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Epic and Fantasy

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As some may have seen, there's been a nice lively discussion going on at this thread regarding epic genre. This blog entry is partly a response to an excellent post by Bluevictim defending the possibility of a 21st century national epic and questioning whether fantasy is the appropriate genre for the continuation of an epic tradition. I found that there were so many thoughts I wished to express on the subject of epic and fantasy that I had better turn it into a blog entry rather than clutter up an ongoing discussion. Hope something in this may be of interest to both those following that thread and to others. Thanks for reading.

Homer is always a good place to start when talking about epic. In the thread we've been mostly referring to the Iliad, but now I'd like to bring in the Odyssey as well in contrast to the Iliad, because it's an essential work for beginning to consider the fantasy element of epic literature. The Iliad belongs to the line of what I like to term straight epic. It is based fairly firmly in reality in that (with a few exceptions) the majority of the actions that take place among the men could hypothetically take place in real life. There are fantastic elements, but they do not really progress to the realm of what most would call full blown fantasy. The fantastic tends to fall into two categories in the Iliad. One is hyperbole, in which say, the strength of one of the heroes is intensified beyond what is normal (or in some cases even possible) for a man. This is a fantasy element that is still directly rooted to the realm of the possible and the real, just intensified and carried to an inflated level: super human but still human.

The other fantastic elements are all in connection with the gods. Though readers today may perceive the gods as a type of fantasy figure, Blue makes a good point in suggesting that they were a part of the belief system of the Ancient Greeks and thus less figures of fantasy than of the credible supernatural or divine (though it is eternally up for debate as to what extent Homer and the people of his time regarded these figures as serious deities rather than in a more allegorical sense. I'm not going to delve into that muddle here). Regardless of how you interpret them, one thing to point out about the function of the gods in the Iliad in terms of the topic of fantasy in epic is that most of the results of their actions are things that are realistic. Apollo's arrows at the beginning manifest themselves as a completely believable plague. Despite its divine provenance, Achilles' sheild is also a realistic piece of armor--perhaps stronger than would be expected, and exceptionally well decorated, but not explicitly magical (i.e., it doesn't make him invisible or something of that sort). There are tinges of fantasy in the dealings with the gods, and some significant hyperbole about the actions of the men, but the point here is that if you took out the back story of the gods' activities, and you played down the more fantastic elements, the main story of the battle might be less fun, but it would still make sense and it wouldn't necessitate any huge holes in the narrative. For the most part, the world of the divine or supernatural does not explicitly manifest itself in the world of men in a way that creates any results significantly contrary to a basis in reality (one possible exception is the scene in which Hektor gets magically transported back to the boudoir in the midst of his duel with Achilles, though a dense fog makes it tentatively plausible).

One other thing to note is that the Iliad is also a straight epic in terms of its form. The story goes straight through on a linear track through all twenty four books, without an significant backtracking or narrative diversion. There's also a unity and cohesiveness to the story in that the focus and setting of the narrative both remain steady. We get scenes set in Olympus among the gods, but these always relate directly back to the happenings around Troy.

As many of you probably know already,this is in contrast to the Odyssey, which is both structured around a flashback narrative, and which essentially strings together several smaller narratives and folds them into a larger narrative as opposed to following the line of a single long narrative. The Odyssey is not a straight epic like the Iliad, but a traveling or wandering epic. It combines stories of what is going on in Ithaca, stories of what is going on with Telemachus both in Ithaca and on his travels, and, of course, all the many stories of what befalls Odysseus as he wanders the world. Furthermore it doesn't group all of these stories in straight chronological order, but does a little back and forth between narratives. It is cohesive in that it has an overarching narrative arc of Odysseus being missed at home and then Odysseus arriving home, but it goes all sorts of places, both in terms of plot content and structure, before it ties everything up at the end.

