by Pankaj L. Jani | 2010 | 82,365 words
The English translation of the Jarasandhavadha Mahakavyam: a Sanskrit epic poem written by Goswami Hariraiji. The story revolves around the story of Krishna’s vanquishing of the Magadha King, Jarasandha. The soul message of this epic Jarasandhavadha is “where there is righteousness there is victory”. The sources for this story include the Mahabhar...
In the same way when we take into consideration the epics of other languages including English, we find common characteristics in them. The earliest epics were Homer’s the Iliad and the Odyssey, and Virgil’s the Aeneid. These Greek and Latin epic poems belonged to antiquity. They have been considered as the best examples of the epic in European literature. The Iliad and the Odyssey by the ancient Greek poet Homer have served as models to all later Epic poets. Then came the medieval Italian poet Dante’s epic poem called The Divine Comedy, Spenser’s The Faerie Queen, appeared in the sixteenth century and later came Milton’s famous epic the Paradise Lost.
William Henry Hudson writes,
“One great epic of art occupies a place of capital importance of literary history, not only on account of its own splendid qualities, but also because, itself fashioned closely on the Homeric poems, it became in its turn a chief model for other workers in the epic field-the Aeneid. In Paradise Lost English poetry possesses one of the supreme masterpieces of epic literature; while for other examples of the same class reference may be made to Tasso’s Gerusalemme Liberala, the Lusiadas of Camoens, and on a much smaller scale, Arnold’s ‘episode’, or epic fragment, Sohrab and Rustum. The literary epic naturally resembles the primitive epic, on which it is ultimately based, in various fundamental characteristics. Its subject-matter is of the old heroic and mythical kind; it makes free use of supernatural; it follows the same structural plan and reproduces many traditional details of composition; while, greatly it necessarily differs in style, it often adopts the formulas, fixed epithets, and stereo typed phrases and locutions, which are among the marked feature of the early type."
(An Introduction to the study of Literature - 107)
An epic is a long narrative poem, exalted in style and heroic in theme, which relates the story of an event or a series of events. The theme of an epic is stated in the first few lines, accompanied by a prayer to the Heavenly Muse. Generally an epic is divided into cantos or books or chapters, usually twelve in number. The action of the epic is often controlled by supernatural agents. It contains a number of thrilling episodes such as battles, duels, wanderings, ordeals, adventures and many more things. The language of the epic is dignified and frequently exalted. Use of epic or expanded similes is another characteristic of an epic.
The epic traditionally begins with the announcement of the theme or subject matter either combined with or followed by an invocation to a heavenly power. The statement of the theme is technically called the “proposition,” and the prayer the “invocation.” Virgil’s the Aeneid, which is an imitation of Homer’s the Iliad, and Milton’s the Paradise Lost, which follows the Aeneid, both begin with a clearly defined proposition and invocation.
Thus the Iliad in the translation by E. V. Rieu opens:
"The wrath of Achilles is my theme, that fatal wrath which, in fulfillment of the will of Zeus, brought the Achaeans so much suffering and sent the gallant souls of many noblemen to Hades, leaving their bodies as carrion for the dogs and passing birds. Let us begin, goddess of song, with the angry parting that took place………" (Iliad- 23)
Similarly, Milton begins the Paradise Lost with an invocation to the heavenly muse to sing -
Of Man's First Disobedience, and the Fruit
Of that Forbidden Tree whose mortal tast
Brought Death into the World, and all our woe,
With loss of Eden,..... (PL - 62)
..... and announces the motive of the Paradise Lost as to "assert Eternal Providence,/ And justify the wayes of God to men". Milton believes in the justice of the Almighty. The poet asks the heavenly muse to help him in this,
....Thou, O Spirit, that dost prefer
Before all Temples th' upright heart and pure,
Instruct me, for Thou know'st; Thou from the first
Wast present, and, with mighty wings outspread
Dove-like satst brooding on the vast Abyss
And mad'st it pregnant: What in me is dark
Illumine, what is low raise and support;
That to the highth of this great Argument
I may assert Eternal Providence,
And justify the wayes of God to men. (PL- 62)
In an epic the hero is a figure of great national or international importance. The action of an epic relates to a hero, a man of stature and significance. In the course of the story the hero performs many notable deeds. In the Iliad the hero is the great Greek warrior Achilles, in the Aeneid he is Aeneas himself, in the Paradise Lost the hero is Adam who incorporates in himself the entire race of man. In these epics the main characters are represented as heroes of immense stature and strength. They represent the cultural ideals.
