February 21, 1997
Epics by definition are long narrative poems, that are grand in both theme and style (Webster 417). They usually involve actions of great glory and are typically centered around historical or legendary events of universal significance. Most epics deal with the deeds of a single individual, however, it is not uncommon to have more than one main character. Epics embody several main features including: supernatural forces, sometimes the deity of the time, that shape the action; battles or other forms of physical combat; and a formal statement of the theme of the epic. Everyday details of life are commonplace and intricately woven into the background of each story in the same palatial style as the rest of the poem.
Epic poems are not merely entertaining stories of legendary or historical heroes; they summarize and express the nature or ideals of an entire nation at a significant or crucial point in its history. I have chosen for comparison the Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost.
The Odyssey, attributed to Homer is about Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, who sailed with his army to take part in war against Troy. After ten years of war, victory is declared and the armies of Odysseus have sailed for home. As the Odyssey begins, an additional 10 years have passed since the fall of Troy and Odysseus still has not returned to his home. The noblemen have converged on his palace seeking the hand of his lovely wife, Penelope. However, Penelope refuses their advances choosing to remain faithful to Odysseus.
During the ten years of his absence since the fall of Troy, Odysseus has traveled the world undertaking many unbelievable adventures and trials set upon him by the god Poseidon. Throughout his travels he along with his men sailed to many strange lands. These great adventures included tricking Polyphemus a Cyclops by being "nobody" (Norton 320), sailing to the end of the world and descending into Hell (Norton 340), successfully battling Scylla, a six-headed monster that devoured passing seamen (Norton 361) and finally, passing safely around a terrible whirlpool (Norton 366 - 367).
During his descent into Hell, Odysseus meets a sear who foretells that his wanderings would not end until peace is made with Poseidon. This sear also tells him that he will return home and re-establish himself as king.
Finally as the Odyssey concludes, Odysseus does return home to a house and country in turmoil. His wife is besieged by suitors, his son is now a grown man and his country is facing certain civil war. In the final acts, order is restored with the assistance of the goddess Athene.
In Dante's epic, The Divine Comedy, he tells of a journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. This epic is divided into three sections. In each of the sections he meets with mythological, historical, and contemporary individuals. Each individual encountered during the journey represents a religious or political symbol of fault or virtue. In addition, specific punishments and rewards are associated with each fault and virtue. Dante uses each punishment and reward to illustrate the larger meaning of human actions in the universal plan.
Paradise Lost is considered by some to be one of the greatest poems in world literature and most certainly John Milton's masterpiece. In its 12 cantos Milton tells the story of the fall of Adam and the loss of Paradise. Satan has been expelled from heaven with his fallen angels. In Hell, Satan formulates a plan to find the new creations God has made - man and woman. Meanwhile, God tells his Son that Satan will be successful in corrupting man. But because, man was tricked by Satan, man will be given grace if someone in heaven will die for man's sin.
To fulfill his plan, Satan tempts Eve in a dream. The next morning Eve suggests that she and Adam work separately that day. Gradually she is persuaded by Satan, who has taken the form of a serpent, to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. Realizing her folly, Eve shares the fruit with Adam, who also eats it. This is considered the fall of man.
In Heaven God tells of the final victory of the Son over Sin and Death. This epic is told in a context of extensive drama using profound speculations. Milton's main goal was to "justify the ways of God to men." (Norton 2179)
All three works are long narrative poems that are grand both in theme and style fulfilling the basic definition of an epic. Of the three epics only the Odyssey involved actions of great glory by the central hero. In the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost, the main characters are not fighting monsters or outwitting Cyclops. Dante walks through Hell, and views the fate of man, Adam and Eve are manipulated by God and Satan but are not gods nor do they have god-like qualities. The influence of the supernatural is an outside force in the Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost. In the Odyssey, Odysseus possesses many god-like qualities himself.
The central theme of each epic is somewhat different. In the Odyssey, the central theme seems to be Odysseus against the world. He stands the test through opposition by the gods, other men, and the forces of nature. In the Divine Comedy, Dante, a normal man, takes a walk through the many levels of hell, expressing the faith of medieval Christianity. Paradise Lost, by Milton is simply a representation of the ideals of mediaeval Christian rational.
Though each work is classified as an epic, they share only a few of the basic traits of an epic poem. However, more than anything each provides insight into the thoughts and beliefs of people in our history. These epic works take us on an imaginary voyage; one through the amazing journeys of a single man, one through an imaginary trip through hell in which the political and philosophical thought of the time can be experienced, and one through an account of a religious thought for that day. All of these epics serve to remind us that no matter how far mankind has come, we still have a long way to go in our journey be it spiritual or earthly.
"Epic." Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. 1983 ed.
Homer. "The Odyssey." Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Maynard Mack. 6th ed. 2 vols. New York: Norton, 1992.
Milton, John. "Paradise Lost." Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Maynard Mack. 6th ed. 2 vols. New York: Norton, 1992.