Epics or not?

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Epics or not?

Postby Edwin Deady on December 14th, 2011, 5:43 pm

I called this topic epics or not because I do wonder where the British epics are from the Iron Age or anywhere. Any poetry or heroic piece I can think of doesn't seem to fit what would be recognised as an epic abroad. No foundation myths no song as to why and how the group got here as are found in seemingly endless epics sung across Europe and Asia. Instead we have stories, very good and touching stories but episodic and, in the case of the Tain for example, needing to be artificially grouped into a cycle in order to approach epic proportions.

The works of Aneurin and Taliesin are great poems but, except for the language used, are indistinguishable from such as The Battle of Maldon as story poems. In English or Anglo-Saxon even Beowulf is not a national epic, it is not located here and is more an adventurous horror story with instructional bits plumbed in. The Fight at Finnsburgh is back with the Cattreath and Maldons in extent and intent.

What I have called story poems and may, in the British context, be called ballads had no short life but the format continued right through to almost the present day with sentiments changing according to the mores of the times but passing through the Geste of Robin Hood to the Border Ballads to the dying declarations of 18th and 19th Century criminals, "Oh me name is Captain Kidd and most wickedly I did, As I sailed".

If there is a poetic impulse moving through history then why? Surely it is because the audience and its tastes decided what the poets gave them and if these were essentially unchanging then maybe the people were too. They had lost, if they ever had, their interminable origin epics because they were firmly rooted in Britain and wanted story.

I do not say that the structure of the poetry didn't changed because of course it did but its essence did not.
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Ettore Viscontini on December 14th, 2011, 6:43 pm

Maybe just because "non-writing" cultures give different impulses, such as short stories and ballads!
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Edwin Deady on December 15th, 2011, 3:38 am

That is entirely possible Ettore, if so then its a universal phenomonen and I would love to hear of similar.
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Ettore Viscontini on December 15th, 2011, 11:19 am

I've no info about ORAL EPICS...
Usual epics come from "writting" Cultures: Homer, Gilgamesh, Bhagavadgītā and so on.
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Edwin Deady on December 15th, 2011, 11:53 am

[quote="Ettore Viscontini"]I've no info about ORAL EPICS...
Usual epics come from "writting" Cultures: Homer, Gilgamesh, Bhagavadgītā and so on.[/quote]

Which don't exist as far as we know in Britain which was my point except that the oral is presumed to precede the written but then how do we know?
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Ettore Viscontini on December 15th, 2011, 1:51 pm

That's the point, I agree with you.
Even if Writing appeared before IA... in other places I mean...
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby D Rivers on December 16th, 2011, 10:49 am

The usual answer would be to blame the Romans because they killed off the Druids... but obviously that's no good because plenty of bards survived. :P

On the subject of origin myths, we do have one invaluable line from Caesar...

Britanniae pars interior ab eis incolitur quos natos in insula ipsi memoria proditum dicunt


"The inland part of Britain is inhabited by those who say that they are aboriginal, on the strength of an oral tradition." (Caesar BG V:12)

This rather suggests that at that time they had origin myths, these just haven't survived. This could perhaps be in large part be attributed to the influence of Christianity, which (perhaps) discouraged those old heathen stories; and also to the Anglo-Saxons. Perhaps they replaced the tradition which says we are indigenous with the tales of Hengist and Horsa, or Cynric and Cerdic, or whatever the regional variant; and it is clear to anyone just to what extent the self-perception Anglo-Saxon ethnicity replaced that of an indigenous one in England at least. Wales does retain its origin myth to an extent, in that they have always fiercely claimed to be indigenous, and apparently quite rightly as it turns out.

More on topic though, I see your point about the lack of "epics"... again I would say the Welsh bardic tradition seems to have retained a few, but in England they are indeed lacking... I'm gonna go right ahead and blame the invaders: the Anglo-Saxon rulers wouldn't want to keep up British origin myths, and nor would the Normans; and remember bards sang for the nobles, not the people. If there was no demand for the bardic lore, well... it died out...

Usual epics come from "writting" Cultures: Homer, Gilgamesh, Bhagavadgītā and so on.


Cultures with writing; but the epics themselves are thought to have been originally oral epics, no? I suppose that wasn't arbitrarily decided. :P
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Ettore Viscontini on December 16th, 2011, 12:05 pm

Yes D, but i understood Edwin talked about epics as per my examples. A complete re-edition of fragmented stories with a same structure and not different ballads/storie on a subject :-)
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Edwin Deady on December 16th, 2011, 12:16 pm

No Anglo-Saxon epics eityer, just yis once I am going to believe Caesar when he says the inhabitants claimed to be aborigines, of course he couldn't know yat yey came from two original settlement streams. But, have just seen evidence of Ice Age cave art in Wales on ye BBC so it is possible yat yere were yose who lived on yrough the last one.

