Epic / Epic Hero
Notes
Epic Definition
An epic is a long narrative poem that
relates the great deeds of a larger-thanlife hero who embodies the values of a
particular society.
-Sometimes called a heroic poem
-Beowulf, the Iliad, and the Odyssey are all epics
Epics often…
Concern eternal human problems such
as the conflict between GOOD and
EVIL
Written or told on a grand scale and
often in ceremonial style
2 Types of Epics
1. Folk Epic- oral compositions
passed on from storyteller to
storyteller and has changed over time.
Ex. -Beowulf, the Iliad, and the Odyssey
2. Literary Epic- written compositions
that are unchanged over time. Ex. Aeneid and Paradise Lost
Beowulf
In comparison to the standard of Homeric
epics (15,000 lines) …
Beowulf is relatively short (3,200 lines)
It was probably composed (first written down)
between 700-750 in Old English by a monk
in Scandinavia
It is thought a monk composed it due to the
Christian elements in the epic
Epic Characteristics
• There are 5 main epic
characteristics
Epic Characteristic
#1

The hero is a great leader
who is identified strongly
with a particular people or
society.
Epic Characteristic
#2
 The setting is broad and
often includes supernatural
realms, especially the land of
the dead.
Epic Characteristic
#3
 The hero does great deeds
in battle or undertakes an
extraordinary journey or
quest.
Epic Characteristic
#4
 Sometimes
gods or other
supernatural or fantastic
beings take part in the
action.
Epic Characteristic
#5
 The
story is told in
heightened language
Some other Epic
characteristics called…
EPIC CONVENTIONS- Shared
characteristics of epics that
bards/scops drew upon to recall
the stories they were recounting
and that writers of epics drew upon
to establish the epic quality of
their poems.
EPIC CONVENTION
#1
There is an INVOCATION
or formal plea for aid/help.
This plea is usually to a deity
or some other spiritual power.
EPIC CONVENTION
#2
 The action begins
IN MEDIAS RES…
literally meaning
“in the middle of things”
EPIC CONVENTION
#3

The epic begins in medias res
and then flashes back to
events that took place before
the narrator’s current time
setting
EPIC CONVENTIONS
#4
 Epic Similes- elaborately
extended comparisons relating
heroic events to simple,
everyday events
The Epic Hero
Epic Hero
Characteristics
 The epic hero is a “LARGER
THAN LIFE PERSON”
who embodies the highest
ideals of his culture
Real Example:
In Gilgamesh, the epic hero Gilgamesh
is considered “larger-than-life”
and embodies LOYALTY, VALOR/
COURAGE, SENSE OF JUSTICE,
DIGNITY, PERSISTENCE, and many
other traits of the culture.
Epic Hero Characteristics
The epic hero usually
undertakes a
QUEST/ JOURNEY
to achieve something of great
value to themselves or society
Epic Hero Characteristics
 Epic heroes
“LIVE ON AFTER DEATH”…
meaning they are forever remembered
by those who live after them…
achieving a type of IMMORTALITY
Epic Hero
Characteristics
Not a “Superman” with
magical powers,
but a “REGULAR” human
whose aspirations and
accomplishments set him/her
apart
Epic Hero
Characteristics
Overcomes great
obstacles/opponents but
maintains HUMANITY
Epic Hero
Characteristics
Epic hero experiences typical
HUMAN EMOTIONS/
FEELINGS, yet is able to master
and control these human traits to a
greater degree than a typical
person
Epic Hero
Characteristics
It is often necessary for the epic
hero to connect/make
contact with “LESSER”
humans
in order to succeed
Also…
The epic hero is an
ARCHETYPAL
character.
Archetype
An archetype is a pattern that appears
in literature across cultures and is
repeated through the ages.
An archetype can be a character, a plot,
an image, or a setting.
An epic hero is a larger than life
figure from a history or legend,
usually favored by or even partially
descended from deities, but aligned
more closely with mortal figures in
popular portrayals.
The hero participates in a cyclical
journey or quest, faces adversaries
that try to defeat him in his journey,
gathers allies along his journey, and
returns home significantly
transformed by his journey.
Hero’s Family
The Hero’s mother is a royal virgin
The Hero’s father is a king
The Circumstances of the Hero’s
birth are unusual
The Hero is reputed to be the son
of a god
At the birth of the Hero there is
often an attempt to kill him. He may
be kidnapped or sent away for his
What is a tragic hero?
The tragic hero is a man of noble
stature. He is not an ordinary man, but
a man with outstanding quality and
greatness about him. His own
destruction is for a greater cause or
principle.
Aristotle: "A man cannot become a
hero until he can see the root of his
own downfall." It should be noted that
the hero's downfall is his own fault as
a result of his own free choice, but his
misfortune is not wholly deserved.
Usually his death is seen as a waste of
human potential. His death usually is
not a pure loss, because it results in
greater knowledge and awareness.
