Pam Webb

a writer's journey as a reader

Archive for the tag “Epic poetry”

The Epicness of Poetry part three

Cover of "Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics...

Cover of Paradise Lost (Penguin Classics)

Paradise.  Lots of connotations. For some it is the place of perfection (Hawaii, for many), and for others it is the Garden of Eden, which is how Milton deemed the meaning in his epic poem Paradise Lost.

What makes this an epic poem?

For one thing it is like the other poems: BIG.  Milton transcribed a twelve book poem to his amanuensis, (he was blind at the time he “wrote” it), which came to over 10,000 lines.  He takes on the big topic of God’s way of doing things.  And there are the other  big characters of Adam, Eve, and Satan,. The theme of good and evil is a pretty big concept as well.

To understand the poem, let’s look at the poet.

File:Temple of British Worthies John Milton.jpg


During the 1600s in England, the government was undergoing change, which is definitely an understatement. John Milton got himself in trouble, and eventually into prison, due to his political beliefs.  As a writer, he considered himself among the upper echelon, but thought he could improve his game and be considered one of the truly big league guys (like Homer and Virgil) if he, too, wrote an epic poem.  Although he’d been planning to write Paradise Lost for some time, it’s thought his disenchantment with England’s government might have also been a catalyst for writing about a paradise (his country’s government) being lost.

The Poem
(thanks, Shmoop, you always say it so much better)

The other thing about epic poetry that you should know is that it always begins in medias res, or in the middle of things. This means that the poem begins, and then usually gives you a back-story before returning you to where you began, and then moving forward. For example,Paradise Lost begins with Satan already in Hell, but all the events leading up to it are narrated in Books 5 and 6. Similarly, the creation of the world, of Adam, and of Eve takes place sometime between Satan’s fall and the solidification of his plans for revenge (Books 1-2), but the creation is described in Books 7 and 8. In other words, the poem begins somewhere in the middle of the story, but then goes back and fills in the details. In medias res, baby.

Now, Milton’s poem doesn’t deal with war or the foundation of one of history’s greatest empires, and in this respect his epic poem is different from most of his major generic forebears (Homer, Virgil, and Spenser chief among them). While we do have a huge battle sequence in Book 6, something about it just seems funny. For example, it’s hard to take the battle seriously because we already know the outcome (Satan loses, which we learn in the very first book of the poem); if we’ve somehow forgotten the outcome, however, we always get the sense that God is going to win. The weirdness of Book 6 is explained at the beginning of Book 9, where Milton says flat out that he’s not interested in the type of martial heroism typical of epic poetry. He’s more interested in a type of internal, spiritual, Christian heroism, what he calls the “better fortitude/ Of patience and heroic martyrdom/ Unsung [i.e., not sung about in previous epics]” (9.31-33).

And he sticks to his guns: one could very well characterize Paradise Lost as an epic poem about “patience,” if only because it is Adam and Eve’s impatience that is the cause of their downfall. Now you might be asking yourself, what’s epic about patience, Adam, Eve, etc.? Well, for the Christian world, Adam and Eve’s story is of comparable significance as the founding of Rome or the Trojan War. According to the Judeo-Christian tradition, by eating the Forbidden Fruit, Adam and Eve introduced sin and death into the world, two very serious consequences. Seriously, who likes death?


Paradise Lost is not light reading. Furthermore, it can be overwhelming to read, plus it addresses (for some) an uncomfortable topic. Nonetheless, Milton tackles the subject of choice (free will) in an eloquent manner, and his epic poem set a standard for tone and diction for English poets (probably all poets).  I have to admire a writer who dedicated so much time to one particular work. The results prove that tenacity and perseverance are part of a writer’s toolbox.

The Epicness of Poetry part two

Today we look at Homer.

This one:

Not this one:

Homer wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey, but you knew that.

These are both considered epic poems and boy, oh boy are they epic in the sense of BIG.  They are big in size (The Iliad is nearly 16,000 lines and The Odyssey is about 12,000), big on adventure, and have big heroes as well.  These two poems have also made a big impact on literature, culture, and on Hollywood.

Quick rundown:
The Iliad is mainly about Achilles and his fighting in the Trojan War (yes, think Brad Pitt in Troy), while The Odyssey is mainly about Odysseus and his adventures trying to get home from the Trojan War.

Cover of "Troy - The Director's Cut [Blu-...

Cover of Troy – The Director’s Cut [Blu-ray]

Why should you care about these really, really old poems (besides them being so incredibly epic)?  I’ll let the PhD expert analysis people at Shmoop explain all that:

The Iliad
You want large scale clashing armies? You’ve come to the right place. Even matched duels or obviously unmatched duels? Check out the long one-on-one combat descriptions, or that crazy nonsense between Paris and Menelaus. Spy thriller? Odysseus’s nighttime raid totally fits the bill. Nail-biting special ops missions? The Trojan Horse ruse has your name written all over it. Swords-and-sorcerers magic adventure? Try anything with the gods busting in on the action, like, say, that whole Laocoon fiasco. Snakes—yikes. In short, anything exciting you’ve ever seen or heard or read started right here.But that’s not all. Not only does the Iliad put the act into action, but it puts the philosophy in there, too. This isn’t just a reductive Good Guys versus Bad Guys bit of disposable nothing. Instead, what’s behind all that fighting is a whole lot of thinking about what the fighting means.
The Odyssey
Do you like stories full of adventure, danger, and suspense? How about stories set in fantastic worlds full of strange creatures like Cyclopses, witches, sirens, and gods? If so, then you’re in luck, because Homer’s Odyssey is Western literature’s original adventure story, and its first foray into the fantasy genre. If you need any proof of how much Homer’s poem defined this genre, just consider the fact that we now use the word “odyssey” simply to mean adventure.

