I’m quite familiar with novels and stories, if my personal view is concerned I would say that story is just a compact and summarised form of novel. The level of detail in novels is, obviously, much more than in a stories. But what is an epic? Is it just a more detailed version of a novel?

In my course book, there is a short paragraph of John Milton and it reads like this

John Milton (1608-74) is acknowledged as the greatest English poet after Shakespeare. As a product of the Reformation Movement in England, he combines the Renaissance passion for truth and beauty with the religious fervour is the Puritans. He is best known for Paradise Lost, the only epic composed in English Language so far. His literacy art is so consummate that he is credited as being ‘the most sublime of English Poets’ and known as ‘master of the grand style.’

Why there are no other epics in English Language than Paradise Lost? Is there some specific reason for that? Or is the English language is simply more used to novels and poetry?

UPDATE: My question is related to this post but there are some differences which the answerer should focus on. My question is mostly about English Literature and the book’s emphasis on “only epic composed so far”. My question asks for a clear definition of an epic, in contrast with novel and story.


3 Answers 3


Since Milton is often discussed in the context of Renaissance literature, I'll quote the definition of "epic" from The Renaissance (edited by Marion Wynne-Davies, Bloomsbury Guides to English Literature, Bloomsbury, 1992):

A narrative of heroic actions, often with a principal hero, usually mythical in its content, offering inspiration and ennoblement within a particular cultural or national tradition.

John Milton wrote two works that fit this definition, namely Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, thereby disproving the claim that he wrote "the only epic composed in English Language". Another Renaissance poet, Edmund Spenser, wrote the epic poem The Faerie Queene (published in the 1590s).

In addition, Wikipedia lists more than 40 epic poems in the English language, including the following:

If a handbook claims that John Milton wrote the only epic poem in the English language, its author or authors are wrong. They may not be competent enough to write about the history of English literature.

  • Does the length (I mean number of pages) matter for literary work to be called an epic? Jul 13, 2020 at 14:09
  • @Knight The number of pages is not helpful since that depends on font size and the size of the pages. The number of lines or verses would be a better indication, but there is no defined minimum number. As far as I know, the above examples are book-length works.
    – Tsundoku
    Jul 13, 2020 at 14:37
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    @AustinHemmelgarn I didn't add any non-English examples of epics because the question is explicitly about epics in the English language.
    – Tsundoku
    Jul 13, 2020 at 19:36
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    @Knight Length comparisons aren't very helpful, since novels vary in length from, say, 100-120 pages (some might argue those are novellas) to several thousand pages. Epics also vary a lot in length; the Mahabharata, for example, is huge.
    – Tsundoku
    Jul 14, 2020 at 9:18
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    @Tsundoku The reason I was suggesting adding examples from other languages was to provide a point of reference for the quoted definition, as outside of literature focused scholarly circles stuff like the Iliad and Odyssey are still relatively well known, but most of the English epics are not necessarily. Jul 14, 2020 at 13:16

There are many epics in English besides Paradise Lost. Technically speaking, the "epic" is a narrative mode rather than a genre. What makes a narrative "epic" is a distinction between subject and object: the speaker (the subject doing the telling) is not the topic (the object being treated). Compare with the lyric, in which poets write about themselves (i.e. the subject is also the object) or the drama, in which there is no narrative voice (i.e. there is an object being treated but not a subject doing the telling). What makes narrative poems such as the Iliad and the Odyssey epic is simply the fact that there is a narrator relating events external to his or her own subjective experiences.

But these poems also had additional features that became commonly associated with "the epic," and we find Aristotle, in the Poetics, briefly enumerating them:

Epic poetry agrees with Tragedy in so far as it is an imitation in verse of characters of a higher type. They differ, in that Epic poetry admits but one kind of metre, and is narrative in form. They differ, again, in their length: for Tragedy endeavours, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun, or but slightly to exceed this limit; whereas the Epic action has no limits of time.

Epics, in addition to being "narrative" (i.e. in addition to including a storyteller), were also long compositions in verse about "higher characters." Thanks in part to Aristotle's influence, it became conventional in the Renaissance to use the term "epic" to also designate a genre, a type of narrative characterized by a certain length, style, and subject matter. Epics tended to be long poems on grand subjects (the crusades, in Tasso's Jerusalem Delivered, the age of navigation in Camões's The Lusiads, or Genesis, in Milton's Paradise Lost). They were commonly distinguished from the tradition of romance, which were also long verse narratives characterized by a focus on individual stories of courtly love rather than collective military or heroic deeds.

