The epic tradition represents a record of heroic actions that were once celebrated through song and folktale. Examples of epic stories that started out as folklore and were then written down are the epics of Gilgamesh and Beowulf.
The epic tradition includes key elements such as the epic hero and the form of an epic poem, which thus provides the rhythm which made it easily able to be sung. The epic tradition has influenced fiction over time, and certain elements can still be found in modern fiction today although altered as times have changed.
A key aspect of the Epic tradition as shown in both Gilgamesh and Beowulf is that of an Epic hero. An epic hero is ‘a brave and noble character in an epic poem, admired for great achievements or affected by grand events: Beowulf, an epic hero with extraordinary strength’ (dictionary.com).
The Epic hero has to be someone of high status, preferable a royal and they must have aspects of greatness and superhuman qualities, such as great strength and courage, and in the case of Gilgamesh, the epic hero has connections to the Gods, showing the hero to be above all others.
The epic hero also has to in some way achieve greatness within the story, Gilgamesh for example changes drastically from being a mean and uncaring king, to becoming great and compassionate by realizing the importance of love and loss and Beowulf begins as a highly regarded prince and by the end he has become legendary by his brilliant courage in defeating the evil of the world.
The epic hero features prominently in mythology, such as in the two Greek poems The Lliad and The Odyssey with the epic heroes, Achilles and Odysseus, both central figures in the Trojan War. These two are key examples of epic poetry in ancient literature.
Further aspects of the epic tradition is the fact that stories such as Gilgamesh and Beowulf weren’t written for the purpose of being a novel, but instead were simply a story or folk lore which was told and passed down through generations, and often recited to music until finally being written down. This means that the story has no determinable author and is told as a third person narrative. The story is also not set out as a novel but as more of an epic poem told in a refined manner. As the stories of the epic tradition were primarily for oral transmission they include long speeches and often the story is told through a series of flashbacks.
This means that the stories do lack description and imagery which are fundamental aspects of modern novels, and instead were written as more of a chronology of events and facts and was written as evidence of heroic actions.
The epic tradition has had great impact on modern literature. All novels have a hero, and although they are no longer what one would call epic, as they are not necessarily of high status or do not possess superhuman qualities they are still heroes.
In Shakespearean plays, there are tragic heroes, which contrast to the epic hero, as the tragic heroes usually start off great but through their own flaws they become tragic and fall from their heroic status. Although tragic heroes in Shakespeare’s plays are not exactly the same as the epic heroes, the epic narratives and heroes have greatly influenced the plays as they all centre around one hero, a hero that like that of the epic narratives, is of a high status.
Although the tragic heroes have flaws and at times do bad things, they are essentially good and essentially heroic in the outcome. The tragic hero of Hamlet although different from the epic hero of Beowulf, still achieves a form of greatness by exposing his murdering uncle.
The tragic hero is also represented in the novel of Frankenstein. The influence of the epic tradition on modern literature can also be seen in the story of Robinson Crusoe, as you see a man exert extraordinary courage and strength to survive in a hostile environment, much the same as the epic heroes of the past.
However in the case of Robinson Crusoe, the hero is a sailor and not someone of noble birth or high status. This represents the changes in society at the time the novels are written. In modern times an average man or ‘underdog’ achieving great things is considered more epic than someone of a privileged status. However although Gilgamesh was a noble who was two-thirds God he himself much like the tragic heroes had flaws which meant that he was not very liked and could even be viewed as a villain at the beginning of the story.
But whereas the tragic heroes begin as respected and then are brought down by their mistakes, Gilgamesh learns from his mistakes and after a heroic quest he becomes a hero worthy of the name. The way in which the heroes are represented and the journeys they take determine the differences between the epic hero and the tragic hero.