Epic, Really Epic

By Maeve Maddox

The word epic is used so sloppily these days that a modern day polar explorer referring to the harrowing and courageous exploits of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s Trans-Antarctic expedition felt that modification was needed:

“It [Shackleton’s crossing] was epic, really epic…”

Really in this quotation is not being used as an intensifier; it means “truly.” It’s not a throwaway epic, but a genuine epic meaning “like something only a hero could accomplish.”

The word epic derives from a Greek word meaning “word, narrative, or song.” In a literary context, an epic is a grand narrative like the Iliad that recounts the courageous and danger-fraught adventures of a hero of the stature of Achilles, Gilgamesh, or Beowulf.

Scholars distinguish between “folk epics” and “literary epics.” Many of the frequently cited literary epics originated as folk epics, that is, traditional stories passed down through an oral tradition. Of the frequently cited world literary epics listed below, only the Aeneid, written by Virgil to celebrate the founding of Rome and the family of the Emperor Augustus, does not descend from an oral tradition:

Before Common Era
The Epic of Gilgamesh (Akkadian c1200 BCE)
Iliad (Greek c 800 BCE)
Odyssey (Greek c 800 BCE)
Mahabharata (Sanskrit c 800 BCE)
The Bhagavad Gita (Sanskrit c 400 BCE)

Common Era
The Aeneid (Latin c 20 BCE)
Beowulf (English c 900 CE)
Chanson de Roland (French c 1000 CE)
Tain Bo Cuailnge (Irish c 1100 CE)
The Nibelungenlied (German c 1200 CE)
The Poetic Edda (Norse c 1200 CE)

Some definitions would restrict epic to mean only works written in verse, but in terms of epic heroes and adventure, such modern works as Tolkien’s Ring trilogy and its many spin-offs continue the tradition.

Because epics are long, the adjective epic can refer to size or dimensions, as in “epic proportions.” More often, epic describes an achievement requiring great courage and the strength to overcome physical hardship, as in this reference to Lewis and Clark:

After the expedition recuperated, they entrusted their horses to the Nez Perce and set off in cottonwood canoes for their epic journey to the Pacific Ocean.

Like the formerly meaningful adjective awesome, epic has dwindled in common speech to mean hardly anything:

This is No ordinary epic blog. It’s a really epically epic blog.

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James Murphy on new Arcade Fire album: ‘It’s really epic’

Songs that start slow but then get really epic

Related Post: ”Jane Austen Did Not Write Epics”

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3 Responses to “Epic, Really Epic”

  • Nancy Romness

    “Epic” and “awesome” are examples of real words that have been appropriated by lazy, unimaginative people when they need a synonym for “great!” Instead, it would be better for them to assemble some vowels and consonants to create an entirely new word.
    I can’t think of any examples of newly-coined words to replace “epic” and “awesome,” but some invented terms that have “not-so-great” connotations are “nerd” (1960s) and “dweeb” (1980s). They were not already words in the English language. They are still classified as slang, but are made-up words that fill a need. A definition of nerd is “an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit.” (I don’t mind if anyone calls me a “grammar nerd.”)

  • John

    Ep …er… gre …er… interesting post! 🙂

  • Dale A Wood

    What about the epic American poem about Evangeline? I think that Longfellow or Emerson wrote it.
    Also there is the epic novel MOBY DICK by Melville.
    Some people think that Americans are only good for things like the telegraph, Panama Canal, airplane, atomic bomb, transcontinental railroad, electronic TV, breaking the sound barrier, setting foot on the moon, etc., but we have great writers, poets, painters, musicians, etc, too.
    Even writers of epic poetry.
    DAW

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