Notes on Epic Poetry
An epic or heroic poem falls into one of two patterns, both established by Homer: the structure (and allegory to life) may be either war or journey, and the hero may be on a quest (as Odysseus is) or pursuing conquest (as Achilles is). Features of legend building evident in epic include the following: 1. the hero's near-invulnerability (Achilles' heel, the spot on Seigfried's back); 2. the hero's fighting without conventional weapons (as in Beowulf's wrestling Grendel); 3. the hero's inglorious youth (again, Beowulf affords an example); 4. the hero's auspicious birth (for example, Christ's or Buddha's), an attempt at the reconstruction of the early life of a notable adult (ex., stories of Jesus' childhood); 5. transference of the deeds and events associated with one hero to another of similar name (for example, Saint Patrick and Sir Gawain). Such events would include the gods' arming a hero (a metaphor for wondrous strength so great it must have seemed to have divine origins) and the hero's descending to the Underworld (a metaphor for facing and overcoming death); 6. historical inclusiveness: the poem presents a whole culture in microcosm —although the action is localized (for example, Troy and its environs in Homer's Iliad), flashbacks and inset narratives widen the epic's geographical and chronological scope to include the whole of that race's world and culture heroes; 7. the hero is a dramatic protagonist in each scene of a play (notice the emphasis on dialogue and set speeches) that is too big for any stage. Milton employed the epic machinery of Homer and Virgil while attempting to redefine their heroic ethos from that of the man of action to that of the man of patient endurance and love. In attempting to make this shift Milton was recognizing that the heroic poem is essentially non-Christian since it is based on the deeds of a man of physical action, a warrior and military leader. Although an epic may be either a folk original...
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