Epic and Genre: Beyond the Boundaries of Media
A paper presented to the Canadian Comparative Literature Association by Luke Arnott, May 26, 2014.
An expanded version of this was published in the journal Comparative Literature in December 2016.
No genre has been eulogized as long, as often – and yet with as much apparent futility – as the epic. Monumental tales such as the Epic of Gilgamesh are among the oldest surviving texts of any kind; indeed, these totalizing works which seek to encapsulate, if not encompass, an entire culture or history were perhaps felt by those who committed them to stone or to clay tablets to be the most important and worthy of writing down. Although the Iliad and the Odyssey are epics of an archaic Greece that was already at a cultural remove even from classical and Hellenic Greece, and although the Homeric epics are even further removed from the life of later “western” civilizations, they hold a special place in the western tradition for their influence on what the epic was for so long thought to be.
When the epic is conventionally understood along the lines of the Iliad or Gilgamesh, the genre is considered antiquated and irrelevant. Yet in recent years, there has been a greater popular interest in works that are considered “epic” in some way. Even scholars of traditional epic literature have noted this interest; in her Preface to The Cambridge Companion to Epic, Catherine Bates observes that the epic genre
is constantly being updated and revived for a modern audience, a flood of new, often celebrated, translations making the texts newly available and accessible to a general readership, while cinematic remakes and the perpetuation of epic motifs in contemporary blockbusters and computer games ensure that the form remains ever present in the popular consciousness. (ix)
Popular epics are now predominantly linked with “new” media. They can range from Dan Sinker’s The F***ing Epic Twitter Quest of @MayorEmanuel, a print collection of a two-thousand-post Twitter feed, to a variety of video games, from the galaxy-spanning Mass Effect series to the flighty Kirby’s Epic Yarn or Disney’s Epic Mickey. Although there have been a few critical efforts to conceptualize the epic beyond its literary roots, these have been limited in their scope or success. A more nuanced, historically-grounded and trans-media understanding of the epic would allow us to see how this type of cultural production is manifested in differing and unexpected social contexts, not least in our own. In turn, this understanding would bring critical depth to aesthetic criticism of complex popular media, the narratives of which often rely on their audience’s consumption of, and interpretive facility with, a number of complementary media forms. Today I would like to suggest a framework for interpreting the epic in this way, building on a synthesis of the ideas of some rather disparate critics of epic and genre.
Historically, analysis of the epic as such begins with Aristotle’s Poetics, and this text remains one with which critics of epic must grapple. For Aristotle, epic poetry – understood mostly as the Iliad – was the highest form of narrative literature, notable for its “seriousness”; in his view, this seriousness was taken over in Ancient Greek culture by the advent of tragic drama, which added some elements (different poetic meters within the same work, for instance) while narrowing the focus (i.e., adhering to the three “unities” of time, place, and action). Yet epic continued to excel at conveying scope and grandeur in an elevated style:
Epic poetry has, however, a great – a special – capacity for enlarging its dimensions … owing to the narrative form, many events simultaneously transacted can be presented; and these, if relevant to the subject, add mass and dignity to the poem. The Epic has here an advantage [over tragedy], and one that conduces to grandeur of effect, to diverting the mind of the hearer, and relieving the story with varying episodes (24.4)
Aristotle’s framework had a number of lasting effects in analyses of epic that followed. Three of his observations are of particular importance: the idea that the epic proper is a “dead” genre, leading to the distinction between the primary/oral epic (i.e., Homer) and the secondary/written epic (Virgil et al.); the idea of the valorized quality of the epic’s language; and, finally, the idea of the great scope allowed by its episodic, paratactic structure. Remarkably, this framework of epic genre theory persisted for over two millennia, and still has some force, even though Aristotle’s discussion of Homer depends on the historical context of the sixth through fourth centuries BC. (Nagy 27) What would permanently disrupt Aristotle’s schema is the novel, itself a problematic genre, not least because it is formally very different from the epic, but often shares many of the same thematic and socio-cultural functions.
Mikhail Bakhtin explicitly took Aristotle’s genre theory as a starting point when trying to make sense of the novel. In his seminal essay “Epic and Novel,” Bakhtin says that “Aristotle’s poetics, although occasionally so deeply embedded as to be almost invisible, remains the stable foundation for the theory of genres” – that is, until the arrival of the novel, in the face of which “genre theory must submit to a radical re-structuring.” (8) For Bakhtin, the epic is the product of a monological culture, closed off in the past, “complete” in that sense, and therefore exhibiting “epic distance.” The novel, conversely, concerns itself with life that is contemporaneous with its audience, is dialogic, and is still evolving. “It is precisely laughter that destroys the epic,” stresses Bakhtin, as the familiarity that comes from laughter is what removes distance. (23) Bakhtin marked the Hellenistic period as the advent of the novel, citing the Socratic dialogues and Menippean satire, as well as the Hellenistic romances, as evidence of the collapse of epic in ancient times. Bakhtin saw this phenomenon of the subversion of serious culture at work again in the Middle Ages, and the meta-historical nature of his schema is important to note as we try to develop a theory of epic which can be applied with equal facility across different cultures and media.
