Is There No Such Thing as an “Epic” Story?

On this day, in 1938, the Munich Agreement was signed permitting Nazi Germany’s annexation of Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland. As Wikipedia tells us: “The Sudetenland were areas along Czech borders, mainly inhabited by ethnic Germans. The agreement was negotiated at a conference held in Munich, Germany, among the major powers of Europe without the presence of Czechoslovakia. Today, it is widely regarded as a failed act of appeasement toward Germany. The agreement was signed in the early hours of 30 September 1938 (but dated 29 September).” As we now know, the “failed act of appeasement” was to lead to the horrors of the Second World War.

The following lines are from the poem, “Epic” by Patrick Kavanagh:

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided: who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.

That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was most important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

Patrick Kavanagh went on to write: “All great civilisations are based on parochialism – Greek, Israelite, English. Parochialism is universal; it deals with the fundamentals. To know fully even one field or one land is a lifetime’s experience. In the world of poetic experience it is depth that counts, not width. A gap in a hedge, a smooth rock surfacing a narrow lane, a view of a woody meadow, the stream at the junction of four small fields – these are as much as a man can fully experience.”

The “Munich bother” Kavanagh refers to, of course, is the “Munich Agreement”. But by phrasing it as such, he downplays it. He seems to be saying – as is evident from the paragraph quoted after the poem – that the argument about “who owned … that half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land” was just as important as what was going on in Europe at the time. (Of course, if one looks at the First World War, it could be said that all of those involved were also fighting over a “no-man’s land”)

At first glance, this is an astonishing claim: that the epic story of a thousand ships and a ten year war could be compared to a “local row”. But, of course, at its heart, The Iliad is exactly that. It’s the story of how one man has an affair with another man’s wife and the way in which the cuckolded husband takes his revenge. If we look at it that way, how many of our epic stories could be boiled down to a simple story? The brother against brother in The Godfather; The Great Gatsby – a cautionary tale of excess and a reflection of the period, which at its heart is simply a story of two lovers similar to Fitzgerald and Zelda; even the events of Ulysses – all ordinary, everyday occurrences taking place in the space of a single day, but given a mythic status by the author.

So what do you think? Are all the best stories based on parochialism?

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One comment on “Is There No Such Thing as an “Epic” Story?

  1. In epic fantasy, ‘epic’ is lately considered to mean long (and truly, many of them are) but that’s not the origin of the expression. Rather, epic fantasy refers to a fantastical story that is epic in the way you refer to – and one of the pre-requisites for being in this genre is that the story must contain a conflict between good and evil on a grand scale. So you’ll find lots of epics there, where the fate of the world hangs in the balance. But many of our ‘classics’ are, I think, not epic – they are really a personal tale, even if many others are caught up in that tale.

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