Twentieth-Century Epic Novels

Twentieth-Century Epic Novels

Twentieth-Century Epic Novels

Twentieth-Century Epic Novels

Excerpt

With very few exceptions, epics are long. A person who does not want to read thousands of pages of text would be well-advised to study the aphorism or haiku. Nevertheless, for those who persist, there are many rewards to working on epic: an encounter with some of the greatest literature that has ever been produced, constant challenges, and the necessity to move among cultures and eras to observe the numerous variations on the way epic has been conceived. This book is about some of those variations as they appear in twentieth-century epic novels.

By epic novels I mean, quite simply, novels that employ certain elements that have been characterized as epic through the centuries. As I explain in the introductory chapter, the definition of “epic” is often either taken for granted or is based on formal elements that are more properly thought of as optional ornamentation: particular verse forms, particular kinds of heroic behavior, the involvement of deities, and the like. These elements do appear in many epics, but they do not define the genre. In that introductory chapter, I try to provide a more substantial description of the elements that do characterize epic.

I should point out from the very beginning that my view of epic does not depend on any particular theoretical position, though I use theoretical insights whenever they are appropriate. Instead, I have read, over a number of years, many works that are traditionally considered to be epics, looking for the significant elements that they have in common. These elements, which characterize epic, are described in the introduction and they necessitate some reclassification of well-known works. I occasionally employ the unfashionable term “essence,” by which I imply that there is a commonality among epics that justifies the use of the generic term.

Some readers may understandably look askance at the project I have undertaken, and I hope that my reasoning will justify my procedure. As I

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