Epic Works Essay, Research Paper
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
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.
Milton’s main goal was to “justify the ways of God to men.” (Norton 2179)
All three works are long narrative poems that are grand both in theme and
style fulfilling the basic definition of an epic. Of the three epics only the
Odyssey involved actions of great glory by the central hero. In the Divine
Comedy and Paradise Lost, the main characters are not fighting monsters or
outwitting Cyclops. Dante walks through Hell, and views the fate of man, Adam
and Eve are manipulated by God and Satan but are not gods nor do they have god-
like qualities. The influence of the supernatural is an outside force in the
Divine Comedy and Paradise Lost. In the Odyssey, Odysseus possesses many god-
like qualities himself.
The central theme of each epic is somewhat different. In the Odyssey, the
central theme seems to be Odysseus against the world. He stands the test
through opposition by the gods, other men, and the forces of nature. In the
Divine Comedy, Dante, a normal man, takes a walk through the many levels of hell,
expressing the faith of medieval Christianity. Paradise Lost, by Milton is
simply a representation of the ideals of mediaeval Christian rational.
Though each work is classified as an epic, they share only a few of the
basic traits of an epic poem. However, more than anything each provides insight
into the thoughts and beliefs of people in our history. These epic works take
us on an imaginary voyage; one through the amazing journeys of a single man, one
through an imaginary trip through hell in which the political and philosophical
thought of the time can be experienced, and one through an account of a
religious thought for that day. All of these epics serve to remind us that no
matter how far mankind has come, we still have a long way to go in our journey
be it spiritual or earthly.
“Epic.” Webster’s Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary. 1983 ed.
Homer. “The Odyssey.” Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed. Maynard
Mack. 6th ed. 2 vols. New York: Norton, 1992.
Milton, John. “Paradise Lost.” Norton Anthology of World Masterpieces. Ed.
Maynard Mack. 6th ed. 2 vols. New York: Norton, 1992.