Today, I want to share a post originally published on themindflayer.com and written by my son, Joseph Sale. In this article, Joseph goes some way to defining the epic, what it is, where it came from, and the difficulties of writing one in the modern day. The English Cantos is undoubtedly my attempt at writing an epic, and so I thought it appropriate to share as many of the points raised here resonated with me. It may even help you pen your own epic!
In this series, I’ll be discussing what defines an epic, how they’re changing in the modern world, and I’ll explore ways in which you can shape your own epic narrative. My aim with this series is to inspire people to engage with more epics, to widen the discussion of epics to include other mediums such as video-games and serializations, and to lastly, perhaps most importantly, aid people wanting to write one themselves. So, let us begin.
Throughout time and culture, one artistic pursuit has, by and large, been held in regard above all others. This is the creation of an ‘epic’. Narrative is central to human ideology, identity, and our relationship with the world around us, it helps us make sense of things, processing both our external and internal worlds. At its deepest level, it is healing. The act of writing is therapy, catharsis, liberation. And core to the literary heart of so many cultures, peoples, tribes, religions and countries throughout the ages is the concept of an epic. A story that is greater than other stories. A story that operates on an entirely other scale. These are some of the most powerful and healing stories of all time. To write one is one of the highest forms of artistic achievement. But rarely is one written purely for praise and honour and bragging rights. They are written from a deep place. They can only be written from that deep place, which is why so many of them begin with an invocation to gods, or the Muses, or even human sources of inspiration. To write an epic is to shake the soul of a person.
Now, I can’t teach you how to write an epic. I’m not sure that’s even possible. I maintain I can teach anyone to write and that everyone has one story in them, but I’m not sure I believe everyone has an epic in them. An epic is a one in a million. An epic is lightning bottled. However, having studied epics for a long time, I think I can give you some steering on what they involve, how they work, and give you examples of recent modern and accessible works that use epic tropes. These will act like Muses in themselves, guiding your path. From there on, it’s all you. But if you really feel you have an epic in you and you’re reading this, I’m telling you: You have to write it. We need epics, like we need food, water, air. Yes, that’s not melodrama. Without them, we wither. Culture withers, human relationships wither, our sense of who we are and what life means withers. Stephen King said that art is a support system for life. Never were truer words spoken. Science helps us to live. Art gives us a reason to.
So, let’s start with an overview and go from there. Are you excited? I’m excited. I hope you have a pen and notepad ready.
Traditionally, the epic is relayed in poetic form. Some were performed by the poet, or upon a theatrical stage. Some were set down. Either way, the epics of the past are unified in poetry, although the poetic form they might be expressed in differs drastically. In recent years, it seems there has been a tailing off of epic poems, although they are certainly still being written in our time. One such example being my own father’s astoundingwork The English Cantos: a modern journey into hell recounting his experience in Bournemouth Hospital battling cancer. It is penned in fluid terza rima, homaging Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first three Cantos of this amazing poem have been published by the Society of Classical Poets, and are available to read for free. He continues to write it, aiming to publish 33 cantos in total. This work in progress is what I would call a poem penned in the ‘true epic style’. It tackles the issues of modernism, the disintegration of moral values and the meaninglessness of a modern world driven by profit and gratification. It uses many of the epic tropes: the invocation of the muse (calling on Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry specifically), the wise guide (in my father’s case, Dante himself, the poet who perhaps best explored hell before him), and the katabasis, the descent into hell itself.
My father is not the only one to attempt an epic poem. In the last decade, many ‘new’ epic attempts have emerged, including Tim Miller’s To the House of the Sun and Apocalypse by Frederick Turner. But, it’s safe to say that these are obscure works, not popularly known as the epics of Homer, Dante, and Milton would have been in their day, confined to study by poetry-nerds (such as my father and I) concerned with this ‘niche’. In fairness, my father’s epic is being fairly widely read, partly due to its accessibility in terms of theme (we all feel the dearth of this era), style (it is beautifully written in form that propels the narrative on, as opposed to many other modern poems written in formless free-verse), and its publication online which allows anyone to read it. However, poetry in general is not the pick of the day. How many people can truly say they regularly read poetry? It has become a niche of a niche, a subset of writing itself, whereas once it was the entire aim of it.
The long and short is, unless you are a poet of considerable experience reading this, I think it’s highly unlike you’d want to attempt an epic poem. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, of course. If you’re that way inclined, go for it. Poetry will never die. There will always be poets, and poetry, and it will always have validity. You see, epics are a bridge between past and present. Often, they refer back to a past time, but use modern language to describe it. Similarly, most epics are written when the language is young or even unformed.
