The Evolution of the Epic: A Summary

This summer I have spent my time exploring the history of the Western epic tradition. My goal was to gain an understanding of the genre and how it has changed, as well as its significance in relation to the modern era. Through my research, I found that while the epic evolved through a series of changes over time, it also maintained a continuous sense of identity. Works of literature in this tradition accomplish this by referring to and building on other epic works that came before them. I found the concept of “evolution” to be a useful metaphor for understanding the epic tradition. Like living organisms, the epics of the Western tradition are descended from a common ancestor and are transformed through a successive accumulation of changes. This metaphor also helps to explain how modern works can participate in the epic tradition while bearing little resemblance to the ancient epics. In my paper, I analyze six major eras in the evolution of the epic, discussing the chief epic works of each era, the innovations introduced during that period, and the ways in which these works maintain their continuous identity with the epic tradition.

I begin my analysis with a discussion of the Greek epics of Homer. I consider the Iliad to be the common ancestor of all of the epics in the Western epic tradition. Together the Iliad and the Odyssey establish many of the conventions of the epic genre, from stylistic techniques to tropes and themes. This first stage of the epic is also characterized by its close connection to the oral tradition. The repetitious style of the poems mark them as having originally been orally composed.

From the Greeks, I move on to the Romans, specifically Virgil and his poem the Aeneid. Virgil initiates the continuation of a tradition based on the Greek poems by drawing heavily on the Iliad and Odyssey for style, themes, and tropes in his own poem. He also introduces changes by dispensing with many of the oral-based techniques and instituting themes of empire and national identity. In support of these new themes, he introduces new techniques such as invoking parallels between the past and the present and tracing back authority through a genealogy connecting the hero to the current monarch.

After the Romans, epic poetry fell into a lull, but Dante’s Divine Comedy stands out as a light amidst the dark times of the Middle Ages. Dante introduces dramatic changes to the genre, both by Christianizing it and by adding novel-like qualities such as first-person narration and a focus on the individual. Dante also uses his epic as a platform for criticism rather than celebrating his society, a practice which would later be picked up by epic poets after the 17th century.

The epic genre gained popularity during the Renaissance, where it was picked up first by the Italians and other members of continental Europe and then by the English. This period was characterized by an obsession with imitating the Classics as closely as possible. But Renaissance writers also significantly altered the genre by blending it with the medieval genre of romance and including characters from European history and legend. The primary works that I discuss from this era are Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene.

The Restoration era became a turning point for the epic tradition, with the publication of John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Known as the last great epic in a recognizably Classical style, Paradise Lost radically changed the genre by critiquing rather than glorifying war and empire. Milton also subverts Classical conventions by giving them a Christian spin. After the success of Paradise Lost, few writers felt up to the challenge of writing a full epic that could rival it. Instead, writers turned to translating the Greek and Roman epics into English or writing shorter parodies of the epic genre known as mock-epics. Mock-epics expanded on the tradition of using the epic genre to criticize current society and even turned some of the criticism onto the genre of epic itself.

By the time of the Romantic and Modern eras, writing a Classical epic was regarded as a near impossibility. Instead, Romantic and Modern writers did away with strict distinctions of genre and wrote poems that participated in the epic tradition without necessarily claiming to be “true” epics. These poems blend the genres of epic and lyric and are characterized by their fragmentary and subjective style. Examples of this type of poem included Wordsworth’s Prelude, Eliot’s Wasteland, and Pound’s Cantos. These three poems may bear as little resemblance to the epics of Ancient Greece and modern humans do to their ancient biological ancestors, but nonetheless they are all part of one continuous tradition.

These observations have led me to conclude that the legacy of the epic is not dead. Rather, the meaning of what it means to be an epic has merely evolved over time as the people and societies that produce the epics have changed. The epic is not a static form, and thus it defies static definitions. Only by studying the progression of the epic from its beginnings to the modern era can one gain a full understanding of the genre.


  1. noahbrooksher says:

    Julia, this is a really cool project and I enjoyed reading your summary of the evolution of the epic!

    I was wondering though, since you place such an emphasis on the notion that what constitutes an epic changes based on the era and culture that produces it, is the logical extent of such an argument that anything can, in theory at least, be an epic? For instance, if in the future a society defined in epic in a way that was completely antithetical to the classical definition of an epic, would is still be an epic? Or are there any fixed, fundamental characteristics that are necessary to define an epic?

    On that note, and I apologize if this is outside the scope of your project, are there any works that you would point to as an example of contemporary epic (like post Wasteland and Cantos)?