The Epic: Definition, Types & Characteristics

Updated on April 3, 2018
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Muhammad Rafiq is a freelance writer, blogger, and translator with a Master's Degree in English literature from the University of Malakand.

Definition of Epic
Definition of Epic | Source

Definition & Etymology of Epic

It is imperative to know about the etymology of the word epic. The word epic has been derived a Greek word epikos, which means a word, song or speech. An epic is well-defined as a long story in verse dwelling upon an important theme in a most elegant style and language. According to Webster’s New World dictionary, “epic is a long narrative poem in a dignified style about the deeds of a traditional or historical hero or heroes; typically a poem like Iliad or the Odyssey with certain formal characteristics.” An epic is absolutely much like a ballad pretty much in all its features, however just one thing that differentiates epic from a ballad is its length. An epic is a long narrative in verse, while ballad is a short story in verse.

Definition of Epic

Britannica Encyclopedia explains the word epic as:

"epic, long narrative poem recounting heroic deeds. .... literary usage, the term encompasses both oral and written compositions. The prime examples of the oral epic are Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey."

Characteristics of an Epic

There are several characteristics of an epic , which distinguishes it from other forms of poetry . They are discussed below:

  • The first and foremost characteristic of an epic is its bulky size . An epic is an extensive and prolonged narrative in verse. Usually, every single epic has been broken down in to multiple books. For example, Homer’s epics are divided into twenty four books .Similarly, John Milton’s Paradise Lost has been divided into twelve books.
  • Another essential feature of an epic is the fact that it dwells upon the achievements of a historical or traditional hero, or a person of national or international significance. Every epic extolls the valour, deeds, bravery, character and personality of a person, who is having incredible physical and mental traits.
  • Exaggeration is also an important part of an epic. The poet uses hyperbole to reveal the prowess of a hero. He doesn’t think twice to use exaggeration to make an impression on the audience.
  • Supernaturalism is a must-have feature of an every epic. Without having to use supernatural elements, no epic would certainly produce awe and wonder. There are certainly gods, demons, angels, fairies, and use of supernatural forces like natural catastrophes in every epic. Milton’s Paradise Lost, Homer’s Iliad, Beowulf and Spenser’s Faerie Queen are replete with supernatural elements.
  • Morality is a key characteristic of an epic. The poet’s foremost purpose in writing an epic is to give a moral lesson to his readers. For instance, Johan Milton’s Paradise Lost is a perfect example in this regard. The poet wants to justify the ways of God to man through the story of Adam. This is the most didactic theme of the epic.
  • The theme of each epic is sublime, elegant and having universal significance. It may not be an insignificant theme, which is only limited to the personality or the locality of the poet. It deals with the entire humanity .Thus; John Milton’s Paradise Lost is a great example in this regard. The theme of this epic is certainly of great importance and deals with entire humanity. It’s them is to justify the ways of God to man.
  • Invocation to the Muse is another important quality of an epic. The poet, at the very beginning of the epic, seeks the help of the Muse while writing his epic. Look at the beginning lines of the Iliad, Odyssey and Paradise Lost.
  • The diction of every epic is lofty, grand and elegant. No trivial, common or colloquial language is used in epic. The poet tries to use sublime words to describe the events.
  • Use of Epic Simile is another feature of an epic. Epic simile is a far-fetched comparison between two objects, which runs through many lines to describe the valour, bravery and gigantic stature of the hero. It is also called Homeric simile.

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Types of Epic

Folk Epic

Folk epic is an ancient epic, which was originally in oral form. With the passage of time, one author or many authors tried to preserve them in the form of writing. Thus, nobody happens to know about the exact authorship of the folk epics. The folk epic is different from the art epic or literary epic in the simplest sense that the former is based on a particular mythology, while the latter is based on the ideas of the author. In art epic, the poet invents the story, while the folk epic is the product of the mythology of the locality. The folk epic is basically in oral form, while the art or literary epic is in written form. The author of the literary epic is a well-known personality, while the author of the folk epic may be a common man.

