What are epics? Typically, they are defined first by their length: they are traditionally long, and poems (this being the older, oral form). They often concern male heroes fighting a good fight (against an enemy either monstrous or geopolitical), and they’re presented as a nation-building texts: think of the Iliad, the Aeneid or Beowulf.
These are great, familiar stories, retranslated and adapted again and again. They’re some of the most famous texts in western literature. And epic has historically been a very top-down genre: nationalistic (the Aeneid), featuring heroes whose valour and virtue are validated by their high birth (King Arthur, Beowulf, even Aragorn in Lord of the Rings). I am fascinated by the nation-building aspect of epic, not to mention its masculine, martial traditions; it is something in which I, a woman of 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 is a long poem, Amnion offers (or at least, such is my hope) a form of anti- or counter-epic: it is an attempt to honour a fractured family history and give it its due weight.
Writers too numerous to name have co-opted and wrestled with the epic tradition. Below are just a few of my favourite epics – which I have been deliberately playful in defining 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 reprised many of the classical 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 image at the end of Book 12, when Adam and Eve are expelled from the garden. “The world was all before them”, and they make their way into it “hand in hand with wandering steps and slow”. To me, this is a moment to be celebrated: this is when Adam and Eve become fully human. The world is a scary, messy place, but it’s always worth being in it – Milton thought so, and I agree.
2. Memory of Fire by Eduardo Galeano
Galeano is a sadly overlooked writer in the UK. The late Uruguayan journalist’s signature form is that of long sequences of small prose poems, often concerning minuscule historical anecdotes that demonstrate resistance to oppression. These can stand as rebukes to the state-endorsed nationalism of the traditional epic. Memory of Fire, the most ostensibly epic of his works, is a history of the world told from the perspective of Latin America. The first volume, Genesis, brilliantly interweaves indigenous creation myths with the arrival of the conquistadors.
3. G by John Berger
This novel, published in 1972, is an attempt to reimagine (perhaps explode) the epic for a new era of human civilisation, from a Marxist perspective. Set in Europe in the years immediately before the outbreak of the first world war, it follows the sexual exploits of a modern Don Juan (the subject of Byron’s sexual epic). “Never again will a single story be told as if it is the only one,” the book says, expanding the idea of the epic: it does away with the idea that single texts can speak for a nation or a people as a whole. Such thinking made a huge impact on 20th-century literature in the emerging notion of the “postcolonial”: it’s the guiding thought behind Salman Rushdie’s maximalist epic novel Midnight’s Children, for instance.
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 lends his novels a heft, which he uses to ennoble the unmemorialised – unsung epic heroes, if you will.
5. Burnt Shadows by Kamila Shamsie
Shamsie is, like me, a great devotee of Ondaatje, and one can see his influence here. Shamsie’s sixth novel is epic in its historical scope: it manages to interlink the bombing of Nagasaki, India’s partition and the aftermath of 9/11. Her most recent novel, Home Fire, reprises the epic-adjacent story of Antigone and is a cautionary tale of what can happen (and indeed what did, with Shamima Begum, a case that happened after Home Fire’s publication) when Britain’s over-mythologised sense of nationhood is allowed to translate into ethno-nationalist immigration policy.
6. The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
The story of an epic journey, an exodus. Steinbeck was eventually awarded the world’s highest literary honour, the Nobel, for writing about the plight of migrant workers during the Great Depression. The Grapes of Wrath is the greatest of his books, and lends near-biblical proportions to his subjects, who were essentially climate refugees.
7. The Siege by Helen Dunmore
Dunmore’s novel about the siege of Leningrad in the winter of 1941 is an ostensibly small story of a woman feeding her family. But Dunmore makes it epic, gives it a scale and a weight that are hard to ignore. In her hands, the quest for firewood or the rationing of honey become as gripping as any battle with a supernatural enemy. It includes some of the most vivid descriptions of food I’ve 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 vast 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, which marked the beginning of ancient Greece’s golden age of dominion over the Mediterranean. But how can you write about defeat from the position of already being the dominant power? Tim O’Brien’s collection of autofictional interlinked short stories concerning the Vietnam war does just this. When your nation has lost its authority in the world, one path ahead is to adopt an unreliable narrator, to question the valorisation of war, the meaning of bravery, and the very concept of a hero.
9. Norma Jeane Baker of Troy by Anne Carson
There’s a long tradition of using original epics as the departure point for new texts that foreground minor characters in their antecedents. Carson has been writing into the cracks of the classical corpus her whole career, but in this book she is partially following in the footsteps of HD’s Helen in Egypt, itself a modernist epic poem. Carson places Marilyn Monroe alongside Helen of Troy and investigates the incendiary, nation-shaking potential of sex appeal.
10. The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien
An obvious choice to end with. I have such deep love for Tolkien’s massive, moving, sweeping story. At its root, it’s a celebration of multilateralism in response to existential threat – something more relevant than ever. Tolkien’s genius lies in his ability to combine the solemn, weighty, even dry language of epic (you can see the influence of the sometimes boring Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, or indeed The Battle of Maldon, which is one long drag, looming large in his prose) with a quaint lightness of touch (the ride of the Rohirrim versus the Hobbits’ love of good food). He was able to recycle tropes from older narratives, and draw on folkloric motifs to make something utterly timeless, where everyone, great and small, has a role to play.