Now, because the epic is above all a mode, authors like Miguel de Cervantes, in Spain, and Henry Fielding, in England, made the case that epics could be written in prose as well as verse -- and, implicitly, that works like Cervantes's Don Quixote and Fielding's Joseph Andrews were epics. From this standpoint, all novels are epic. The usual claim that a novel like Gone with the Wind is an epic harks back to a Renaissance argument that epics could be written in prose.

But even if we look at the epic more strictly as being a long heroic poem, there are many epics in English literary history. They just don't happen to be as highly canonical as Paradise Lost. Less canonical, but still quite canonical, are Beowulf, James Macpherson's forgery of the Ossian poems, and Keats's Hyperion; less so are the variety of mock-epics in eighteenth-century satirical verse or serious (but second-rate) epics such as William Wilkie's Epigoniad, which you can check out on Google Books.

  • Hi and thank you for this thorough answer. If you allow me to do some nitpicking: in lyric poetry, poets don't seem to always talk about themselves; see e.g. Tennyson's "The Brooke". Also, if Don Quixote can be seen as a work in the epic mode, wouldn't it be a sort of mock epic?
    – Tsundoku
    Apr 21, 2021 at 10:56
  • Thanks for the nitpicking! Modes are helpful as ideal ways of classifying literary works, but (with the exception of drama) they are rarely instantiated in their pure forms. Narrators in the epic mode often give expression to lyrical sentiments; lyrical poems often tell stories; and the more literature changes, the more these modes tend to intermingle. Wordsworth, for example, writes predominantly about external objects, but they serve the purpose of shedding light on his inner experiences. Apr 21, 2021 at 11:03
  • In response to your second remark, one might make the case that Don Quixote is a mock epic. Fielding prefers to see it as a comic (rather than mock) epic. The difference, from Fielding's standpoint, is that comedy does not subvert the model it mimics; instead, it simply applies it to a different type of character. Rather than the divine or noble heroes of usual epic, the comic epic focuses on individuals closer to real life. Apr 21, 2021 at 11:05
  • So pretty much any novel narrated in third person is epic, but the Odyssey ceases to be epic for the first-person narrative of books 9-12? That seems absurdly remote from common usage of the term. And what do you make of the Muse's share in epic narration? (Homeric bards could sing of Troy without having been there because they were merely channeling the Muse, who was.) Oct 6, 2023 at 17:33

Considering that Beowulf is canonically referred to as the "first epic in English," I don't understand this question or that description in your course book. Old English is an early form of English, yes, but it is definitely English, so asserting Milton's claim to the only epic is flat out incorrect. In fact, Beowulf is the earliest European vernacular epic overall. Even Wikipedia agrees. I am a professional medievalist, but I will cite here The British Library for reference: https://www.bl.uk/works/beowulf

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    How would you answer the question's general part, 'What is an epic?'
    – CDR
    Oct 4, 2023 at 21:18
  • What makes Old English "English" but not e.g. Proto-Germanic? Proto-Indo-European? I don't think you have a leg to stand on here.
    – cmw
    Oct 6, 2023 at 1:01
  • Are you denying that Homer and Virgil are European, or that they are earlier than Beowulf, or that their poems are epics? Oct 6, 2023 at 17:11
  • @cmw, our medievalist's legs are just fine: Old English is English all right. And in at least one important sense Beowulf is more truly an epic than Paradise Lost or even the Aeneid: like the Homeric and Hesiodic epics, it more closely reflects an oral narrative tradition. When I first saw this question listed, by headline, I immediately assumed the supposed "only one epic composed in English so far" would be Beowulf. Oct 6, 2023 at 17:20
  • @BrianDonovan Linguistically, Old English is further apart from modern English than Old English is from Proto-Germanic. Unless you want to claim that Proto-Germanic is "English," there is no basis in claiming that Old English is "English", i.e. it is in the same categorical grouping as Modern English. This note has nothing to do with Beowulf's epic stature or the arbitrary claim that only epics that reflect oral traditions can be rightfully called epic.
    – cmw
    Oct 6, 2023 at 17:56

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