Characteristics of an Epic

Characteristics of an Epic

Q. Define epic and write down the characteristics of an epic.


An epic is a lengthy narrative poem, often written in elevated language, that chronicles the adventures and achievements of a heroic protagonist and typically deals with grand themes and events of cultural or national significance.

Epics often involve interactions with gods or other supernatural beings. They may present a moral lesson or a reflection on heroism and human endeavors against the backdrop of a vast setting. 

Classic examples of epics include Homer‘s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil‘s Aeneid, and John Milton‘s Paradise Lost.

Characteristics of Epic

  1. Invocation to a Muse
  2. Heroic Protagonist
  3. Grand Setting
  4. Supernatural Elements
  5. Lofty Language
  6. Begins “In Medias Res”
  7. Enumerations
  8. Long, Formal Speeches
  9. Epic Simile
  10. Hero’s Journey
1- Invocation to a Muse 

In many epics, the poet starts by calling upon a muse, a divine figure of inspiration, to help tell the story. This act also shows the poet’s respect and need for guidance to relay a story of such magnitude correctly.

Examples: Three epics will be discussed as examples to explain the characteristics of epic.

1 John Milton’s Paradise Lost  2- Homer’s The Illiad 3 Virgil’s the Aeneid

Paradise Lost. John Milton begins his epic Paradise Lost by invoking the “Heav’nly Muse” to aid him in narrating man’s first disobedience and its consequences. He seeks divine guidance to soar above the Aonian mount, traditionally linked to classical poets.

The Iliad. Homer opens with “Sing, Goddess, the anger of Peleus’ son Achilles,” calling upon a divine entity to guide his recounting of the Trojan War events and Achilles’s rage.

The Aeneid. Virgil commences with “I sing of arms and the man,” while the direct call to the muse comes later. He seeks divine assistance in narrating Aeneas’s journey and the founding of Rome.

2- Heroic Protagonist

Every great epic story has a main character known as the heroic protagonist. This character is not just any regular person but someone with extraordinary qualities. They usually have unmatched bravery and face daunting challenges head-on.

Paradise Lost. In this epic, Adam, the first man, takes center stage. While he makes mistakes, his journey towards understanding and seeking redemption highlights his heroic nature. He faces moral dilemmas and makes decisions that affect all humanity.

The Odyssey. In Homer’s epic, Odysseus is the hero. He is not just brilliant; he is clever, using his intelligence to outwit monsters, gods, and other challenges as he tries to return home.

Aeneid. In Virgil’s epic “Aeneid,” Aeneas, a Trojan warrior, travels to create a place that later turns into Rome. Aeneas embodies duty, purity, and leadership qualities, making sacrifices for the greater good. 

Ramayana. Similarly, in the ancient Indian epic “Ramayana,” Prince Rama goes on a quest to rescue his wife, showing courage and dedication.

3- Grand Setting

An epic story does not take place in just any ordinary spot. It happens across vast landscapes, often covering multiple cities, nations, or even worlds. This big setting matches the big adventures of the hero.

Such grand settings amplify the magnitude of the hero’s journey, painting a vivid backdrop that complements their monumental challenges and feats.

The Odyssey. In this epic, the central character, Odysseus, does not just stick to one place. He sails across vast seas, encounters mysterious islands, and faces mythical creatures. Each location presents its challenges and mysteries, making his journey back home all the more adventurous.

The Aeneid. In this epic, Aeneas’s journey takes him from the ruins of Troy through various lands and challenges and ultimately to Italy’s shores. The diverse settings, from battles at sea to encounters in the underworld, showcase the vastness of his destined path.

Paradise Lost. This epic is not restricted to earthly realms. It expands its narrative canvas to cosmic proportions, encompassing Heaven, Hell, and the Garden of Eden. The grandeur of these settings magnifies the profound themes of temptation, rebellion, and redemption.

4- Supernatural Elements

Epic stories often feature elements beyond the ordinary world. These are things that cannot be explained by nature or science. These fantastical components amplify the stakes of the hero’s journey, hinting at forces larger than life at play.

The Odyssey. Odysseus faces more than just human challenges. He encounters magical creatures such as the one-eyed Cyclops and gets entangled in the whims of powerful gods like Poseidon and Athena. These elements make his journey home more dangerous and fascinating.

The Aeneid. More than just mortal decisions shape Aeneas’s journey. Roman deities, both helpful and hindering, cross his path.

From Venus’s protective guidance to Juno’s obstructions, the supernatural influences are pivotal in Aeneas’s quest.

Paradise Lost. The narrative is not limited to Adam and Eve’s story. The epic includes the celestial realm, bringing forth angels, demons, and the age-old battle between good and evil.

With his rebellion against God, characters like Satan introduce grand supernatural conflicts that shape human history.

5- Lofty Language

Epic stories often use high and grand language. It is not just everyday talk; it is a style that sounds elevated and important. This kind of language helps show that the story and its characters are special and out of the ordinary.

