Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Value of Epics for the Epically-Challenged

“Epic” is one of the most misused words today. It is also one of the most overused.

People use it to describe a clever retort. They use it to describe a nap. They use it to describe a trick. And they use it to describe a pizza. In fact, if someone evaluates anything positively now, it seems that he will invariably declare it “epic.”

But this is nonsense, and hopefully a passing linguistic error.

Despite its misuse, the word “epic” has a legitimate and easily graspable meaning. As an adjective, it means “heroic or grand in scale or character” and, as a noun, it indicates “a long film, book, or other work portraying heroic deeds and adventures.”

It is ironic that in a world where so little can be called epic—according to the word’s actual meaning—so much mistakenly is. It is also a bad omen, because whether struggling to gain more money, to achieve happiness, or to live in a free society, everyone today faces huge challenges and could get much out of a true epic.

Without the experience of reading great literature or great movies, and especially epics within them, what will people do? Chances are they will fight for their values to some extent, no matter what they are, but not with the burning passion or with the persistence that winning them requires.

Epics, as works of art, have particular features that allow those who read them to act otherwise, to approach their life, and the pursuit of their values, with vigor.

The style of epics, for one, is notably grand in its use of language, symbols, and descriptions. In The Iliad, you don’t just see the sun come up or—Zeus forbid—watch it mosey across the sky; rather, you see the “rose-red fingers” of Dawn shine across it. Characters, such as Achilles, are not statistical composites of your neighbors; they are high-hearted, mighty, like unto the gods. And so on.

There is something uniquely un-folksy about the epic style, and examples abound. Stated positively, however, the language is of a world that might have huge forces arraigned against its heroes but seems a place that offers them the chance of sacred moments and of a success to be earned.

This should not be surprising for it matches the content of epics—that is, the grand style is consistent with the story it tells of specific kinds of characters who face huge challenges.

For example, Odysseus, the hero of The Odyssey, must battle gods and men, as well as his own desires, and do so successfully, across decades, before reaching his goal and returning home to his wife, Penelope. Likewise, in Beowulf, the hero must battle against huge beasts, using the sword of past giants to defeat one.

No matter the epic, however, in terms of both content and style, they are grander in a way than everyday life.

But so what—what is useful about viewing someone who overcomes such odds or even just battles admirably against them? Seeing someone tackle immense obstacles, gives readers a useful perspective for viewing their own challenges. And, in seeing heroes overcome those huge obstacles, readers can better tackle their own, smaller ones with passionately-driven tenacity.

The more difficult question to answer is this: In a world where so many people point to so many things as epic, where can one discover the true epics, those that deliver on the above promise?

(Click here for my answer.)

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