Looking at epics ancient and modern, each of the 12 essays in this collection offers deeply considered insights into the significance of epic as a literary form.
Nowadays the word “epic” is used loosely to denote various works that are large, sprawling, contain heroic adventure, or have large casts of characters. Robert McKee, in his screenwriting text Story, defines a “modern epic” as a story that features the conflict of “the individual against the state”. But epic is much more than this.
Aristotle, when he named epic as one of the four genres of poetry (the others being comedy, tragedy, and “dithyrambic” or lyric), defined it as a long connected narrative, in contrast with the genre that interested him most: tragedy, which was dramatic (performed) and so of greater inherent power than a narrative, which was simply told.
This book, prepared by a group of scholars at The Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture under the guidance of Louise Cowan (who provides the excellent introduction), aims to right the scales a bit by examining what makes epic a valuable and profound genre in its own right.
In her introduction, “Epic as Cosmopoesis”, Cowan sketches the vision of epic taken by the group: the true heart of epic as a genre lies not in a checklist of features (invoking the muse, stating the theme, etc.) nor even in conventionally heroic deeds, but in its culture-defining role. Epic describes the cosmos of a culture, and depicts the struggle involved in its birth or transformation.
In the opinion of Cowan and the other scholars, epic did not die out with the publication of Paradise Lost. Epic lives on in any work that seriously engages the epic themes, which Cowan gives as: penetration of the veil separating material and immaterial existence; the “eschatological expansion of time”; the restoration of equilibrium between masculine and feminine; and the linking of human action to a divine destiny. From this point of view, epic lives on through the work of modern and contemporary writers such as Faulkner, Caroline Gordon, and Toni Morrison.
Most of the essays examine aspects of individual epics, including all the major standard ones: the Iliad, the Odyssey, Exodus, the Aeneid, the Divine Comedy, Paradise Lost. But there are also essays on the Gilgamesh epic, as well as Go Down, Moses by Faulkner and Green Centuries by Caroline Gordon. The essays are all different, but they all share this common vision of epic as profound, serious, and relevant.
It is a deep, serious work for a deep, serious subject. I found it consistently illuminating and even thrilling to read. The great mass of contemporary narrative and dramatic entertainment suffers from a terrible frivolity and banality. Epic lies at the opposite extreme: works of art that treat the human enterprise as significant, difficult, painful, but also profound, joyous, and total. True epics are created by the greatest talents working under the greatest inspiration and stress.
Because of this book I’ve just finished reading Green Centuries, and have gone out to get Robert Fagles’s translations of the Iliad and the Aeneid. The Epic Cosmos has done much to help make these works accessible and meaningful for me.
I recommend this book to anyone who wants to rediscover the excitement and wonder possible in literature.
(Note: I first wrote this review for Amazon.com in February 2008.)