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Literary Genres: The Classical Epic Tradition

Literary genres are based on a category of literary composition, which contains literary techniques, devices, tones, and contents. Even though literary genres are thought to consist only of short stories, novels, essays, drama/plays, and poems in the modern world, the scale is much longer and more comprehensive. Additionally, it is crucial to note that literary genres are created by common literary conventions that change over time as new genres emerge. Therefore, their contents not only evolve according to cultural contexts but also contemporary questions of morals and norms. With respect to this, the classical epic tradition has an important role in analyzing literary works through history and questioning of morals and norms according to its particular characteristics.

First and foremost, the term "epic" can be classified in two ways; either narrowly through a study of a selected variety of classical epics, or widely by considering the entire range of writing that could be considered epic. However, mainly, the meaning of genre is originated from French, which means kind, sort, or style. In the earliest history, a variety of literary genres were defined by mostly the Ancient Greeks, who were also known as the earliest literary critics of modern ancient civilization, such as Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Aeschylus, Aspasia, and Euripides. Besides, all the types of literary composition that prevailed in ancient Greece were written and constructed to discover cultural, moral, or ethical questions, which were ultimately identified as not only epic, but also tragedy, and comedy genres.

(Credit: Olympus, The Fall of the Giants by Francisco Bayeu y Subías, 1764)

The Classical Epic Tradition

Initially, in order to comprehend the epic works and have the ability to analyze them, one must learn the basic structure of the epic tradition. The definition of epic poetry is a long narrative poem telling of a hero’s deeds, which demonstrates that epic poetry generally is about heroism. However, in some cases, the epic poem may not involve heroic signs and figures. If epic poetry does not contain warfare, it is generally about adventure. However, it is essential to mention that conflict might be included in both heroism and adventure. In other words, if an epic poem has warfare, it may contain an adventure. For instance, the illustrations of English epic works, John Milton’s Paradise Lost (seventeenth-century epic classic), Beowulf (the oldest surviving epic poem), and Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene (in early modern English) contain both an adventure and nobility. Epic poetry, in other words, is interwoven acts of courage, nobility, and adventure.

The General Features of the Epic Genre

An epic is a type of poem, not prose. That is, it contains a certain rhythm, a form of lines or stanzas, and a regular meter. An epic poem has to be long, which means that it is different than a typical lyric poem. Other than that, an epic poem should be narrative. In other words, it tells a story. Another feature of an epic poem is that the readers usually see a common type of hero. To explain this profoundly, the heroes are generally warriors, yet it is not a must. There might be any other types of characters. To give a simple example, in Dante’s Divine Comedy, the characters are not warriors but trying to reach God. In a way, they deprive themselves of a certain purpose, which can be counted as a representation of heroism. To put it differently, the epic hero is not an ordinary person. He is either of noble birth or high position, and often of great historical or legendary importance. Not to mention the fact that exhibiting the character traits or qualities reflects the significant ideals of society. To be more specific, braveness, courageousness, and honesty are the main ideals that are cherished by society in an epic poem. Hence, it can be said that the epic heroes are courageous, and superhuman figures and their deeds reflect the values of the era. They perform actions that often determine the fate of a nation or group of people. They do not fight for themselves. On the contrary, they fight for their notion. For example, in Beowulf and Divine Comedy, the heroes fight for saving humanity according to Christian doctrine.

An epic was born as an oral tradition. Due to this fact, there is no doubt that works can take their contents from various subjects as myths, heroic legends, histories, religious tales, philosophical or moral theories since the aim is to transmit people’s traditions from one generation to another, without the aid of writing.

(Credit: Beowulf, Grendel's Dam)

Conventions of an Epic Poem

An epic poem may begin with invoking the Muses. Muses, in Greek and Roman mythology, are nine Goddesses, who are basically the source of inspiration. In that kind of beginning, the poet prays to the Muses in order to give him a divine inspiration to tell a story of a hero.


Sing goddess the baneful wrath of Achilles son of Peleus – Iliad 1.1 Muse, tell me in verse of the man of many wiles – Odyssey 1.1 From the Heliconian Muses let us begin to sing – Hesiod Theogony 1.1 Beginning with thee, O Phoebus, I will recount the famous deeds of men of old – Argonautica 1.1 Muse, remember to me the causes – Aeneid 1.8 Sing Heav’nly Muse, that on the secret top Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire – Paradise Lost 1.6

In addition to this, an epic poem begins “in medias res”, in other words, “in the middle of everything”. The setting is vast in scope, and often involving more than one nation. It has not limited space or single territory. The plot, on the other hand, is complicated by supernatural beings or events and may involve a long and dangerous journey through foreign lands. Lastly, the dialogue often includes long, formal speeches delivered by the major characters. In a lyric poem, there is no dialogue, which presents that the dialogues are quite important in epic poetry.


The theme reflects timeless values, such as courage and honor, and encompasses universal ideas, such as good and evil or life and death. The style includes formal diction and a serious type. There is the use of Epithets which is the listing of heroes and combatants that appear at the beginning of the poems.

(Credit: The Example of An Epithet from The Odyssey)

Techniques in Old English Epic Poetry

  • Alliteration or the repetition of a consonant (sometimes a vowel) emerges at the beginning of words, which helps unify the lines. So, mankind’s enemy continued his crimes.

  • Caesura, or a pause dividing each line, means that each part having two accented syllables to help maintain the rhythm of the lines. For example;

Sing, o goddess || the rage of Achilles, the son of Peleus.
  • Kennings are the types of metaphor. To give an example, whale – road, means sea and it is a metaphorical compound word or phrase substituted for a noun or name, which enhances meaning. For another example, mankind’s enemy was used in place of Grendel in Beowulf.

  • Assonance means the repetition of vowel sounds after the beginning of words in unrhymed, stressed syllables. For example;

Batter these ramparts. - The sound "a" is repeated twice.
  • Simile, which is another literary device, compares a person, an event, or an object to something more different than itself. This technique helps readers comprehend the characteristics of the object, person, or event by presenting the relationship between two different things. For example;

The attackers struck like eagles, crook – clawed, hook – beaked, swooping down from a mountain ridge to harry smaller birds that skim across the flatland cringing under the clouds…

The passage is taken from the epic of Odyssey, and the simile describes the battle between Odysseus and the suitors, who try to marry his wife, Penelope. A simile uses the word "like", which is underlined in the passage, or "as".

  • Onomatopoeia, which is the use of imitation of the sounds, shows itself as a bunch of words like bam, crash, boom, splash, etc. in order to make readers focus on the poem. For example;

And answer made the bold Sir Bedivere;
I heard the ripple washing in the reeds,
And the wild water lapping on the crag. - Morte D’Arthur.

Other Epic Poems Should Be Known

Apart from English epic poems, there are other epic poems that have a pivotal role in world literature. They can be listed as; Iliad and Odyssey by Homer. (8th century BC), Aeneid by Virgil. (29 – 19 BC), Pharsalia by Lucan. (A Roman epic poem, 1640), Chanson de Roland (in medieval French, 11th century, the reign of Charlemagne), and The Epic of Gilgamesh (Ancient Mesopotamia, 2100 BC).

Ultimately, this article deals with the brief history of epic tradition and its significant characteristics with quotations. Taking everything into an account, the most obvious conclusion to be drawn is that the epic tradition is humankind's foremost artistic effort into literature, theology, and history. Various samples of epic poetry, in which the expressive force of literature is expertly managed, can still be found in most academic fields, and so many articles have been published about it.

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