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Genesis of a Historical Novel

Friday, May 18, 2007

cheered up for the epic

After my "fake it till you make it" self-advice in yesterday's post, I did have a good (for me) writing day, pushing a few pages ahead in the morning, then coming back in the afternoon to start setting up notes for my next chapter. This is pretty much my fantasy of productivity: writing prose in the morning, then, in the afternoon when I'm feeling less creative, tinkering with administration and notes for the coming chapters. Yesterday was an instance of that, and I felt good. I actually cheered myself up!

Partly as a result of that, I think, I slept better last night. I dreamed that I was stuck in a massive traffic-jam on a convoluted freeway system, but that I found a way through, to skip past the worst of the jam to get where I was going. I couldn't believe my good fortune.

We'll see how today goes, but yesterday I felt a distinct shift in my attitude.

Meanwhile, in my afternoon reading, I was very pleased to come across, in Toynbee's A Study of History, a brief reference to the development of the epic genre. Here is an extract:

The Saga and the Epic arise in response to a new mental need, a new awareness of strong individual personalities and of momentous public events. "That lay is praised of men the most which ringeth newest in their ears," Homer declares. Yet there is one thing in an epic lay more highly prized than its novelty, and that is the intrinsic human interest of the story. The interest in the present predominates just so long as the storm and stress of the Heroic Age continues; but the social paroxysm is transitory; as the storm abates, the lovers of Epic and Saga come to feel that life in their time has grown relatively tame. They cease to prefer new lays to old, and the latter-day minstrel, responding to his hearers' change of mood, repeats and embellishes the tales of the older generation. In this later age the art of Epic and Saga attained its literary zenith. "Drama...develops in the home country, Epic among migrating peoples."

I regard my own work as an epic, but I want to find out more--all I can--about what exactly an epic is. I need to know my genre.

Here is an extract from N. G. L. Hammond's A History of Greece to 322 BC:

The comparative study of heroic ages has shed light also upon the genesis and development of epic poetry. It appears to originate under the troubled conditions of a heroic age as oral poetry, composed and transmitted by minstrels, even though the art of writing survived from an earlier civilization. The earlier epic lays are usually short and deal with the exploits of one or more heroes. The later lays develop in length and in technique, are recited as court poetry, and deal with leaders of the princely class both male and female. In this later stage the interest of the poet tends to shift from the exploits of the heroes to the study of heroic character, and nonheroic themes such as religion or manticism or matters of general rather than personal scope may begin to intrude.

As I see it, epic is the genre par excellence of heroes. While every fictional work has a hero or heroine, epic is the genre that deals with the hero as such. It is therefore the antithesis of modern works dealing with antiheroes. (I recall hearing the movie star Gregory Peck more than once deploring the rise of the antihero in Hollywood moviemaking, which he felt made for insipid and uninspiring movies. Peck himself of course was the perfect Hollywood heroic actor, by nature unsuited to antiheroic roles.)

And what is a hero? Nowadays that question has been best addressed by Joseph Campbell. The hero is he or she who, taking courage, journeys to the seed-source of universal creation--a place within--to find the new forms that will energize and give new life to his or her society. Societies age and die, as ours is aging and perhaps dying. New life is found only by those few who have the courage, vision, and independence to make the hazardous journey to find it. These are the heroes.

Those, anyway, are some of my thoughts on it. It's not that epic is a larger type of story, it's that other types of stories are little pieces of epic.


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