William Henry Hudson says in An Introduction to the Study of Literature:

“The epic of growth is fresh, spontaneous, racy, the epic of art is learned, antiquarian, bookish, imitative. Its specifically ‘literary’ qualities-its erudition, its echoes, reminiscences, and borrowings- are indeed, as the Aeneid and Paradise Lost will suffice to prove, among its most interesting characteristics for a cultured reader.”

Look at the following lines taken from Beowulf:


Lo! the Spear-Danes’ glory through splendid achievements

The folk-kings’ former fame we have heard of,

How princes displayed then their prowess-in-battle.

Oft Scyld the Scefing from scathers in numbers

From many a people their mead-benches tore.

Since first he found him friendless and wretched,

The earl had had terror: comfort he got for it,

Waxed ’neath the welkin, world-honor gained,

Till all his neighbors o’er sea were compelled to

Bow to his bidding and bring him their tribute:

An excellent atheling! After was borne him

A son and heir, young in his dwelling,

Whom God-Father sent to solace the people.

Beowulf: An Example of Folk Epic
Beowulf: An Example of Folk Epic | Source

Epic Poetry

Paradise Lost: An Example of Literary Epic
Paradise Lost: An Example of Literary Epic | Source

Literary Epic

Literary epic is usually known as art epic. It is an epic, which imitates the conventions of the folk epic, but gives it a written shape. It is absolutely opposite to the folk epic. They were written unlike the folk epics, which came all the way down to us through oral tradition. The literary epics tend to be more polished, coherent, and compact in structure and style when contrasted with the folk epics. Literary epics are the result of the genius of the poet. That is why; they have great significance from literary point of view.

William Henry Hudson says in An Introduction to the Study of Literature:

“The literary epic naturally resembles the primitive epic, on which it is ultimately based, in various fundamental characteristics. Its subject-matter is of the old heroic and mythical kind; it makes free use of supernatural; it follows the same structural plan and reproduces many traditional details of composition; while, greatly it necessarily differs in style, it often adopts the formulas, fixed epithets, and stereo typed phrases and locutions, which are among the marked feature of the early type."

Look at the lines taken from Milton’s Paradise Lost:

Paradise Lost

OF MAN’S first disobedience, and the fruit

Of that forbidden tree whose mortal taste

Brought death into the World, and all our woe,

With loss of Eden, till one greater Man

Restore us, and regain the blissful Seat,

Sing, Heavenly Muse, that, on the secret top

Of Oreb, or of Sinai, didst inspire

That Shepherd who first taught the chosen seed

In the beginning how the heavens and earth

Rose out of Chaos: or, if Sion hill

Delight thee more, and Siloa’s brook that flowed

Fast by the oracle of God, I thence

Invoke thy aid to my adventrous song,

That with no middle flight intends to soar

Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues

Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

(Paradise Lost by John Milton)

© 2014 Muhammad Rafiq


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    • Rafiq23 profile image

      Muhammad Rafiq 2 weeks ago from Pakistan

      Thanks for the clarification. Rectification made as requested.

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      Well Wisher 2 weeks ago

      Only Roman poets like Virgil and John Milton had 12 rather than 24 books. But Homer had 24 books NOT 12.

      Please check on this.

      Thank You.

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      Well Wisher. 2 weeks ago

      You have mentioned that Homer's epics are divided into 12 books.Both Homers illiad and the odyssey are divided into 24 books not 12.

      Please be authentic with what you share as children looking for information can get influenced by such inauthentic material.

      Thank You.

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      Sujata Bandyopadhyay 6 weeks ago

      Sir it would be even more helpful if you could kindly add the concepts of primary and secondary epics as well as what's mock epic about. The article was really helpful though. Thank you.

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      Md. Abdul Kayum 2 months ago

      I am new reader in epic ,I try to find out this new thing, This element is very necessary ,so i feel happy for this helping.

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      atmazoom 4 months ago

      Dear Friend,

      I think Homer's Illiad is divided into 24 books not into 12 books as you have mentioned.



