AD's English Literature : Characteristics of Primary (folk) and Secondary (literary) Epic

Characteristics of Primary (folk) and Secondary (literary) Epic


 An epic has been generally described as a long narrative poem, on a grand scale, about the deeds of warriors and heroes, kings and Gods. It is  majestic both in theme and style. It is a polygonal heroic story incorporating myth, legend, folktale, religion, and historical events of national or universal significance, involving action of broad sweep and grandeur.. Epics are mostly of national significance in the sense that they embody the history and aspirations of a nation in a lofty or grandiose manner. An epic is a cultural mirror with a fixed ideological stance, often reflecting the best and the noblest principles of a nation’s ethos.

        Basically there are two kinds of epic – a) Primary – also known as Oral or Primitive FOLK EPICS

and b) Secondary – also known as literary. The first belongs to the oral tradition and is thus composed orally and recited. The secondary epic is a literary work of art.


In the first category we may place, for example, Gilgamesh, the Sumerian epic of around 3000 B.C., the earliest extant work in the oral tradition. Other example of the primary epic are the Homeric epics, Iliad and Odyssey (1000 B.C.) whose heroes are Achilles and Odysseus respectively. Beowulf, the earliest extant English epic, also falls in this category. In the second category can be included Virgil’s Aeneid, Lucan’s Pharsalia, Tasso’s Gerusalemme, Aristo’s Orlando Furioso, Milton’s Paradise Lost etc.

 Folk, or popular, epics are believed to have developed from the orally transmitted folk poetry of tribal bards or other authors; they were eventually transcribed by anonymous poets. Well-known examples of the folk epic are the Anglo-Saxon Beowulf (written sometime between the 8th century and the late 10th century), the German Nibelungenlied (Song of the Nibelungs, 13th century), and the Indian epics the Mahabharata (The Great Epic of the Bharata Dynasty, 400 bc- ad 400) and the Ramayana (Way of Rama, 3rd century bc). The story material appearing in folk epics is usually based on legends or events that occurred a long time before the epic itself appeared. The characters and episodes that appear in many folk epics had, in several cases, been treated in folk songs before the epic was composed. Examples of this consolidation of material are the French folk epics known as chansons de geste, or songs of heroic deeds, composed from the end of the 10th century to the middle or end of the 11th century, the most famous of which is the Chanson de Roland (The Song of Roland, 1100?).
In some cultures the popular epic material has never actually been gathered together into an epic. The Celts produced extended cycles of epic poems, notably the Fenian, or Ossianic, Cycle (see Ossian and Ossianic Ballads) and the Arthurian Cycle (see Arthurian Legend) but developed no single great poem using this or similar material. Spain has a national heroic figure, El Cid, but, with the exception of El cantar de mio Cid (The Song of the Cid, 1200?), the ballads and poems about him never achieved epic proportions.

        These primary epics have features in common – a central figure of heroic, even super-human caliber, perilous journeys, various misadventures, intellectual capacity a strong element of the supernatural forces that shape the action,conflict in the form of battles or other physical combat, repetition of fairly long passages of narrative or dialogue, elaborate greetings, digressions and elaborate or epic similes, long speeches, vivid and direct description of actions and in general a lofty tone; the tone of classical tragedy. All is larger than life. Commonplace details of everyday life may appear, but they serve as background for the story and are described in the same lofty style as the rest of the poem..

        The secondary epic in classical literature really began with the works of Naevices and Ennius. Naevius (270-199 B.C) wrote a long epic about the First Punic War. Ennius (239-169 B.C) composed Annales, in eighteen books. Neither work survives complete. The first and the most significant Secondary epic is Virgil’s Aeneid (30-19 B.C) which records and celebrates the foundation of Rome by Aeneao after many hazardous adventures following upon the Trojan wars and the fall of Troy. The first secondary epic in Christendom is Lucan’s Pharsalia (1st cent. A.D), a poem about the civil war between Caesar and Pompey. But the model of the secondary epic to students of English literature is obviously, Milton’s Paradise Lost (1667), a poem about the fall of Man from his original paradisaical existence. Like folk epics, literary epics deal with the traditions, mythical or historical, of a nation. The Iliad and the Odyssey are regarded as literary epics. In Rome, national epic poetry reached its highest achievement in the 1st century bc in the Aeneid, one of the world's greatest literary epics, by the poet Virgil. In Persia the poet Firdawsi, drawing upon historical sources, composed the Persian national epic Shāh-Nāmah (Book of Kings, 1010). The great literary epics of postclassical Europe include The Lusiads (1572; translated 1655), the national epic of Portugal by Luís (Vaz) de Camões; the Italian Orlando furioso (Mad Roland, first version 1516; final version 1532) by Lodovico Ariosto, and Rinaldo (1562) and Jerusalem Delivered (1581; translated 1600) by Torquato Tasso; as well as The Faerie Queene and Paradise Lost.

