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.
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.
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.