Some of the earliest literature we possess is in the form of epic stories.
The foundational literature of any ancient or primitive culture is the epic. Even today, in modern culture, Homer’s epics are a cornerstone. The Finnish Kalevala and the Icelandic/Norse sagas remain a foundational part of northern European history and culture. Melville’s Moby Dick and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy have proved to be the “modern” epics of the past two centuries. Harry Potter is the modern epic of my generation. And there will be more to come.
All forms of literature have their various kinds of appeal but there is something about the epic that sets it apart from the rest of world literature.
Usually the epic centers around a journey or a quest, accompanied by various trials and dangers. The protagonist(s) must overcome these trials in order to attain the aim of their quest. (The Iliad is an epic, though it depicts a different kind of journey. In my mind, it is a special case).
There is something inherently important about the epic journey or quest. Odysseus’ quest to return home, or Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring and save Middle Earth, both of these contain an intrinsic symbolic significance. This symbolism appeals to the part of human nature that recognizes our own lives as quests.
Even in this age, contemporary readers enjoy high fantasy novels that depict some kind of quest. The persistent popularity of Tolkien’s Middle Earth books indicates that, as does the Harry Potter series, or the Inheritance Cycle. All are modern epics of some sort or another.
The epic quest in itself is a form of myth, in the way that I defined myth below. It has immediate relevance to our own lives.
Our trials are not usually of the same nature, but in ways, they are symbolic of our own. While we may not experience the same types of trials, our emotions are the same as the heroes. There is not a specific set of emotions for any heroic trial that does not occur in our own lives: fear, sadness, loss, courage, excitement, adrenaline…
While we may not relate in the actual details of any given trial, we can relate emotionally. For many of us, the epic offers a deeper and broader range of emotions which is perhaps more representative of real life than any other sort of literature.
The epic combines realism and idealism in a unique way. The heroes are us, but also “better” versions of us, in many ways. Odysseus may be stronger than we are, or more cunning, but we self-identify with his struggles and his journey.
The character of Frodo is not gifted with extraordinary strength, he is in every way “ordinary.” Yet, he is extraordinary for the journey he underwent and the incredible things that happened to him. We experience this alongside him, the more we self-identify with him.
We are characters in our own epic journey, and find an analogue to our own lives in the epic story even if the epic story is utterly fantastic. The point is not the story itself, but what the story symbolizes.
With that, I will end in a quotation from G.K. Chesterton:
“Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”