A Tale of Two Epics
An epic is typically defined as a long poem pertaining to a hero’s journey, focusing on the achievements and obstacles of said hero. An epic can be external—a literal journey from one place to another in which the hero faces physical challenges and struggles, needing to overcome them using resolve and guile, or an epic can be internal—in which the hero faces more mental obstacles, needing to make smart decisions using thoughtfulness and wisdom. Homer’s The Odyssey and Virgil’s The Aeneid are both classic epics of the Ancient Mediterranean world sharing many similarities but also having many differences, one of which is The Odyssey is more of an external epic whereas The Aenied is more of an internal epic. Odysseus and Aneas both partake in similar epic journeys, but it is the elements unique to each character’s journey, such as the nature of his heroic actions, the type of women he encounters, and his ultimate homecoming at the end of the journey, that dictates whether his individual epic is more external or internal.
When a hero is faced with a serious decision or challenge that needs to be acted on, it is the circumstances of the challenge or the manner in which the decision is made that will indicate whether that hero’s epic journey is external or internal. In Odysseus’s case many of the obstacles he faces are physical interactions with other people. One particular example is Odysseus’s run-in with the Cyclops, Polyphemus. This is a concrete event, occurring outside of the hero’s mind, so it contributes to The Odyssey being an external epic. In Book 9, Odysseus and some of his crew arrive on the island of the Cyclops and he decides to venture into the cave. They wait for Polyphemus to return and in the meantime make themselves comfortable in his home. When he returns Odysseus is faced with a challenge of how to deal with the Cyclops and how to escape his cave. After he gets Polyphemus drunk and the Cyclops passes out Odysseus takes the heroic action of, “hoisting high that olive stake with its stabbing point, straight into the monster’s eye” (Book IX, Ln. 427-428). This physical action and immediate cunning decision to physically attack his enemy shows that his epic is external, and it is only one of many similar events that Odysseus encounters. On the other hand, although Aneas is also on a physical journey his is more of a mental journey. His actions are also heroic, but they are not as concrete and take more internal debating than Odysseus’s. The specific instance in which Aneas displays heroic actions is at the beginning of his journey when he has to decide what to do after Troy has been captured. The Trojans bring the Horse into the city and it ultimately ends in disaster, and Aneas has to begin making decisions that will affect not only him, but the people he cares about as well. He initially thinks about his actions and “to arm was my first maddened impulse—not that anyone had a fighting chance in arms” (Book II, Ln. 420-421). This decision shows that his epic begins as internal and will continue to be mainly internal throughout the rest of the epic. After he realizes that the fighting is useless and Troy will be captured, he realizes “For the first time that night, inhuman shuddering took me, head to foot. I stood unmanned, and my dear father’s image came to mind” (Book II, Ln. 429-431). Aneas faces the challenge of having to decide whether to fight, to go, or to find his father and save him. He then speaks with his mother and she tells him to go, to not kill Helen. Aneas makes the decision and it further indicates that his journey is an internal one. The emphasis of this challenge is in making difficult decisions rather than enduring a physical battle. Maybe if he had chosen to stay and fight he would have created more of an external journey, but his thoughtfulness and inner conflict lead him on an internal one. The idea of physical or mental heroic actions is only the beginning...
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