Epic Literature


epic, long, exalted narrative poem, usually on a serious subject, centered on a heroic figure. The earliest epics, known as primary, or original, epics, were shaped from the legends of an age when a nation was conquering and expanding; such is the foundation of the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh, of the Iliad and the Odyssey of the Greek Homer, and of the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf. Literary, or secondary, epics, written in conscious imitation of earlier forms, are most notably represented by Vergil's Aeneid and Milton's Paradise Lost. The epic, which makes great demands on a poet's knowledge and skill, has been deemed the most ambitious of poetic forms. Some of its conventions, followed by epic writers in varying degrees, include a hero who embodies national, cultural, or religious ideals and upon whose actions depends to some degree the fate of his people; a course of action in which the hero performs great and difficult deeds; a whole era in the history of civilization; the intervention and recognition of divine or supernatural powers; the concern with eternal human problems; and a dignified and elaborate poetic style. Other works classified as epics are the Indian Mahabharata and Ramayana, the French Song of Roland, the Spanish Song of the Cid, the Germanic Niebelungenlied, Dante's Divine Comedy, Tasso's Gerusaleme Liberta, Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Spenser's Faerie Queene, and Camões's Lusiads. A mock epic is a form of satire in which trivial characters and events are treated with all the exalted epic conventions and are made to look ridiculous by the incongruity. The plot of Pope's Rape of the Lock, one of the most famous mock epics, is based on a quarrel over the theft of a lady's curl.

See studies by Sir C. M. Bowra (1961), H. V. Routh (2 vol., 1927; repr. 1968), C. A. Yu (1973), J. Ingalls (1984), and J. K. Newman (1986).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2018, The Columbia University Press.

Epic Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

Ancient Epic By Katherine Callen King Wiley-Blackwell, 2012
Epic and Epoch: Essays on the Interpretation and History of a Genre By Steven M. Oberhelman; Van Kelly; Richard J. Golsan Texas Tech University Press, 1994
Roman Epic By A. J. Boyle Routledge, 1996
Epic in Republican Rome By Sander M. Goldberg Oxford University Press, 1995
Twentieth-Century Epic Novels By Theodore L. Steinberg University of Delaware Press, 2005
Epic Traditions of Africa By Stephen Paterson Belcher Indiana University Press, 1999
A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature By Laura Cooner Lambdin; Robert Thomas Lambdin Greenwood Press, 2002
Librarian's tip: Chap. 12 "The Epic Genre and Medieval Epics"
The Classical Tradition: Greek and Roman Influences on Western Literature By Gilbert Highet Oxford University Press, 1985
Librarian's tip: Chap. 8 "The Renaissance Epic"
Comparative Literature: Method and Perspective By Newton P. Stallknecht; Horst Frenz Southern Illinois University Press, 1961
Librarian's tip: Chap. 10 "The Background of the Romance Epic"
A Companion to Middle High German Literature to the 14th Century By Francis G. Gentry Brill, 2002
Librarian's tip: Chap. 5 "Medieval German Epic Literature"
FREE! English Epic and Heroic Poetry By W. Macneile Dixon J. M. Dent & Sons, 1912
The Old French Epic By Jessie Crosland Blackwell, 1951
Milton's Heirs: Epic Poetry in the 1790s By Crawford, Joseph Studies in Romanticism, Vol. 49, No. 3, Fall 2010
Peer-reviewed publications on Questia are publications containing articles which were subject to evaluation for accuracy and substance by professional peers of the article's author(s).
The Satanic Epic By Neil Forsyth Princeton University Press, 2003
The Book of the Epic: The World's Great Epics Told in Story By H. A. Guerber Biblo and Tannen, 1966
A primary source is a work that is being studied, or that provides first-hand or direct evidence on a topic. Common types of primary sources include works of literature, historical documents, original philosophical writings, and religious texts.
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