WWhat are epics? Typically, they are defined first by their length: they are traditionally long, and poems (this is the oldest oral form). They are often about male heroes fighting a good fight (against a monstrous or geopolitical enemy), and they are presented as nation-building texts: think of the Iliad, the Aeneid or Beowulf.
These are beautiful, familiar stories, re-translated and adapted over and over again. These are some of the most famous texts in Western literature. And the epic has historically been a very descending genre: nationalist (the Aeneid), featuring heroes whose worth and virtue are validated by their high birth (King Arthur, Beowulf, even Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings ). I am fascinated by the nation-building aspect of the epic, not to mention its masculine and martial traditions; it’s something in which I, a woman of mixed cultural heritage, felt that I had no place.
My book Amnios is an attempt to question several of these aspects of the epic. Although it is a long poem, Amnion offers (or at least, this is my hope) a form of anti- or counter-epic: it is an attempt to honor a fractured family history and to give it the weight it deserves.
Writers too numerous to name have co-opted and struggled with the epic lore. Below are some of my favorite epics – which I have deliberately defined as such.
1. Paradise Lost by John Milton
Milton wanted to write a native epic for England, and the story of Adam and Eve is the result. He deliberately picked up on many of the classic epics that came before him, and I love how his poem is in such an open conversation with so many of his predecessors. I like the subversively hopeful image at the end of Book 12, when Adam and Eve are kicked out of the garden. “The world was everything before them”, and they weave their way through it “hand in hand with wandering and slow steps”. For me, it’s a moment to celebrate: it’s when Adam and Eve become fully human. The world is a scary and messy place, but it’s always worth being in – Milton thought so, and I agree.
2. Memory of the fire by Eduardo Galeano
Galeano is a sadly overlooked writer in the UK. The signature of the late Uruguayan journalist is that of long sequences of small prose poems, often relating to tiny historical anecdotes that demonstrate resistance to oppression. These can be reproaches to the state-endorsed nationalism of the traditional epic. Memory of Fire, the most ostensibly epic of his works, is a story of the world told from a Latin American perspective. The first volume, Genesis, brilliantly interweaves the myths of indigenous creation with the arrival of the conquistadors.
3. G by John Berger
This novel, published in 1972, is an attempt to reimagine (perhaps explode) the epic of a new era of human civilization, from a Marxist perspective. Set in Europe in the years immediately preceding the outbreak of World War I, it follows the sexual exploits of a modern Don Juan (the subject of Byron’s sexual epic). “Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one,” says the book, expanding the idea of the epic: it does away with the idea that single texts can speak for a nation or nation. ‘a people as a whole. Such thinking had a huge impact on 20th century literature in the emerging notion of “postcolonial”: it is the guiding thought behind Salman Rushdie’s epic maximalist novel, Midnight’s Children, for example.
4. In the skin of a lion by Michael Ondaatje
It takes Berger’s line as an epigraph. The novel follows a series of characters, immigrants or not on the fringes of society, involved in the construction of utility buildings in Toronto at the turn of the 20th century. Ondaatje’s prose still has a worn quality, reminiscent of ancient texts. This lends weight to his novels, which he uses to ennoble epic un-commemorated heroes – unsung, if you will.
5. Shadows Burned by Kamila Shamsie
Shamsie is, like me, a great devotee of Ondaatje, and you can see his influence here. Shamsie’s sixth novel is epic in its historical significance: it manages to link the bombing of Nagasaki, the partition of India and the aftermath of September 11. Her most recent novel, Home Fire, picks up on the adjacent epic story of Antigone and is an edifying account of what can happen (and indeed what happened, with Shamima Begum, a case that did happen). after the publication of Home Fire) when Britain’s overly mythologized sense of nationality is allowed to translate into an ethno-nationalist immigration policy.
6. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The story of an epic journey, of an exodus. Steinbeck ultimately received the world’s highest literary honor, the Nobel, for writing about the plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath is the largest of his books and gives almost biblical proportions to his subjects, who were mostly climate refugees.
7. The Siege by Helen Dunmore
Dunmore’s novel about the siege of Leningrad in the winter of 1941 is a seemingly small story of a woman feeding her family. But Dunmore makes it epic, gives it scale and weight that’s hard to ignore. In his hands, the quest for firewood or rationing honey becomes as exciting as any battle with a supernatural enemy. It includes some of the most vivid descriptions of food I have ever encountered: a late summer feast of fresh fish fried in butter with potatoes, eaten in a dacha: a portrait of a happy family. , with the vast arm of the soon muscular story in.
8. The things they carried by Tim O’Brien
The Iliad is the story of a great victory, which marked the beginning of ancient Greece’s golden age of domination over the Mediterranean. But how can you write about defeat from the position of already being the dominant power? Tim O’Brien’s collection of interrelated self-fiction short stories about the Vietnam War does just that. When your nation has lost its authority in the world, one way forward is to adopt an unreliable narrator, to question the valuation of war, the sense of bravery, and the very concept of a hero.
9. Norma Jeane Baker of Troy by Anne Carson
There is a long tradition of using original epics as a starting point for new texts that highlight minor characters in their background. Carson has written in the cracks of the classical corpus her entire career, but in this book she partly follows in the footsteps of Helen from HD in Egypt, itself a modernist epic poem. Carson places Marilyn Monroe alongside Helen of Troy and investigates the inflammatory and shattering potential of sex appeal.
10. Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
An obvious choice to finish. I have such a deep love for Tolkien’s massive, moving and radical story. At its core, it’s a celebration of multilateralism in response to the existential threat – something more relevant than ever. Tolkien’s genius lies in his ability to combine the solemn, heavy, even dry language of the epic (you can see the influence of the sometimes boring Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, or the Battle of Maldon, which is a long trail, looms in its prose) with a lightness of picturesque touch (the ride of the Rohirrim against the Hobbits’ love of good food). He was able to recycle tropes from older tales and draw on folk motifs to create something totally timeless, where everyone, big and small, has a role to play.