The Genre of Epic

a quasi-manifesto
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Nowadays the word "epic" gets tossed around a lot. It is used to describe anything which is a) long, b) lofty, and c) significant in some way or other. When the word is not being used ironically (e.g. "I had an epic conversation with a telemarketer last night") — which is fairly rare, I imagine — it is generally applied to films like Spartacus or The Lord of the Rings, films intent on telling a story. It is interesting that the word retains that narrative connotation; and that it is still a term of box-office approval.

Not surprisingly, the word comes to us from Greek. Epikos (> Latin epicus > French épique > English epic) meant something having to do with epos — an interesting word in its own right which could mean "a line of epic verse" or (in Homer) "word, speech" and later could mean "an epic poem" or even "epic poetry" itself. The ancient Greek language itself, then, was keen to emphasise that epic was human speech, arranged into lines, assembled into poems, collectable as a genre. Even more interestingly, as Richard Martin has shown in his book The Language of Heroes, the Greek word muthos originally meant a "speech act"; epic poetry was thus a type of myth not only in our modern sense of the word, but in the sense that it was language as action, assertion, announcement, attestation.

It is safe to say that every culture, except our modern one, maintained or maintains an oral tradition of agreed-upon lore. A segment of that lore would naturally concern past events, relating the adventures of gods or mortals (or gods and mortals) which had transpired once upon a time. In lieu of the continuous and more or less infinite description of linear time we call Chronology, however, our ancestors focused their lore on particularly memorable episodes involving particular personalities: the Greek word hero, for example, designates such a participant in the events of once-upon-a-time, never being applied to real people. Oral tradition, then, or this handing down of a limited body of material, was not an accumulation of information about the past but the perpetual reworking, generation to generation, of tales in their retelling.

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Doubtless, all human beings, then or now, tell stories. In traditional oral cultures, however, it was sometimes the case that a society might, depending on how rich it was, be able to sustain a caste of professional, specialist storytellers. Examples are the Bosnian guslars, Welsh bards, Iroquois Keepers, Egyptian shaeri, West African griots, Anglo-Saxon and Norse scops, and a hundred others; the Homeric rhapsodes ("song-stitchers") of Greece were one such caste. An environment of social stability and prosperity not only allowed professional guilds of this sort to flourish; it also promoted competition among performers, resulting in a close attention to craftsmanship not always possible in unspecialised oral traditions.

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Unfortunately, performative epic poetry, rooted in oral tradition, was exposed to two dangers: external catastrophe from social breakdown, and internal loss of momentum within the culture. The fate of the Bosnian guslars is an example of both dangers: when Turkish rule was withdrawn from Bosnia in the early 20th century, the Muslim elite who had patronised the epic poets faded away, along with the court environment in which a guslar had been indispensable. Simultaneously, the rise of literacy in the 20th century made the book, and not the guslar, Bosnia's primary access-point to history. Like the guslars, the ancient Greek rhapsodes faded from the scene when faced with the double threat of the dispersion of Greek population and wealth across the Mediterranean following Alexander's conquests, on the one hand, and the rise of the papyrus roll as the authoritative medium of Homeric verse on the other. Other epic traditions have not been as fortunate: Anglo-Saxon epic has vanished entirely, for example, with the exception of Beowulf; many another nation's, we may presume, has left no trace.

One by one, then, sooner or later, unwept or well mourned, the traditions of performative narrative poetry in the Western world have died. The mainstream of the English language (that is, not counting English-speakers from still-traditional cultures) simply lacks this medium of expression; statistically, it is all but guaranteed that an anglophone will grow up without exposure to it. The loss of this medium might be attributed to factors of social change, or be said to accompany such factors, or (rather radically) be considered the cause of social change; it might be argued that narrative has "naturally" shifted from the speaker's mouth to the glowing screen; it might be taken for granted that revival of such a medium is inherently impossible. That performative epic, in short, if dead, must stay dead.

But these are merely prejudices; they stem from the widespread view that history is just implacable fate in disguise. The opposite argument might be made, that the demise of epic is a historical accident, like the demise of hats. If The Plains of Abraham succeeds, modeled initially on ancient epic but in its essence nothing more than the timeless medium of formal, metrical storytelling, it will only serve to prove again, modestly, that real speech is different from ephemeral technology, because the voice and the story are, and will always be, the supremely human attributes, as capable of refinement today as they were three thousand years ago.

Nevertheless, it may well be asked, "If there are a good many epic traditions, in one state of prosperity or another, still alive in the world, why choose the dead tradition of Homeric poetry as the main model?"

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There are two answers to this question, the one practical and the other one romantic. The practical answer is that ancient Greek, though not very easy, is not impossibly hard; and that the comprehension of poetry is not so much the comprehension of a language, anyway, so much as it is the combination of language and cultural mentality. Though the reader of ancient Greek is confined to a basically solitary experience of ancient Greek culture, absorbed during countless hours struggling up through the darkness of grammar and vocabulary towards the sunlight of fluency, the ancient language and culture nevertheless become in the process as much one's own as they are anyone else's; whereas to undertake to immerse oneself in an equally foreign but still living tradition is to remain forever an outsider, tolerated with amusement, regarded with curiosity, and passively excluded from the quick subtleties of nuance and allusion of a living language and world. A text fixed on the page can seem pale, in contrast to the blushing health of a living tradition, but it can hold still long enough to be studied, understood, and rendered. That is the practical answer. Practically, too, Homer is awesome.

If a dead epic tradition is the more pliable model, then, the follow-up question is, Why Homer and not Vyasa? Why Homer and not Beowulf or Deganawida? And here we get the romantic answer. As mentioned above, the demise of performative epic is often understood as an effect of literacy, of dispersal, of cultural and social and technological change. This is because the history of Western epic has naturally been interwoven with the history of Western life; certain types of epic (Virgilian, Miltonic) must, we tend to assume, correspond to certain levels of literacy, self-consciousness, or reproduction technology (the papyrus roll, the printing press). Alas, this is post hoc propter hoc, the fallacy of fatalism. In choosing Homer as its model, The Plains of Abraham is not only sticking to the European literary tradition (which happens to be the composer's cultural heritage): it is also asserting that a return to an ancient narrative medium, speech, is possible in the very heart of the culture which is responsible for modernity. Homer is not only the embodiment of the epic genre in the West; his undeniable supremacy, as the origin-point of Western literature itself, makes for an anti-progressivist touchstone in a culture haunted by fatalistic ideas about the past. After all, in the end, epic is always, everywhere, about the resurrection of the glorious dead - in performance - and the affirmation of the hero's right to choose.