To get specific, it’s thought that when Homer penned The Iliad, the first of his two major known works, around 750 BC, that the Greek language had not formally been set down prior to his writing of that book. In a way, writing The Iliad, was a way to document the rules, vocabulary and possibility of the language. In short, The Iliad may have served a dual function as an extremely beautiful grammar book. It covered the full spectrum of linguistic potential, and concretised much of the spelling and punctuation. Similarly, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales after the invasion of the Normans and the influx of French words into the language which broadened the ‘primitive’ vernacular tongue of Anglo Saxon into what scholars refer to as ‘Middle English’. Before then, the language was limited to predominantly Germanic-influenced words. Chaucer introduced Latinate and French words (and some others too) in penning his epic, vastly increasingly the potential of the language. Whilst Anglo Saxon had been around for a while, it went through an evolution when he wrote The Canterbury Tales.
This would happen again and again, particularly in English, perhaps because the language was just so darn pliable. Edmund Spenser would pen his beautiful epic fantasy romance The Faerie Queene after the language had leapt forward again in the 16th Century, eschewing many of its clunky qualifiers and taking on board many Italian poetic techniques. Shakespeare would then advance the language much, much further – only forty or so years later. In fact, we can track a distinct evolution of language through Shakespeare’s work from his early, quite archaic plays such as The Comedy of Errors, which is written in a more medieval style, right up to Hamlet, which opens with the line: ‘Who’s there?’ – practically modern English. By the time Shakespeare was done with the language, adding a plethora of words, expressions and neologisms to the dictionary, the language was unrecognisable and infinitely closer to the language we speak today. In the 17thCentury, Milton was able to pen his epic Paradise Lost using an ‘argumentative’ style in keeping with the cultural changes brought on by the Protestant Reformation (which in turn coincided with the boom of literacy and printing presses). This included the idea of religious debate in vernacular language. It opened up many wide possibilities for Milton to make political and theological points within his work in a way never hitherto attempted. For example, this from the first book:
‘What in me is dark / Illumin, what is low raise and support; / That to the highth of this great Argument / I may assert Eternal Providence, /And justifie the wayes of God to men.
Just pick out the words: ‘argument’, ‘assert’, ‘justify’ – the language of a legal associate going through her case opening. But this, married and juxtaposed with the stunning, heart-breaking imagery, and the depth of incredible feeling, is what makes Paradise Lost work. So, you see, when the language evolves, it often provides new, fertile ground for writers to pen an epic. Once the ground has been well-trodden, it’s very difficult indeed to write one. And whilst our modern language is certainly changing and evolving, I’m not sure it’s changing in such a way that facilitates the writing of an epic. Normally, it is when a language expands that new possibilities for another level of storytelling emerge. However, I’d argue that many changes to our language now are merely to increase its basic functionality and efficiency. Text-speak, abbreviations, emojis. There’s nothing wrong with these (and many epics contain phrases and conflations which would have been known to people of the time), but too many of them makes writing at a feeling level difficult, because they are ultimately mechanical, designed to conserve space and time.
But does this mean the epic is dead? No, I believe it is far from it. Over the course of this series, I want to talk about what a modern epic looks like, specifically focusing in depth on three ‘epics in spirit’ that take on the tropes of the epic but express them in modern forms. These are perhaps genres or mediums you would not immediately think of when considering the ‘epic’. I hope analysing them will inspire and steer you on your course to attempting your own. There is a certain mythos, a Holy Grail allure to writing an epic, that is tantalising to almost all writers. So why not? After all, the Grail Quest is as much about the journey as the end result. Attempting it is, itself, an achievement. What the hell have we got to lose?
To conclude part 1, I’m going to run you through what I deem to be the six key tropes of the epic. There are many more than six tropes, of course. Some of the ones I will not be covering today include the ‘extended argument’ (characters, or even one character internally, debating an important or weighty theme in great detail), nationalism (many epics purport to detail the genesis of a people, even Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) or macrologia (playing with scale and size). Sadly, we do not have time to cover everything, and I’ve chosen to focus on the six ones I believe are most important to defining what an epic is and more importantly how it feels.
In parts 2 – 4, I’m going to talk about my three modern examples, and how they play with and use these tropes. Note, whilst the novel undoubtedly facilitates epic writing and epic stories, I actually don’t want to focus on the novelin its basic form too much (save in overview), because I want to get on to some more unusual examples. I think sometimes it’s easier to find inspiration from genres outside our own, and I know many of you reading this will be writing novels and avid novel-readers. Similarly, I think film is again a too obvious example, so I’ll be avoiding discussing movies, except in terms of references, stylings and allusions. So, without more ado, let us begin…
(1) DEFINING EPICS – SCOPE & SUBJECT MATTER
Part of the epic is this idea of scope. Vast, complex stories with huge casts of characters. Novels, needless to say, facilitate this rather well, as they are not restricted by factors such as audience attention-span or memory (readers can put down the book and then pick it up again – they don’t have to sit through a four-hour movie). Many obvious examples of epic novels spring to mind (I’m sure you have some too). For me, Stephen King’s The Stand has to be one, with its length, breadth of characters, and theme (subject) – the timeless battle of good and evil. Another, I would argue, is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In fact, Tolkien intentionally set out to write the ‘unwritten epic’ of the modern English language. After all, the English people had adopted the Greek and Italian epics (with Homer, Virgil & Dante), or alternatively Christian frameworks (Milton & Spenser). Tolkien wanted to create something that uniquely belonged to us, and I think it’s fairly safe to say he achieved it. In terms of recent entries, I recommend you check out Anna Smith Spark’s incredible Empires of Dust series, which is written in a fresh yet epic style that has a flavour of The Iliad’s blood-drenched intensity.
