Whow are epics? Usually they are first defined by their height: they are traditionally long and poems (this is the older, oral form). They are often male heroes fighting a good fight (against a monstrous or geopolitical enemy), and they are presented as nation-building texts: think of the Iliad, the Aeneid or Beowulf.
They are great, well-known stories, translated and adapted over and over again. They are some of the most famous texts in Western literature. And epic has traditionally been a very top-down genre: nationalistic (the Aeneid), featuring heroes whose bravery and virtue are validated by their high birth (King Arthur, Beowulf, even Aragorn in Lord of the Rings). I’m fascinated by the nation-building aspect of epic, not to mention the masculine, martial traditions; it’s something I, a woman of mixed cultural heritage, felt I had no place in.
My book Amnion is an attempt to challenge many of these aspects of the epic. While it’s a long poem, Amnion offers (or so I hope) some form of anti-or counter-epic: it’s an attempt to honor and give weight to a broken family history.
Writers, too numerous to list, have co-opted and struggled with the epic tradition. Below are just a few of my favorite epics – which I have deliberately playfully defined as such.
1. Paradise Lost by John Milton
Milton wanted to write a native epic for England, and the story of Adam and Eve is the result. He deliberately resumed many of the classic epics that had preceded him, and I love how his poem is in such open conversation with so many of its predecessors. I like the subversive hopeful image at the end of Book 12, when Adam and Eve are driven from the garden. “The world was all theirs,” and they “hand in hand with errant steps and slowly” make their way into it. For me, this is a time to celebrate: this is when Adam and Eve become fully human. The world is a scary, messy place, but it’s always worth being in it – Milton thought so, and I agree.
2. Memory of Fire by Eduardo Galeano
Galeano is a sadly overlooked writer in the UK. The late Uruguayan journalist’s signature form is that of long series of small prose poems, often about minuscule historical anecdotes demonstrating resistance to oppression. These may be a rebuke to the state-sponsored nationalism of the traditional epic. Memory of Fire, the most ostensibly epic of his works, is a history of the world told from the perspective of Latin America. The first part, Genesis, brilliantly interweaves native creation myths with the arrival of the conquistadors.
3. G by John Berger
Published in 1972, this novel is an attempt to reimagine (perhaps explode) the epic for a new era of human civilization, from a Marxist perspective. Set in Europe in the years just before the outbreak of World War I, it follows the sexual exploits of a modern-day Don Juan (the subject of Byron’s sexual epic). “Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one,” says the book, expanding the idea of the epic: it puts an end to the idea that individual texts can speak for a nation or a people as a whole. Such thinking had a huge impact on 20th-century literature in the emerging notion of the “postcolonial”: it is the guiding thought behind Salman Rushdie’s maximalist epic novel Midnight’s Children, for example.
4. In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje
This takes Berger’s line as an epigraph. The novel follows a series of characters, immigrants or otherwise on the fringes of society, who are involved in the construction of Toronto’s utility buildings in the early 20th century. Ondaatje’s prose always has a worn-smooth quality, reminiscent of ancient texts. It gives his novels a weight, which he uses to ennoble the unremembered – unsung epic heroes, if you will.
5. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Shamsie, like me, is a big supporter of Ondaatje, and you can see his influence here. Shamsie’s sixth novel is epic in its historical scope: it manages to link the bombing of Nagasaki, the partition of India, and the aftermath of 9/11. Her most recent novel, Home Fire, takes up the epically adjacent story of Antigone and is a cautionary tale about what could happen (and indeed what happened, with Shamima Begum, a case that took place after the publication of Home Fire) when the over-mythologized Britain’s significance as a nation may translate into ethnic-nationalist immigration policy.
6. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The story of an epic journey, an exodus. Steinbeck was eventually awarded the world’s highest literary award, the Nobel, for writing about the plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath is the best of his books and gives almost biblical proportions to its subjects, who were essentially climate refugees.
7. The Siege by Helen Dunmore
Dunmore’s novel about the siege of Leningrad in the winter of 1941 is a seemingly small story about a woman who feeds her family. But Dunmore makes it epic, gives it a scale and weight that’s hard to ignore. In her hands, the search for firewood or the rationing of honey becomes as gripping as a battle with a supernatural enemy. It contains some of the most vivid descriptions of food I have ever come across: a late summer feast of fresh fish fried in butter with potatoes, eaten at a dacha: a portrait of a happy family, with the enormous arm of history which will soon be muscled in.
8. The Things They Were Carrying by Tim O’Brien
The Iliad is the story of a great victory, which marked the beginning of ancient Greece’s golden age of dominion over the Mediterranean. But how can you write about defeat from the position that you are already the dominant power? Tim O’Brien’s collection of autofictional, interconnected short stories about the Vietnam War does just this. When your country has lost its authority in the world, one of the possibilities of hiring an unreliable narrator is to question the valorization of war, the meaning of bravery and the concept of a hero.
9. Norma Jeane Baker of Troy by Anne Carson
There is a long tradition of using original epics as a starting point for new lyrics that bring out minor characters in their antecedents. Carson has been writing in the cracks of the classical corpus throughout her career, but in this book she partially follows in the footsteps of HD’s Helen in Egypt, herself a modernist epic poem. Carson places Marilyn Monroe next to Helen of Troy and explores the incendiary, nation-shattering potential of sex appeal.
10. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
An obvious choice to end with. I have such a deep love for Tolkien’s huge, moving, compelling story. Basically, it’s a celebration of multilateralism in response to existential threat – something more relevant than ever. Tolkien’s genius lies in his ability to combine the solemn, heavy, even dry language of the epic (you can see the influence of the sometimes dull Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, or even The Battle of Maldon, a long train that looms large in its prose) with a picturesque lightness of touch (the ride of the Rohirrim versus the love of the Hobbits for good food). He was able to reuse tropes from older stories and use folkloric motifs to create something completely timeless, in which everyone, big and small, has a part to play.