In the world of publishing any long novel is considered to be an epic. ‘Lonesome Dove’ is an ‘epic’ of the old west. Or it might be called a ‘sweeping epic’, or a ‘grand epic’. And of course it is prose, so it might also be considered a ‘prose epic’. But is this correct?
The only true prose epic I know of is ‘The Trials of Persiles and Sigismunda’ by Miquel Cervantes, the Spanish author who also brought us ‘Don Quiote’. It was his final work, published posthumously. It is the story of a prince and his wife who travel as ordinary people and who are met with many dangers along the way. The remarkable thing about his epic is that Persiles is a hero who employs not a sword, but his words against those who would harm them. It is a kind of nonviolent epic, the only one of its kind that I am aware of.
I bring this up because I have been working this month on the structure and plan for a prose epic. It will be one volume of a novel in four parts. The first, which I planned out in September, is a tragedy. That led me to read and study Shakespeare, of course, and other tragic works. Last month I planned out my apocalyptic novel, the second in the series. I, like so many others, really thought of post-apocalyptic when I thought of such work. But no, apocalyptic is before the event. It predicts the coming events. Not in the way of fortune telling, I found, but more in the sense that if we don’t change the way we do things, this is how it will turn out for us. So that will be the second. Now, the third is an epic novel. There are certain characteristics that make an epic an epic:
True epics are found in verse form. The verse builds a kind of separation between the events, and the story of the events, and the reader. ‘The Illiad’ and ‘The Odyssey’, are epics. The ‘Modern Sequel’ by Nikos Kazantzakis (also the author of ‘Zorba, The Greek’, one of my favorites), is also an epic. Dante’s ‘Inferno’ and Milton’s ‘Paradise Lost’ are epics. They begin in the middle of things, (in medias res). The hero is in the thick of it, perhaps at his lowest point. The setting of an epic is vast, and may even represent the world or the universe. It begins with an invocation to a muse and with a statement of theme. Epic simile is used.
There are many more ‘restrictions’ to epics that I’m sure you can find if you take up the subject search on the internet. The main point I am making, and am learning for myself, is that modern literature does not lend itself to the creation of true epic, especially in the prose form. Our sense of what a novel is rejects many traditions and rules. We tend to shy away from a high moral tone and long lists of people or objects, which seem to typify the epic. We think of our heroes, and ourselves, as individuals doing single battle in the world, whereas the epic hero embodies the values of civilization and community. Many modern novels reject the idea of an orderly and purposeful universe, while the epic assumes there is meaning in life, and that it is directed toward some purposeful goal.
So, have I painted myself into a corner by planning a prose epic? We shall see. It will be a challenge, to say the least. But isn’t that what we authors love most?
Copyright 2010 by James D. Sanderson. All rights reserved.