Skip to main content

The Epic: Definition, Types & Characteristics

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

Definition & Etymology of Epic

It is imperative to know the etymology of the word epic. The word epic has been derived from the 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 much like a ballad in all its features. However, its length is one thing that differentiates the epic from the ballad. An epic is a long narrative in verse, while ballad is a short story in verse.

Epic Definition

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 distinguish 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 into 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 has 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 about using 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 God's ways to man through Adam's story. This is the most didactic theme of the epic.
  • The theme of each epic is sublime, elegant, and has 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 humanity as a whole. It’s theme 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 epics. The poet tries to use sublime words to describe the events.
  • The 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 the Homeric simile.

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

Scroll to Continue

Read More From Owlcation

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

Paradise Lost: An Example of Literary Epic

Paradise Lost: An Example of Literary Epic

Literary Epic

A literary epic is usually known as an art epic. It is an epic, which imitates the conventions of the folk epic, but gives it a written shape. It is absolutely the 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 a 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


Moumita Das on August 20, 2020:

It's really very helpful sir.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on August 13, 2020:

Thanks Jiarul Srkian for your comments. I am glad you liked it.

Jiarul srkian on August 13, 2020:

Just awesome! Thanks for this masterpiece. It helps me a lot to understand the epic ins and outs. It really clear my doubts about epic.

Mustafa khan on July 22, 2020:

I need the definition of mock epic and classicall epic??

Biplob Nandi on May 07, 2020:

I wanna know more about epic of growth. Could you please say something about it? Thanks.

mrw on April 06, 2020:


Emmanuel Ozoude on February 17, 2020:

Scholarly written.

Muhammad Salman on February 14, 2020:

Excellent note, thanks.

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on November 22, 2019:

You are welcome!

trinity thomas on November 22, 2019:

thank you muhammed the Lord loves you

SK MASUD ALAM on November 07, 2019:

Thank you sir ,for this note.It is a really great note...

Alejandro on November 04, 2019:

Thanks, great notes

Aryan on October 21, 2019:

Helpful article. This article help me to prepare for my examination

Priyanka on October 16, 2019:

Helpful note

Stephen on October 10, 2019:

What the mock epic?

Answer. Me

Gypsy on October 07, 2019:

Thanks, Notes are well defined

Parimala rao on September 10, 2019:

Whole world is looking forward to see the epic poetry to be continued in any manner but will it be possible as the epic poetry is fast disappearing from the poetic arena because of the lack of talent.

harrietjame on August 26, 2019:

helpful notes thanks

Masuma khan on August 07, 2019:

very nice n helpful notes.....By the way i like it..

Masuma B.... on August 07, 2019:

vry nyc n hlpful notes

Natasha tripathi on August 05, 2019:

Very nice and helpful notes

peter griffen on April 18, 2019:

hi im peter griffen and this is epic

Md. Ruhul Amin on March 05, 2019:

Very helpful article and answer. Everything is available here. I think it is the best answer among all.

Mansoor khan on February 11, 2019:

Great sir

Riya saha on September 30, 2018:

U did not mentioned Mahabharata as an epic in the quote

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on April 03, 2018:

Thanks for the clarification. Rectification made as requested.

Well Wisher on April 02, 2018:

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.

Well Wisher. on April 02, 2018:

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.

Sujata Bandyopadhyay on March 06, 2018:

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.

Md. Abdul Kayum on February 04, 2018:

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.

atmazoom on December 11, 2017:

Dear Friend,

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



yo daddy on November 17, 2017:

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)

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on November 15, 2017:

Thank you!

kuldeep Raj on November 14, 2017:

Very nice I like to read

Barsha rani Behera on July 23, 2017:

Very nice...

Amanda on June 29, 2017:

Please what are the subcategories of epic poetry

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on June 16, 2017:

You are welcome. I am glad it helped you.

jagvir kaur on June 16, 2017:

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

James on April 16, 2017:

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

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on April 06, 2017:

Thank you.

Hareem Iftikhar on April 05, 2017:

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

toyin Williams on January 14, 2017:

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

muhammad hassan on March 27, 2016:

In how many types epic usually divided ???

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on August 03, 2015:

Thanks Wareesa!

wareesa,,, on August 03, 2015:

Very nice,,,

hina memon on May 03, 2015:

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

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on February 22, 2015:

Epic is usually divided into 12 books.

anshu chandani on February 22, 2015:

The Epic is usually divided into how many books?

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on November 09, 2014:

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

christinemariezzz on November 09, 2014:


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


Sunil Kumar on November 04, 2014:

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

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on August 27, 2014:

What is your question?

herevlyn on August 27, 2014:

I didn't get the answer to my question

Muhammad Rafiq (author) from Pakistan on April 19, 2014:

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

FlourishAnyway from USA on April 19, 2014:

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.

Related Articles