Epic Hero and Epic Fable

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Epic Hero and Epic Fable

Transcript of Epic Hero and Epic Fable

  • University of Oregon and Duke University Press are collaborating with JSTOR to digitize, preserve and extend access toComparative Literature.


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    Epic Hero and Epic Fable Author(s): D. C. Feeney Source: Comparative Literature, Vol. 38, No. 2 (Spring, 1986), pp. 137-158Published by: on behalf of the Duke University Press University of OregonStable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1771065Accessed: 11-12-2015 21:33 UTC

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    Epic Hero and

    Epic Fable

    HE EPIC HERO occupies a secure niche in modern criticism. His reassuring presence guarantees the unity of an epic poem and di-

    rects our scrutiny when we search for theme. If he is not easy to pick out, there ensues a quarrel over his identity, with a list of candidates for the post; the poem in question, especially if it is an ancient epic, is either disparaged as formless and episodic, or else praised for bold indepen- dence, held together on other and more interesting principles. Modern critics evidently see it as the norm for ancient and modern epics alike to be organized around an individual, who will embody the meaning of the poem. Scholes and Kellogg describe the nucleus of the epic as "the chronicle of the deeds of the hero"; by their account, "the epic plot is to a certain extent bespoken by epic characterization. The plot is inherent in the concept of the protagonist."' According to Northrop Frye, "In literary fictions the plot consists of somebody doing something. The somebody, if an individual, is the hero ... Fictions ... may be classified, not morally, but by the hero's power of action, which may be greater than ours, less, or roughly the same."" Of Frye's five classifications, the epic hero belongs to number three, the hero of the "high mimetic mode," "superior in degree to other men but not to his natural environment" (pp. 33-34). Morton W. Bloomfield, after a careful discussion of the meaning of the word "hero," asserts: "Whatever term be used for the major personage or personages of narrative or drama, that these genres have always been presented around such figures cannot be doubted."3

    1 Robert Scholes and Robert Kellogg, The Nature of Narrative (Oxford, 1966), p. 209. 2 Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, 1957), p. 33.

    3 In "The Problem of the Hero in the Later Medieval Period," Concepts of the Hero in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, ed. N. T. Burns and C. Reagan (Albany, N.Y., 1975), p. 29.


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    Classical scholars concur: the same preconceptions underlie C. M. Bowra's discussion, for example, of the characteristics of "literary epic."4 It must be said, however, that among classical scholars, for vari- ous reasons, there is little discussion in broad terms of the generic ques- tion of epic and its hero, much less than among scholars of literature from the Renaissance on.

    The general orthodoxy still obtains, despite the voices of a few dis- senters.5 To test its value, what is needed is not only a discussion of the practice and theory of ancient epic, but also an investigation into the birth and nurture of the epic hero who occupies the attention of the modern critics. He will be seen to be, in essence, a child of the Renais- sance, a demanding child, but not universally successful in pressing his claims. In England he was given title and dominion by the neoclassicists, and it is by virtue of that authority that he still exercises his power.

    A convenient starting point is afforded by the reflection that neither Greek nor Latin has a word to describe the epic hero: '-pow and heros have no literary reference, but describe individuals, normally held to be descended from gods, whose tombs received quasi-divine honors. Nor does any other word, such as 7rpwraywowra'r ("protagonist") discharge this service. This is not so decisive an observation as it may appear at first. As we shall see, the literary-critical meaning of "hero" was not domesticated into English until 1673, and yet D. W. Lucas justly re- marks that "the Elizabethans had indubitable heroes, though they had no word for them."6 Still, the modern reader who comes to ancient epics expecting to find a hero should pause at the realization that the object of his search is without so much as a name, that an ancient poet could not say, in as many words, "Who is the hero of my poem?" nor an ancient critic pose a like question of the texts he had before him. The critical authority which this figure exercises over our expectations should suffer its first weakening at this point.

    Another approach is needed into the epics, to look for their true cen- ter of gravity. The example of John Jones, and the express recommen- dation of Getty, refer us to Aristotle's Poetics. It is at least understand-

    4 From Virgil to Milton (London, 1948), Ch.i, "Some Characteristics of Liter- ary Epic."

    5 Discussion of Lucan's Bellum Civile has called forth doubts on the necessity of having a hero: see, above all, the trenchant observations of R. Getty, in his edition of Lucan, Pharsalia, Book I (Cambridge, 1940), pp. xxiv-xxix. Subsequent references appear in the text. Thomas Greene has more general qualifications, in The Descent from Heaven: A Study in Epic Continuity (New Haven, 1963), p. 18. Although John Jones does not discuss the hero of epic, I should mention here the powerful impulse given to this paper by the argument of his valuable book, On Aristotle and Greek Tragedy (London, 1962).

    6 In his edition of Aristotle, Poetics (Oxford, 1968), p. 140. Subsequent refer- ences to Aristotle are to this edition.


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    able that critics have found a tragic hero when they have turned to the Poetics. What is puzzling about the conventional assessment of the nature of epic is that it overlooks not only the positive side of what Aristotle has to say-his presentation of the epic model as being, in the Homeric type, a self-sufficient and complete action (1459a19 ff.)-but also the explicit and repeated rejection of the idea that the organization of an epic depends on an individual character (1451a16 ff., 1459a37). For Aristotle, this is a misconception to be put quite on a par with or- ganizing an epic around one period of time. When Homer undertook the Iliad, according to Aristotle, he selected one part of the war as his "one action," and incorporated other parts as episodes (1459a35 ff.). Aristotle sees no single character as the center of the Iliad, as becomes plain when he goes on to contrast Homer's practice with that of lesser poets: "But the others make a poem about one man or one period of time" (1459a37 ff). To Aristotle the Iliad is "the imitation of a single action" (1462bl 1), and this is no irrelevant formalism. As Getty puts it, "the centre round which the Iliad revolves is not Achilles but the wrath of Achilles" (p.xxvi). Even within the proem, when the subject of the wrath of Achilles has been announced, the wrath (17m) de- velops a bold syntactical autonomy, controlling the first five lines in an extraordinary way, governing three verbs in three successive lines (2 - 4).' Achilles's wrath is indeed his, but the kindling, course, and as- suaging of the wrath comprehend many people and many interests; the poet's focus on the wrath provides him with a structural and a thematic plenitude which would have been denied him if he had sung "about one man." James Redfield has written well on the impoverishment of the poem that comes from various influential modern readings which see the poem as centering on "Achilles' inner experience." In Redfield's fine book Hector receives the full attention he deserves, and we come to see that indeed, as he puts it, "in some sense the story of the Iliad is the story of the relation between these two heroes."8

    Aristotle sets off the Odyssey also as distinct from poems "about one man" (1451a16 ff.). This may appear paradoxical, until one realizes that what Aristotle was looking for in this poem as well as in the Iliad was the outline of a cohesive and "epic" action. That the action might be described as that of one man is a matter of complete indifference to Aristotle: it might be of one, or seven, or thousands, so long as it ex- hibited those structural features which he saw as the characteristic form

    7 James Redfield speaks of the "personification" of the iipts ("wrath") with the adjective "destructive," and continues, discussing line 2, "the relative clause reinforces our sense of the plVLs as a numinous agent"; in "The Proem of the 'Iliad': Homer's Art," Classical Philology, 74 (1979), 101.

    8 Nature and Culture in the Iliad: The Tragedy of Hector (Chicago, 1975), p.