Six Elements Of The Epic:
1) Plot centers around a Hero of Unbelievable Stature. The epic hero completes what everyone only attempts. In ancient epics, the hero often is either partially divine or at least protected by a god or God.
2) Involves deeds of superhuman strength and valor. Accomplish feats no real human could.
3) Vast Setting. The action spans not only geographical but also often cosmological space: across land, sea, into the underworld, or thru space or time etc.
4) Involves supernatural and-or otherworldly forces. Gods, demons, angels, time/space travel, cheating death etc.
5) Sustained elevation of style. Overwritten. Overly formal, highly stylized (poetry, lyricism (singing), exaggeration)6) Poet remains objective and omniscient. The narrator sees and knows all and presents all perspectives.
Epic Origins: Generally, epics are also mythologized histories.
1) A conglomeration of pre-existing stories and characters.
2) Often of oral origin.
3) At least loosely based around historical or quasi-historical characters or events or characters.
4) Set in a mythologized distant time, traditionally in the past.
Epics As Moral Codes (Or Political Propaganda): The epic nearly always:
1) Represents moral ideals and taboos in the behavior of the hero and antagonist. The hero's behavior and the lessons he learns along the way represent the culture's ideals; what the hero does, all men should strive toward. The Other (monster or antagonist) is shown as essentially/inherently inferior to the hero; the Other represents either those who break moral taboos or the inferiority of Other cultures/peoples/nations etc.
Taken as a whole, we find that moral
codes deal with, and all people in all stories are obsessed with:
a) Sex. Who gets to bangeth whom? How are these rules divided/differentiated between the sexes? How are these rules divided/differentiated between social class or birth rank?
b) War and Violence. When are or aren't we justified killing one another?
c) The Distribution of Wealth. How is property treated within the culture and between the culture and the Other?
d) Food and Alcohol. How is the treatment of both ritualized, usually in a religious context, and why? What does this tell us about the origin of religious belief and law?
2) Grants cosmological significance to historical events; root causes are nearly always traced back to the will of the gods or God; the hero's heroism and the triumph of the people is divinely ordained. In this way history itself is given moral significance and the people feel divinely guided toward their fate, especially if not always in relationship to the Other. As a representative of the people, the hero proves the people/tribe/nation's will and actions are uniquely divinely justified. The economic root causes of human relations -- between warring nations, between master and slave, between men and women -- are entirely hidden beneath an exciting, mythological, action adventure pitting good against evil.
Note that this last one is closely tied to the first, especially in terms of sex, war, wealth and, yes, even food (the most basic form of wealth) and booze.
Epics As Cognitive or Spiritual Models of Development
Beginning with Gilgamesh and continuing on thru Achilles, Odysseus, Beowulf and Sir Gawain -- not to mention Spiderman and Batman or Ricky Bobby -- the epic also culminates around the hero's journey of self discovery and emotional/psychological/spiritual maturation.
Again, all epics seem to start with Gilgamesh's journey to involve the hero:
a) Confronting the reality of death and thus realizing heroism is a spiritual or psychological quality, not just a physical one. This often involves a journey beneath the earth, to the underworld, where death itself abides.
b) Learning that love is more valuable than material wealth or life itself.
The Epic of Gilgamesh
Both The Hebrew Scriptures and The New Testament
The Iliad and The Odyssey
King Arthur and the Knights of Round Table
The Lord of the Rings
Most Superhero Series (Superman, Batman...)
The James Bond Series
Star Wars, Star Trek, Battlestar Galactica
The historical narratives of the Revolutionary War, The Civil War, WWI, WWII, Fox News coverage of the War In Iraq, any coverage of the Kennedy family.