The subject of an epic is a great event or a series of exploits of a distinguished figure. The story itself deals with an event of significance for a nation, or, indeed, for all mankind. The Iliad deals with the story of the Trojan War and The Odyssey with the journeys of Odysseus after the Trojan War. In the very beginning of the story the poets makes his stand very clear that he tells us the story of a great hero,
"Tell me, Muse, the story of that resourceful man who was driven to wander far and wide after he had sacked the holy citadel of Troy. He saw the cities of many people and he learnt their ways…… Tell us this story, goddess daughter of Zeus, beginning at whatever point you will." (Odyssey-3)
Peter V. Jones has very superbly expressed his views regarding the content and story of the Odyssey, "The Odyssey - the return of Odysseus from Troy to reclaim his threatened home on Ithaca -is a superb story, rich in character, adventure and incident, reconciling reality with fantasy, the heroic with the humble, the intimate with the divine, and making the household, rather than the battlefield, the centre of its world." (Od.xi)
In the Aeneid, Aeneas' journeys and adventures culminate in the settling in Italy of the immediate ancestors of the founders of Rome; and in the Paradise Lost, the fall of man is central to the poem.
In the same way the setting in an epic is ample in scale, sometimes worldwide, or even larger. Odysseus wanders over the Mediterranean basin and in book XI he descends into the underworld.The scope of the Paradise Lost is cosmic, for it includes heaven, earth and hell. The epics also present some kind of athletic contest or ‘games’. Homer tells us how Achilles arranged a day of athletic competitions in honour of his friend, Patroclus, In the Aeneid, Virgil introduces the games like archery and boxing. In book II of the Paradise Lost even fallen angels arrange an athletic meeting.
The action of the epic is often controlled by supernatural agents. In Homer and Virgil these are the classical gods and goddesses. In these great actions the gods and other supernatural beings themselves take an interest and an active part. The gods of Olympus in Homer, and Christ and the angels are introduced in the Paradise Lost. Supernatural forces interest themselves in the action and intervene at times. The supernatural and magical element is always prominent in these epics.
The Epic is divided into books, usually twelve in number, though the Iliad and the Odyssey have twenty-four books each. The reduced number was first adopted by Virgil, who was followed in this by later European writers. Spenser’s the Faerie Queene was planned in twelve books, though never completed, and the Paradise Lost was raised to that number from the original ten. The language of the poem is, of course, noble and exalted, as to befit the words and deeds of gods and heroes; it is in “the grand style” and makes no attempt to resemble common speech. The epic poet adopts a style, dignified and elaborate, suitable to his theme.
There is another convention adopted by almost all epic poets is the use of Homeric Simile. Here the epic poet shows the simile between two objects and this simile is shown to such an extent that this simile becomes a little descriptive poem. It is an elaborated comparison; it is longer, and more detailed than a simple metaphor. Homeric Simile is used to heighten the theme of an epic to grandeur. A standard simile is a comparison using "like" or "as." An epic or Homeric simile is a more involved, ornate comparison, extended in great detail.
R.J. Rees writes, "The so-called ‘Homeric simile’: an ordinary simile might describe a young man as ‘tall and dark and straight, like a young cypress tree’, but a Homeric simile enlarges the comparison so that it becomes a little ‘poemwithin-a-poem’ ". (EL-28) The best example can be seen in the Paradise Lost by
Milton, where he describes Satan's heavy shield and spear in an epic style -
the broad circumference
Hung on his shoulders like the Moon, whose Orb
Through Optic glass the Tuscan Artist views
At ev'ning from the Top of Fesole, Or in Valdarno, to descry new Lands,
Rivers, or Mountains, in her spotty Globe.
His Spear, to equal which the tallest Pine
Hewn on Norwegian hills, to be the mast
Of some great Ammiral, were but a wand,
He walkt with, to support uneasie steps
Over the burning Marle, not like those steps…….. (PL -70..)
R.J. Rees writes,
“In Paradise Lost Milton (1608-74) created the one undoubtedly great English epic-great in the sense that it can be compared with almost all the great epics of classical and post-classical Europe (though not, I think, with Virgil or Homer). All through his life Milton felt that he was, in a sense, a man chosen by God to write the great English poem." (EL - 30)
Thus we can say that as compared to the Sanskrit epic the above mentioned epics share most of the features of the Sanskrit epic.