"Epic" has been an over-used word for many years. (Lately, "iconic" has gotten just as bad. If people forgot that word altogether, I wouldn't mind.) There is a very specific definition for "epic," though, as a literary genre. In that context, "epic" is primarily used to refer to long narrative poetry, as you would find in Beowulf, the Iliad, the Odyssey, or the Mahabharata. Leaving the definition at that seems very narrow and unsatisfying. On the other hand, resorting to a definition such as "long narrative involving a hero" seems a bit too broad, even though one can find Senior theses, presentations, and peer-reviewed articles along just those lines. (In some ways, I prefer Faith No More's definition of "Epic," though we need not dwell on that here.)
In these posts, I'm going to offer some examples of what I believe to be more modern "epics." In some cases, this will stretch the usual understanding by going beyond literature. Though I don't think an epic needs to be old, it should be able to stand the test of time and remain relevant for a long period, at the least for what it says about the time it was made. Here are the rather loose criteria I plan to use:
1.) The work(s) must possess scope, depth, and/or creative ambition. It must be an attempt to accomplish something grand.
2.) There should be a persistent cultural influence on other creative works. How has it affected the literary, cinematic, and wider popular world we live in?
3.) It should interact with and draw upon previous creative works. (Homer drew on preexisting Greek stories and myths, the Aeneid plays off The Odyssey, the Mahabharata refashions Vedic stories, and so on.)
4.) The work(s) must comment on the dilemma of being human.
5.) For the purposes of these entries, I'll be selecting works that have great personal meaning. This will make the list idiosyncratic, but that's the point: take my ideas, change them, and come up with your own list.
This week's contender for the status of "New Epic": J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings.
The ambition, depth, and creativity of these books is unmistakable. Tolkien created an entirely alternate world, complete with maps, fully-formed languages of different races of beings (especially elvish), long genealogies of important characters, and thousands of years of back story. Entering these books means engaging with a three-dimensional universe.
The ongoing influence of The Lord of the Rings is also indisputable, whether it is music, movies, role-playing games, or literature. The entire fantasy genre would look very, very different and other elements of popular culture (like Dungeons and Dragons) might not exist at all. This is just the tip of the iceberg, as others have noted.
Tolkien also drew upon the ages of mythology that preceded him, as well as his traumatic experiences in World War I. From the former, he was especially influenced by Beowulf (having written perhaps the most influential article ever on that tale) and Norse legends, with their trolls, monsters, and magic rings. The Celtic heritage of elves, spirits, and fairies also makes an obvious contribution. Like an alchemist, Tolkien pulled in all these base sources, but transformed them into an entirely new substance.
That substance is alive throughout the mammoth work with comments on the human condition, even though many of the characters are not strictly "human." It is a world of polarities. Ethereal Elves are balanced out by barbaric Orcs, majestic Ents by dimwitted Trolls, soaring Eagles by foul dinosaur-like creatures. The same is found in the main characters: Gandalf is foiled by Saruman, Aragorn by Boromir, Theoden by Denethor, Frodo by Gollum. The first list, though, is of creatures defined by their natures. The second list of pairings finds the binaries separated by moral choices: Either gradually or by sudden urge, the likes of Gandaly, Aragorn, Theoden, and Frodo separate themselves from their structural opposites of Saruman, Boromir, Denethor, and Golloum by choosing hope, forgiveness, and fidelity over fear, vengeance, and selfishness. None of these "fallen" characters was irredeemable and none of the "heroic" characters was infallible. This is a story about how people are defined by their choices.
This is also, and much more centrally to me, a story about loss. Like many other epics, the centerpiece of the story is a journey, but this journey is unique in that the hero (Frodo) does not technically complete the quest and he is utterly broken by the experience. For me, the most wrenching line in the books' many pages comes when Frodo admits this fact to his friend Samwise: "The Shire is saved, but not for me."
I first read The Lord of the Rings when I was nine and I entered it as an adventure story, which it certainly is. Then, I rediscovered it during one of the best movie-going experiences of my life, seeing Peter Jackson's film version of The Fellowship of the Ring in 2001.
Rereading it many years later with my own children, I have come to appreciate how much this epic is shot through with the sadness of loss, a topic on which I have blogged before.. This is a story about seeing the world you've known come to an end. Everyone in these books is losing almost everything they held dear: the Elves are leaving for the West, the dwarves are sinking deeper and deeper into their mines and obscurity, the power of wizards has vanished. The land is filled with ruins and fallen kingdoms. Not even the destruction of the evil Sauron can arrest the march of time and change.
Whenever I read the books, I hope for Frodo to be strong enough, just this once, to destroy the ring and live happily ever after, but the genius of this epic is that Tolkien realized the hero must always fail. To live happily ever after is to never change, to never admit the journey has damaged you and the world around is always taking away those things most precious. Though I have some criticisms of the film versions of these books, the conclusion of Return of the King, particularly the closing song "Into the West" by Annie Lennox, captures this mood perfectly. The end of the tale is not triumphant but mournful.
In the book Meditations on Middle Earth, a collection of essays on Tolkien's influence on current writers, Michael Swanwick contributed a piece which I believe has perhaps the most insightful summary of this theme in The Lord of the Rings. He writes that the books tell us, "Those who are willing to pay for all they have, to suffer and make sacrifices, to toil selflessly and honorably, and then to surrender their authority over what remains, ultimately gain the satisfaction of knowing that the world has a future worth passing on to their children. But it has no place for them anymore."
Gilgamesh, The Iliad, The Mahabharata, and Beowulf all contain this same lament of familiar worlds passing away as new, uncertain futures are born. The Lord of the Rings poignantly communicates this same deeply human sorrow. This message has special meaning for me as, noted at the beginning, the origin of my interest in thinking anew about the epic genre is my nostalgia for the Core program and being part of its team. Worlds changing and passing away, indeed.
On another, more positive topic, an announcement: my book, Malleable Mara: Transformations of a Buddhist Symbol of Evil has a page and description on SUNY Press's website. The book will be available in March, at which time I will post a link to that.
Next time, I contemplate how an even more recent wizard-related book series fits my new definition of "epic." Until then, take care.