The Essence of Epicness

These days, a lot of things are described as "epic." I, however, would like to rehabilitate the more original, literary meaning of the word, describing stories of massive scope and ambition. I'll talk about some of my favorite epic books, and then I'll ask the question of how we can make comparisons between these stories, i.e. what makes one story more epic than another. Is it the breadth and depth of the universe it creates? Is it the astonishment and awe that the feats and actions of its heroes inspire in us? Is it the beauty the story holds in its tapestry of interwoven characters and fates? Let's explore the essence of epicness.

Originally, epics were a type of poetry, like Homer's Iliad, the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf, or the Sanskrit Mahabharata. These are stories with great heroes, stories that extend over great distances and adventures, as well as over a great amount of time spent reading them or listening to them. Here's the first stanza of the Odyssey:
Tell me, O muse, of that ingenious hero who traveled far and wide after he had sacked the famous town of Troy. Many cities did he visit, and many were the nations with whose manners and customs he was acquainted; moreover he suffered much by sea while trying to save his own life and bring his men safely home; but do what he might he could not save his men, for they perished through their own sheer folly in eating the cattle of the Sun-god Hyperion; so the god prevented them from ever reaching home. Tell me, too, about all these things, O daughter of Jove, from whatsoever source you may know them. (source)
The cover art of the LotR editions I read. (source)
However, while this sort of poetry may originally have been what was "epic," The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien is definitely what first comes to my mind when anyone talks about epic writing. Tolkien is famous for creating an entire mythic universe—, and within that Arda, or Middle Earth. Not only did Tolkien imagine this entire universe, but he created an entire history for it, legends for it, and several complete languages for it besides. This universe, or legendarium, goes far beyond the content of Tolkien's two famous novels, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. All of the characters seem to fit perfectly into the context of their histories and beliefs, such that no matter how fantastical the story may seem at first glance, reading the books from beginning to end makes one believe no place could be more real.

J.R.R. Tolkien had a friend who also became a famous author of fantasy books—C.S. Lewis. The Chronicles of Narnia contain seven books, written and published in a mixed-up chronological order, all containing tales of time travel, parallel universes, and a fantasy kingdom ruled by children, undergirded by subtle Christian allegory. Though they may not be my favorite books today, what I find interesting about the Chronicles of Narnia is how powerful children and adults alike may find their messages. Is an epic strengthened by having a moral to it?

In more recent decades there have been epic movie sagas as well, like George Lucas's Star Wars. Basically everyone who has had access to a movie theater and TV set in the last few decades has probably heard of Star Wars, and those who haven't seen it are regularly shunned. (I've seen it happen.) The first three movies released (episodes IV-VI) are an epic saga unto themselves, but then decades later episodes I-III were made as well, although they received much more criticism than the originals. One thing that can be said for Star Wars is that it has a really great story arc: While its ordering may be unorthodox, and the two sets of three a little disjointed, the drama that brings it all together is really wonderful entertainment. The Star Wars universe is vast as well, and its been expanded by many books, comics, video games, TV shows and more that extend well beyond the movies.

Then there's Harry Potter, the literary phenomenon of my generation. My friends and I all grew up with Harry, and anyone who wasn't hooked on the books (and it was hard not to be) at least watched all the movies that followed. Harry Potter is a massive series, with seven installments each a story unto themselves. However, it is perhaps the least epic of the works mentioned so far, because it focuses on a single protagonist and only spans seven years. Nevertheless, that certainly doesn't make the books any less awesome, and you can certainly argue with my opinion. (After all, the Odyssey focuses on a single protagonist as well, and the story lasts for ten years.) J.K. Rowling did create a magical universe for her characters, but I believe the way in which she led her readers to explore that world was much more concentrated in scope than with other epic writers.


Lastly I'll bring up another author that my girlfriend and I enjoy reading—Ken Follett. Originally a mystery writer, Follett turned to historical fiction and gained fame with his work set in medieval England called Pillars of the Earth, which was followed years later by a distant sequel, World Without End. Now Follett has published Fall of Giants, the first part of a trilogy that will interweave in the stories many different European and American perspectives on the 20th century. Follett is an amazing writer because of how his novels feature an amazing variety of characters whose stories intersect in interesting and ever-surprising ways, all coming together to produce highly satisfying conclusions. Each of the three books I mentioned has about a thousand pages, and yet they're never boring. In fact, you can read them (and want to read them) as quickly as you can: It might take as little as two or three days! The books are epic in their deftly woven plot lines, and epic in how they entrance their readers as well.

So, which of these works do find expresses the essence of epicness best? What is your favorite epic? Let me know, and let epic reading abound!

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