Tragic Hero Vocab
# Hamartia - a.k.a. the tragic flaw that
eventually leads to his downfall.
# Hubris - a sort of arrogant pride or
over-confidence or excessive
ambition.
# Peripeteia - a reversal of fortune
brought about by the hero's tragic flaw
Summary of Tragic Hero
His actions result in an increase of
self- awareness and self-knowledge
The audience must feel pity and fear
for this character.
Aristotle's ideas about tragedy were
recorded in his book of literary theory titled
Poetics.
 In it, he has a great deal to say about the
structure, purpose, and intended effect of
tragedy.
His ideas have been adopted, disputed,
expanded, and discussed for several
centuries now.
Characteristics of a
Tragic Hero
1. The tragic hero is a character of noble
stature and has greatness. This should
be readily evident in the play. The
character must occupy a "high" status
position but must ALSO embody
nobility and virtue as part of his/her
innate character.
The character should be born into some
form of nobility or wisdom (remember
that in ancient times, nobility was the
royal family; modernly, nobility could be
social.)
The hero of classical tragedies is almost all
male: one rare exception is Cleopatra,
from Antony and Cleopatra
He is usually a king, a leader of men - his
fate affects the welfare of a whole
nation or number of people. Peasants
do not inspire pity and fear as great
men do. The sudden fall from greatness
to nothing provides a sense of contrast.
2. Though the tragic hero is pre-eminently
great, he/she is not perfect. Otherwise,
the rest of us--mere mortals--would be
unable to identify with the tragic
hero. We should see in him or her
someone who is essentially like us,
although perhaps elevated to a higher
position in society.
THUS, The character should be neither
good nor bad, but the audience should be
able to identify with the character.
2a. The character has a personality trait
that leads to his/her downfall. (hubris)
2b. The character is doomed to make an
error in judgment.
3. The hero's downfall, therefore, is
partially her/his own fault, the result of
free choice or his own actions, not of
accident or villainy or some overriding,
malignant fate. In fact, the tragedy is
usually triggered by some error of
judgment or some character flaw that
contributes to the hero's lack of
perfection noted above.
4. The character will fall from great heights
or esteem when s/he realizes s/he has
made an irreversible mistake.
The fall is not pure loss. There is
some increase in awareness, some
gain in self-knowledge, some
discovery on the part of the tragic
hero.
5. Though the hero bears responsibility
for his actions, his misfortunate is
not wholly deserved. The
punishment exceeds the crime.
6. The hero must suffer.
7. A tragic hero should arouse both
pity and fear in his audience.
Though it arouses solemn emotion,
tragedy does not leave its audience
in a state of depression. Aristotle
argues that one function of tragedy is
to arouse the "unhealthy" emotions
of pity and fear and through a
catharsis (which comes from
watching the tragic hero's terrible
fate) cleanse us of those emotions.
It might be worth noting here that
Greek drama was not considered
"entertainment," pure and simple; it
had a communal function--to
contribute to the good health of the
community.
This is why dramatic performances
were a part of religious festivals and
community celebrations.
7. The character will face a tragic death
with honor.
Oedipus as a tragic hero:
http://personal.monm.edu/ysample/her
opattern.htm
Remember that a tragic hero doesn't
have to meet ALL of these
characteristics, but should meet most
of them
Aristotle wrote down these
characteristics of a tragic hero for
classical Greek tragedy plays. However,
Shakespeare plays are often noted for
their excellent portrayals of tragic
heroes.
Shakespeare’s Tragic Hero
Four of Shakespeare's principal tragic
characters: King Lear, Macbeth,
Richard III and Hamlet.
Hamlet
Here's an example of a principal
Shakespeare character who is
regarded as a tragic hero. Hamlet's
fatal flaw, as seen by Aristotle,
would be his failure to act
immediately to kill Claudius. Unlike
classical tragic heroes, however,
Hamlet is well aware of his fatal
The strange, the supernatural
and chance
Shakespeare occasionally
represents abnormal conditions of
mind: insanity, somnambulism,
hallucinations - e.g. King Lear's
insanity
Oedipus as a Tragic Hero
This is slightly different from the
Aristotelian classical tragedies such
as Oedipus Rex where Oedipus is
not aware of his flaw until the very
end.
Modern-day tragic heroes?
In the Modernist era (late 19th and early 20th
century), a new kind of tragic hero was created
out of a result of this "classical" definition. The
modern hero, it seems, does not necessarily have
to be of a high estate - but rather an "ordinary
person". The story may not result in an epiphany
of awareness or even come to a resolution of
catharsis. He or she may not even die! The new
tragic hero is also known as the "anti-hero".
Two examples of the modern-day
tragic hero, or the anti-hero>
Jay Gatsby from The Great Gatsby
and Willy Loman from Death of a
Salesman
References: Perrine, Laurence,
and Thomas R. Arp. Literature:
Structure, Sound, and Sense. 6th
ed. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace
College Publications, 1991. Garrick,
David