Why Epic Literature Matters

Let me introduce you to one of my muses and I’ve been holding a torch for her for quite a long time. She is a daughter of Mnemosyne and Zeus, and her name is Calliope. In ancient Greece she was known as the muse of Epic poetry, one of the seven sisters who embodied the different forms of creative inspiration. I wrote a poem to them which is at the beginning of my Kyberpoetica album and this is mainly because almost all classical literature starts with a form of invocation or supplication to the muses for them to bestow inspiration upon the poet as they commence their work. It should be mentioned however that Mnemosyne was not the wife of Zeus so this was an extramarital affair, one of many, which caused religious commentators of the time to feel repulsed by the iniquitous behaviour of the Gods, but there we go.

It is a fairly common preconception that Epic literature refers to the length, when in fact it is not size that matters (as Zeus may have said to Mnemosyne). Epic literature is mostly about a certain theme, and that is overcoming adversity. So anything that deals with this theme could be said to belong in the Epic category whether it consists of numerous volumes or even a single paragraph. It could also be said to have another label which is Heroic literature and this refers to the fact that the main protagonist is usually cast in a heroic role which involves them facing challenges with which they have to struggle but they eventually succeed in the end. Epic literature, which can include both poetry and prose, is about character, it is about how a person deals with an event which requires them to dig deep and reveals something about their true nature. In cases where there is more than one person involved the roles in which they are portrayed may again shed light on their character in response to the circumstances, which may be judged as morally good or as morally evil. In the case of much Classical Epic literature however, it is down to the will of the Gods.

So why is any of this even remotely relevant to today? I would say it is because we are now facing enormous challenges and the Epic literature of the future may well be written about our present circumstances. Time will tell however who will end up being portrayed and how they will be portrayed or even if there will be anyone to tell the tale at all such is our existential jeopardy.

My interest in this stems from my fascination with the Epic stories which I grew up reading about. Greek myth was an early love but also I came to be enamoured with Arthurian legend and a gift from a family friend who was an Irish folklorist introduced me to the Ulster cycle and its main protagonist, Cú Chulainn. It was many, many years later after having come to Scotland to study and eventually settle that I would look further into the stories of the great hound of Ulster and the later hero Fionn mac Cumhaill, whom I have a connection with through my middle name Finley, which is a very bad version of the Gaelic name Fionnlagh. The stories of these heroes are of course in the Epic mould, in the Classical sense, but they were preserved almost unscathed through the highly religious Middle Ages in which Biblical stories competed heavily as moral yardsticks of character. Through those many centuries the bards kept the stories alive via a form of bardic education which had a structured and critical awareness of important techniques of poetic composition and mainly consisted of direct oral transmission. They were patronised by the wealthy nobility of the Gaelic world to whom the poets composed pangyrics heaping copious praise upon their benefactors. Society changed quite dramatically however and economics turned the tide against the old aristocracy and brought many modernisations which we really recognise as the beginnings of our current contemporary culture. I’m not saying that all the changes are bad by any means. The view of women as basically property in those days is thankfully mostly eradicated. My own ancestor married in the hope of clearing massive debts by cashing in the bonds which his wife owned and which it was her “wifely duty” to provide him with.

What I’m really sad about is the devaluing of the Epic and Heroic stories that were so long preserved. Other versions of Epics have of course taken their place of which we will all be familiar, with fiction like Game of Thrones or the Star Wars film franchise or even Harry Potter, all of which contain within them the themes of the Epic. Even with these we are in danger of losing the heart that is at the core of the Epic to the banal and twee commercialisation of what made them once powerful: the reflection and identification within ourselves of being able to overcome overwhelming odds.

The world we live in today wants everything to happen according to the odds so the house always wins, not just in the context of gambling but also in the context of society where number-crunching statistical data allows massive businesses like Facebook to sell advertising that is specifically tailored to be seen by the right audiences. By using the same statistical techniques insurance companies make huge amounts of money on the probability that your lifestyle will lead to certain illnesses, accidents or death and their investments go on schemes that will exploit more resources that will generate more profits and so on in a never-ending loop. But where does character, where does meaning come into this? It doesn’t. These things only appear in the context of the Epic where character and virtue and non-material qualities that you can’t acquire by wealth are extolled.

We are losing ourselves and we need to find ourselves again. The conditions which prevail in the world are what prompt us to act in ways that can either be in accordance with what we hold to be our true values or not. But the choice is ours. This is why in a key moment in the great story of the Mahabharata, which is the Epic literature of India, before the battle of Kurukshetra, Krishna and Arjuna have a discussion in which Krishna basically asks Arjuna how he will respond to the circumstances he finds himself. Arjuna’s character hinges upon this and he asks for guidance which Krishna is happy to provide and this forms the Bhagavad Gita or Song of the Lord. The challenges may be external or internal but the hero will overcome the challenges no matter what, even when all seems lost. And this is how the Epic is born, not because the outcome is guaranteed but because the challenge is accepted (as Barny from How I Met Your Mother would say).

Our times are equally fraught and perhaps some are wondering whether the challenge is too great, but only time will tell. The message I have, and this is why I bear a torch for Calliope, is that there were those who went before us who faced death and didn’t shrink from it. There were people, perhaps our own direct ancestors, about whom songs and bàrdachd were composed because they were worthy of it. They were before us but they are also part of us so let us not forget them or let their stories be trivialised. Let us remember the daughters of Mnemosyne, especially Calliope.

Leave a Reply