Yet for those who look to the early modern novel as the first instance of this genre, the novel simply replaced the epic as the pre-eminent means of literary expression (not unlike what, according to Aristotle, Sophoclean tragedy had done vis-à-vis the Homeric epic). Thus Hegel, in his Aesthetics, could dub the novel “the modern bourgeois epic” (qtd. in Fusillo 32). The Hegelian perspective was expanded most famously by Georg Lukacs, who in The Theory of the Novel, identified an expression of the totality of life as the aim of both the epic and the novel. The epic, Lukacs claimed, “gives form to a totality of life that is rounded from within; the novel seeks, by giving form, to uncover and construct the concealed totality of life.” (60) Lukacs saw the “age of epic” as the time before men had discovered “interiority,” before they could thus be alienated from themselves; one such “happy” time (29) was the Greece of Homer. Here Lukacs echoed the idealized, primitivizing, and perhaps even patronizing, view of Ancient Greece common in 19th-century German thought – not only in Hegel, but in Goethe and Schiller and even in Marx, who counted the classical Greeks as part of the “historical childhood of humanity,” even as he declared the epic impossible in the era of industrial publishing and war-making alike (111). Since the epic is no longer possible in the modern era, the novel takes over the function the old poetry once performed. Yet when Lukacs asserts that both the epic and the novel are “two major forms of great epic literature” (56), he must mean something else by epic, beyond the formal or even socio-historical function of epic poetry proper. He, like Bakhtin, implies but does not articulate a trans-historical genre of epic that can somehow include both Homeric epic and the modern novel.
More recently, Franco Moretti’s Modern Epic has made some progress toward that articulation. Moretti examines a number of “world texts” of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, from Faust to One Hundred Years of Solitude. Each of these works is, Moretti feels, a “flawed masterpiece” or even a “semi-failure” (5) because of its inherently experimental nature. This accounts for the often-prodigious length of these epics, and the fact that they are almost never read, despite their status as literary monuments. What is interesting is that Moretti argues that during the nineteenth century, the age of the novel, this epic experimentation did not occur in the novel, with the exception of Moby-Dick, and Moretti also tentatively extends his analysis beyond literature in a perceptive chapter on Wagner’s Ring cycle. Thus we can see elements of “novelistic” subversiveness, in the Bakhtinian sense, operating in narrative that is outside both the formal conventions of the epic and the novel during the modern era. However, Moretti’s heuristic model is at once too broad – nearly any work that is sufficiently large, and even boring, can be a world text – and too narrow – encompassing only the most rarefied epics.
Dealing with so many shifting definitions of concepts like “epic” and “novel” across different traditions and within different socio-historical contexts can be confusing. But we must remember that genres were elastic even for the Greeks. Gregory Nagy points out that between Homer and Aristotle, the term “epic” (epos) had a number of different meanings, and that these semantic shifts shed light on how the same processes work in modern commentators such as Bakhtin and Lukacs. In Homer’s time, the term epos was one of a linked pair with muthos, where muthos was marked, referring to a long, public and authoritative speech-act, and epos was unmarked, a shorter, less “performative” kind of speech. Thus the muthos was the “epic” of Homer, while the epos was an instance of less formal speech contained within the muthos. (25) When epos was not linked with muthos, however, it could mean a song as performed, and between the Archaic and Hellenistic periods this meaning was strengthened when epos was detached from muthos completely as muthos came to mean primarily “story” or “myth”, as contrasted with truth (aletheia). Nagy tellingly adds that
In our own contemporary usage of the English words epic and myth, we see indirect reflexes of the later semantic specialization of epos, and of the later semantic specialization of muthos. (26)
Nagy demonstrates the dangers of universalizing Aristotle’s formulations beyond their historical context, and takes Bakhtin to task specifically, saying that even the Odyssey seems more appropriate to Bakhtin’s idea of the novel, not the epic. More importantly, though, Nagy recognizes the distinction between the epic of an oral, folkloric tradition (what we would call myth), and the epic of performance (the poem qua epic), as well as the “gap between the notional totality” of the former and the “practical limitations of epic in actual performance.” (28) Moreover,
if indeed epic can be realized informally as well as formally, it becomes the ideal multiform, accommodating a variety of forms. I draw attention to the inclusiveness, the notional wholeness of Homeric poetry. Here is a genre that becomes a container, as it were, of a vast variety of other genres … a medium of discourse that sees itself as all-embracing of the society identified by it and identifying with it. (28-29)
I would argue that the epic has become a super-genre, in the sense suggested by Nagy and Moretti, which, while continuing to include such traditional martial epics as the Iliad, has the theoretical flexibility to include other formal and thematic genres – this begins with the novel, but is also applicable to “new” media. The fact that there can be different “levels” of epic is clear in day-to-day discourse, but it has not been addressed in criticism. Moreover, the failure to distinguish different kinds and characteristics of “epic” is what mars much of the current attempts at a trans-media approach, especially in film studies.
