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What Are the Similarities of an Epic Poem & a Ballad?


Epics and ballads are two of literature’s oldest forms. Before novels entered into the vogue in the early 19th century, epics and ballads were the primary literary forms utilized for narrative entertainments. Due to a shared nature as poetic verse, there are many similarities between the two. Knowledge of each form’s history, use and attributes is essential for a full understanding of these commonalities.

Literature's Oldest Form

The epic is literature’s most ancient form. The Epic of Gilgamesh, the earliest complete surviving piece of literature in world history, was composed sometime between the 13th and 10th centuries B.C. Like most ancient epics, the Mesopotamian Gilgamesh functions primarily on the level of myth and fulfilled a pseudo-historical, religious purpose for the culture that birthed it. Similar ancient epics include the Hindu Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Greek Iliad and Odyssey, and the Roman Aeneid.

Attributes of the Epic
Epics typically feature grand settings

Generally speaking, epics revolve around the adventures of a central hero, who typically serves as an ancestor or originator of the people that produce the poem. Epics tend to invoke huge settings and lengthy time spans, and often cover the hero’s entire life. The gods are usually present and intervene to aid or hinder the hero, who assumes legendary proportions over the course of his adventures. The earliest epics were likely performed as oral poetry, and were recited to an audience over the course of hours or days. Linguists have theorized that epic bards memorized their works with the aid of recurrent syllables and a repetitive structure. Once the performer knew the basic storyline and motifs, he could essentially render the epic anew at each performance.

The Ballad

A ballad is a narrative poem often accompanied with music. Believed to have originated in France, the oldest surviving examples of ballads are dated to the 14th century. Singers and poets composed ballads as popular entertainments, with subject matter that tended toward romance and adventure. Balladeers utilized a simple, repetitive rhyme scheme, comprised of couplets and alternating refrains. English writers in the 17th and 18th centuries popularized ballads through the utilization of the printing press. Single ballads were published as broadsides, which were large sheets of paper that featured a single poem. Originally considered a low form of entertainment, the ballad was eventually raised to the status of high art by writers like Oscar Wilde and Samuel Coleridge, who respectively produced "The Ballad of Reading Gaoul" and "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

Similarities Between Epics and Ballads

This brief review of each form makes apparent some of the similarities between epics and ballads. Both of them developed as forms of popular entertainment, and were performed to audiences often with the accompaniment of music. Composed around a repetitive poetic structure, epics and ballads were more easily memorized and recognizable. Both revolved around tales of adventure and romance, and featured heroes of grand proportions. Finally, though both epics and ballads originated as popular entertainment, each form boasts examples of some of the finest work in world literature.

About the Author

Douglas Matus is the travel writer for "West Fort Worth Lifestyle" magazine, and spent four years as the Director of Humanities for a college-prep school in Austin. Since 2005, he has published articles on education, travel and culture in such publications as "Nexus," "People's World" and "USA Today." Matus received an Education Pioneers fellowship in 2010 and an MFA from CalArts in 2011.

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