From Paradise Lost to Lord of the Rings: Top 10 Epics in Fiction | Fiction

Wdoes he have epic? Typically, they are first defined by their length: they are traditionally long and dense (this is the older, oral form). They are often about male heroes fighting a good fight (against an enemy either monstrous or geopolitical), and they are presented as a nation-building text: think of the Iliad, the Aeneid, or the Beowulf.

These are amazing, well-known stories, translated and adapted over and over again. They are some of the most famous texts in Western literature. And epic has historically been a very top-down genre: nationalistic (Aeneid), with heroes whose bravery and virtue are validated by their high birth (King Arthur, Beowulf, even Aragorn in The Lord of the Rings). I am fascinated by the nation-building aspect of epic, not to mention its masculine, combative traditions; it’s something where I, a woman with mixed cultural heritage, felt I had no place.

My book Amnion is an attempt to challenge many of these aspects of the epic. Although it’s a long poem, Amnion (or at least, that’s my hope) offers a kind of anti- or fashion pose: it’s an attempt to honor a broken family history and give it its due weight.

Too many writers to mention have co-opted and struggled with the epic tradition. Below are just a few of my favorite epics – which I have deliberately been playful to define as such.

1. Paradise Lost by John Milton
Milton wanted to write a native epic for England, and the story of Adam and Eve is the result. He deliberately repeated many of the classic epics that had come before him, and I love how his poem is in such open conversation with so many of its predecessors. I love the subversively hopeful picture at the end of book 12 where Adam and Eve are banished from the garden. “The world was everything before them”, and they go into it “hand in hand with wandering steps and slowly”. For me, this is a moment to celebrate: this is where Adam and Eve become fully human. The world is a scary, messy place, but it’s always worth it – Milton thought so, and I agree.

2. Memory of Fire by Eduardo Galeano
Galeano is a sadly overlooked author in the UK. The signature form of the late Uruguayan journalist is long sequences of small prose poems, often about small historical anecdotes that demonstrate resistance to oppression. These can stand as rebukes of the state-sponsored nationalism of the traditional epic. Memory of Fire, the most seemingly epic of his works, is a world story told from the perspective of Latin America. The first volume, Genesis, brilliantly weaves native creation myths with the arrival of the conquistadors.

3. G by John Berger
This novel, published in 1972, is an attempt to recreate (perhaps explode) the epic of a new era of human civilization, from a Marxist perspective. It takes place in Europe in the years immediately before the outbreak of World War I and follows a modern Don Juan’s sexual exploits (the subject of Byron’s sexual epic). “Never again will a single story be told as if it were the only one,” says the book, expanding the idea of ​​the epic: It does away with the idea that individual texts can speak for a nation or a people as a whole. Such thinking made a huge impact on 20th-century literature in the new notion of the “postcolonial”: it is, for example, the guiding thought behind Salman Rushdie’s maximalist epic novel Midnight’s Children.

4. In the Skin of a Lion by Michael Ondaatje
This takes Berger’s line as its epigraph. The novel follows a series of characters, immigrants or otherwise on the fringes of society, involved in the construction of Toronto’s utility buildings in the early 20th century. Ondaatje’s prose always has a worn-smooth quality reminiscent of ancient texts. It gives his novels a weight that he uses to refine the unminded – unsung epic heroes, if you will.

5. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Shamsie is, like me, a big supporter of Ondaatje, and you can see his influence here. Shamsie’s sixth novel is epic in its historical scope: it manages to link the bombing of Nagasaki, the division of India and the aftermath of 9/11. Her latest novel, Home Fire, repeats the epic adjacent story of Antigone and is a cautionary tale of what might happen (and, in fact, what happened to Shamima Begum, a case that happened after Home Fire’s release), as Britain’s over-mythological sense of nationality is allowed to translate into ethno-nationalist immigration policy.

Still from the 1940 movie The Grapes of Wrath.
Exodus… still from the 1940 movie The Grapes of Wrath. Photo: 20th Century Fox / Ronald Grant

6. Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The story of an epic journey, an emigration. Steinbeck was eventually awarded the world’s highest literary honor, the Nobel, for writing about the plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath is the largest of his books and gives almost biblical proportions to his subjects, who were basically climate refugees.

7. The Siege by Helen Dunmore
Dunmore’s novel about the siege of Leningrad in the winter of 1941 is a seemingly small story about a woman who feeds her family. But Dunmore makes it epic, giving it a scale and a weight that is hard to ignore. In her hands, the pursuit of firewood or rationing of honey becomes as gripping as any battle with a supernatural enemy. It contains some of the most vivid descriptions of food I have ever encountered: a late summer feast of fresh fish fried in butter with potatoes, eaten at a dacha: a portrait of a happy family, with the big arm of history soon to muscle. in.

8. The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien
The Iliad is the story of a great victory that marked the beginning of the golden age of ancient Greece with dominion over the Mediterranean. But how can you write about defeat from the position of already the dominant power? Tim O’Brien’s collection of autofiction-related short stories about the Vietnam War does just that. Once your nation has lost its authority in the world, one way forward is to adopt an unreliable narrator, to question the value of war, the meaning of bravery, and the very concept of a hero.

9. Norma Jeane Baker of Troy by Anne Carson
There is a long tradition of using original epics as a starting point for new texts that put minor characters in the foreground in their prehistory. Carson has been writing in the cracks of the classical corpus all her career, but in this book she partly follows in the footsteps of HD’s Helen in Egypt, in itself a modernist epic poem. Carson places Marilyn Monroe alongside Helen of Troy and explores the sex appeal’s arousing, nation-shaking potential.

10. Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
An obvious choice to end with. I have such a deep love for Tolkien’s massive, moving, sweeping history. Basically, it’s a celebration of multilateralism in response to an existential threat – something more relevant than ever. Tolkien’s genius lies in his ability to combine the solemn, weighty, even dry language into epic (you can see the influence of the sometimes boring Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, or indeed The Battle of Maldon, which is a long feature that threatens big in his prose) with a picturesque ease of touch (the Rohirrim tour versus the hobbits’ love of good food). He was able to reuse tropes from older tales, and draw on folkloric motifs to create something completely timeless, where everyone, big and small, has a role to play.

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