What is an epic? Difference between epic and other forms of poems
An epic is a long narrative poem, on a grand scale about the deeds of warriors and heroes. It is also called a heroic poem. For Cuddon (1993) an epic is a polygonal, ‘heroic’ story incorporating myth, legend, folk tale and history’. An epic is majestic both in theme and style.
An epic is different from other forms of poem because a poem should have the following features to be an epic as pointed out:
- It is a long narrative poem on a great and serious subject.
- It is related in an elevated style.
- It is centered on a heroic or quasiheroic figure on whose action depends on the fate of a tribe, a nation or the human race.
Epics are divided into two types:
- Primary and traditional epic and
- Secondary or literary epic.
The primary epic has it origin in historical and legendary materials available in the oral tradition as a nation. For instance, Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ belongs to this category.
The secondary epics are the deliberate imitation of the traditional epic. For example, Milton’s Paradise Lost belongs to this category. Such epics are the creation of sophisticated craftsmen who consciously employ a long-established form.
Abrams (1994) writes, “The literacy epic is certainly the most ambitious of poetic types, making immense demands on a poet’s knowledge, invention, and skill to sustain the scope, grandeur, and variety of a poem that tends to encompass the world of its day an a large portion of its learning”. He further lists the following features shared by both traditional and literary epics:
- The hero is a figure of great national or even cosmic importance.
- The setting of the poem is ample in scale and may be worldwide, or even larger.
- The action involves superhuman deeds in battle.
- In these great actions the gods and other supernatural beings take an interest or an active part.
- An epic poem is a ceremonial performance, and is narrated in a ceremonial style.
- It consists of a stylistic convention such as an invocation to the Muse.
‘Iliad’ and ‘Odyssey’ are the most influential epics in the western literature. Similarly, the Ramayana and Mahabharata are two influential epics in the Eastern literary world.