Every Some third Saturdays of the month I intend to re-post something I wrote for one of my assorted old blogs or tumblogs. This week I am revisiting the Thinking Grounds for “Other People’s Epics.” The first sentence is no longer quite true, but otherwise I think it holds of reasonably well. I spun out this theme quite a lot, possibly ad nauseum, at the Thinking Grounds. Immediate sequels included “Other People’s Mystery Novels” and “Other People’s [Insert Genre]s.”
Other People’s Epics
One of my recurrent pastimes is to imagine what another person’s epic might look like.
As far as genres go, the epic is one of my favourites to think about. No individual epic counts among my favourite books (though, you know, Paradise Lost is pretty great). The reason I like thinking about them is that, at least in the English tradition, they have become a kind of formal game, thanks to the humanists of early modern England. (Note to readers: “early modern” is the new PC term for “Renaissance;” in England the early modern period spans the 1500s and 1600s, but it got started earlier in Italy, France, Spain, the Netherlands, etc.). Let’s dive into a bit of history, shall we?
In early modern Europe, there was this group of artists and scholars called the humanists (who are different from the existing group of people who call themselves humanists). They believed in lots of things which were revolutionary for the time, like the idea that people’s talents were formed through education rather than inheritance, and that the arts were crucial to intellectual and moral education. They were also pretty keen on the Classics, especially the newly-rediscovered Aristotle. (Or, at least, newly rediscovered in Europe; in Baghdad Aristotle was well-known.) Emulation (mimesis) and variation-on-a-theme/pattern were central to their pedagogy. Thus they emulated the ancient Greek and Roman writers.* One of the genres they embraced was the epic. In the Greco-Roman tradition, famous examples are Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad and Ovid’s Metamorphoses, though many humanists (most notably Edmund Spenser) patterned their careers on Virgil’s. Dante was the first early modern poet to write a successful epic–The Divine Comedy–and Spenser introduced the form to the English language much later in The Faerie Queene.
The humanists liked classifying and defining poetic genres, and we have them to thank for a lot of the very rigid forms, like sonnets. So when they wrote epics, they codified conventions that their Classical predecessors included somewhat more haphazardly. For instance, early modern epics are usually divided into twelve books, because that’s what Virgil did. Some of these conventions have become part of a formal definition for epics as you’d read in a dictionary of literary terms: they must include a katabasis (a descent to the underworld); they must include divine intervention of some kind; they are broad in scope, covering the known world, both geographically and intellectually (they almost always include references to recent scientific discoveries and inventions, reference to historical events, literary allusion, and so on); the protagonist must be aristocratic and must embody the virtues held in high esteem by the audience/author; it must begin in media res; it must describe an event that is of great historical or mythological importance to the community in which the epic was written. However, other traits became just as conventional, and just as necessary, in early modern Europe (or England, anyway). A professor I once had said that any poet who wanted to be somebody had to include in their epic a description of the dawn which beat out Homer’s rosy-fingered dawn (or at least beat out their contemporaries’ descriptions). Other necessities were a half-snake half-woman creature, a talking tree, catalogues of objects, and ekphrasis (a description of a work of art); all of these were drawn from Homer, Virgil, or Ovid. EDIT 24 July 2013: Another crucial convention is the digression. Epics almost always have long asides–sometimes these are flashbacks (pairing with the convention of in media res), sometimes these are history lessons, sometimes these are even premonitions of what is to come (oracles and prophecies are also epic conventions), but often the digressions are bits of plot that wander off from the main goal. Characters might get lost, or separated from their companions, or get kidnapped or imprisoned. They may have dalliances with seductresses or get distracted by red herrings. The coarse of a true epic never does run smooth. /EDIT
Early modern epics were almost always in verse, usually in heroic couplets. (A common way of organizing them was twelve Books divided into cantos, which were themselves divided into stanzas, which were themselves in couplets…but not all epics were like this.) In fact, strict definitions often insist that epics are written in verse, but many people allow for prose epics, and I’d argue that prose epics are still being written. Paradise Lost was the last great verse epic, as Milton himself declared; after this, most verse epics were mock epics. The Dunciad is perhaps the most famous of the mock epics, but I did once know someone who was working on a mock epic detailing the colonization of Trinidad.
(History lesson over)
Looking over the list of requirements, it should be clear that epics of this kind** are especially well suited to expressing their author’s ideology. Of course all texts contain ideology, but epics do so very explicitly. The topic must be formative to the community and the protagonist must be exemplary of the community’s values. The presence of the Underworld and the gods means that the religious and mythic sensibilities of the group are involved. The scope means that the epic gives a shape of the physical and intellectual world of the community. Epics are often nationalist. Thus Spencer was deliberately writing an English epic. Sometimes, however, epics are more religious than nationalist; Milton, who thought that England’s climate made English culture tepid and generally worthless, avoided the national epic and instead wrote a Christian epic. But whatever group they represent, they do it explicitly and obviously. This makes them very good places to examine a particular worldview. Bakhtin (who I’ve mentioned before) says that epics have a single viewpoint; they are monoglossic, one-voiced. And as much as I’ve been talking about early modern epics, I think more contemporary epics exist: The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and lots of other fantasy obviously fit most of the criteria (Tolkien was writing a saga, not an epic, but the two are similar and it seems clear that he was incorporating early modern epic conventions, too; while the Narniad did not start as an epic for Lewis, it seems clear to me that, by The Magician’s Nephew, or maybe even The Silver Chair, he knew that he was writing one). But I also think that Wade Davis’ nonfictional/historical/semi-autobiographical One River is an ethnobotanical epic. I don’t think for a second that Davis intended to make it an epic, but it actually fulfills every single requirement, right down to the snake-lady and the description of the dawn. (Also, The Pirates of the Caribbean movies are film epics if you let Will’s father-become-part-of-the-ship count as a talking tree–Ovid’s and Spenser’s talking trees were usually people turned into trees. I don’t know what worldview the Pirates of the Caribbean movies are showcasing, though. That’s something to puzzle out.)
What makes the epic so amusing to me, then, is that as a genre the epic is almost like a fill-in-the-blanks for ideology. You have all these empty fields which you fill in with content; once you’ve filled in the fields, you have an epic. What’s interesting, of course, is to see how the different features change based on what worldview is slotted in. For instance, in Paradise Lost, the katabasis is Satan’s flight into Hell after losing the War in Heaven. In The Faerie Queene, the talking tree is a man who was seduced by a witch (who signified the Catholic Church) and was turned into a tree when he discovered who she was, but in The Lord of the Rings, written by an environmentalist, the talking trees were Ents, early eco-warriors. In The Faerie Queene the hero is a gentleman-knight; in Lord of the Rings he is a hobbit, an analogue for the simple rural men-at-arms in WWI’s trenches; in One River the hero is a revolutionary ethnobotanist who has what Davis calls a taxonomic eye, the innate ability to identify taxonomy at a glance. Good epics of course are not really just highly stylized Mad Libs; a skilled epic poet or writer will make creative use of the genre’s constraints rather than be a slave to them. So what I like to do is imagine what different kinds of epics would look like. What would an environmentalist epic look like? (Probably a lot like The Lord of the Rings.) What would a Canadian epic look like? What would an Anglican, or Catholic, or Mormon, or Muslim epic look like? What would a librarian’s epic hero’s virtues be, or an engineer’s, or a home-maker’s? What would be the Underworld in a Dutch-Canadian epic, an Asian-Canadian epic, an Inuit epic?
I also think about the sorts of world-views that make me uncomfortable. What would an Islamaphobic epic look like? A homophobic epic? A white supremist epic? An anti-feminist epic? This is less fun, but it might be a helpful exercise.
Ultimately, though, I realize that The Faerie Queene is not just an English epic; Spenser wrote it as a handbook on courtly behaviour. It is an English Anglican aristocratic humanist epic. Milton wanted to write a definitive Christian epic, but Paradise Lost is in fact an Arminian Copernican materialist Christian epic. Or, even more accurately, The Faerie Queene is Spenser’s epic; Paradise Lost is Milton’s. So as fun as it is to figure out what a feminist’s epic would be, I really need to be thinking what a specific person’s epic would be. What is my epic? What is, say, Stephen Harper’s epic or David Suzuki’s epic? What is your epic?
I wish people still wrote epics, because while imagining other people’s epics is fun, being surprised to find out how another person used the snake-lady is even more fun. We must watch how we imagine other people’s stories, because when we do so we run a terrible risk of reducing them. For this reason I would prefer to read them rather than imagine them, but since most people don’t write epics, all I’ve got is the imagining.
*If all of this stuff about humanism sounds vaguely familiar and not especially noteworthy, it’s because much of our culture is descended from humanism. It was radical at the time: the neo-Platonic monastic tradition was the real force in education and art prior to humanism’s advent, along with a sense (among aristocrats) that high culture was exclusively aristocratic. To our eyes, the monastics come off as seeming rather silly (for instance, they believed that the names of objects were intrinsic to the object, while humanists believed that names were socially assigned to objects), but it’s important to remember that in most circles the monastic tradition was taken as obviously true until the humanists showed up.
If you’re thinking that it looks more familiar than just a vague permeation of our culture and instead sounds a lot like the ideas of the Inklings, or of W. H. Auden, or of T. S. Eliot, then you’d be correct; these writers are known as Christian humanists because of their affinity with Shakespeare, Sydney, Spenser, Wyatt, Marlowe, et al. Christian humanism is a lot bigger than neo-classicism, of course.
**I say “epics of this kind” because in a more anthropological or comparative-literature sense, the Greco-Roman and early modern European traditions of epics weren’t the only ones. Lots of people count sagas and puranas as epics; there’s a whole system of designation between oral or primary epics and literate or secondary epics which includes lots of things that don’t fit here. However, I’m focusing on the tradition I’m familiar with, that one epitomized by Paradise Lost and The Faerie Queene.