For as long as we humans have sat together telling stories, by the fire or the summer sunset, we’ve had a huge appetite for epic stories. Every culture has them, stories like The Arabian Nights, Wales’ Mabinoginion, Israel’s Exodus story, Spain’s Cantar de Mio Cid, Ireland’s Sweeney, Bran and Couhoulain for example, sometimes dating back to the Bronze Age. They can be national crossovers like Beowulf, written in Old English but telling a story of Danes and Swedes. King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table borrow heavily from the French Chanson de Roland. A cracking story is a cracking story, wherever it is set.
Hollywood knows a great genre when it sees one and has spun millions out of excellent versions of Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series. A Game of Thrones reached huge audiences through HBO. Epic authors are the superstars of fiction writing, so what can we learn from them?
Why were epics first written?
The oldest epics were around long before most people could read or write and would be recited to an audience by a professional saga teller. In Ireland’s post-Roman period, for example, the ollam, or arch-poet, would train for at least twelve years and at any given time would hold 250 ‘prime sagas’ in his head and around 100 secondary ones. These sagas were in rhyme (easier to learn) and would improve in the telling over the years, as yarns and stories do.
What were they for?
Usually ancient epics had something at their centre about a community in crisis. Courageous heroes saved them all from Monsters and were welcomed back among grateful loved ones with feasts and treasure. The heroes themselves might have been sitting in the audience. It’s more likely that the sagas were looking to heroes of the past to excite listeners for new battles ahead.
What are an epic’s ingredients?
Epics are usually long but it’s about much more than the word count.
- The story should be grand in scope and theme. A girl leaving home is a Coming of Age story – Joan of Arc’s leaving home is epic. Teenager Joan leads the French army into war, thanks to divine guidance, and withstands torture by the enemy English before they burn her at the stake. Joan’s personal story and martyrdom symbolise the clash between the two nations.
- An epic can have several grand themes, spanning the whole range from the nature of true love or the experience of exile through discovering personal integrity to sheer survival, and they are all bigger than any single character.
- There’s usually a quest of some kind in there and a great journey.
- A large backstory influences the present.
- Political elements are strong, such as the emergence of a new nation or resisting conquest.
- The events have greater importance than any individual character.
- Which is not to say that the characters should be bland – the reverse is true. It’s in a wide range of realistic characters, each with their own complete journey, that we can all find ourselves and a true epic finds resonance through many generations.
- Epics are capable of gripping whole communities and their success often lies in timing, in their coinciding with a community’s need.
What are your favourite epics? Here are a few titles to get you started: War and Peace, Gone with the Wind, Earthsea, Doctor Zhivago, Lord of the Rings, Paradise Lost and of course Harry Potter.
Taking your favourites in turn, give yourself ten minutes or more to have a scribble-chat:
- What do you love most about these stories? Generally, and in particular.
- Who are your favourite characters? Why?
- Make a list of your favourite moments, taking as long as you like. Are your chosen moments similar in any way? If so, why do you think that is? (There is no wrong answer.) Choose one or two favourite moments and write yourself into them – be one of the characters or the author, it’s up to you. Have fun.
- How important is the geographical place to you? Think of a scene you love and describe the place where it happens in all the detail you can remember. Some of that detail might be yours alone, it doesn’t matter. Just be there and feel the place around you.
- Do your favourites leave you with a debate going on in your head, asking where you stand on this or that? Take some time to chase those themes around on the page. Enjoy discussing them with yourself. There is no need to come to any conclusions, just let the arguments breathe into your writing and you may find characters coming to you, wanting you to tell a new story.
Let’s look at some epics more closely, starting with one of the oldest in Western literature. In many ways it’s the most surprising and can teach us a lot.
I grew up with my darling dad telling me Homer’s great stories at bedtime. By the time I was eight years old, I adored Odysseus’s weird sense of humour and was in love with the Trojan hero, Hector.
What makes The Iliad epic? A Trojan prince called Paris fell in love with Helen, a Spartan princess of great beauty who happened to be married to one of the most powerful Greek kings, Menelaus. Paris took her home with him to the city of Troy (in present day Turkey). Menelaus wasn’t best pleased and called on a treaty whereby he and all the other Greek kings had agreed that if one of them had to go to war, they’d all join in to help. They hadn’t expected that to be about somebody’s wife going astray but there they were. The Iliad is the story of the gathering of the Greek armies, their ten years of war with the Trojans and how eventually their long siege of Troy came to an end. That would be dull told, minute by minute, so it’s all told through the prism of the climactic final weeks of the siege. I’ll say that again: the story of The Iliad starts near the very end and works a lot in by flashback.
Homer is thought to have written the poem around the 8th century BC, about events that are reckoned to have been the 12th century BC.
If you think that’s far too long ago to be intense or exciting, please think again. This story is packed with vibrant, contrasting characters, amazing jinks in the plot, heroism and failure on both sides, and timeless understanding of poor human bipeds like us struggling through our lives.
Did I say timeless? Let me give you an example of how Homer strode right into my life as if he were writing his stories that very day.
When the various paramilitaries promised ceasefires in the Northern Irish Troubles in 1994, poet Michael Longley (a Classics graduate from Trinity College, Dublin, like my father) wrote Ceasefire. It was published in The Irish Times and rocked Ireland back on its heels north and south. Longley chose to write about the closing moments of The Iliad when the Trojan King Priam, Hector’s father, visits the Greeks’ greatest warrior Achilles to beg for the return of his son’s mutilated body for loving funeral rites. Achilles has defeated Hector in a duel of the best and, in high rage about the death of his own close friend, has been desecrating Hector’s corpse by dragging it around the city walls. With both Priam and Achilles exhausted by years of war, it’s a scene of reconciliation – not just of handshakes in suits but of eating together and feeling each other’s suffering. In the final lines, Priam says these almost impossible words:
I get down on my knees and do what must be done
And kiss Achilles’ hand, the killer of my son.
Not many of us would dare to rewrite Homer but, like Longley, you too can take these timeless characters in their ancient scenes and reimagine them for your own life and time.
More about what we can learn from these great epics next time.
Have a wonderful writing week!