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© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Epic Literature: Selected full-text books and articles

Ancient Epic
Katherine Callen King.
Wiley-Blackwell, 2012
Reading Epic: An Introduction to the Ancient Narratives
Peter Toohey.
Routledge, 1992
Epic and Epoch: Essays on the Interpretation and History of a Genre
Steven M. Oberhelman; Van Kelly; Richard J. Golsan.
Texas Tech University Press, 1994
Ancient Epic Poetry: Homer, Apollonius, Virgil: With a Chapter on the Gilgamesh Poems
Charles Rowan Beye.
Bolchazy-Carducci, 2006
Roman Epic
A. J. Boyle.
Routledge, 1996
Epic in Republican Rome
Sander M. Goldberg.
Oxford University Press, 1995
Twentieth-Century Epic Novels
Theodore L. Steinberg.
University of Delaware Press, 2005
Epic Traditions of Africa
Stephen Paterson Belcher.
Indiana University Press, 1999
A Companion to Old and Middle English Literature
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
Gilbert Highet.
Oxford University Press, 1985
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 8 "The Renaissance Epic"
Comparative Literature: Method and Perspective
Newton P. Stallknecht; Horst Frenz.
Southern Illinois University Press, 1961
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 10 "The Background of the Romance Epic"
Myth and Identity in the Epic of Imperial Spain
Elizabeth B. Davis.
University of Missouri Press, 2000
A Companion to Middle High German Literature to the 14th Century
Francis G. Gentry.
Brill, 2002
Librarian’s tip: Chap. 5 "Medieval German Epic Literature"
Epic and Romance: Essays on Medieval Literature
W. P. Ker.
Dover, 1957
FREE! English Epic and Heroic Poetry
W. Macneile Dixon.
J. M. Dent & Sons, 1912
The Old French Epic
Jessie Crosland.
Blackwell, 1951
Milton's Heirs: Epic Poetry in the 1790s
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 Madness of Epic: Reading Insanity from Homer to Statius
Debra Hershkowitz.
Clarendon Press, 1998
The Satanic Epic
Neil Forsyth.
Princeton University Press, 2003
Textualization of Oral Epics
Lauri Honko.
Mouton de Gruyter, 2000
The Book of the Epic: The World's Great Epics Told in Story
H. A. Guerber.
Biblo and Tannen, 1966
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