Epics past and future: how has the genre sustained its popularity?


Imagine you are transported back 4,500 years in time to the very first civilisation we know of: Mesopotamia. Chances are, you would find it very difficult to identify much in common with the locals. However, what Warner Bros’ latest box office success, Dune, tells us is that at the very least, we still share a love of one of the very oldest storytelling traditions: the epic. From the first recorded story ever, the Sumerian The Epic of Gilgamesh to the recent Dune (adapted from Frank Herbert’s novel of the same name) we have been creating and consuming epics since the beginning of human civilisation. But what makes this style so popular? 

What makes this style so popular?

An epic is, traditionally, a long poem narrating the heroic feats and lengthy journeys of an individual or group, closely linked to the retelling of the history of a nation. Although most modern epics do not come in the form of poetry, the essential formula has remained the same since its beginning. 

Homer’s Odyssey and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings both depict arduous journeys over vast regions and a wide time span. Similarly, the power struggles and epic battles of Game of Thrones closely resemble the fall of Troy, or the founding of Rome recounted in Homer’s Iliad or Virgil’s Aeneid. There is clearly something about this tradition that appeals so well to the mainstream audience, and I believe that essential ingredient to being just what its name suggests: how epic they are. 

The sheer scale of the time spans, physical terrains, or heroic feats in the epic elevates these stories to almost legendary status, which the average reader could never hope to reach themselves. Combined with the epic’s often far-reaching consequences and momentous themes, such as the fate of all mankind (Milton’s Paradise Lost), this culminates in the ultimate form of escapism, making any problem of our day-to-day lives seem small and insignificant.  

This essential premise can be seen throughout epics, and its versatility might provide an explanation for the endurance of the popularity of this tradition. Frank Herbert’s Dune is the perfect example of an epic adapted for a modern audience (although it was released 50 years ago, it is still relatively new in comparison to the works of Homer, for instance, and the recent film release has proven that it has not lost its touch). An interesting parallel between the Iliad and Dune illustrates this point. Where Homer emphasizes the enormity of the scale of the Iliad by jumping occasionally from the events at Troy to the Gods on Mount Olympus, Herbert employs a similar technique in Dune, switching frequently between the perspectives of the heroes on one planet, to their enemies on another. So, while the religious dimensions of the Iliad may not resonate quite as much with a modern audience, the interplanetary narrative of Dune has a similar effect: reminding the audience of the grand scale of the plot and its implications. 

While the religious dimensions of the Iliad may not resonate quite so much with a modern audience, the interplanetary narrative of Dune has a similar effect

This futuristic setting is not the only way the epic has been adapted for a modern audience. Not only is there the room for the creation of entirely new epics, but there has been a recent trend of retellings of the Ancient Greek epics from new, thus far unexplored perspectives. Pat Barker’s The Silence of the Girls and Natalie Hayne’s A Thousand Ships both offer retellings of the Iliad centred around the experiences of the female characters, which provides a refreshing break from the male focus of the vast majority of popular epics. Similarly, Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles explores the often-speculated sexual relationship between two male characters of the Iliad. 

These new approaches to some of the most well-known stories show that there is still potential for the development of epics, both old and new. The oldest human storytelling tradition has a very bright future.

Image: Levi Meir Clancy via Unsplash

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