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Lesson 14: Epic Poetry

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Nicholas Marshall

on 8 January 2014

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Transcript of Lesson 14: Epic Poetry

Epic Poetry
Elements of Epic Poetry
Epic poems are long narratives written in verse, which typically center around the heroes and events that are most important to the cultures from which the texts originate. Many cultures have their own canon of epic poems.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
One of the oldest surviving works of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh was originally recorded on 12 clay tablets discovered at various times, some of which have been conserved better than others. The story has been translated many times over the years, but the epic remains incomplete, as it is believed that there are tablets that have been lost, or that still have yet to be unearthed. Accurately translating the original tablets is also problematic because of damage and imperfections in the clay itself.
The Odyssey
The jury is still out as to whether Homer got all of his facts straight when he laid out the details of the Trojan War in his epics
The Iliad
The Odyssey
. It is generally acknowledged, based on archaeological evidence, that the Greek accounts of the war are based on an actual historical event, but that their authors took license to exaggerate the details to whatever length they saw fit. Not many would argue that Homer's is an accurate depiction of whatever conflict took place between the Greeks and the Trojans.
1) Go to Schoology and read the three excerpts from
The Iliad
The Tain
, and
. Then, write a well-organized essay of 400-500 words illustrating how each excerpt represents particular aspects of the genre of epic poetry. If you are unfamiliar with any words or important names (e.g., Athena), do some research so that you can better understand the passages.


2) Write the first page of an original epic poem. Be prepared to defend your choices in class, and make sure to include as many of the classic characteristics of epic poetry in your work as possible.
Where does epic poetry come from?
Like many of the texts we have hitherto read, epic poems stem from
oral tradition
. It is believed that most epic poems were originally performed orally by generations of storytellers before being committed to page.
Common Elements of Epics
Because these works were originally intended to be performed live in front of audiences, and because they are by definition very lengthy, epic poems are usually broken up into
short episodes
of equal importance to facilitate memorization. In this way, a storyteller can construct an epic narrative by putting together these smaller component parts. Epics from many different cultures share this trait, as well as other common elements of the genre.
Expansive Setting
Epic poems do not take place in a single location. Rather, their settings are
, often encompassing many nations and taking place over the span of many years.
Unbelievable Hero
The plot of epic poems often centers around a hero of almost
unprecedented stature
, who is able to accomplish what others can only attempt. This central character often has impressive
strength and courage
, and is usually either a
or under the protection of some powerful being or god.
Highly Stylized
Epic poems usually exhibit a
sustained elevation of style
. In other words, they tend to be overwritten and
overly formal
, and they often adhere to a strict meter or structure, much like a lyrical poem.
Thematic Similarities
The plot of epic poems often deals with actual
historical events and preexisting stories
, or is at least loosely based on them. In these narratives, a hero, who is already
a recurring character of legendary proportion
in that culture, generally undertakes a
cyclical quest
: the hero leaves home on an adventure, slaying countless adversaries along the way, and returns home transformed by the journey.
Epic poems often address the same themes, such as:
war and violence
marriage and gender roles
moral ideals and taboos
the relationship between the gods and humanity
Other Common Features
In addition to similarities of plot, character, setting, style, and theme, epics generally share the following features:

in media res
, or "in the midst of things"
an invocation to a
frequent use of
long lists, a.k.a.,
epic catalogues
a trip to the
an objective and
omniscient narrator
Gilgamesh is awesome to perfection . . .
Go on Schoology and read the excerpt from the 1st Tablet of The Epic of Gilgamesh
In-Class Exercise:
Get into groups of 2 or 3 and record your answers to the following questions:

1. How does the text describe Gilgamesh?

2. What flood do you think they are referring to?

3. What do you think accounts for the gaps in the text?

4. Can you locate and describe any interesting stylistic choices/devices?
Generally, epics are
mythologized histories

That is to say, they are
a conglomeration of pre-existing stories and characters
, set in a mythologized distant time but loosely
based around historical characters and events
. Epic poems often incorporate a number of storytelling techniques that make heroes and their deeds seem larger than life.

What are Epic Poems?
The Epic of Gilgamesh defined the features of epic poetry, which over the years have been used by almost every literary culture.
The Influence of Gilgamesh
As with Gilgamesh's quest, whether you are reading about Achilles and Odysseus (Greek), Beowulf and Sir Gawain (English), or even Spiderman and Batman (American), all epics center around
the hero's journey of self-discovery and spiritual maturation
. Epics also seek to impart a code of ethics to society by
portraying moral ideals and taboos in the behavior of the protagonists and antagonists
Scholars have debated what actually took place during the Trojan War for over 3000 years.

First, no one can agree on a date, and there are estimates ranging from anywhere between 1350 and 1150 BCE. Second, there have been some scholars, like first-century historian Dio Chrysostom, who have argued that the Trojans actually won the war, not the Greeks. Third, until the modern era revealed archaeological evidence, a significant number of western scholars believed for many years that the Trojan War never even happened.

While Homer's depiction certainly cannot be taken at face value for its historicity, it is certainly an entertaining account.
What Really Happened?
After the Fall of Troy, Odysseus and his men endeavor to sail back to Ithaca, but they have to deal with a number of gods and monsters and other obstacles on the way. Take, for instance, this memorable encounter with Polyphemus, a giant cyclops who is the son of Poseidon, God of the Sea.
Divine intervention
is a common characteristic of epic poems, and Homer's works are no exception. At different points,
Odysseus is aided and attacked by various gods
The Iliad
The Odyssey
are good examples of the propensity of epics to grant cosmological significance to historical events, as all outcomes eventually trace back to
the will of the gods
Based on these characteristics, what other texts do you know that might qualify as epics? Have we read or talked about any?
"And now Athena, looming out of the rafters high above them,
brandished her man-destroying shield of thunder, terrifying
the suitors out of their minds, and down the hall they panicked—
wild, like herds stampeding, driven mad as the darting gadfly
strikes in the late spring when the long days come round.
The attackers struck like eagles, crook-clawed, hook-beaked,
swooping down from a mountain ridge to harry smaller birds
that skim across the flatland, cringing under the clouds
but the eagles plunge in fury, rip their lives out—hopeless,
never a chance of flight or rescue—and people love the sport—
so the attackers routed suitors headlong down the hall,
wheeling into the slaughter, slashing left and right
and grisly screams broke from skulls cracked open—
the whole floor awash with blood."
Take a look at this scene from the end of
The Odyssey
in which Athena helps Odysseus, who has finally made it back to Ithaca, slay his wife's suitors and bring peace once again to his home.
What common features of epic poems have you noticed so far in The Odyssey?

How are they featured in the text?

What values does this text seem to promote and discourage?

What does this seem to say about Ancient Greek society?
Discussion Questions
Some stylistic observations about The Odyssey:
1) It is written in dactylic hexameter.

For those who remember the lesson on scansion, what would this meter look and sound like?

2) It makes use of many stock epithets that are reiterated throughout the poem to support the meter and tie the story together, such as:

resourceful Odysseus
winedark sea
rosy-fingered dawn

The repetition of these phrases also make it easier for the rhapsode (storyteller) to remember the story and for the audience to comprehend it. Remember, these texts were originally memorized and performed orally to an audience.
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