Epic literature comes from the oral traditions of ancient civilizations. Epic poems have been created throughout history, up to the present day. Epic poems are included in all three genres of poetry, which include lyric, dramatic, and narrative.
Epic Literature Is Narrative
Epic literature belongs to the narrative genre of poetry. A narrative poem will tell a story of societies and heroes. The subject matter includes topics of human interest. Ballads are narrative poems, as well as epics.
Well-known ballads are:
“Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,/Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,/While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,/As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door./`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door - Only this, and nothing more.'” “The Raven” by Edgar Allan Poe
The COOK of Londoun, whil the Reve spak,/For joye him thoughte, he clawed him on the bak./"Ha! ha!" quod he, "for Criste passioun,/This miller hadde a sharp conclusioun/Upon his argument of herbergage./Wel seyde Salomon in his langage,/`Ne bryng nat every man into thyn hous,'/For herberwynge by nyghte is perilous./Wel oghte a man avysed for to be,/Whom that be broghte into his pryvetee./I pray to God so yeve me sorwe and care,/If evere sitthe I highte Hogge of Ware,/Herde I a millere bettre yset awerk./He hadde a jape of malice in the derk./But God forbede that we stynte heere,/And therfore, if ye vouche-sauf to heere/A tale of me that am a povre man,/I wol yow telle, as wel as evere I kan,/A litel jape that fil in oure citee." "The Canterbury Tales" by Geoffrey Chaucer
“By the shore of Gitchie Gumee,/By the shining Big-Sea-Water,/At the doorway of his wigwam,/In the pleasant Summer morning,/Hiawatha stood and waited.” "Hiawatha" by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
Examples of epic poetry can sometimes seem like dramatic poetry, because they also tell a story, and can be quite dramatic. But their main form is the narrative, whether they are satirical or dramatic.
Other Famous Examples of Epics in Literature
The works of many other great authors of past and present can also be classified as examples of epics. Consider the following examples, and note that many of these names may be familiar from your high school English classes:
“In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself, in a dark wood, where the direct way was lost. It is a hard thing to speak of, how wild, harsh and impenetrable that wood was, so that thinking of it recreates the fear. It is scarcely less bitter than death: but, in order to tell of the good that I found there, I must tell of the other things I saw there” - “The Divine Comedy” by Dante
“I want a hero: an uncommon want,When every year and month sends forth a new one,Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant,The age discovers he is not the true one;Of such as these I should not care to vaunt,I'll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan—We all have seen him, in the pantomime,Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time.”- “Don Juan” by Lord Byron
“Of Mans First Disobedience, and the Fruit Of that Forbidden Tree, whose mortal tast Brought Death into the World, and all our woe, With loss of Eden, till one greater Man Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,” - “Paradise Lost” by John Milton
“He who has seen everything, I will make known (?) to the lands.I will teach (?) about him who experienced all things,... alike,Anu granted him the totality of knowledge of all.He saw the Secret, discovered the Hidden,he brought information of (the time) before the Flood.He went on a distant journey, pushing himself to exhaustion,but then was brought to peace.He carved on a stone stela all of his toils,and built the wall of Uruk-Haven,the wall of the sacred Eanna Temple, the holy sanctuary.”- Epic of Gilgamesh
“Thus, while the mute creation downward bend Their sight, and to their earthly mother tend, Man looks aloft; and with erected eyes Beholds his own hereditary skies. From such rude principles our form began; And earth was metamorphos'd into Man.”- “Metamorphoses” by Ovid
“Listen:You have heard of the Danish Kingsin the old days and how they were great warriors.Shield, the son of Sheaf,took many an enemy's chair,terrified many a warrior,after he was found an orphan.He prospered under the skyuntil people everywherelistened when he spoke.He was a good king!”- Beowulf
Greek Epic Literature
The word “epic” comes from the Greek for “word, poem, or story.” The stories deal with significant events of a nation or culture and show the values of a society. Since epic poems are so long, there is not room to include one in its entirety; so the examples of epic poems will be various excerpts.
The Iliad and The Odyssey are two Greek poems written by Homer. The Iliad tells of the last year before the city of Troy was overrun by the Greeks. The Odyssey is about Odysseus and his return home to Ithaca.