Homer, The Iliad Language: Greek Heroes: Achilles (Greek) and Hector (Trojan) Homer, The Odyssey Language: Greek Hero: Odysseus Virgil (Vergil) The Aeneid Language: Latin Hero: Aeneas
Classical epics are marked by at least the illusion of orality, that is, a speaker (bard, scop, singer of tales) tells a story, presumably of events that he has either witnessed himself or heard tell of. The gods play an active and important role in the stories, often intervening in the affairs of men to change the course of events.
Consider the following example from Homer's Iliad; the speaker is describing a volley of missiles from men defending a wall:
. . . as storms of snow descend to the ground incessant on a winter day, when Zeus of the counsels, showing before men what shafts he possesses, brings on a snowstorm and stills the winds asleep in the solid drift, enshrouding the peaks that tower among the mountains and the shoulders out-jutting, and the low lands with their grasses, and the prospering work of men's hands, and the drift falls along the grey sea, the harbours and beaches, and the surf that breaks against it is stilled, and all things elsewhere it shrouds from above, with the burden of Zeus' rain heavy upon it; so numerous and incessant were the stones volleyed from both sides, some thrown on Trojans, others flung against the Achaians [i.e., Greeks] by Trojans, so the whole length of the wall thundered beneath them. (12.278-89)
Richard Lattimore says of this simile, "What the missiles have in common with the snow is, of course, descent in infinite quantity, but the snowfall, described first, builds a hushed world from which we wake with a shock to the crashing battle. The ultimate effect is not of likeness, but contrast. Simile offers the most natural and frequently used, but not the only, escape from the heroic" (The Iliad of Homer, pp. 42-43). Epic similes (which often employ images from nature) are often used to give the reader the sense of great size, number, or intensity.
Classical epics include epic games (played on the plains of Troy, between the walled city of Troy and the Greek camp on the shore, in the Iliad), a trip to the Underworld, a vision of the future, an epic catalogue of heroes, ships, or armies. The Odyssey contains an epic journey all over the known (Mediterranean) world; The Aeneid contains a journey all the way from Troy to Rome. Each journey is marked by adventure and danger.
Check the meanings of any words I have used that you are not familiar with in your dictionary of literary terms.
More modern epics, such as The Song of Roland, Beowulf, The Fairie Queene, or Paradise Lost, may be indebted to the classical epics in various ways. It is up to you, the reader, to measure them against those older epics and decide how much their authors owe to Homer and Virgil.
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