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Epic Poems and Heroes. The Iliad Beowulf Song of Roland El Cid Paradise Lost Lord of the Rings?. Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon Beowulf Roland El Cid God, Satan? Frodo and friends?. Famous Epics and Their Heroes. Basic Definition of an Epic.

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famous epics and their heroes
The Iliad


Song of Roland

El Cid

Paradise Lost

Lord of the Rings?

Achilles, Odysseus, Agamemnon



El Cid

God, Satan?

Frodo and friends?

Famous Epics and Their Heroes
basic definition of an epic
Basic Definition of an Epic

An epic is usually defined as a very long narrative poem composed in a lofty style that tells a story of a hero and his adventures on a grand scale.

the big 7
The Big 7

Most epic heroes possess most or all of 7 general characteristics you can use to help you decide if a character is, indeed, an epic hero or heroine.

trait 1 a noble birth
Trait 1: A Noble Birth
  • Most epic heroes will have an above average station in life.
  • They will be kings, princes, or nobles of some sort.
  • Commoners usually do not become epic heroes.
trait 2 capable of deeds of great strength and courage
Trait 2: Capable of deeds of great strength and courage
  • Basically, this means the hero has the potential for great deeds.
  • The magnitude of these actions are well above and beyond what the commoner does.
  • While most epic heroes are good, not all are.
trait 3 great warrior
Trait 3: Great Warrior
  • Before the hero of an epic does his business in the epic, he has usually established himself in combat during a war.
  • Sometimes, as in The Iliad, we see the hero at war.
  • In most, like Beowulf and The Odyssey, the hero has spent much time in battle.
trait 4 travels over a vast setting
Trait 4: Travels Over a Vast Setting
  • Simply put, you cannot be an epic hero if you stay in your village your whole life.
  • The more countries or areas traveled to, the better. The farther away from your own country, the better.
  • Distance makes the hero’s actions greater because they aren’t selfish; they are for another country or people.
trait 5 national heroism
Trait 5: National Heroism
  • Before a hero can be celebrated by countries the world over, he must first be recognized in his home country as a great and heroic person.
trait 6 humility
Trait 6: Humility
  • Even as the rest of the world recognizes the great deeds of the hero, he is never a braggart or even willing to take applause.
  • He commits his deeds because he knows they need doing, and the fame and rewards that he receives are only a matter of course, not the reason for completing his quests.
trait 7 faces supernatural foes and or receives supernatural help
Trait 7: Faces Supernatural Foes and/or Receives Supernatural Help
  • Most epic heroes either receive aid from a god or goddess or battle some superhuman enemy.
  • This is what makes a hero’s action epic: they fight something mere mortals cannot battle. Beowulf has his Grendel; Odysseus his Cyclops.
  • For each hero, the enemy is unique. You won’t see two heroes battling the same foe.
staznoski principle
Staznoski Principle
  • To prove he is truly larger than life, authors often introduced other characters who were fated to die.

But what was an aspiring author to do?

Especially if nobody can read!

epics an oral tradition
Epics: An Oral Tradition
  • Many epics were not originally written down by their authors.
  • Instead, they were memorized and retold or sung by wandering entertainers.
  • Some sections of epics were retold from time to time. It helped the storyteller learn the epic and also caught up any audience member who may have missed a part.
the storytellers
The Storytellers
  • These entertainers also served to bring news from other areas. Often, if a heroic deed had occurred in the area, it might be blended into the stories he told.
  • The names changed by area:
    • Scop (pronounced shope) in Anglo-Saxon lands
    • Troubadours in France
    • Minnesingers in Germany
changing stories
Changing Stories
  • Other influences also played a part in changing the epics.
  • The text of Beowulf shows both Norse pagan belief and Christianity, often in the same line.
  • This may have evolved as the storytellers encountered villages with different beliefs.
writing it down
Writing it Down
  • When these stories which had been orally passed on were finally written down, they were also subject to many changes.
    • Mistakes in translations
    • Misunderstanding out-of-date slang
    • Political correctness
    • or even intentional changes in the text
christianizing the old text
“Christianizing” the Old Text
  • Some parts of epics, including Beowulf, seem not to match the style of the rest of the text.
  • Other areas seem to be as if a narrator feels the need to stop and make a comment.
  • Much of these areas involve various comments and concepts of Christianity.
  • It is likely that some monks, while copying texts, put in their own views about their work.
epic conventions
Epic Conventions
  • Opening states theme, invokes muse
  • The plot begins in medias res – “in the middle of things.”
  • Catalogues of warriors, ships, armies, battles, etc.
  • Formal speeches that are serious in tone and lofty in style
language and style
Language and Style
  • Epics are filled with rich, descriptive language about exciting action.
  • Epic similes; long comparisons
  • Alliteration
  • Kennings