Revisiting: Other People’s Epics

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.”


Briton Riviere’s Una and the Lion. Una is the romantic interest of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene: Book One. Source: Sofi at flic.rk/p/ftjgXA

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.

FtPA: An Accidentally Intended Effect

There are some pieces of writing from my previous degrees with which I feel happy enough that I might like to share them. I’ll be replacing my Revisiting posts some months with FtPA (From the Personal Archive) posts instead. Today, I would like to share one of the journals I wrote for a course on the American Gothic with Sandra Tomc at the University of British Columbia. This one concerns some of the strangeness involved in Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Philosophy of Composition.” As you’ll see, I drew a bit from ideas I explored with Michael Snediker in my undergraduate program, shared in a previous FtPA. At the end of the year, we were to gather these journals together into a final paper. I titled mine “How to Haunt: Journals on the American Gothic.” I might share more of these later.


Source: Blueorangutan

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FtPA: A Library Without Librarians?

There is some writing from my previous degrees with which I am sufficiently happy that I might share it in a From the Personal Archives series any month I don’t run the Revisiting series. This one comes from the same class as my essay on the universal library’s myriad problems, Dr. Richard Arias-Hernandez’s Fall 2014 course on Digital Libraries at the University of British Columbia iSchool. This time, I was to take a look at a digital library’s workflow and metadata standards and I decided to look at the Marxists Internet Archive as an exercise in connecting library practice with ideological and institutional constraints.


Source: Claremont Colleges Digital Library (not the subject of this post) at

A Library without Librarians?: The Marxist Internet Archive’s Policies and Standards

The Marxist Internet Archive collects texts, and fragments of texts, from writers who have had some impact on Marxist, communist, socialist, and allied movements. Most of these texts are simple HTML documents viewed directly in a web browser; a number of them are available for download in other formats, most commonly pdf but also in prc, mobi, epub, and odt. Most, but not all, documents have a set of metadata, which the Archive presents in a standard way but which do not always contain the same fields: fields might include when the text was written, when it was first published, the source, who transcribed the text, who proofread the text, who applied HTML markup, and so on. Although the scope appears to be fairly well-defined as original texts or text fragments by Marxist, communist, socialist, or anarchist thinkers, a few scientific and feminist documents are also in the collection with little or insubstantial explanation.

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Monthly Marvel: Ammit

On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. This time I’d like to introduce you to Ammit, an ancient Egyptian figure for entropic forces.


This week’s fantastic being is Ammit.


Source: Wikipedia, cropped by me.

Her name means devourer or soul-eater in ancient Egyptian; her titles are Devourer of the Dead, Eater of Hearts, and Great of Death. (The English translation of Jorge Luis Borges’s The Book of Imaginary Beings calls her Eater of the Dead.) She was a female demon with the head of a crocodile, the mane, front legs, and forebody of a lion, and the hindquarters of a hippopotamus.
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FtPA: Constructing Narratives in Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine”

There is some writing from my previous degrees with which I am sufficiently happy that I might share it in a From the Personal Archives series any month I don’t run the Revisiting series. As with last month’s offering, this piece is from Michael Snediker’s 2008-2009 undergraduate course at Queen’s University called American Literature: The Fabulous and the Mundane. And as with that piece, the paper makes more sense alongside the text—Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Goophered Grapevine” in The Conjure Woman and Other Tales (1899)—but I think this one reads perfectly well even if you know nothing about the original. The last paragraph betrays a lot of my own theoretical preoccupations at the time.


Source: Ernest Adams at

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Monthly Marvel: Soft Rime

On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. Today I’d like to share soft rime, a much gentler winter phenomenon than I expect to soon experience.

Soft Rime

This week’s meteorological phenomenon is soft rime.


Source: Kabacchi at This user has a lot of photographs of soft rime.

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From the Personal Archive: The Ghost Ship Called Pym of Nantucket

There are some pieces of writing from my previous degrees with which I feel happy enough that I might like to share them. I’ll be replacing my Revisiting posts some months with FtPA (From the Personal Archive) posts instead. Today, I’m offering a short response paper for a 2008 undergraduate course at Queen’s University with Michael Snediker called American Literature: The Fabulous and the Mundane; my paper was based on our readings of Edgar Allan Poe’s The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838). This paper is only an undergraduate offering and furthermore reads much better after one has read Pym, but if you haven’t read the novel this might still interest you as an example of a genre.