Scope and subject matter go hand in hand. Milton spent a long time thinking about what the subject of his epic would be, because he knew it would determine all the possibilities of his story. One theme he contemplated writing about was the Arthurian myths, though this had already been partly done by Edmund Spenser and Chaucer, the former of which was one of his inspirations. Eventually, Milton settled on the Christian Fall of Mankind. It should be noted that epic subjects do not always have to be original. Milton’s poem drew heavily from, of course, the Bible, but also from Anglo Saxon/Old English poetry that re-told the story of Adam and Eve to align the Christian stories with Pagan values (Genesis A & B). The Anglo Saxon poems of Genesis A & B make Eve into a complex character, seduced by knowledge, tricked by Lucifer’s superior powers, and ultimately sympathetic, as opposed to many earlier Christian narratives that blamed her for mankind’s misstep. Milton hugely incorporated this in his own re-telling. Shakespeare drew most of his stories from Roman or Greek plays, or history, and reworked the narratives to suit his ends. The long and short is that with the epic, it is as much the telling of the tale as anything else. But, you need a tale that is going to provide you with enough scope to reach epic heights.
(2) DEFINING EPICS – STYLE
Epics have a certain style about them. It is often called the ‘elevated’ style. It conveys grandeur and scale and significance. Pulling this off without sounding pompous is very difficult and something every epic writer has struggled with for millennia.
Epics are often told out of order, with a device called in media res, a Latin phrase meaning quite literally:‘in the middle of the thing’. The stories start mid-action and work backwards and then forwards, allowing for incredible resonances and webworks of emotional complexity to be developed in a way that is more sophisticated than standard narratives.
Another part of epic style is what is called ‘epic catalog’, what I affectionately term the ‘roll call’, the listings of endless ranks, positions, people, places, events, times, dates, and items. Epics have scope, remember, and they can increase their scope by listing minutiae to give the reader a sense that this is a detailed and real world. In The Iliad, we don’t just know who the main actors are, we also know who practically every damn soldier in the Greek armada is. Many fantasy novels use this trope poorly, resulting in podgy prose that is laborious to wade through. When done well, it creates a sense of excitement and scale and three-dimensionality.
Finally, a key part of this style is the ‘extended metaphor’. Elaborate metaphors and similes, as well as comparisons, that are more developed and in-depth than standard imagery. Epics are beautiful, and should evoke beauty even in their most horrifying moments. Part of the way they can do this is with extended metaphor and beautiful imagery. They elevate an image to something else entirely.
(3) DEFINING EPICS – INVOCATION TO THE MUSE
Epics must invoke the Muse, because they are not simply stories written from the brains of writers, but divinely inspired. Epics often open, or at some point feature, a calling upon a divine entity to aid in the recital of the poem.
(4) DEFINING EPICS – THE HERO / HEROINE
The hero or heroine of an epic is often defined in very specific ways. They are:
- often from an unusual place or land
- they have an unusual power
- they usually have a sense of justice (even if it is a warped one, such as Satan in Paradise Lost)
- they possess magical weapons or equipment
- in some way royal, or dispossessed of something that belongs to them
- often orphaned or not raised by their true parents
- lastly, they possess a tragic flaw, a weakness
(5) DEFINING EPICS – THE GUIDE
The hero is often guided by either another hero that has gone before them or a sage guide or counsellor. Odysseus, in Homer’s The Odyssey, is guided by the goddess of wisdom Athena. Dante is guided by Virgil in hell (and in turn my father is guided by Dante in his version of hell)! Adam is (mis)guided by Satan in Paradise Lost. Satan himself is guided by Chaos. The list goes on and on.
(6) DEFINING EPICS – KATABASIS
All heroes must descend into hell. Hence, the title of this series: Entering Carcosa. This is arguably the most important aspect of the epic, in my humble view. The hero proves himself/herself above all normal heroes or normal stories by surviving hell itself, whether literally or figuratively, is up to the writer to decide.
So, these are the six key tropes of epic literature. You have now had a potted history of predominantly Western poetic literature (as much as I would love to discuss the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, or the Chinese epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, there is simply not time – nor am I sufficiently qualified to speak on these). This should, however, give us a background to launch into discussing our first ‘modern epic’ next week, which in fact hails from Japan. Until then, adieu!
If you are interested, you can find part 2 of Entering Carcosa here.