Parsing the Epic – An Analysis

So recently, The Animanachronism posted a really interesting piece about LoGH, comparing it to old-style epics. In classic iknight style, he did an excellent job breaking down his points and making some pretty apt comparisons and noticing some things I didn’t even see.

What was really interesting though were some of the comments. One in particular kind of got me thinking about this subject. Kaioshin_Sama stated:

And I have to agree that the word “epic” has been degraded to the level of a buzz word along with “quality”, “win”, and “Trainwreck”. A lot of people don’t seem to understand what it means. It’s really quite simple.

The Iliad=Epic
U.C Gundam=Epic
Simon’s story in Gurren-Lagann= close but no cigar
Der Ring des Nibelungen=Epic
Clannad /= Epic
Romance Of The Three Kingdoms=Epic
“Epic Fail” Or “Epic Win” /= Epic

So that’s got me thinking, what exactly defines an epic. I mean is it fair to compare a multi-volume poem like the Aenid to something like X/1999? Can we look at something like Lord of the Rings and put it in the same category as Eureka 7? Honestly is it even possible to call anything an epic anymore. Or should the word itself be retired?

The Two Meanings of Epic

It is important to note that the word epic rose out of story-telling. In particular, it rose out of multi-part tales about gods and wars and monsters and heroes. In fact, the tales themselves formed a genre of sorts. In fact there are actually conventions for the epic poem. But what’s important to note is that epics were big. They were big in scale, in scope, in character and in length. The hero came back a different person (if they came back at all.)

This has lead to the second meaning of the word epic. Big. Okay, maybe big doesn’t quite cover it, but awesome doesn’t really have the right connotation either, perhaps huge. This leads me to the point of this post.

The Current State of the Epic

Now, before I dig this hole any deeper, let me start off by saying I am solely going to refer to the “literary” conventions of the epic. And when I say literary, what I mean is books. And when I say books, I mostly mean commercial, mass market books. I do realize that there is an entire subgenre of film called epics. But honestly, I think they will fall under this argument just as well. Okay so now that that’s out of way, let’s get onto the main point.

The epic as a genre is dead. Yeah, I said it. I’ll say it again, if you want. The epic is deader than the proverbial parrot.

I think The Animanachronism laid out the life cycle of a genre pretty well, so I’m not going to retread tired ground because I think it applies so well here. Now, I can’t pin the blame on one villain. It could have been T.H. White’s “The Once and Future King.” Or it could have been the sheer amount of fiction that rose out of the Industrial Revolution and afterwards. Perhaps, I could trace it back to The Canterbury Tales, but that might be pushing it.

What is important to note is that “epic” is not a genre. Even stories like the Odyssey or the Aenid would be considered firmly in the fantasy genre if they were written today. Although the idea of a narrative poem wouldn’t really fly with today’s publishers, but that’s neither here nor there.

But on the other hand, Kaioshin_Sama is right, the word epic persists. And it should. I mean how else could I describe “Lord of the Rings” or “The Belgariad” or even “Red Storm Rising”. So while epic no longer exists as a genre, it has to exist as something.

Now, I would argue it exists as a sub-genre. The fact is that when most people use the word epic, they are also using it in conjunction with something else. For example, “Lord of the Rings” is an epic fantasy. This can easily be applied to anime genres as well, Twelve Kingdoms is epic fantasy. Even the epic in the “war epic” isn’t really referring to the genre (which is a war story) it’s referring to applying the traits of the epic to said war story.

This leads us to the crux of the problem.

What defines an epic?

Okay, so I’m going to defend all of these in future posts. But for now let me lay out what I believe defines an epic. Now to be fair, I don’t feel that an epic has to have all of these to qualify as an epic. In fact, I’m probably going to bring up some examples where stories don’t have one or two of these elements and it actually makes them a better story.

First, it has a grand scale and a large scope. The fate of the world, literally, rests in the hands of our heroes. Again, X/1999 is a good example of this, where the decisions the characters make will save or doom the world. Granted there are less drastic examples of this, such as Trigun. Now usually all of this is accompanied by a cast of thousands, basically if there’s one mecha guarding the gates than it’s facing down a whole squadron. If it’s a whole squadron than there’s an entire army. And on and on. Basically everything occurs on a much grander scale than normal life. (On a side note, one could argue that ‘slice of life’ stories are the anti-epic, which is sometimes the case and sometimes isn’t.)

Because the story takes place on such a large stage, the characters have to be larger than life too. That doesn’t mean that they’re perfect. They may have doubts. They might even have angst. But when they do something the entire world feels the repercussions. Lelouch and Suzaku of “Code Geass” are both good examples of this, although Lelouch more so.

And the last is that the epic must be of some length. Now, I’m going to be arbitrary here and say that an epic is usually longer than movie length. But this is probably the most fuzzy distinction and at least in my mind the least important. Although it does lend strength to longer stories.

In fact, what I’m hoping to show through the next few posts is that it is quite possible for something to have one or two of these qualities and still be epic. Although the more of these qualities it has the more epic it will be. Hence why a show like LoGH is definitely an epic, while I might have to argue the BECK: Mongolian Chop Squad is also an epic.

3 thoughts on “Parsing the Epic – An Analysis

  1. I certainly agree that the epic as a literary genre is dead, at least in the developed world. Personally I blame ‘the sheer amount of fiction that rose out of the Industrial Revolution’ plus the widespread literacy which went hand-in-hand with it. Which is unfortunate, because in many other ways those two trends were very good things. (Another good indication that the epic was dying would be the growth of mock-epics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.) I wonder if ‘epic’ has become a mode of storytelling rather than a genre, leading to the situation you describe where ‘epic’ usually appears bolted on to another generic term.

    I have to say that LoGH is the only anime television show which I’ve seen which has really managed to remind me of an epic poem, and I think I proposed a more restrictive set of criteria: epic scale, epic length relative to its medium (I guessed at around 75 episodes or more) and ‘humanity’ (which I carefully avoided defining as one must always leave oneself a get-out clause). I chose such a long length, 75ish eps, on the grounds that something epic should take more than one day to experience, however fast you cram it in. All of that was purely an attempt to explain what I meant when I used the word.

    I can understand that my version, a term with such narrow application (LoGH, the Universal Century as a whole, the Dragonball corpus perhaps), isn’t very useful, so I look forward to seeing what you do with epic yourself.

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