In the 19th century the epic assumed various forms. In the lengthy and much revised autobiographical poem The Prelude (1850), the English poet William Wordsworth used the events of his life to explore the power of the human imagination. With Don Juan (1818-1824) the English poet Lord Byron revived the ottava rima (see Versification) seriocomic epics of the Italian Renaissance (14th century to 17th century), using a breezy style that incorporated social commentary into the poem. Song of Myself (first version 1855; final version 1892) by the American poet Walt Whitman is a brief epic, the first-person narrator of which identifies himself with all of nature and humanity. 

 Twentieth-century English epics include The Dynasts (1903-1908), a long verse-drama by the poet Thomas Hardy. In the United States, such 20th-century poets as Hart Crane (The Bridge,1930), T.S. Eliot (Four Quartets,1943), Ezra Pound (The Cantos,1930-1970), William Carlos Williams (Paterson,1946-1958), and James Merrill (The Changing Light at Sandover,1976-1982) attempted to provide the nation with a national epic.

        The secondary epic has more or less all the features of the Primary, plus some distinguishing characteristics of its own. Professor E.M.W. Tillyard has pointed out that the secondary epic is choric in character. He suggests that epic poetry is in a sense public poetry, generally nationalistic or tribal. The poet merely voices the collective thoughts and fields of some large group or community. As Dante in the Divina Commedia was in many senses a spokesman for the whole of medieval Christianity, and Milton for English Protestantism of his own time.

        Another essential character of the secondary epic is its high seriousness. The poet like Milton and Virgil, consciously set out to create something of real importance. The epic must have a cosmic dimension. Milton in particular had high high sense of duty and dedication, for he always considered himself chosen by God to write a great poem which would place England among the grratest cultural nations of Europe.

        It is interesting to note that cutting across barriers of time, nation, culture and religion all epics follow certain common conventions, the most important of which are discussed here.

        First, all epics pen with a prayer or ‘Invocation’ in which the poet pleads to some God or Muse to aid him in the stupendous task of writing a great poem, such as an epic. Milton, for example invokes the Holy Ghost to illuminate what is dark in him, to elevate what is law and to support him in his great task of asserting ‘eternal providence’ and   ‘justify the ways of God to men’.

        A second interesting feature shared by epics of all ages languages is the epic simile. An epic simile is a comparison developed to such lengths and ramifications that it seems to operate rather as a separate ornament, as a poem within the poem than as a narrative function. Unlike the normal brief simile, the epic simile’ deliberately suspends the action instead of advancing or vivifying it. The extended comparison between Satan and Leviathan in book I of Milton’s Paradise Lost provides a famous example. An epic simile is also designated as a ‘Homeric simile’.

        Another distinguishing convention of the epic is the description of some kind of athletic contest or games (from which the modern concept of Olympic games has evolved). In the Aeneid we have also Virgil’s description of Aeneas’ arrangement of the funeral games in Achilles’ funeral. In Book II Paradise Lost Milton describes the fallen angels making elaborate arrangements of an athletic meeting.

        Another recurrent convention is the description of a long and dangerous journey made by the hero. Examples are Aeneas’ journey beset with dangers to the underworld to seek the spirit of Anchiles, a journey to the moon in Aristo’s Orland Furioso (c.1529), Satan’s journey through space in Paradise Lost, Book IV.

        It must also be mentioned that peculiarly enough all epic poems begin in the middle of the action – in medias res as the Roman critic and poet, Horace, called it. For example, Virgil’s Aeneid begins with the arrival of Aeneas at Carthage but this was followed by the long story which he tells about the fall of Troy, his own escape and his voyage to the Carthaginian shore. Milton’s Paradise Lost begins with Satan and his rebellious crew of fallen angels hurled in Hell, while what had happened much before that, i.e. Satan’s temptation of Eve and the consequent fall of man, comes much later in the fourth book. These conventions are not incidental, but integral and hallowed and stand as central to the epic as a work of wit. 
  

         Ardhendu De

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