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  • The Narrative Facet of the Epic Tradition:Imagining the Past as Utopian Future
  • Shahar Bram

I. The Continuity of the Epic Tradition

Under such entries as epic, narrative, and heroic poetry we usually find references to long poems such as the Iliad, the Aeneid, and those that are perceived as later versions of these ancient works —whether Renaissance, Neo-classical, Romantic, or twentieth-century. The perception prevalent in Anglophone scholarship is that these long poems are a continuation of the epic tradition in its narrative or heroic mode.1 This essay foregrounds the element of length, and treats it as more than just a shared basis that forms the epic tradition. In order to perceive a long piece as a single work —to see it as more than a collection of smaller units —we require a strong and consistent connection that creates a comprehensible whole. The length of the poem preserves a certain quality that this tradition wishes to maintain. The term long, I argue, as it functions in the tradition whose historical stages I shall discuss below, is a general term that stands for other concepts, such as narrative, heroic, and epic. Length becomes a qualitative rather than a quantitative feature: the length of the poem, the quantity, mandates the assumptions of unity and wholeness.

What is at stake here is our understanding of narrativity. Its relation to length, as is manifest in the epic tradition, and the narrative facet of [End Page 1] the tradition itself are the main issues of this article. I shall delineate an understanding of the poems' narrativity as multiplicity within unity, where long poems narrate past values as an ideal future. Latent in the question of long poems' length is the question of multiplicity and unity: what is the relationship between a poem's inner parts and how do these parts create one poem —if indeed they do. This question applies to any long poem, so every epic, including Homer's, is subject to it. The long poem of the epic tradition resulted from an attempt to embrace both multiplicity and unity. Such poems either search for an option that does not render these two concepts mutually exclusive, or they point to another world and worldview —usually in antiquity —that integrates these concepts. In this sense, the narrativity of the long epic poem preserves the past in order to project its spirit and values into the future.

II. The Transition from Oral Culture to Written Culture

Epic poetry is a vague concept with a longstanding history of porous boundaries and controversial meanings. The historicalgeneric discussion, which deals with the question of whether the epic should be considered a genre, a tradition or a mode, with its characteristics defined accordingly, is too far-ranging to be covered here.2 However, a discussion of the oral sources of epic, heroic, and narrative poetry —namely, the forms or genres that usually serve as the context for the study of prominent long poems —is needed in order to clarify [End Page 2] the development of the epic tradition and inform our understanding of length in epic long poems.

According to Walter J. Ong, "the epic is basically and irremediably an oral art form," and written epics are "self-conscious, archaizing imitations of procedures demanded by the psycho-dynamics of oral storytelling" (158). The epic inevitably changes shape, stresses Ong, as orality gives way to writing and print. This is the beginning of a long process in which the epic's roots in what Ong calls the "noetic economy of oral culture" are dried up. The final phase occurs in the eighteenth century, when the epic is turned into mock epic (159).

In the tradition I delineate here, there are two critical junctions: (1) the transition from oral to written culture, and (2) the rise of Romanticism in the eighteenth century. Let me begin then with the first junction.

The term epic is often used in regard to the oral tradition. Ong, who identifies the epic with the oral poems of storytellers of various kinds, exemplifies the scholarship that sees in the oral poems performed by minstrels a source of the development of the written epic. Other prominent...


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