An Epic is usually a product of the heroic age. In The Iliad of Homer, the blind poet of Chios, which embodies, transmutes and enlarges the poetical material of the Achaean minstrels, the fact of history are obscured in a haze of legend. The actors take on heroic form the gods participate in the struggle and the issue is portrayed as a contest between the gathered strength of Hellas and an Asiatic power. To the modern antiquary The Iliad, which depicts in vivid colours the Aegean civilization of the bronze age, is full of instruction.
Epics are of two types-Primary, folk, authentic or the epic of growth, and secondary, literary or the epic of art. The Iliad and The Odyssey and The Sumerian Gilgamesh (2000 B.C.) are examples of the Epic of growth, while Virgil’s Aeneid and Milton’s Paradise Lost are the epics of art. Epics of growth are much larger, and very close to the age, in which they were composed. There is a marked difference in diction also. Epics of growth are written in a language, not always as polished as the Epics of art. Nibelungenlied, an epic of growth, for example, is composed in a style different from that of Paradise Lost.
The epic poets, Homer, for example, has a prodigious memory and vision. They remembered the popular lays and ballads and composed them under divine inspiration. That is why they always invoked the Muses before they began writing.
Plato, in his earlier Dial gues expressed his view that the Homeric poems had an adverse effect upon the impressionable minds. In the Laws, however, he stated his preference for epics to tragedies, because of their leisurely pace.
Aristotle’s views on epics deserve a close examination. An epic, like a tragedy, should deal with a single event, having a beginning, middle, and end, though it will deal with more incidents and extend over a longer time than a tragedy. That explains why The Iliad does not deal with whole of the battle of Troy or the life of Achilles; the hero of the epic. Homer has chosen a crisis in the life of the hero, namely his ‘wrath’, and the action of the epic revolves round the crisis of his life.
The subject of an epic is a great event or a series of events, dealing with the heroic exploits of a distinguished figure. But since the poet has an enormous scope for digressions, he introduces many historical and legendary side-issues, which however, are brought to bear upon the main event. As in a tragedy, so also in an epic the hero is a man of eminence. At times supernatural agencies are at work. The Iliad, for instance, is unthinkable without the Olympians, who shape the destiny of the mortals. An epic always has an irresistible appeal to the national sentiments.
To cater for the popular taste and demand for excitements and violence, an epic normally describes vivid scenes of war, and the adventures of the hero, who compels our admiration. Achilles in spite of his ego, anger, and pride commands our respects, for he prefers death to dishonour. Hector, the Trojan hero, plunges into the battle, knowing full well that he is encountering death.
The canvas of an epic is vast, and embraces heaven and earth. And the hero plants his feet, like Colossus, in all the regions. Achilles, though a heritage for the whole of Europe today, once was an object of national pride and glory. The Greek nation has found in The Iliad a supreme expression of its longings and aspirations. The great actions of Greece and Troy are laid bare that have transcended the limitations of time and space.
True, there are many digressions in The Iliad and The Odyssey, and yet nowhere has Homer violated the principle of unity and cohesion. The single action with the beginning, middle and end has been consistently in view. Homer plunges in mediatres in The Iliad, and assumes that the readers and the audience are familiar with all the legends and incidents that have culminated in the ‘wrath’ of Achilles. He does not say anything about the dream of Hecuba, the exposure of Paris on Mount Ida, the beauty contest among the goddesses, namely Juno, Athene, and Venus, the elopement of Helen from the palace of Menelaus, the preparations for a long war, and the sacrifice of Iphigenia, In fact, Homer does not even give a bare summary of these incidents.
It is now admitted on all hands that The Iliad is not a mere patchwork of ballads and lays. The career of Achilles provides the required unity of a true work of art to The Iliad. Achilles becomes angry and dissociates himself from the war. The Greeks without Achilles are like a ship without a rudder, and the Trojans, under the able leadership of Hector, cause a havoc. Achilles’ dearest friend and benchman Patroclus dies at the hand of Hector, and that becomes a turning point in the action. In terrible fury Achilles comes back and kills Hector. In a nutshell this is the action or structure of the epic.
According to John Addington Symonds-
The centralization of interest in the character of Achilles constitutes the grandeur of The Iliad. It is also by this that The Iliad is distinguished from all the narrative epics of the world. In the case of all rest there is one main event, one deed which has to be accomplished, one series of action with a definite beginning and ending. In none else are the passions of the hero made the main points of the movement.
A comparison of The Iliad with some other epics will confirm this view. The Odyssey is a tale of wanderings of the hero, and his return to his wife and son. The Aenied tells the st Aeneas establishes the Roman empire, kills Turnus, and marries Lavinia. Unlike The Iliad the other epics, including Nibelungenlied, Paradise Lost and Orlando Furioso deal with complete actions and leave nothing else to be narrated. But The Iliad closes with the death of Hector, and the fate of Achilles remains incomplete.
Again, some scholars complain, as does Mackail that the ‘wrath’ of Achilles is not a sufficiently noble passion. But Homer with his extraordinary genius has succeeded in making that passion convincing.