A Brief Comparative Study of Primary and Secondary Epic with reference to Homeric and Virgilian Epic

June 7, 2022 by Essay Writer


Oxford English Dictionary defines an epic as a poem, typically derived from ancient oral tradition, which celebrates in the form of a continuous narrative the achievements of one or more heroic characters of history or legend. It is defined and explained in a similar vein by M.H. Abrams who says “… epic or heroic poem is applied to a work that meets at least the following criteria: it is a long verse narrative on a serious subject, told in a formal and elevated style, and centered on a heroic or quasi-divine figure on whose actions depends the fate of a tribe, a nation, or (in the instance of John Milton’s Paradise Lost) the human race” (Abrams and Harpham 109-112).

An epic usually begins with an invocation of the Muse(s) followed by the chief argument of the epic or its central theme. The narrative of an epic begins in medias res or in the middle of things rather than at the beginning. Its pace is stately and rhythm ceremonious. Long and formal speeches such as challenges, flashbacks and debates take place within the middle of the action, and characters are revealed through dialogues. The setting is massive, intense and larger than life. Moreover, an epic uses elevated and literary language in its narrative, which is highly ornamented with elaborate greetings, epic similes, epithets and figures of speech.

Primary Epic vs. Secondary Epic

Earlier, epics used to be classified as 1) Primitive and 2) Artificial. However, since no piece of poem is purely primitive or artificial, in current usage critical consensus classifies epics into primary or secondary. ‘Secondary’ in this sense does not imply an epic of lower or base quality in comparison with the primary ones. Rather, it means an epic that grows out of or derived from primary epics.

Primary epics are also known as folk epics or traditional epics and the main distinction between them and the secondary epics or literary epics is that the former are written versions of what had originally been passed down through oral tradition whereas the latter were written or composed by individual poets and writers in a deliberate attempt at imitation of the traditional form. There is not a single author of the primary or folk epics. Having been passed down through oral tradition, such epics had been sung and recited from memory by many generations of storytellers before being finally written down. Needless to say, each storyteller modified and/or added to the epic poems over the course of time leading to the existence of the same epic in different versions in different places. Epics were written to be sung or recited with music. Often they were delivered by using an instrument which would provide background rhythm to the singer’s or storyteller’s tale.

To briefly sum up the differences between primary and secondary epic –

Primary epic is poetry ‘which stems from heroic deeds and which is composed in the first instance, in order that such deeds may not be forgotten. It is practical in purporting to record historical events and deals with the real world, however much glamour may be added in the process’ whereas secondary epic is poetry “which may deal with heroic legend or with more abstract themes than the type available to primary epic, and which is composed, not as an historical record of the past, but as the poet’s artistic interpretation or recreation of legend or theme. The combination of the poet’s ‘seeing eye’ and his personal style together create something which is not based on reality, but has a life of its own to be transmitted to the mind of the reader” (Lewis).

Primary epics have been developed from oral poetry of tribal bards or poets which were eventually written down. Some examples of such epics would be the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, the Indian epics – The Ramayana and The Mahabharata, and the Homeric epics from Greek classical antiquity – The Iliad and The Odyssey. The first major secondary or literary epic known to the world is The Aeneid, composed by the Roman poet Virgil between 29 BC and 19 BC. Another very well known secondary epic to the English world is the relatively recent Paradise Lost (1667) by John Milton.

Primary Epic and Oral Tradition with reference to the Homeric Epics

The Iliad and The Odyssey are in the tradition of primary epic and inherit the oral technique and festal, aristocratic, public and ceremonial tone characteristic of the primary epic. However, though they were born out of oral tradition, they were not similar with ‘oral poetry of the heroic age’ or ‘oral court poetry’. Oral poetry does not necessarily mean anonymous poetry or anonymous authorship, rather poetry that is delivered to the audience through recitation. Of course, we can conjecture that the Homeric epics are too long to be recited in entirety. But selective or episodic recitation was a commonplace practice among the rhapsodists. In fact, that is how poems too long to be recited at once were propagated and passed down.

At the heart of the oral tradition or oral technique is its repeated use of stock words, phrases and sentences. “Recited extemporaneously at solemn occasions, [primary epic] is designed to be taken in as a rapid succession of verses, with no one verse standing out from the rest” (Franke). Such repetitions were not only helpful to the rhapsodists or singers while reciting but also added a musical quality to the poems and made them more interesting for the audience. Repetitive words and sentences were also required because “a line which gives the listener pause is a disaster in oral poetry because it makes him lose the next line.

And even if he (the singer) does not lose the next, the rare and ebullient line is not worth making” (Lewis 21). “The explanation is that in an oral milieu continuity is basic to understanding and if continuity is broken, if the audience is diverted for some purpose, it must be formally recalled to the main road, so to speak” (O’Nolan).