(Do we yink yat bringing back ye letter thorn (Þ) written as a y for th would be a GOOD Þing?)
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Neula H on May 1st, 2012, 10:07 am

I thought that the Icelandic Kalevala was a good example of an epic poem from an oral tradition, but re-reading the introduction it turns out that it's actually a collection of oral poems told around a theme, ordered and turned into one narrative by 19th C folklorists.

But isn't this the same for the Baghavad Gita? Isn't it a collation of what were originally instructional and narrative poems? And was the Odyssey entirely invented by Homer or was it a collation based on pre-existing myths that were told as individual stories - the time when Odysseus was trapped by on the island of women, how his wife recognised him, how he tricked the cyclops etc.?

This is storytelling that is designed to be remembered and told. Poetry is easier to remember than prose, and stories need to break down into lengths that can be remembered and fit nicely into the after dinner and before bedtime slot on a winter evening. I would say that all epics evolved from collations of these kinds of oral storytelling traditions.
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Ettore Viscontini on May 2nd, 2012, 5:37 am

As Mabinogi did or Beowulf or Egilsaga and the other.

I just tried to say: Civilized Cultures felt the need to freeze story in writings in earlier times than "barbaric ones" :-)
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Dru Durman on May 2nd, 2012, 7:43 am

Neula H wrote:...was the Odyssey entirely invented by Homer or was it a collation based on pre-existing myths that were told as individual stories - the time when Odysseus was trapped by on the island of women, how his wife recognised him, how he tricked the cyclops etc.?

This is storytelling that is designed to be remembered and told. Poetry is easier to remember than prose, and stories need to break down into lengths that can be remembered and fit nicely into the after dinner and before bedtime slot on a winter evening. I would say that all epics evolved from collations of these kinds of oral storytelling traditions.



Ettore Viscontini wrote:As Mabinogi did or Beowulf or Egilsaga and the other.


Interesting points. If you break Beowulf down into single night easy chunks you can tell the tale of his swimming race with Breaca, his fight with Grendel, his fight with Grendel's mother and his fight with the dragon. Presumably at some point with these 'epic collections' someone decided there should be a chronological order to fit the tales into and put them all together. Then once that became standard I imagine most of the time they were told in chunks rather than one go. Mind you, I know some people have told Beowulf in one go, and at school I took part in a Homerathon with my Greek class; we sat up all night reading excerpts from the Odyssey, going round the group. Granted, it may have taken considerably longer because we were reading the Greek for each section first, then the English translation, (I'd like to say twice as long, but let's face it, it took us longer to read the Greek bit as we struggled to pronounce it...) but it took all night!
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Edwin Deady on May 2nd, 2012, 8:25 am

A lot of epics are used for instruction in the way to behave and I wonder if some were compiled from earlier stories with this in mind. One could almost see this being done with linked stories from English history as history used to be taught. Growth and progress the flowering of the rule of law and democracy as a continuum (Whig view of history?) while we had the other Great Man theory also propounded by stories of Drake, Cromwell, Marlborough, Nelson and Gordon of Khartoum (Tory history?).

As I have mentioned before I do think that Beowulf was the result of the amalgamation stories for instructional purposes but wonder if this was true of Gilgamesh.
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Craig Bellofatto on May 3rd, 2012, 1:15 am

Homer's The Iliad & Odyssey were originally an Oral Tradition just as many others. Many believe that before written down (and some after) that certain elements were changed to be more familiar to the listeners and also to engage them in the story by including their city/state or people. I don't know personally what the Iliad was like before Homer but think that being told (and quite possibly embellished as orators tend to do) over a number of years could make some details suspect. I have gotten into a VERY long discussion with someone over the Shield of Ajax and the possible mistakes over time in the descriptions. Most including myself believe that "he used a shield shaped like a tower"; yet he maintained the translation never says that instead he argues that "he used his shield like a tower" is the more accurate translation and my not knowing ancient Greek was a valid argument I could not rightly debunk. I did however point to the "Lion's Hunt dagger" with the engraving of the shield shaped like a tower. My point is when using epic's there will be agreements and disagreements inevitably but a general consensus on issues should be followed. That said I hope this thread goes far:)
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Edwin Deady on May 3rd, 2012, 2:35 am

One problem with studying epics is that those who have an intimate knowledge of them often have a deep conviction as to their nature. These firmly held beliefs make it difficult to discuss any specific epic dispassionately I mention Beowulf a lot because it is the onlyone thatI have more than a passing acquaintance with and have found a lot of defences for it from those who see it as some sort of Anglo-Saxon holy text. It is certainly nothing of the sort unless someone should, for example, take the account of the Shoot-out at the OK Corral as some sort of equivalent although they lived in Ireland, loose connection with the people involved, some moral precepts and some dodgy deeds but no ancestral or founders myth.

