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An epic is a long narrative poem presented in an elevated style, relating the heroic deeds of noble or semidivine personages. Beowulf is one of the world’s great epics – and the oldest in our language. Like other traditional or folk epics (for example, The Iliad and The Odyssey), Beowulf originated in traditional tales or legends dating back to a remote past and handed down orally by generations of bards or singers. At some point, a literary artist put all the materials together in written form.

Literary epics developed later and were modelled on the traditional epics. Among the first was a Latin poem, Virgil’s Aeneid. The most famous English literary epic is Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Certain features are associated with the epic: The central character has heroic or superhuman qualities. The action is on an immense scale and involves the fate of a whole people or even the entire human race. Gods or semidivine creatures come to the aid of one side or another.

Certain devices also recur. The author usually announces his theme at the opening and calls on the muses to help him in his task of narration. The poem usually begins in medias res (in the middle of things), at a critical point in the action. The style is noble and majestic; the characters speak ceremoniously in long set speeches. Literary inventories – catalogues of characters or objects – often form part of the descriptive passages.

Such features and devices became so predictable that there developed a kind of anti-epic, a literary form known as mock epic. The mock epic uses all the epic elements in wrong or bizarre ways in order to make them seem ridiculous; for example, a trivial action is presented in an inflated style and celebrated in elaborate terms. The most famous mock epic in English, and one of the funniest poems in any language, is Alexander Pope’s "The Rape of the Lock".

contributed by Gifford, Katya

18 February 2002

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