Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Top 5 Elements of a Great Epic

I adore epic fiction. It’s likely the fault of George Lucas and J.R.R. Tolkien. I was eight when Star Wars came out in 1977, and I'll never forget staring wide-eyed at the opening image of the rebel ship and that star destroyer. Then Darth Vader emerged through that smoke-filled portal and it blew my mind. Later that same year, NBC aired the cartoon version of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, which led me to read the book, and by then I was totally hooked. I loved fantasy and I loved epics. For me, there was no turning back.

Epics have been popular since the fall of Troy!
In college I studied many of the classic epic poems – Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid, Dante’s Divine Comedy, and Milton’s Paradise Lost – and my love for the epic grew even stronger. Given this, it’s not surprising that every novel I’ve ever attempted to write – including Enoch's Device – has been epic fiction in the fantasy or historical fantasy genres. So this week I'm beginning a six-part series on what I view as the top 5 elements of great epic fiction. Here they are:
  1. A Vast Setting – Epics are not confined to a single town or village, but rather concern whole nations or worlds. Frodo traveled from the Shire to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings. And the action in A Game of Thrones takes place in numerous locals, from Winterfell to King’s Landing, to the Wall and to the Dothraki Sea. These are vast story worlds for the reader to explore.

  2. Lots of Time – Unlike thrillers and horror tales, epics don’t take place in 24 hours, or even a week. They usually span months, even years. In an epic, often the whole story world is transformed, and this takes time.

  3. Huge Stakes – The stakes in most epics involve the fates of kingdoms, or even worlds. The stakes must rise above those of a single character, though the protagonist must face huge stakes as well. Great epics have both their story world and their main characters in crisis. Take Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings for example. The fate of Middle Earth was at stake, but Frodo faced his own personal crisis in trying to save it, and would not have succeeded without some unexpected “help” at the end.

  4. Heroic Figures – Epics require a hero, though an antihero will do just fine (think Stephen King’s The Dark Tower series). These stories often feature characters of the Messiah archetype, like Luke Skywalker, Neo from The Matrix, Garion from The Belgariad, and, of course, brave Frodo Baggins.

  5. Grand Events – Mere family strife or relationship drama is not the stuff of epics. Rather, we need wars; conflicts or political intrigue that shake whole kingdoms to their core; battles with an overwhelming enemy against all odds. Epics don’t do mundane, and that’s one of the reasons I love them.
In the next five posts, I’ll elaborate on these concepts and their historical origins. But in the meantime, let me know what you think – are these the elements that make a great epic?


Leslie said...

It is only fitting that your exploration of epics spans five or so posts.

Joseph Finley said...

And, it's even more fitting that it's taking me more than five weeks to finish it ... ye gads!