February 21, 1997
Epic Works
Epics by definition are long narrative poems, that are grand in both theme and style (Webster 417). They usually involve actions of great glory and are typically centered around historical or legendary events of universal significance. Most epics deal with the deeds of a single individual, however, it is not uncommon to have more than one main character. Epics embody several main features including: supernatural forces, sometimes the deity of the time, that shape the action; battles or other forms of physical combat; and a formal statement of the theme of the epic. Everyday details of life are commonplace and intricately woven into the background of each story in the same palatial style as the rest of the poem.
Epic poems are not merely entertaining stories of legendary or historical heroes; they summarize and express the nature or ideals of an entire nation at a significant or crucial point in its history. I have chosen for comparison the Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, and Paradise Lost.
The Odyssey, attributed to Homer is about Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, who sailed with his army to take part in war against Troy. After ten years of war, victory is declared and the armies of Odysseus have sailed for home. As the Odyssey begins, an additional 10 years have passed since the fall of Troy and Odysseus still has not returned to his home. The noblemen have converged on his palace seeking the hand of his lovely wife, Penelope. However, Penelope refuses their advances choosing to remain faithful to Odysseus.
During the ten years of his absence since the fall of Troy, Odysseus has traveled the world undertaking many unbelievable adventures and trials set upon him by the god Poseidon. Throughout his travels he along with his men sailed to many strange lands. These great adventures included tricking Polyphemus a Cyclops by being "nobody" (Norton 320), sailing to the end of the world and descending into Hell (Norton 340), successfully battling Scylla, a six-headed monster that devoured passing seamen (Norton 361) and finally, passing safely around a terrible whirlpool (Norton 366 - 367).
During his descent into Hell, Odysseus meets a sear who foretells that his wanderings would not end until peace is made with Poseidon. This sear also tells him that he will return home and re-establish himself as king.
Finally as the Odyssey concludes, Odysseus does return home to a house and country in turmoil. His wife is besieged by suitors, his son is now a grown man and his country is facing certain civil war. In the final acts, order is restored with the assistance of the goddess Athene.
In Dante's epic, The Divine Comedy, he tells of a journey through hell, purgatory, and heaven. This epic is divided into three sections. In each of the sections he meets with mythological, historical, and contemporary individuals. Each individual encountered during the journey represents a religious or political symbol of fault or virtue. In addition, specific punishments and rewards are associated with each fault and virtue. Dante uses each punishment and reward to illustrate the larger meaning of human actions in the universal plan.
Paradise Lost is considered by some to be one of the greatest poems in world literature and most certainly John Milton’s masterpiece. In its 12 cantos Milton tells the story of the fall of Adam and the loss of Paradise. Satan has been expelled from heaven with his fallen angels. In Hell, Satan formulates a plan to find the new creations God has made - man and woman. Meanwhile, God tells his Son that Satan will be successful in corrupting man. But because, man was tricked by Satan, man will be given grace if someone in heaven will die for man’s sin.
To fulfill his plan, Satan tempts Eve in a dream. The next morning Eve suggests that she and Adam work separately that day. Gradually she is persuaded by Satan, who has taken the form of a serpent, to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. Realizing her folly, Eve shares the fruit with Adam, who also eats it. This is considered the fall of man.
In Heaven God tells of the final victory of the Son over Sin and Death. This epic is told in a context of extensive drama using profound speculations.