Sing, O Muse, of a forgotten spoil of war, the undying meaning torn from the letters of a world-worn word! What power it once had, fallen from favor with the gods of old in this landscape of blood and salt. It ventured far beyond its ken, donning masks that were never to be its own, neither tragic nor comic, but mundane. Sing, O daughter of Hera, of a monolith of confusion that has seen better days. Sing of a single word. Sing of the epic.
When beginning anything having to do with the epic, it helps to invoke the Muse – as the Greeks once did – in as pretentious a fashion as possible. It’s also quite fun. We’d certainly like to think their spirit imbues us with the same sense of ancient days because, whether or not one has read The Iliad, The Aeneid, or any of the other traditional epics of antiquity, our world has been shaped by their words. Epic poetry is a literary style relating stories of world-shaping events that addresses archetypal themes and questions – one that saw its start in Mesopotamia with The Epic of Gilgamesh. Often tied up in the struggle of national identity, epics are both defined by the space of time that produced them and yet, in equal measure, are steadfastly universal.
Classic epics share many common threads. Yes, they are certainly filled with heroes, battles, and the handiwork of the gods. But what makes them epic? Aside from the literary considerations of the genre, for a work to be considered epic there are a few defining criteria that it must meet. One of these is universality. The work must concern events that either shaped the course of history, or are at their core devoted to ideas that affect all mankind. The Iliad marks the conflict between the East and the West. From the shores of Troy, sitting right upon that imaginary line, it draws the cultural and ideological differences between the two factions as a symbol of humanity’s inherent penchant toward conflict for power and control. Valmiki’s Ramayana focuses upon the duality of good and evil, portraying the constant struggle through the war against the demon king Lanka. Virgil’s Aeneid dissects the question of fate’s influence upon mankind. Thus, while focusing on specific cultural events, these works do delve into the universal.
Another defining characteristic of the epic is rendering the unseen visible. How best to understand the sublime forces that we cannot explain other than through myth or legend? Dante’s Divine Comedy has greatly influenced the modern Christian conception of Hell and the afterlife, while Beowulf, many years earlier, bridged the gap between the Pagan beliefs of the Anglo-Saxons and the earliest influences of Christianity upon the British Isles, highlighting the shifting belief systems of the era. Epics are crafted from the unknown and pose questions for all humanity, not solely the cultures that produce them. That does not necessarily mean that supernatural forces must be present in all epics. However, it does mean that their authors attempt to grapple with aspects of existence outside of the scope of humans’ immediate understanding. Many epics do look through the lens of the gods in this course, but others do not.
Having laid this background begs the question; where has the epic gone? While there are still epic poems composed in modern times, they are vastly under recognized and often incorporate evolutions of the form that stray from the original delineations of what an epic entailed. However, if we consider the tenets outside of mere form, then the definition of “epic” opens up to include many more works. In fact, eschewing the necessity of poetry, one of the greatest epics ever written is a novel. Herman Melville produced his monumental Moby-Dick in the midst of the turmoil of the nineteenth century, long after Homer, Valmiki, and many of the progenitors of the epic themselves passed into legend. Melville published Moby-Dick in the first century of a young and hungry nation on the brink of civil war, a country that was still struggling to determine its place in the world. This work was a product of its time, to be sure, but it was also without a doubt intended for a much grander audience, inherently built upon the epic structure. So, let’s take a closer look, shall we?
Moby-Dick. Many children have laughed at the name, and many adults have laughed at the seemingly unnecessary diversions into the history of whaling, or into ship construction, or even into storied taxonomy that is quite wrong while also being nearly as dense as the very animals it describes. But it provides a microcosm of both the world and the human struggle against the unknown, all defining hallmarks of traditional epics. Consider the stage upon which the tale plays out. The notorious Captain Ahab’s ship, the Pequod, makes its circumnavigation of the globe upon the most global of all surfaces – the ocean. Its immensity leaves no corner of the earth untouched. Even inland rivers and waterways flow back to its grasp in due time and distance. As Ishmael walks the shores of Manhattan at the novel’s onset, he reflects that “Right and left, the streets take you waterward.” Manhattan, the cosmopolitan center of a burgeoning nation, ever-connected to the wide-spread world through its maze of streets. This great mass of watery concordance also serves as a conduit for trade and exploration. The whaling industry itself was an engine of economic development at the time of the novel’s composition. Most nations took to the sea for economic gain, crossing borders and acting as a bridge for disparate parts of the world, implying a certain universality to the trade.
Within the exploration of the sea and the quest to slay that great dragon of the waves, the White Whale, the crew of the Pequod is enacting a journey very similar in theme to that of the epic heroes of antiquity.
Furthermore, the ocean is not simply massive in surface size. It is also vast in depth. In chapter 93 Melville refers to the ocean’s “wondrous depths, where strange shapes of the unwarped primal world glide to and fro before his passive eyes … he saw God’s foot upon the treadle of the loom … and wandering from all mortal reason, man comes at last to that celestial thought, which, to reason, is absurd and frantic”. The depths of the ocean are symbolic of the novel’s forays into questions of existence. The mythologist Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, touches on the expedition into the unknown as a catalyst for human development, saying:
“The agony of breaking through personal limitations is the agony of spiritual growth. Art, literature, myth and cult, philosophy, and ascetic disciplines are instruments to help the individual past his limiting horizons into spheres of ever-expanding realization. As he crosses threshold after threshold, conquering dragon after dragon, the stature of the divinity that he summons to his highest wish increases, until it subsumes the cosmos. Finally, the mind breaks the bounding sphere of the cosmos to a realization transcending all experiences of form – all symbolizations, all divinities: a realization of the ineluctable void.”