The meter, or rhythmic structure, in epics, is not only a tool for poetic expression but also helps to create a grandiose.

Paradise Lost. John Milton employs a meter called blank verse in “Paradise Lost.” The blank verse consists of unrhymed lines of iambic pentameter. This meter provides a steady rhythm, making it suitable for lengthy narrative epics.

The Iliad. Homer’s “The Iliad” is written in dactylic hexameter, a meter common to ancient Greek epics. Each line typically consists of six dactyls (a long syllable followed by two short ones), although variations can occur.

With its repeated pattern, this rhythm provides a grand and flowing sound to the story’s grandeur.

The Aeneid. Following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Homer, Virgil’s “The Aeneid” is also written in dactylic hexameter.

Given that the “Aeneid” was crafted as a Latin epic to rival the Greek classics, it makes sense that Virgil would employ the same meter.

The steady rhythm of the dactylic hexameter imparts an elevated style fitting for Aeneas’s monumental journey to establish Rome.

6- Begins “In Medias Res”

Some stories do not start at the beginning. Instead, they kick off right in the middle, catching us in the thick of action or drama. This approach is called “in medias res,” which means “in the middle of things.”

Paradise Lost. Instead of starting with the world’s creation, Milton begins with Satan and the fallen angels in Hell. Only later do we learn about their rebellion against God and their earlier state in Heaven.

The Iliad. Homer does not start with the beginning of the Trojan War. Instead, we are thrown into a conflict in its tenth year, with Achilles’ anger against Agamemnon as the focal point.

The Aeneid. Virgil’s tale does not open with the start of Aeneas’s journey but with a storm at sea caused by Juno’s wrath as Aeneas travels to Italy. The causes and earlier adventures are detailed later.

7- Enumerations

Epics often use enumeration, a technique for listing details or events. This helps convey the grand scale of certain aspects of the epic.

Paradise Lost. Milton gives detailed accounts of the fallen angels in Satan’s army. By naming and describing them, he underlines the vastness and might of the rebellious forces against Heaven.

The Iliad. Homer frequently provides lists, such as the “Catalogue of Ships” in Book 2. he details all the Greek contingents participating in the Trojan War, highlighting the enormity of the conflict and the varied groups taking part.

The Aeneid. Virgil uses enumeration when Aeneas visits the underworld. Aeneas encounters a series of future Roman heroes yet to be born. By listing them, Virgil shows Rome’s extensive lineage.

8- Long, Formal Speeches in Epics

In epics, characters often give long, important speeches. These speeches are grand and add depth to the story by revealing the characters’ feelings or the tale’s themes.

Paradise Lost. Satan delivers a powerful speech to his fallen angels after their defeat. Through this, Milton shows Satan’s persuasive skills and determination, setting the tone for their rebellion against Heaven.

The Iliad. After feeling dishonoured by Agamemnon, Achilles gives a passionate speech, expressing his anger and considering leaving the Trojan War.

This speech by Homer’s hero shows his pride and the grave implications of his potential withdrawal.

The Aeneid. In Virgil’s epic, Aeneas recounts the fall of Troy to Queen Dido in a long, emotional narrative. This speech not only provides a backstory but also highlights Aeneas’s deep sense of loss and duty.

9- Epic Simile 

Epic similes are extended comparisons that go on for several lines. They often compare heroic or epic events to simple, everyday occurrences, adding depth and detail to the story.

Paradise Lost. Milton uses an epic simile to compare Satan’s huge size to that of a massive sea beast spotted by sailors. This comparison emphasizes Satan’s immense stature and the surprise of the angels who see him.

The Iliad. In describing Achilles’ rapid and violent charge against the Trojans, Homer likens it to a wildfire devastating a forest. This simile vividly depicts Achilles’ unstoppable force on the battlefield.

The Aeneid. Virgil compares Aeneas’s deep sorrow and shock upon seeing Carthage’s murals (depicting the Trojan War) to a shepherd who discovers an exposed beehive. This simile conveys Aeneas’s unexpected encounter with his past.

10- Hero’s Journey 

The hero’s journey is a typical pattern in epics where the main character goes on an adventure, faces and overcomes difficulties, and then returns as a different person.

The Iliad. Achilles’ journey begins as a great warrior. His anger at Agamemnon makes him withdraw from battle. He faces internal struggles and external challenges, like the death of his friend Patroclus. Ultimately, he returns to combat, showing mercy to Priam and understanding the cost of war.

The Aeneid. Aeneas sets out from a fallen Troy and faces numerous challenges, from harrowing storms to wars in Italy. He learns about his destiny through prophecies and visions. By the end, he laid the foundation of what would become Rome, having matured as a leader.

Paradise Lost. Adam and Eve’s journey starts in the bliss of Eden. They face the challenge of Satan’s temptation, leading to their fall.

After their mistake, they seek redemption and begin a new life outside Eden, having gained knowledge and understanding. John Milton wrote “Paradise Lost” during the Restoration period. It carries significant influences from the Renaissance.

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