Thursday, August 16, 2012

Element of an Epic #2: Lots of Time

Great epics often span considerable time periods. That’s one of the reason these novels tend to look like small telephone books in hard copy. These aren’t 90,000 word novels like so many popular thrillers, which move at break-neck speed and sometimes account for a mere 24 hours (or less) of story time. No, epics are vast and they are sweeping, and they often cover years, or even decades, in the story world.

Why are epics so long? I think one reason is that a great epic story transforms more than just the main characters, but the whole story world – and, as I’ve said before, this takes time. Two of my favorite epics illustrate this point perfectly.

The Stand spans a lot of time!
The first is Stephen King’s The Stand, where the entire world literally is changed by an apocalyptic plague that kills most of the people on earth. The novel not only details the events of the plague and its immediate aftermath, but also proceeds to follow the storylines of a host of survivors as they gather into rival societies, one in Boulder and the other in Las Vegas. King doesn’t cut corners, but rather lets his story unfold over time, always keeping the focus on his characters while showing how the world is changing, from the apocalyptic plague, to the birth of new societies, to the deadly conflict that threatens the survival of one of them. Substantial time passes during The Stand, and without this commitment to detailing so many events over such a broad time span, the book would have been a far lesser tale.

The entire Anarchy is covered in The Pillars of the Earth.
A second example is Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth. This novel, set in twelfth century England, begins shortly after the sinking of the White Ship, which resulted in the death of England’s crown prince and led to an eighteen-year civil war called the Anarchy, where Stephen of Blois and the Empress Matilda fought over the English throne. Follett illustrates the violence and turmoil resulting from these events through the lives of a number of central characters, who represent two generations during this war. The novel even goes beyond the Anarchy to the reign of King Henry II and ultimately the murder of Thomas Becket, putting a fine point on the novel’s theme of violence in the middle ages and illustrating how the situation has changed somewhat by the end, thanks to the courage of Prior Phillip, one of the novel’s central protagonists. The fact that Follett chose to tell the story of the Anarchy – and show the transformation of the story world (however subtle) – in the course of a single novel is one of the reasons The Pillars of the Earth is a great epic.

Another reason for the time period covered by epic fiction is the magnitude of what is often the “quest” or “journey” that comprises the novel’s plot. Roland Deschain’ s seven volume trek across Mid-World to find the Dark Tower in Stephen King’s Dark Tower series is a good example, as is Frodo Baggins’ three volume quest to destroy the One Ring. These quests took time – and a huge toll on their protagonists. Had they been single volume tales, they likely would have lacked some of the grandeur that helped make them great epics. 

Homer knew that a great epic takes time!
Homer may have been one of the first to recognize this point. He realized that for a trip from Troy to Ithaca to be epic, it needed to take ten years and involve a ton of adventure. While stories like The Odyssey and King’s Dark Tower series are more personal in focus than say The Stand or The Pillars of the Earth, which detail the lives and trials of a myriad of different characters, the length of the protagonist’s personal journey and the numerous struggles he faces are one of the elements that make these stories epic.

So whether it’s to show the transformation of the story world or the magnitude of the protagonist’s quest, epics span a lot of time. And that’s why a lengthy time span is one of the Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic.

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