ABSTRACT

Epic was once considered to be the highest literary form, a poet’s greatest achievement. Its cultural importance was such that entire societies could be defined by and through it. Ancient Greece produced Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey; Rome had Virgil and the Aeneid. In the Judaeo-Christian tradition, the first five books of the Old Testament could be considered to be an epic. Later books that deal with the establishment of the Kingdoms of Judea and Israel could additionally be defined as variants of historical epic. The Bible differs from the classical Western lineage in not being consciously poetic and in not being supposedly written by one person, but the two traditions have one major defining feature in common: status. The epic in this view is an identifiable literary form with a crucial cultural prominence. Its scope lends itself to grand narratives that incorporate various myths of origin intermingled with memories of historical events and personages. It passes through various stages, with particularly critical resonance for English poetry as it accompanies the development of a nascent British Empire. Spenser and Milton both, in their own ways, seed their work with a peculiarly Protestant epic ethos. Recent modern writing such as Walcott’s Omeros and

Atwood’s Penelopiad revisit this long history through their respective post-colonial and feminist intertextual retrospectives. However, it should not be forgotten that the epic developed

out of a communal impetus to cultural memory before it became a written form. The verbal and performative elements play off against the literary in different ways for different cultures, and therefore historical precision needs to be applied to individual epic texts in order to avoid generalisation. For example, the Aeneid is conceived and executed as a purely literary form, one that is engaged in conversation with its Homeric predecessors, in addition to other considerations. It is not produced by and for an oral/aural community in and through performance. Even so, much of its reworking of the myths of Roman origins is derived from folk traditions. Many more examples could be adduced of the ways in which different epics work through the relationship between the oral and the literary, something that is a main concern of the present volume. Jack Goody points to the inherent difficulties in unravelling how epic relates to the society that produces it, especially when that society is almost entirely non-literate. His chapter on Africa, Greece and oral poetry in The Interface Between the Written and the Oral (Goody 1993: 78-109) is of particular value in relation to this issue. He characterises the processes of composition and performance of oral African works and he then uses these as a point of departure, producing a comparative methodology by which he is able to draw analogies with Homer’s Greek-speaking culture. Goody’s point is that there is no straightforward or clear-cut distinction between a purely oral culture and its epics on the one hand, and a purely literate one on the other. Instead, there is a series of possible combinations between the two extremes. It is tempting to articulate the relationship between the oral

and the literate in terms of a classic binary opposition. However, it is perhaps much more fruitful to see the relation as dynamic, a productive tension between two extremes of the same logic, albeit differentiated culturally and historically depending on which particular epic is being discussed. This is an important caveat, because for most of us in the twenty-first century epic in the traditional sense has become an unfamiliar form. In popular usage,

in a return to the communal roots of the term, ‘epic’ is an adjective that is applied to any grand sweeping narrative in a multitude of possible forms: film; television; the novel; roleplaying and computer games, all have their own epic productions. Range, scope and sheer size define what can be described as epic. This element of ancient and classical epic has served to become its most significant defining feature. This volume seeks to trace the history of this shift while at

the same time making the various texts and forms accessible. The process of change is very uneven, much more so than the schematic history initially laid out here. But it should be possible to chart the various ways in which the standing of epic forms is affected. There are two major considerations. The first is the relationship between a given epic form or work and the culture within and for which it was produced. The second is the subsequent history of that same work when it is appropriated, reinvented, subsumed, consumed or even ultimately marginalised and forgotten by later cultures.