Within the exploration of the sea and the quest to slay that great dragon of the waves, the White Whale, the crew of the Pequod is enacting a journey very similar in theme to that of the epic heroes of antiquity. While the goal is to overcome a great obstacle, it is also to explore the world, at least for our protagonist Ishmael. The ocean’s darkest reaches are murky yet vibrant, just like the collective unconscious of humanity that leads one to wish to push back the veil of one’s own horizons and step beyond.
At the time of this novel’s publishing, humans had little knowledge about the ocean. Even with modern technology, our scope of understanding is limited. Melville often refers to the ocean as a “heartless immensity.” At sea, one is unable to see anything other than the seemingly endless ocean. Mankind can only begin to comprehend the scope of existence through being removed from his element. Traditional epics often dealt with war, or conflict of some sort in exactly this sense. Conflict, or being faced with an environment in which one feels alien, brings out the innermost nature of human beings. Whether it is a fight or flight response in battle or the introspection that a sea journey allows, it forces reckoning with questions of what it means to be human, whether through the lens of horrific brutality or of elevated thought. In fact, Ishmael’s view of the ocean shares traits with Edmund Burke’s idea of the sublime. The sublime implies wonder and awe of something greater than oneself. In his 1757 treatise A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Burke states that “whatever is in any sort terrible … is a source of the sublime.” In the epics of antiquity this facet of the natural world was embodied in the gods. Poseidon, god of the ocean, was the main obstacle in Odysseus’ journey in The Odyssey. His role was symbolic of the struggle of man against stronger forces at work in the world. The gods were both revered and feared, much like the ocean in Moby-Dick. Yet inherent in this wonder is a degree of terror. Both the ocean and its denizens, specifically Moby-Dick, embody this. They show the crew of the Pequod that there are forces stronger than humanity at work in the universe just as the gods of ancient epics did.
The epics teach lessons about man’s abilities, and sometimes, those abilities fall short of what we desire.
In fact, while still on shore Ishmael wonders “Why did the old Persians hold the sea holy? Why did the Greeks give it a separate deity, and make him the own brother of Jove?” The answer is that the ocean is a primordial force that embodies the duality of the ancient gods.The gods would aid and punish humanity according to their own whims and function as the conduit through which fate worked. Melville explicitly draws this conclusion in the final line of the novel; “and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago.” Here he imagines the ocean as eternal as the heavens. It is both a provider and a destroyer, a shroud separating reality from the unseen.
In fact, Melville calls upon that awareness of man’s place in the universe that epics portray as he writes that “though we know the sea to be an everlasting terra incognita … man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.” There is a tendency to believe that man has conquered the waves just as it has conquered land. This is not the case. The ocean is not made to sustain human life. In acknowledging this fact, humans are forced to accept a limit to their desire for control just as the influence of mythological figures in The Iliad, The Divine Comedy, and others guide the action. Further, to an individual at sea there is no empirical evidence that anything exists but water and sky. The ocean seems all encompassing and harkens to the image of the ship as a global microcosm. The crew of the Pequod, made up of sailors from every corner of the world, is surrounded by nothing but waves for the majority of their journey. Much like The Odyssey, wherein Odysseus’ ships (the sailors’ microcosmic world) are smashed to bits by forces far stronger than they, Melville’s Pequod is in the end dragged to the depths of the ocean by the White Whale itself.
And now, to that grand denizen of the stage, the horror of the natural world rendered in stark white. Moby-Dick. The Whale is the “pasteboard mask” through which Ahab wishes to attack the unknown universe beyond, the universe that has cost him his leg and brought a life of misery upon him. Ahab is that tragic character, lusting after revenge and realizing the true extent of his control in his final moments – that he is but a man. The entire course of the novel is set in motion by Captain Ahab’s desire to strike back against the gods. It is a case of hubris, one known well to the epic lineage. In Milton’s Paradise Lost, Satan, the great aggressor, is the catalyst for the fall of man due to that cursed desire for something unattainable. Just as Satan fails in his rebellion against God, Ahab fails in his quest to exact revenge upon Moby-Dick. This is not an epic in which the hero succeeds. In fact, Melville subverts the general expectation of a climactic encounter, leaving all but Ishmael to drown in the Whale’s wake. The epics teach lessons about man’s abilities, and sometimes, those abilities fall short of what we desire. So discovered Ahab and, as an observer, Ishmael.
Whether you decide that the novel is worthy of the designation or not is inconsequential in terms of the importance of epic ideals. Literature lasts because it resonates, because it changes the way we think about and perceive the world. It is not the story that sticks through the turmoil of ages, but what lurks just beneath the surface. We learn about ourselves through the tales of heroes, of monsters, of men and women just like us. So, in a sense, all of humanity is an epic, moving along until our author decides our tale is done. Will we live on? Maybe. But for now, all we can do is to learn from the past.