“Whatever happened to the epic?” by Jo Ann Cavallo

Miguel de Cervantes famously claimed to have composed Don Quixote de la Mancha to combat the imaginative hold that books of chivalry had over his contemporaries. Reading the novel for the first time as an undergraduate, however, I had been instinctively drawn to the eponymous hero who decided to transform his own life into a heroic adventure in which he could act out the role of knight errant. What’s more, I could relate to the protagonist’s obsession with chivalric narratives since I was an avid reader myself. When I entered graduate school in 1981, however, where “secondary reading” had taken primacy as “literary theory,” I learned to my dismay that the epic genre had been proclaimed dead.

If “video killed the radio star,” as the song recorded by Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club for the Epic label maintains, who or what killed the epic? Or was it simply a natural consequence of our modern world—with industrialized warfare, the proclamation of democratic principles, and the perceived preference for entertainment reflecting the trials of everyday life? According to Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination, recently published in English translation at the time, it was the novel, a many-voiced dialogic genre, that rendered obsolete its “monologic” predecessor. 

If truth be told, I didn’t spend much time pondering the question of the genre’s demise since the actual epics that I proceeded to study absorbed all my attention. Besides, the examples that most fascinated me, Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, were highly dialogic according to Bakhtin’s own definition. The Russian theorist had never considered Italian Renaissance epic poetry, I surmised, when formulating his conception of epic as monologic.

As it turns out, some critics who engaged head on with Bakhtin’s theory of genre reached the conclusion that a whole array of epic narratives simply did not fit his binary model. Gregory Nagy maintained, in fact, that the formula was inapplicable to virtually all epic texts with the exception of one: “I would go so far as to say that Bakhtin’s hermeneutic model of ‘epic,’ if we follow through on his criteria for distinguishing it from ‘novel,’ fit the Iliad only, to the exclusion of the Odyssey, which actually seems more appropriate to Bakhtin’s hermeneutic model of ‘novel,’ not ‘epic’” (28). While calling Bakhtin “probably the most influential theorist of the novel’s triumph over the epic,” Frederick Turner has argued that, on the contrary, “the epic is far more ‘dialogical’ than any novel” (2, 39). Margaret Beissinger et al. posit that “Bakhtin’s version of epic has never existed – indeed, as a theory it ignores what has always been present in epic’s dialogic voices …” (7). Aiming to account for Bakhtin’s theory in the context of the critic’s own methodological priorities, Sneharika Roy finds that Bakhtin uses the epic as “a negative foil to the novel whose place in history [he] seeks to legitimise” (6). Even if Bakhtin’s dismissal of the epic as monologic has been repeatedly contested, is it nonetheless true that since the advent of the novel the epic has fallen by the wayside? 

If we take the time to look around, we find that cultures from across the globe continue to cherish stories relating memorable deeds by heroic characters whose actions have significant consequences for themselves and their larger communities. The plurisecular tradition of retelling and performing the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, for example, continues to engage audiences in India and south Asia more generally. Referring specifically to the latter work, Paula Richman notes that such retellings keep the epic “fluid and alive.” Some epics were not even written down until the nineteenth century, such as the Kyrgyz Manas and Armenian David of Sassoun. Others remain in circulation through the force of oral transmission right up to the present day, with written versions (and translations) available only because researchers commissioned transcriptions of oral retellings, as has been the case for the African epics about Sun-Jata, Mwindo, and Askia Mohammed. From a global perspective, then, Bakhtin’s frame of reference for epic narrative appears too narrowly circumscribed both culturally and geographically. The incredible richness and ongoing vitality of epic traditions worldwide prompted me to develop the World Epics website with the contribution of dozens of scholars working across territories and languages (https://edblogs.columbia.edu/worldepics/).

All the same, has epic nevertheless disappeared from my own Anglophone world? And if not, where is it to be found? “Whatever happened to the epic?” is the question with which Robert Crossley, Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Boston, opens his new book, Epic Ambitions in Modern Times: From Paradise Lost to the New Millennium (Anthem Press, 2022), before delivering the good news that epic is alive and well in a great variety of forms. If we stop expecting epic to be confined to long poems (although there are prime examples of these as well), he argues, we will discover epic in fantasy and science fiction novels, epistolary fiction, history-writing, drama, opera, film, music, and painting. Not only has the epic impulse continued to fuel artists but, Crossley contends, “the taste for epic experience endures in audiences” (2). Or, in the gripping phrase of Jorge Luis Borges, “people are hungering and thirsting for epic” (97). Many of the (mostly English-language) works discussed across the book’s twelve chapters were both successful upon their appearance and have canonical status today. This is perhaps most clearly exemplified by Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, but it is also the case for Richardson’s Clarissa, Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Jacob Lawrence’s 60 Migration paintings, Kushner’s Angels in America, and Madeline Miller’s recent novels derived from the Iliad and the Odyssey. Crossley’s analysis of these and several other representative works from the past 350 years, including Wagner’s Ring cycle and Hollywood films of the 1960s, not only delves into their epic features but also uncovers their intense dialogue with previous epic narratives.

Epic “is still with us,” Crossley reflects, “because it still meets our aesthetic, psychological and spiritual needs, our need for vision, our need to see life projected on a big screen” (12). Indeed, it is not hard to imagine a twenty-first century heir to Cervantes portraying a protagonist addicted to role-playing video games or binge watching The Game of Thrones after having grown up on film series like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings as well as the fan fiction they inspired. Epics, in short, offer an escape from everyday reality and a playground for the imagination, while at the same time encouraging critical thinking and deep reflection on what it means to be human in both the past and the present. And I venture to think that epics will live on as long as humans need to envision larger-than-life scenarios that recount tough choices and real-life struggles made in a high-stakes situation to which we can all relate.

Works Cited
Bakhtin, Mikhail. The Dialogic Imagination. Translated by Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. U of Texas P, 1981.
Beissinger, Margaret, et al., editors. Epic Traditions in the Contemporary World: The Poetics of Community. U of California P, 1999.
Crossley, Robert. Epic Ambitions in Modern Times: From Paradise Lost to the New Millennium. Anthem Press, 2022.
Nagy, Gregory. “Epic as Genre.” Beissinger et al. 21-32.
Richman, Paula. “Teaching the Multivocal Ramayana Tradition of India: Resources and Options.” Teaching World Epics. Edited by Jo Ann Cavallo. Modern Language Association, forthcoming.
Roy, Sneharika. Roy, Sneharika. The Postcolonial Epic: From Melville to Walcott to Ghosh. Routledge, 2018.
Turner, Frederick. Epic: Form, Content, and History. Transaction Publishers, 2012.