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      yo daddy 5 months ago

      You would not believe your eyes

      If ten million fireflies

      Lit up the world as I fell asleep

      'Cause they fill the open air

      And leave teardrops everywhere

      You'd think me rude but I would just stand and stare

      I'd like to make myself believe that planet earth turns slowly

      It's hard to say that I'd rather stay awake when I'm asleep

      'Cause everything is never as it seems

      'Cause I'd get a thousand hugs

      From ten thousand lightning bugs

      As they tried to teach me how to dance

      A foxtrot above my head

      A sock hop beneath my bed

      A disco ball is just hanging by a thread (thread, thread)

      I'd like to make myself believe that planet earth turns slowly

      It's hard to say that I'd rather stay awake when I'm asleep

      'Cause everything is never as it seems (when I fall asleep)

      Leave my door open just a crack

      Please take me away from here

      'Cause I feel like such an insomniac

      Please take me away from here

      Why do I tire of counting sheep

      Please take me away from here

      When I'm far too tired to fall asleep

      To ten million fireflies

      I'm weird cause I hate goodbyes

      I got misty eyes as they said farewell (said farewell)

      But I'll know where several are

      If my dreams get real bizarre

      'Cause I saved a few and I keep them in a jar (jar, jar)

      I'd like to make myself believe that planet earth turns slowly

      It's hard to say that I'd rather stay awake when I'm asleep

      'Cause everything is never as it seems (when I fall asleep)

      I'd like to make myself believe that planet earth turns slowly

      It's hard to say that I'd rather stay awake when I'm asleep

      'Cause everything is never as it seems (when I fall asleep)

    • Rafiq23 profile image

      Muhammad Rafiq 5 months ago from Pakistan

      Thank you!

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      kuldeep Raj 5 months ago

      Very nice I like to read

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      Barsha rani Behera 9 months ago

      Very nice...

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      Amanda 9 months ago

      Please what are the subcategories of epic poetry

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      Muhammad Rafiq 10 months ago from Pakistan

      You are welcome. I am glad it helped you.

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      jagvir kaur 10 months ago

      Thank u so much to provide us great reading of english literature ..i got good score ..

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      James 12 months ago

      work on the extra linguistic strategies used by poets in their works,more specifically in epics..

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      Muhammad Rafiq 12 months ago from Pakistan

      Thank you.

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      Hareem Iftikhar 12 months ago

      Sir :) you are just doing an amazing job .......

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      toyin Williams 15 months ago

      I want to know the difference between epic poetry and heroic poetry

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      muhammad hassan 2 years ago

      In how many types epic usually divided ???

    • Rafiq23 profile image

      Muhammad Rafiq 2 years ago from Pakistan

      Thanks Wareesa!

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      wareesa,,, 2 years ago

      Very nice,,,

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      hina memon 2 years ago

      Tell me difference between epic of growth and epic of art I need it

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      Muhammad Rafiq 3 years ago from Pakistan

      Epic is usually divided into 12 books.

    • profile image

      anshu chandani 3 years ago

      The Epic is usually divided into how many books?

    • Rafiq23 profile image

      Muhammad Rafiq 3 years ago from Pakistan

      Thanks for your comments! I am glad you liked it.

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      christinemariezzz 3 years ago


      An informative page for inspiration on narrative verse. I need that!


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      Sunil Kumar 3 years ago

      Beauty looks in the beholder of eyes. so one must love oneself.It is true fact of life.

    • Rafiq23 profile image

      Muhammad Rafiq 3 years ago from Pakistan

      What is your question?

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      herevlyn 3 years ago

      I didn't get the answer to my question

    • Rafiq23 profile image

      Muhammad Rafiq 4 years ago from Pakistan

      Thanks FlourishAnyway for stopping by and comments. Have a blessed and sweet-scented time!

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      FlourishAnyway 4 years ago from USA

      It's been ages since I've read these epic poems as a part of required reading for schooling. This was a fine quality hub that reviewed the topic well.