Norman Fairclough’s critical discourse analysis offers a model for overcoming this problem, and his emphasis on genres as discourses within a social context accords nicely with Nagy’s stress on genre as a type of speech act. Fairclough suggests that genres can be thought of at different levels of abstraction: pre-genres, disembedded genres, and situated genres. (68) Within this framework, epic can function in combination with other genres at the level of a pre-genre, encompassing even predominantly non-discoursal activities and events, as when we talk about an “epic battle.” Epic can function at the level of a disembedded genre, which, though less abstract, can encompass more than one type of practice; an example would be “epic narrative,” which, though clearly discoursal, is broad enough to encompass a variety of media. Finally, the epic can function at the level of a situated genre, specific to a discoursal context; this would be the epic oral poem. The confusion in terminology noted earlier occurs when a situated genre is expanded to include practices on greater levels of abstraction – in other words, is “disembedded.” We have seen how epic once meant a certain type of epic oral poem, but later expanded to mean narrative in the epic mode; as such, it could then be re-embedded in other forms (prose), and even other media (comic books, films, video games, etc.). This also explains the similar confusion over terms such as novel: though Bakhtin had in mind long prose works when he discussed the “novel,” he was in fact analysing the genre at the disembedded level (i.e., as a narrative mode). We can also see this at work in attempts to classify problematic, “monumental” works in other media. For example, HBO’s The Wire has been described as “novelistic,” but in the sense of an “epic novel” explicitly along the lines of War and Peace or Moby-Dick (Mittell 429); here elements of both epic and novel have been re-embedded in the specific media genre of the episodic television drama.
The task now is to weave all these strands of theory into the fabric of a tent under which all epics might be gathered. I propose examining the epic on four levels of symbolic content, which I will call epos, mythos, ethos, and cosmos; the slide shows how these categories can be deployed to analyse the contexts of, for example, the Aeneid and the Metamorphoses. First, the epos – the work itself – may be defined as a disembedded genre of a totalizing work of narrative aspiring to a qualitatively elevated style; although primarily fictive, the epic’s narrative must draw upon and allude to a greater body of symbolic narrative material, whether that material might be mythic/fictive or historical. This greater narrative body we may call, extrapolating from Nagy, the mythos, of which the epic strives to include as much as possible. This explains the encyclopaedic tendency of epic. An epos is successful insofar as it is in harmony with the possible range of symbolic representation of the culture of which it is a part; it is “determined” by its culture, but also reproduces (and hence helps evolve) the symbolic limits of that culture. A work can be especially “epic” in this sense if it anticipates this determination by creating narrative representations that do not appear in the mythos (and are therefore “original”) but are nevertheless wholly consonant with the ethos. In this way the epic aspires to either represent or create a totality, a cosmos, to encapsulate an entire culture, and to be the definitive expression of its subject. An epic can be an epic of an entire civilization, or of a small subset of a particular society. Thus the epic is invariably an epic “of” something: The Wire is the epic of West Baltimore as much as the Aeneid is the epic of Augustan Rome.
This framework can therefore account for epics based on real history or on “real” belief; it can likewise be used to describe epic works that build on a purely, and self-consciously, fictional mythos, or even epics that predate and create their own unique mythos. Thus Star Wars becomes the epic of the Star Wars mythos, which is only fleshed out after the 1977 film; likewise, The Lord of the Rings is the epic of Tolkien’s Middle-Earth even as it establishes the history hinted at in The Hobbit and fleshed out in posthumously published works such as The Silmarillion. This “bootstrapping” epic is, in fact, the predominant type of epic within postmodernity, though of course epics are still possible based on contemporary life (e.g., The Wire) or on historical life (e.g., Patrick O’Brien’s Aubrey-Maturin novels). While Fredric Jameson is correct to note that one feature of postmodernism is its superficial treatment or ignorance of history (1991, 66-67), the proliferation of fictional mythoi from which epics now tend to be drawn is also a function of the sheer amount of “universes” available. Thus this can be a symptom as well as a further cause of “fragmentation” of contemporary culture: under current conditions, there are now far too many mythoi for any one person to know more than a handful with the degree of competency required to appreciate, let alone create, an epic based on one. Also, the increased role of commodification should not be downplayed in the creation and maintenance of bootstrapping epics: contemporary regimes of intellectual property mean that whole mythoi are excluded from unauthorized use in derivative works, necessitating the creation of new fictional universes – which can in turn be closed off and licensed out for profit by authors, authors’ estates, or corporations. This has particular importance to epics whose stories are told in the new media of the twentieth and early twentieth centuries – film, television, comic books, and video games.
And yet, by way of conclusion, we must not forget that politics and power have long been tied up with the circulation of epic narratives. These issues can be documented at least as far back as Augustus’ patronage of Virgil, and it would be naïve to assume that Akkadian and Babylonian kings did not find it just as politically expedient to foster the compilation of legends of their putative ancestor Gilgamesh. This may also be another function of the epic, in whatever medium it happens to be transmitted; at any rate, such questions demonstrate the need for a more complex understanding of how we define the epic, and I hope that my argument for it today as a trans-medial super genre goes some way in helping to do just that.