about using exaggeration to make an impression on the audience.
  • Supernaturalism is a must-have feature of an every epic. Without having to use supernatural elements, no epic would certainly produce awe and wonder. There are certainly gods, demons, angels, fairies, and use of supernatural forces like natural catastrophes in every epic. Milton’s Paradise Lost, Homer’s Iliad, Beowulf and Spenser’sFaerie Queen are replete with supernatural elements.
  • Morality is a key characteristic of an epic. The poet’s foremost purpose in writing an epic is to give a moral lesson to his readers. For instance, Johan Milton’s Paradise Lostis a perfect example in this regard. The poet wants to justify God’s ways to man through Adam’s story. This is the most didactic theme of the epic.
  • The theme of each epic is sublime, elegant, and has universal significance. It may not be an insignificant theme, which is only limited to the personality or the locality of the poet. It deals with the entire humanity. Thus, John Milton’s Paradise Lostis a great example in this regard. The theme of this epic is certainly of great importance and deals with humanity as a whole. It’s theme is to justify the ways of God to man.
  • Invocation to the Museis another important quality of an epic. The poet, at the very beginning of the epic, seeks the help of the Muse while writing his epic. Look at the beginning lines of the Iliad, Odyssey and Paradise Lost.
  • The diction of every epic is lofty, grand and elegant. No trivial, common or colloquial language is used in epics. The poet tries to use sublime words to describe the events.
  • The use of epic simile is another feature of an epic. Epic simile is a far-fetched comparison between two objects, which runs through many lines to describe the valour, bravery and gigantic stature of the hero. It is also called the Homeric simile 

Types of Epic

Folk Epic

Folk epic is an ancient epic, which was originally in oral form. With the passage of time, one author or many authors tried to preserve them in the form of writing. Thus, nobody happens to know about the exact authorship of the folk epics. The folk epic is different from the art epic or literary epic in the simplest sense that the former is based on a particular mythology, while the latter is based on the ideas of the author. In art epic, the poet invents the story, while the folk epic is the product of the mythology of the locality. The folk epic is basically in oral form, while the art or literary epic is in written form. The author of the literary epic is a well-known personality, while the author of the folk epic may be a common man.

William Henry Hudson says in An Introduction to the Study of Literature:

“The epic of growth is fresh, spontaneous, racy, the epic of art is learned, antiquarian, bookish, imitative. Its specifically ‘literary’ qualities-its erudition, its echoes, reminiscences, and borrowings- are indeed, as the Aeneid and Paradise Lost will suffice to prove, among its most interesting characteristics for a cultured reader.”

Look at the following lines taken from Beowulf:


Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements

The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,

How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.

Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers

From many a people their mead-benches tore.

Since first he found him friendless and wretched,

The earl had had terror: comfort he got for it,

Waxed ’neath the welkin, world-honor gained,

Till all his neighbors o’er sea were compelled to

Bow to his bidding and bring him their tribute:

An excellent atheling! After was borne him

A son and heir, young in his dwelling,

Whom God-Father sent to solace the people.

Literary Epic

A literary epic is usually known as an art epic. It is an epic, which imitates the conventions of the folk epic, but gives it a written shape. It is absolutely the opposite to the folk epic. They were written unlike the folk epics, which came all the way down to us through oral tradition. The literary epics tend to be more polished, coherent, and compact in structure and style when contrasted with the folk epics. Literary epics are the result of the genius of the poet. That is why; they have great significance from a literary point of view.

William Henry Hudson says in An Introduction to the Study of Literature:

“The literary epic naturally resembles the primitive epic, on which it is ultimately based, in various fundamental characteristics. Its subject-matter is of the old heroic and mythical kind; it makes free use of supernatural; it follows the same structural plan and reproduces many traditional details of composition; while, greatly it necessarily differs in style, it often adopts the formulas, fixed epithets, and stereo typed phrases and locutions, which are among the marked feature of the early type.”

Look at the lines taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Paradise Lost

OF MAN’S first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste

Brought death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,

Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top

Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire

That Shepherd who first taught the chosen seed

In the beginning how the heavens and earth

Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill

Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed

Fast by the oracle of God, I thence

Invoke thy aid to my adventrous song,

That with no middle flight intends to soar

Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues

Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

(Paradise Lost by John Milton)

 Read it also: The White Man’s Burden Summary

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