The Odyssey also differs from the straight epic of the Iliad in that taking out the supernatural or fantasy elements of the Odyssey, would leave significant holes at the mortal level of the story because there are many more explicitly fantasy encounters that occur. Monsters such as the Cyclops, Scylla and Charybdis, or witches like Circe who turn men into swine are clearly not realistic elements of the story. The journey to the underworld to converse with ghosts is another instance of mortals entering a realm of fantasy or the supernatural. None of these things is founded in the world of real life. The fact that these creatures and events take place in far off places where (to quote Star Trek) "no man has gone before," allowed the audience to open up to the possibility of entertaining these ideas, since the distant settings made them much harder to fully disprove than it is today. This might also mean that some people of the time could possibly have believed, or partly believed some of these tales. Still, such characters and events were and are clearly part of a realm of invention and fantasy, unlike the events that occur between the warriors of the Iliad, which are mostly things that a real Greek could conceivably experience, just exaggerated.

Thus, the Odyssey laid certain foundations in terms of wandering narrative style, use of explicitly fantasy elements, and the association of fantasy with exploration and distant lands. Since both of these epics were set in the past, even for Homer, together they set the precedent for setting epic and/or fantasy both long ago and far away that has continued through the ages right up to the Star Wars films. Indeed, both the straight, realistic, nature of the Iliad and the traveling, fantastic, nature of the Odyssey created a line of influence that contributed to the development of both the epic and the fantasy traditions, and the Homeric basis is also one reason of the reasons that these two traditions have been eternally intertwined together throughout their history.

Well, I seem to have eaten up all my spare time today with Homer, but if anyone is interested in this subject, I'd be happy to continue this as a series in parts on my blog, tracing fantasy and epic up through Milton. Just let me know in the comments if that's something that would be of interest to you.


  1. Virgil's Avatar
    Arate, arate, arate. I've taken part, but it seems some people are just repeating themselves. I think what I would like to do is take a few modern so called epic like works and discuss their shortcomings as epics, despite their great standing as literature otherwise.
  2. Petrarch's Love's Avatar
    It would seem I'm not the only one who's been tempted to employ the brick wall smilie recently. I think I give up. Say, are you guys still discussing the Aeneid? I may go check out what's happening over there. Hmm...what works would you nominate as modern epics?
  3. Virgil's Avatar
    Yes we're still discussing The Aeneid, but very slowly. We're in the middle of Book IV. Modern epics I have given some thought to: Cervantes' Don Quixote, Wordsworth's The Prelude, Melville's Moby Dick, Tolstoy's War and Peace, Joyce's Ullysses. All of which are great literature, but I think fail as epics for various reasons.
  4. kiz_paws's Avatar
    Just let me know in the comments if that's something that would be of interest to you
    Yes, it would be very interesting to read what your thoughts are, you are well written, Petrarch's Love. As for mulling what a modern epic would be, umm, don't laugh. How about Gone With The Wind and maybe Wilde's only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray? Just some thoughts. ~~ Kizzo
  5. B-Mental's Avatar
    What is fantastic for one, may be common for the other. I love the entry. I disagree with Virgil on War & Peace not being an epic. Its epic in scope, intensity, and carries on the common man as peaceful, but capable of cruelty.
  6. Virgil's Avatar
    Actually B-M, of all the modern attempts at epic War and Peace I think comes the closest to epic, as I define it. Mind you it's as I define it.
  7. 's Avatar
    I guess I'm a little late, but thanks for the interesting entry about fantasy and the Homeric epics! Sounds like a fun series ahead. I'm sure I'm not the only one who would be interested in reading your thoughts on the relationship of fantasy and epic from Homer through Milton.
  8. Virgil's Avatar
    Just wanted to post in here. I have nothing really to say. Comments number was stuck at 99 and I just wanted to be number 100.
  9. Petrarch's Love's Avatar
    Thanks for the 100th comment Virg.! And thanks for the comments from everyone on my epic/fantasy entry. Since a few people look interested, I'll post the next entry in the series later this week when I've got a bit of free time.