Source: Richard Pierse at

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Monthly Marvel: Salmon of Knowledge

On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. This time I want to share the Salmon of Knowledge.

Salmon of Knowledge

This week’s fantastic being is the salmon of knowledge. An Irish fish, known in Irish as bradádan feasa, the salmon of knowledge has a few stories associated with it.


Source: William Murphy at This statue, called “The Big Fish,” sits in Belfast and depicts the Salmon of Knowledge.

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Revisiting: On Mystics and Postmodernists

Every third Saturday 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 “On Mystics and Postmodernists,” which is somewhat more frankly autobiography than usual.

Source: fusion-of-horizons at

Source: fusion-of-horizons at

On Mystics and Postmodernists

This post will barely rise above the autobiographical, but perhaps despite that it will be of some use to someone; I intend to discuss the way in which my (mostly former) interest in mysticism has been related to a sympathy for (but lack of identification with) postmodernism.

I remember, towards the end of high school, engaging with certain skeptics and atheists among my classmates. When I say, “engaging,” I should really say, “imagining engagements,” since I do not think I ever tried my arguments out against my classmates, prefering to debate my imagined versions of those classmates. One of my arguments I later learned was already famous as Pascal’s wager, which I have subsequently found less than compelling; another was that humans, being finite and imperfect, could not reason accurately about God, who was infinite and transcendent. As evangelism, this argument is a non-starter; as defensive apologetics, it suffices, but hardly. I admit I was naïve. For a pre-existing and self-critical faith, however, the idea that humans cannot accurately reason about God is almost certainly a necessary component, so while I’ve stopped using it (or imagining that I use it) to defend my faith against critics, I’ve found it a fairly good idea to hold on to.

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Monthly Marvel: Tree of Life

On the first Saturday of each month for at least the next little while I intend to share here one of the Weekly Wonders from that previous project. This time I want to share the Tree of Life: as a nod to Darwin’s birthday I focus mostly on Darwin’s use of the metaphor, but I also look at other places in which it shows up.


This week’s idea is the tree of life. The image of a tree of life—axis mundi, if you prefer—is a common one in mythology around the world, but I’m referring specifically to Charles Darwin’s metaphor for all living things on Earth in an evolutionary relationship going back to the origins of life itself. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin’s only  illustration was tree-like branched diagram, and the book includes a passage which compares “the great Tree of Life” with a growing tree, saying that the former “fills with its dead and broken branches the crust of the earth, and covers the surface with its ever-branching and beautiful ramifications.” Other biologists have used this image, updating it with genetic data. For instance, the Tree of Life Web Project is a collaborative project providing information about biodiversity and phylogeny.

Source: Leonora Enking at

Source: Leonora Enking at

Other trees of life include arbor vitae, the branching pattern between the grey matter and white matter of the brain; the Tree of Life in Genesis’s Garden of Eden, of which Adam and Eve are said to have eaten before they chose to eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil instead; a central symbol in the Kabbalah of Jewish mysticism, which consists of ten interconnected nodes; Yggdrasil, a massive yew or ash tree which supported the worlds; a cipher for the Elixir of Life and the Philosopher’s Stone in European alchemy; the Bo or Bodhi tree under which the Buddha attained enlightenment; an acacia tree in Egyptian mythology from which Isis and Osiris emerged, which encloses both life and death and, more literally speaking, contains a psychedelic drug associated with spiritual experiences; and many others.

But let’s return to Darwin’s metaphor. It was more politically charged than it might first appear. He was writing On the Origin of Species during the abolition movement, and at the time there were two competing theories about human origins: monogenists, who argued that there was a single origin for all humans, and the polygenists, who argued that there were multiple origins for all humans, one for each race (source). For the most part, monogenists cited the Bible, while polygenists cited scientific theories, mostly based on cranial measurements, which suggested Europeans and Africans were separate biological species. Supporters of slavery mostly used these polygenist scientific theories, while abolitionists relied on Biblical monogenist theories. However, the intellectual climate of the era was leaning more heavily to science than to religion, and it looked as though the slave owners were going to win the argument. They had science on their side, after all. That is, they had science on their side until Darwin, the product of strongly abolitionist families, published On the Origin of Species. Darwin argued that all humans were the same species, tied together in one branch of the Tree of Life; the polygenist theory lost scientific support, giving the monogenist theory the scientific grounding it needed to win the argument in that era.

Posted by Christian H.