Epic (genre)

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Epic is a genre of narrative defined by heroic or legendary adventures presented in a long format.[1][2] Originating in the form of epic poetry,[3][4] the genre also now applies to epic theatre, epic films, music, novels, stage play, television series, and video games.[4] Scholars argue that 'the epic' has long since become "disembedded" from its origins in oral poetry.[5]


Ancient sources[edit]

Providing a plethora of narrative tropes, the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilgamesh, as the first recorded epic poem, would lay the foundation for the entire Western branch of the genre. Both the Old Testament and New Testament borrow many themes from Gilgamesh, which in turn has been found to draw from older Sumerian tradition. As such, some anthropologists identify Jesus as an embodiment of the same mythical archetype.[6][7] Some similarities, among others, include stories of:

Just as it provided a blueprint for biblical traditions, many other pre-Christian mythos and religious epics have also shown to be influenced by Gilgamesh, including those of Buddha in Buddhist tradition;[8] Krishna in Hindu tradition;[9] Odysseus,[10] Perseus,[11] and Dionysus[12] in Greek tradition; Ra, Horus, Osiris, and Amenhotep III in Ancient Egyptian tradition; Romulus in Roman tradition; and Zoroaster/Zarathustra and Mithra in Zoroastrian tradition.

The Bible similarly extended its influence into existing epic literature such as the legend of King Arthur, which, as it exists in the modern day, has been interpreted to be loosely modeled upon the life of Jesus, however this was not always the case. Arthurian literature had originally been based on pre-Christian, Celtic folklore and may have been based on a British warrior (5th–6th century) who staved off invading Saxons. During the early christianization of the United Kingdom, the Church tolerated new converts observing their older, pagan traditions. However, as the British Church grew in power, events taking place in Europe (such as The Crusades) inspired authors to reshape the traditional legends with christian undertones. Author Robert de Boron, for instance, translated the legend into French in 1155, in which he would conceive of the now-iconic addition of the sword-in-the-stone legend, and would expand upon the Round Table lore whereby Arthur had twelve knights just as Jesus has twelve disciples.[13][14]


Specific echelons of popular culture draw from a variety of epic narrative tropes. This may preclude to genres such as heroic fantasy, sword and sorcery, space opera, fantasy adventures, and high fantasy. Some even draw influence from each other, just as ancient sources. For example Frank Herbert's Dune Saga inspired the Star Wars trilogy and the Jodoverse.


There are many genres of epic and various mediums that have adopted such genres, including:

Real-life stories of heroic figures have also been referred to as being epic. For example, Ernest Shackleton's exploration adventures in Antarctica.[18]

Epic fantasy[edit]

Epic fantasy (or high fantasy) has been described as containing three elements:[3][2]

  1. it must be a trilogy or longer;
  2. its time-span must encompass years or more; and
  3. it must contain a large back-story or universe setting in which the story takes place.

J. R. R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings is an example of epic fantasy,[3] though the genre is not limited to the Western tradition, for example: Arabic epic literature includes One Thousand and One Nights;[2] and Indian epic poetry includes Ramayana and Mahabharata.[2]


  1. ^ "epic". Lexico UK English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. Archived from the original on May 20, 2020.
  2. ^ a b c d Grant, John, and John Clute. 1997. "Arabian fantasy." The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. London: Orbit Books. ISBN 978-1-85723-368-1. OCLC 37106061.
  3. ^ a b c Buker, Derek M. (2002). "The Long and Longer of It: Epic Fantasy". The Science Fiction and Fantasy Readers' Advisory. ALA Editions. p. 118. ISBN 9780838908310.
  4. ^ a b Paul Merchant (June 1971). The Epic. Routledge Kegan & Paul. ISBN 978-0-416-19700-6.
  5. ^ a b Corrigan, Timothy (2012). The Film Experience: An Introduction. Macmillan. p. 329. ISBN 9780312681708.
  6. ^ "The Epic of Gilgamesh". SparkNotes. "Tablet VI", p. 1. Retrieved 24 January 2020.
  7. ^ Dolansky, Shawna (2019). "Gilgamesh and the Bible". Bible Odyssey. Society of Biblical Literature. Retrieved 24 January 2020.
  8. ^ Pitts, Monique B. (1981). "Barlaam and Josaphat: A Legend for All Seasons". Journal of South Asian Literature. 16 (1): 8. ISSN 0091-5637. JSTOR 40873618.
  9. ^ Grossman, Allen (1992). ""The Death of the Beloved Companion": Brief Notes on a Master Narrative of Poetic Knowledge, in Relation to the Human Interest in the Ethical". Harvard Review (2): 53–58. ISSN 1077-2901. JSTOR 27559502.
  10. ^ Burgess, Jonathan (1999). "Gilgamesh and Odysseus in the Otherworld". Echos du Monde Classique: Classical Views. 43 (2): 203. ISSN 1913-5416.
  11. ^ Hopkins, Clark (1934-07-01). "Assyrian Elements in the Perseus-Gorgon Story". American Journal of Archaeology. 38 (3): 345. doi:10.2307/498901. ISSN 0002-9114. JSTOR 498901. S2CID 191408685.
  12. ^ Maier, John R. (1997). Gilgamesh: A Reader. Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers. p. 244. ISBN 978-0-86516-339-3.
  13. ^ "King Arthur". Biography. Retrieved 2020-01-24.
  14. ^ Books, Edfu. "King Arthur Was the Biblical Jesus". www.prnewswire.com. Retrieved 2020-01-24.
  15. ^ Santas, Constantine (2008). "Table of Contents". The Epic in Film: From Myth to Blockbuster. Rowman & Littlefield. p. v. ISBN 9780742555297.
  16. ^ Burgoyne, Robert (2011). The Epic Film. Taylor & Francis. ISBN 9780203927472.
  17. ^ Schweizer, Bernard (2006). Approaches to the Anglo and American Female Epic, 1621–1982. Aldershot: Ashgate.
  18. ^ Briggs, Raymond (1969). Shackleton's Epic Voyage; Bickel, Lennard (2001). Shackleton's Forgotten Men: The Untold Tragedy of the Endurance Epic; Worsley, Frank A. (1931). Endurance: An Epic of Polar Adventure.

Further reading[edit]