The way oral poetry was rendered was different from ordinary speech and the words used were not commonplace either. This implies the existence of a kind of epic diction even in oral tradition. However, differences existed between epic dictions of different epics. For example, The Iliad and Beowulf have different sophistications, word arrangements and figures of speech despite both being primary epics. As C.S. Lewis states, the particular language and metre used in Greek epics led to their being recited more quickly, which necessitates more frequent repetitions in Homeric epics.

Coming to the subject of the primary epic, it is usually taken to be one which manifests great national or even cosmic importance. But it is truer of the subject of the secondary epic. If we draw parallels among primary epics belonging to different nations, in most cases we encounter a heroic story and not so much a great national subject. “Primary epic… is unreflectively and uncritically heroic in content” whereas secondary epic “reinterprets raw heroic content from the point of view of a more sophisticated culture and civilization” (Franke). Primary epics do not usually deal with so serious or profound an event that is world changing, like the founding of Rome as in The Aeneid or the fall of man as in Paradise Lost. They care more about a heroic story, an adventurous story than a story of grand importance. For example, the moment we think of The Iliad, the Trojan War comes to our mind. Its grandeur, its actions, the battles fill us with suspenseful curiosity. But it is less the subject of the epic and more of a background to the personal story of Achilles’ fury, suffering and repentance, the death of Hector, etc. “The Iliad concerns the wrath of Achilles, not the ten-year siege nor the capture of Troy” (O’Nolan). Even The Odyssey, which superficially appears to be an aftermath of the Trojan War, is more of an adventure story of Odysseus returning home from the Trojan War.

The Aeneid as a Secondary Epic

As mentioned before, The Aeneid by Virgil is a major example of one of the earliest secondary epics. One of the motivations behind Virgil’s composing The Aeneid might have been to produce a great poem to rival the Homeric epics. “The transition from Homer to Virgil also means moving from what can be called ‘primary’ to ‘secondary’ epic. For the first time, we are now confronted with a highly self-conscious composition by an individual writer” (Franke). It is in the Virgilian epic that we first see the manifestation of a grand epic subject of national importance in entirety. Moreover, he composed it so as to specifically cater to the common taste of the Roman people by giving them an epic chronicling a line of events leading to the foundation of Rome. Virgil, however, does not treat it as a mere chronicle but takes a single national legend and imbibes it with such language and diction that reflect a vaster theme. He deals “with a limited number of personages and makes us feel as if national, or almost cosmic, issues are involved … (and) locates his action in a legendary past and yet makes us feel the present, and the intervening centuries, already foreshadowed” (Lewis 34). The story of The Aeneid is one of transition in the world order, the shifting of civilization and the transformation of the reliques of the old into the seeds of new beginnings.

European poetry grows up and develops with Virgil. For example, the speech given by Aeneas in the first book of The Aeneid to encourage his men reminds one of Odysseus’s speech in Book XII of The Odyssey. Virgil’s Aeneas’s speech is sophisticated, passionate and brims with the dual character of duty and desire whereas Odysseus’s speech has a simplicity to it, not unlike one rendered by any captain to his men.

Secondary Epic and its style

The secondary epic aims for a higher gravity or earnestness than the primary. This is brought into effect by ‘grandeur’ or ‘elevation’ of the style. As C.S. Lewis states in A Preface to Paradise Lost, such grandeur or elevation is produced by using 1) unfamiliar and archaic words and constructions, 2) proper names of splendid, voluptuous or celebrated things, and 3) repeated allusions to sources of heightened interest in our sense experience, like light and darkness, storm, etc which are managed with magnanimity. The opening paragraph which usually consists of the invocation introduces us to the philosophical theme of the epic but even more so, serves to fill us with the sensation that something great and important is about to begin. “All images that can suggest a great thing beginning [are] brought together and our very muscles respond as we read” (Lewis 42).

As in the traditional or primary epics, continuous rendering with minimal pause is essential to the style of the literary or the secondary epic as well so that it grasps our attention like the epics sung in the oral tradition by the bards. Even between books within the epic, there is not a definitive break so as wake us up from our attention or ‘enchantment’ with the flow of the epic narrative.

Language of Homeric and Virgilian Epic

Homer and Virgil both wrote in dactylic hexameter and their epics roughly stem from or are at least set in the same background of the siege of Troy. Despite their epics being intended for the common audience, the first and foremost purpose of Virgil’s epic was to please the Augustan court. As a consequence, Homer’s traditional epics use a more natural language while Virgil’s literary epic serves a majestic diction. We can also draw a parallel in the usage of epic similes in Homer and Virgil. There is an obvious presence of multiple epic similes in the fighting scenes in both The Iliad and The Aeneid whereas the scenes of travel and adventure (as in The Odyssey) have sparing presence of the same. It can be inferred that whether it is primary or secondary epic, epic similes adorn the narratives of battle and action whereas a simpler language is used to narrate episodes of leisure, calm and travel.


Read more