Another qualification for an epic, I would suggest, is that it has common currency. The Illiad certainly qualifies and maybe the Battle of Maldon but nobody seems to have heard of Beowulf until it was discovered in the 16th century. Piers Plowman had his character sing songs of Robin Hood but not of any Anglo-Saxon hero.
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Craig Bellofatto on May 3rd, 2012, 4:26 am

Many in America find the same attraction of founding mythos in the Old West. I have a friend that is close to Religious about the Alamo. He really gets into all the Pathfinder/Mountain men and will probably reenact that one day. Granted these events are MUCH younger than Beowulf and the others mentioned but they hold peoples imaginations just the same. Like You say dispassionate is a problem especially since that piece of history could have started them on this path in the first place.
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Edwin Deady on May 3rd, 2012, 5:01 am

And who can resist "They were men and their Fathers were men" said of the dead of the Shangani Patrol in the Matabele Wars? Arguments about colonialism etc are difficult when faced with the simple statement "here I stand" of the Alamo, Shangani or even Martin Luther.

"For how can a man die better,
Than facing fearful odds?
For the ashes of his Fathers
Or the Temples of his Gods."

Macaulay, Lays of Ancient Rome

Deconstruction is very difficult but necessary in order to examine the history of any period.
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Neula H on May 3rd, 2012, 10:01 am

[quote="Edwin Deady"]A lot of epics are used for instruction in the way to behave and I wonder if some were compiled from earlier stories with this in mind. One could almost see this being done with linked stories from English history as history used to be taught. Growth and progress the flowering of the rule of law and democracy as a continuum (Whig view of history?) while we had the other Great Man theory also propounded by stories of Drake, Cromwell, Marlborough, Nelson and Gordon of Khartoum (Tory history?).

The central point of War and Peace is it's deconstruction of the mythology of Napoleon, the idea that random chance and the happen stance actions of unknown individuals caused the events that were retrospectively attributed to the Great Man. Its the anti-epic epic.
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Neula H on May 3rd, 2012, 10:14 am

Can we revisit why the Tain Bo Cuailgne is not an epic?

It has common currency.

And are they 'artificially grouped'? And what are epic proportions? Word count??
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Edwin Deady on May 3rd, 2012, 11:41 am

Any way of knowing how widely and for how long The Tain was in circulation. Do bits crop up in Irish folk songs, stories or proverbs?
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Neula H on May 3rd, 2012, 12:05 pm

Augusta Gregory says in her introduction:

"For although you have not to go far to get stories of Finn and Goll and Oisin from any old person in the place, there is very little of the history of Cuchulain and his friends left in the memory of the people, but only that they were brave men and good fighters, and that Deirdre was beautiful"

So presumably the stories slowly died away between their first inscription in the 12C and Gregory's translation in the beginning of the 20thC, but the name was still known.
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Neula H on May 3rd, 2012, 12:50 pm

...and TW Rolleston says:

"(It) perished almost completely out of the popular remembrance, or survived only in distorted forms; and but for the early manuscripts in which the tales are fortunately enshrined...(the Tain) would now be irrevocably lost."

Which is pretty much the same as the above. So I was wrong about common currency.

So no epics.

I blame the Romans. :p
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Edwin Deady on May 3rd, 2012, 1:30 pm

But is the propensity for there to be an audience for something approaching epic song and poetry the main factor in their existence. In other words, literally, the concept of epic moves through time like a wave but the content changes according to the society listening.
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby D Rivers on May 3rd, 2012, 1:37 pm

I don't see where a poem's being common currency comes into it...

An epic is a lengthy narrative poem, ordinarily concerning a serious subject containing details of heroic deeds and events significant to a culture or nation.[2] Oral poetry may qualify as an epic...


From wikipedia - but I would presume it's a fairly well accepted definition...

I suppose what we're really talking about here is a specific kind of epic poetry - that is, I suppose, as part of folk traditions. There I think we are indeed a little short...

As you were ladies and gents. :P
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Re: Epics or not?

Postby Edwin Deady on May 3rd, 2012, 2:53 pm

Wrong definition, surely it must have some elements of foundation myth or be of a state changing subject?
Otherwise the Lays of Ancient Rome are epic poetry instead of being an attempt to create a reproduction of an epic. Back to Beowulf I am afraid but the Finnsburgh fragment I would claim as part of an epic while Beowulf was an attempt to write one.

Strange that most hero poems seem to be of limited length even if quite long while the claimed epics go on for ever. I wonder if this applies to the works claimed as epics by Slavs, Arabs and Persians rather than,say, the story of Sohrab and Rustum. Sinbad, for example, has only a series of neat bed-time stories.
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