8 Requirements of Epic Poems
Epic stories are as old as time, and as new as the next movie release. Everybody loves a hero doing great deeds that move mountains or shake nations. The oldest known poem is the Epic of Gilgamesh, from 4 B.C. The latest epic at the time of publication is a film version of Milton's "Paradise Lost," a blockbuster set for release in 2012. In between are the classics familiar to literature students: Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" both have recent movie versions, as does Beowulf. Other epics include Dante's "Divine Comedy" and, some say, Byron's "Don Juan" and even Walt Whitman's "Leaves of Grass."
A Hero and His Quest
Every epic -- and every epic poem -- needs a hero who can do great things, often with supernatural powers. This hero will be charged with quests of historic significance. For example, the hero of "The Iliad" becomes known as "Wily Odysseus" after his Trojan horse trick. "The Odyssey" then follows Odysseus after the 10 years of the Trojan War as he travels for another 10 years trying to return home to Ithaca.
Long Journey and Test
An epic hero will be tested, and be helped by mythical beings, animals and humans. During their travels, Odysseus and his shipmates must battle savages, cannibal giants, an enchantress and the Sirens, evil sea nymphs. They receive magical help from, among others, Hermes, who gives the hero a magical herb, and Aeoleus, keeper of the winds, who gives Odysseus a bag that contains the storm winds.
The epic hero will travel to a supernatural world inaccessible to ordinary mortals -- possibly meeting gods, angels and demons. In "The Odyssey," Circe, the enchantress, tells Odysseus he must visit the underworld, where he meets the spirits of his mother and of dead heroes, and a prophet tells him what is ahead for the rest of his journey.
Low Point, Resurrection and Restitution
A typical epic hero will reach a low point and nearly give up, followed by a resurrection, then restitution -- often reclaiming a right to the throne. After 10 years, Odysseus returns to help his son Telemachus cast out suitors who have been trying to persuade Penelope, Odysseus' wife, to marry one of them in her husband's long absence. The effort succeeds, with Odysseus restored and his reign promising to be a happy one.
Further Epic Traits
The epic poet recounts the deeds with objectivity and simplicity, invoking the muses as he begins the tale: "Oh Goddess of Inspiration, help me sing of wily Odysseus, that master of schemes!" The setting is vast: the world or the universe. The story begins "in media res" -- in the middle of the action, which is sure to involve great valor, and possibly great ships and huge armies. Epic poems share another trait: they are lengthy. Beowulf's Scandinavian tale of good versus evil is 3,000 lines.
- National Endowment for the Humanities: A Story of Epic Proportions: What Makes a Poem an Epic?
- Perseus Digital Library: Homer: The Odyssey
- National Endowment for the Humanities: Elements of the Epic Hero Cycle
- Poetry Portal: Epic Poetry
- Auburn University: HyperEpos: Epic, Epic Formula, Epic Simile
- British Library: Beowulf
- Myths Encyclopedia: The Odyssey
- Internet Movie Database: Paradise Lost
- Mythweb: The Illustrated Odyssey
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images