CHARACTERISTICS OF THE CLASSICAL EPIC
The Classical Epics are:
Homer, The Iliad
Heroes: Achilles (Greek) and Hector (Trojan)
Homer, The Odyssey
Virgil (Vergil) The Aeneid
Classical epics are marked by at least the illusion of
orality, that is, a speaker (bard, scop, singer of tales) tells a story, presumably of events that he has either witnessed
himself or heard tell of. The gods play an active and important role in the stories, often intervening in the affairs of men
to change the course of events.
The style is marked by repetition, a pronounced use of epithets, and a variety of names for the main characters. The
speaker often refers to events, places, and characters outside the main narrative, giving the poems a feeling of great scope
and comprehensiveness. The style (usually called high style) is elevated and formal.
All the epics begin with an epic invocation, involving
an announcement in the first person of the subject (or argument) of the work (The Iliad and The Aeneid announce
a double subject) and an extremely brief description of the main action of the work, in the course of which the speaker calls
upon a muse to inspire the speaker and give him strength to carry out his weighty undertaking and to answer an epic question
about the causes of the main action.
Classical epic begins in medias res (in the
middle of things), at a critical point in the action, rather than at the beginning of the story.
The Epic Hero:
The protagonists of classical epic are larger-than-life men who are capable of great deeds of strength and courage.
In addition, Odysseus is noted for his great cleverness, whether for good (as in his defeat of his rivals) or evil (as in
his part in the destruction of Troy). All epic heroes are great warriors. Epic heroes are also national heroes.
An epic simile is a fully developed simile that likens some thing or action in the epic to some (usually) natural action
or image (landscapes, trees, the moon, the seasons, common men in everyday activities, insects or other creatures, etc.).
Consider the following example from Homer's Iliad; the
speaker is describing a volley of missiles from men defending a wall:
. . . as storms of snow descend to the ground incessant on a winter day, when Zeus of the counsels, showing
before men what shafts he possesses, brings on a snowstorm and stills the winds asleep in the solid drift,
enshrouding the peaks that tower among the mountains and the shoulders out-jutting, and the low lands with their
grasses, and the prospering work of men's hands, and the drift falls along the grey sea, the harbours and beaches,
and the surf that breaks against it is stilled, and all things elsewhere it shrouds from above, with the burden of
Zeus' rain heavy upon it; so numerous and incessant were the stones volleyed from both sides, some thrown on
Trojans, others flung against the Achaians [i.e., Greeks] by Trojans, so the whole length of the wall thundered
beneath them. (12.278-89)
Richard Lattimore says of this simile, "What the missiles
have in common with the snow is, of course, descent in infinite quantity, but the snowfall, described first, builds a hushed
world from which we wake with a shock to the crashing battle. The ultimate effect is not of likeness, but contrast. Simile
offers the most natural and frequently used, but not the only, escape from the heroic" (The Iliad of Homer, pp. 42-43).
Epic similes (which often employ images from nature) are
often used to give the reader the sense of great size, number, or intensity.
Classical epics include epic games (played on the plains
of Troy, between the walled city of Troy and the Greek camp on the shore, in the Iliad), a trip to the Underworld, a vision
of the future, an epic catalogue of heroes, ships, or armies. The Odyssey contains an epic journey all over the known (Mediterranean)
world; The Aeneid contains a journey all the way from Troy to Rome. Each journey is marked by adventure and danger.
Check the meanings of any words I have used that you are
not familiar with in your dictionary of literary terms.
More modern epics, such as The Song of Roland, Beowulf,
The Fairie Queene, or Paradise Lost, may be indebted to the classical epics in various ways. It is up to you, the reader,
to measure them against those older epics and decide how much their authors owe to Homer and Virgil.