Phoenix from the Ashes: The Literature of the Remade World

By Carl B. Yoke | Go to book overview

13
"ARGUMENT NOT LESS BUT MORE HEROIC": EPIC, ORDER, AND POSTHOLOCAUST SOCIETY IN PIERS ANTHONY'S BATTLE CIRCLE

Michael H. Collings

From one perspective epic represents stasis. During the Renaissance, for example, the epic defined the height of literary achievement, as epitomized by Virgil Aeneid. 1 In that poem, it was argued, Virgil captured the essence of humanity. As recently as 1942, C. S. Lewis wrote that by symbolizing the destiny of humanity the Aeneid "is 'great' in a sense in which no poem of the same type as the Iliad can ever be great. The real question is whether any epic development beyond Virgil is possible." 2 Milton similarly reacted to Virgil's reputation and to the epic tradition; 3 although dealing with God, Christ, and fallen angels, Paradise Lost also attempted to incorporate into Milton's Christian universe the status accorded to the pagan Virgil. And in spite of the subsequent decline of the epic after Milton, as the epic became more form than functional worldview, it retained a sense of awe seldom attained by other genres. In a time when long narrative poems are seldom written and even more rarely read, the sense of the epic survives, applied (and frequently misapplied) to unusually long or complex works. In this sense, then, epic becomes literary stasis, a genre of ultimate performance; beyond Virgil and Milton lies emptiness.

From another perspective, however, epic implies tension, cultures in conflict. Achilles enacts his private tragedy against the backdrop of the fall of Troy. Virgil Aeneid re-creates the transition from Troy to imperial Rome. Beowulf suggests the passing of an old order, not only in the death of the king but also structurally in the interpolated Christianity so frequently at odds with the poem's Anglo-Saxon vision. Paradise Lost takes as its subject the most critical transition of all: the fall of humanity.

It seems appropriate, therefore, that science fiction writers build upon the epic,

-145-

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