Hey, everyone! Long time no see. Sorry for the long break. My last year of high school has been crazy! But now that I’ve been accepted to college, my thesis has been written and defended, and I GRADUATED HIGH SCHOOL (!)—I can get back to blogging.
Today, I’d like to talk about the genre of the epic. No, I’m not going to talk about the Aeneid or The Divine Comedy or Paradise Lost (though you can bring those up in the comments if you want). I’m going to tell you about three of my favorite books (of which there are many), all of which were written in or after the 20th century.
But first, what is an epic?
In her introduction to The Epic Cosmos, Dr. Louise Cowan writes:
Epic displays on a panoramic scale an entire way of life—caught, it is true, at a moment of radical change and yet… in that very act transfigured and preserved.
Basically, epics are works of literature that act as a microcosm of a changing world. Cowan lists several other characteristics of epics. We won’t go into all of them here, but here are 2 of the most important ones:
- The characteristic mark of an epic is striving.
- Epics have a sense of history as linked to divine destiny.
If you want an image that describes the epic, think of the beginning of the Aeneid. Aeneas is fleeing his burning city, about to sail off and start a new one. He carries his elderly father over his shoulder and leads his young son by the hand. In the same way, the epic looks forward and backward, retaining the good from the old and bringing it into the new.
Three Modern Epics
The books I’m about to list don’t seem to have much in common. Yet each one made indelible impressions on me that changed the way I thought. For a while, I couldn’t explain why this was the case. It wasn’t until this semester that I realized what it was. They were epics.
We usually think of epics as long, ancient poems such as Beowulf and the Iliad. Today I want to expand that definition a bit. I’m claiming that Jayber Crow, Lord of the Rings, and From the Holy Mountain are epics because they tell the story of a dying way of life, which marks them with the profound sense of loss that made such an impression on me.
So why exactly does each of these books belong in the genre of epic?
Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry (2001)
Jayber Crow is the barber of Port William, Kentucky, and this is his life story. He tells not only his story, but the stories of the other members of his community. A poignant narrative that spans the twentieth century, full of love and loss. Weird flex: this is my signed copy!
Jayber Crow was the first work of Wendell Berry’s that I read, and it’s not even my favorite book by him. Still, it had the greatest impact on me because it encompasses the culture of 20th century rural Kentucky. Through Jayber’s eyes, we see the old rhythms of sustainable farming, replaced with the frantic new ways of agribusiness. Jayber himself, like Aeneas, bridges the two worlds; he looks ahead with pain and holds tightly to the good, true, and beautiful of his past.
The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (1954)
An age is dying in Middle-earth, and the dark lord Sauron is gaining power. To stop him, a quest must be undertaken, war must be waged, and two hobbits must journey to Mordor to destroy the One Ring to Rule Them All. J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic, cosmic tale needs no introduction.
Professor Tolkien himself was motivated to write Lord of the Rings because he felt that the British people lacked a national epic. As such, Lord of the Rings is your textbook epic; the Age of Elves ends and the Age of Men begins as the characters strive to vanquish evil. The characters have deep ties to history as well. Elves, dwarves, Gondorians, Rohirrim, Numenoreans, and even hobbits look to the past to make sense of their current world and find their destined places in it. Several readers have commented on the deep sense of loss that pervades the work as a result. Even though the world in question is fictional, Lord of the Rings deserves a place among the greatest epics.
From the Holy Mountain by William Dalrymple (1992)
In the sixth century, just before the rise of Islam, St. John Moschos and St. Sophronios the Sophist set out from Mount Athos in Greece to tour the Byzantine world from Constantinople through the Levant down to Alexandria. St. John Moschos collected the stories he heard in a book called The Spiritual Meadow. Travel writer William Dalrymple recreates their journey using the book as his guide. The result is a haunting portrait of Christians in the Middle East clinging to Orthodoxy amidst the tumult around them.
From the Holy Mountain is different from both books I’ve already mentioned because, as a travel memoir, it is nonfiction. However, it shares many characteristics of epics, most notably the way the past informs the present. The Christians Dalrymple encounters belong to ancient traditions, singing the same liturgies Sunday after Sunday, year after year as their families have been doing since the apostles founded their churches. All this is in the face of civil war and terrorism that threatens their way of life. Indeed, since the time this book was written, much of what Dalrymple describes has been destroyed, especially in Syria. Like the other two books I’ve listed, a sense of change and loss permeates the book even while the past overshadows it. This is the story of an entire world nearing an end that may never quite come.
We usually think that epics have to be old, long poems with battles and journeys, and while those are awesome, they don’t all have to fit that mold. The defining characteristic of an epic is that its sweeping scope captures a world at the moment of change. As such, epics are heavy with a sense of loss. This feeling unites stories as different as Jayber Crow, Lord of the Rings, and From the Holy Mountain.
What do you think? Have you read any of these books? Can you think of any modern epics? Let me know in comments!