An epic is a long narrative poem, on a grand scale, about the deeds of warriors and heroes. It is a polygonal, ‘heroc’ story incorporating myth, legend, folk tale and history. Epics are often of national significance in the sense that they embody the history and aspirations of a nation in a lofty or grandiose manner.
Basically, there are two kinds of epic: (a) primary- also known as oral or primitive; (b) secondary- also known as literary. The first belongs to the oral tradition and is thus composed orally and recited; only much later, in some cases, is it written down. The second is written down at the start.
In category (a) we may place, for example, Gilgamesh, Iliad and Odyssey, Beowulf, the lays of the Elder Edda and the epic cycles or narodne pesme of the South Slavs. In category (b) we may put Virgil’s Aeneid, LUcan’s Pharsalia, the anonymous Song of Roland, Camoens’s Lost and Victor Hugo’s La Legende des siecles.
There is also a very large number of other poems which might be put into one or other category. The majority belong approximately to category (b).
Gilgamesh, the Sumerian epic (c. 3000 BC), is the earliest extant work in the oral tradition. It recounts the adventures of the king of that name, his travels with Dnkidu the wild man, Enkidu’s death and then the journey of Gilgamesh to the Babylonian Noah, Utnapishtim- the only man known to have discovered the secret of immortality. Utnapishtim shows him the plant of life. On his return a snake robs Gilgamesh of the plant, but the king consoles himself with the fame he has gained as the builder of the walls of Erech. The poem, which is in twelve books, is an account of a man’s search for glory and eternal life.