An Epic Lesson


Beowulf – Seamus Heaney edition

The word “epic” has been way overused in our time; often hearing or reading it when someone uses the word to describe a movie or an event. I have been guilty myself using it a few times but I am proud to say I know of its origins, having studied Beowulf, The Epic of Gilgamesh and The Iliad in many of my literature courses.

The Oxford Dictionary defines “epic” as:

“A long poem, typically one derived from ancient oral tradition, narrating the deeds and adventures of heroic or legendary figures or the history of a nation.”

and it’s origins:

Late 16th century (as an adjective): via Latin from Greek epikos, from epos ‘word, song’, related toeipein ‘say’.

To sum it up – one of the longest poems you will ever read, about the size of a novel.

In the days when men were proud to be in battle and tell tales of their journeys and adventures, narrating the account in an epic poem was the way to pass the stories down from generation to generation. These poems are often full of the history of ancient cities, legends of mythical beasts and creatures from land and sea, and the heroes who rise and eventually fall.

Though epic poems are sparse in our century, here are a few to explore from throughout the ages:

 Beowulf – author unknown (8th – 10th Century)

Known as the oldest surviving poem in Old English, the story is set in Scandinavia where Beowulf, the hero of Geats, comes to the aid of the king of Danes to defeat the Grendel monster. The tale spans fifty years of the hero’s life until his death. Often a difficult poem to read, the Seamus Heaney edition (pictured above) has been the easiest version to understand. 

Faerie Queen

The Faerie Queene by Edmund Spenser

The Faerie Queene – Edmund Spenser (1596)

An allegorical poem that follows the adventures of several knights while exploring the virtues of holiness, chastity, temperance, friendship, justice, courtesy and magnificence. Spenser also includes the conflicts of religion and politics in the story, taking aim at the corruption within the Catholic Church. (pictured left)


Omeros by Derek Walcott

Omeros – Derek Walcott (1990)

This 20th century Caribbean writer received a lot of praise for his epic poem, channeling Homer’s, The Iliad, in a tale set on the island of St. Lucia. Walcott blends African culture with Greek lore, to explore the threads of humanity and its connection with history and nature. He weaves in relationships laden with wounds, ending the story by delving into his own poetic consciousness. (pictured right)

The epic poem can be an interesting read if you give it a try. Not entirely historical fact, but these nostalgic tales can provide some insight into cultures, tribes and even legendary figures. You could compare it to reading a fairy tale or science fiction story, but in poetic form. It can be quite a task to write one and definitely would be a challenge for any writer.


Written by: Donna J. Sanders

Donna is a freelance writer and blogger in West Palm Beach, FL. She is the author of Ataraxia – a poetry collection about the struggles we face, the state of the world and how to see beauty in the simplest things.

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Photo Credit: © Donna J. Sanders

Categories: Creative Talents Unleashed

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2 replies

  1. Reblogged this on Paige Turner Thinking Out Loud and commented:
    Are you brave enough to delve into epic poetry?



  1. An Epic Lesson | TheRaven6825

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