Beowulf, The Iliad, and The Odyssey are old, or classic, epic poems.  We now move on to contemporary, or considerably younger epic poems.

Next Post: Lost in Paradise is not the same thing as Paradise Lost

The Epicness of Poetry

Beowulf, The Iliad, and The Odyssey.  How could you get through public education and not have to study at least one of these? (Actually, I did–but that’s a different post). In our hurry-up world t’s not often we sit down and commit to reading 3,000 plus lines.  Welcome to Epic Poetry 101.

We tend to think of these triads of classic adventures as stories or myths.  Actually they are all poems.  Really long poems.  This is what makes them epic.

A brief pause…

Understanding Epic.

Today’s meaning:


Actual Meaning: (thanks



A long poem, typically derived from oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of…
Of, relating to, or characteristic of an epic or epics.
noun. epos – epopee
adjective. heroic – epical

Back to our blog post…

Now that epic real definition versus epic contemporary understanding is out of the way, moving on to epic poetry will make much more sense. Epic poetry is epic because it is BIG. It’s big in scope, deed, theme, length–it’s just, well, epic (dude). Plus, it’s so big that it is italicized (or underlined or bolded) instead of the usually “quotes around poems” bit of mechanics.  Yup, this poetry is so big that it gets to change the punctuation rules.

Although technically I should address Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey first, I’m going with Beowulf, not so much because it’s considered the foundation of English literature and it introduces the dragon slayer archetype as well as mix pagan and Christian thematic elements–I choose it first because of Gerard Butler made Beowulf come to life for me.


If you’ve never studied Beowulf, you should–don’t believe the Angelina Jolie version is Beowulf.  Nope. T’snt at all. Gerard Butler’s version isn’t either. So heads up Hollywood, we need a REAL version of this monumentally important epic poem.  Here’s to get you started…

Beowulf Key Facts ala Sparknotes:

full title  ·  Beowulf

author  · Unknown

type of work  · Poem

genre  · Alliterative verse; elegy; resembles heroic epic, though smaller in scope than most classical epics

language  · Anglo-Saxon (also called Old English)

time and place written  · Estimates of the date of composition range between 700 and 1000 a.d.; written in England

date of first publication  · The only manuscript in which Beowulf is preserved is thought to have been written around 1000 a.d.

publisher  · The original poem exists only in manuscript form.

narrator  · A Christian narrator telling a story of pagan times

point of view  · The narrator recounts the story in the third person, from a generally objective standpoint—detailing the action that occurs. The narrator does, however, have access to every character’s depths. We see into the minds of most of the characters (even Grendel) at one point or another, and the narrative also moves forward and backward in time with considerable freedom.

tone  · The poet is generally enthusiastic about Beowulf’s feats, but he often surrounds the events he narrates with a sense of doom.

tense  · Past, but with digressions into the distant past and predictions of the future

setting (time)  · The main action of the story is set around 500 a.d.; the narrative also recounts historical events that happened much earlier.

setting (place)  · Denmark and Geatland (a region in what is now southern Sweden)

protagonist  · Beowulf

major conflict  · The poem essentially consists of three parts. There are three central conflicts: Grendel’s domination of Heorot Hall; the vengeance of Grendel’s mother after Grendel is slain; and the rage of the dragon after a thief steals a treasure that it has been guarding. The poem’s overarching conflict is between close-knit warrior societies and the various menaces that threaten their boundaries.

rising action  · Grendel’s attack on Heorot, Beowulf’s defeat of Grendel, and Grendel’s mother’s vengeful killing of Aeschere lead to the climactic encounter between Beowulf and Grendel’s mother.

climax  · Beowulf’s encounter with Grendel’s mother constitutes the moment at which good and evil are in greatest tension.

falling action  · Beowulf’s glorious victory over Grendel’s mother leads King Hrothgar to praise him as a worthy hero and to advise him about becoming king. It also helps Beowulf to transform from a brazen warrior into a reliable king.

themes  · The importance of establishing identity; tensions between the heroic code and other value systems; the difference between a good warrior and a good king

motifs  · Monsters; the oral tradition; the mead-hall

symbols  · The golden torque; the banquet

foreshadowing  · The funeral of Shield Sheafson, with which the poem opens, foreshadows Beowulf’s funeral at the poem’s end; the story of Sigemund told by the scop, or bard, foreshadows Beowulf’s fight with the dragon; the story of King Heremod foreshadows Beowulf’s eventual ascendancy to kingship.

If you are up for reading the poem:

Gutenberg Project

If you want an entertaining analysis:


If you want to skip Beowulf and go to The Iliad and The Odyssey

New Post

Post Navigation

%d bloggers like this: