Priam, King of Troy, begs Achilles for the body of his son, Hector (from the Illiad). Vase photograph (Harvard 1972.40) by Maria Daniels.
Some of the most well known, and most important, works of literature in the world are examples of epic poetry. These heroic adventure tales have often had surprising durability over time, such as Homer's story of friendship and heroism, The Illiad, which continues its life in the modern film Troy. Epic poems are more than simply a lengthy story told in poetic form, and their ability to remain accessible, relevant, and remembered over time owes a significant debt to their roots in an oral tradition and to their cyclical pattern of events.
This lesson will introduce students to the epic poem form and to its roots in oral tradition. Students will learn about the epic hero cycle and will learn how to recognize this pattern of events and elements- even in surprisingly contemporary places. Students will also be introduced to the patterns embedded in these stories that have helped generations of storytellers remember these immense poems.
Ask students what other stories they know or have heard of that follow a similar pattern of action and components described in the definition of epic poetry. While they may not be familiar with some epic stories, they probably are familiar with the Star Wars series of movies, or the Lord of the Rings and the Harry Potter series of books, which they may be surprised to learn also follow an epic hero cycle. Compile a list of stories that follow this pattern. Ask students to suggest stories that fit the epic hero cycle, and introduce the class to stories with which they may be less familiar. Draw students' attention to the ways in which they have come in contact with epic stories rooted in ancient Greece, such as the recent movie Troy. A brief list of epic stories might include:
Distribute the charts listing the major elements of the Elements of the Epic Hero Cycle (PDF), or have students access interactive equivalent. Divide students into small groups, where they will chose a story from the list they are all familiar with, such as the Lord of the Rings. Ask them to work together to fill in examples of each of the epic hero cycle elements on their charts. Once students have completed the charts, ask them to share some of the results with the rest of the class. Have students compare and contrast their answers.
Introduce some of the additional elements of traditional epic poems, such as the formal and florid language, their opening with an invocation, or the use of epithets (such as "fleet-footed Achilles"). Read aloud to the class, or distribute copies for students to read, the opening paragraph of two or more traditional epic poems from the list compiled by the class, such as
Ask students to identify elements such as the opening invocation in the opening lines of these poems or the connection of the hero to his homeland, which is the basis for many epic heroes as national figures.
Explain to students that epic poetry has its roots in oral, rather than literate tradition. These stories were originally passed on by bards, or professional poets who made their living by singing folk tales and epic poems to audiences. While the details of the poem often shifted from one telling to the next, the most important elements of the story always remained the same.
Divide students into small groups where they will work on definitions of "oral tradition" and "literate tradition." Once they have established working definitions of the two traditions, ask them to imagine some of the issues related to the telling of stories by means of oral rather than written communication. Ask them to imagine memorizing a novel, which they would then retell. Without having a text to refer to, would the story have been the same each time it was told? With so much information and detail to remember, how was it possible for bards to memorize thousands of verses of poetry?
Ask each group to choose a fable, fairy tale, or other story they all know. Ask them to identify the most important characters, objects and actions in the story. For example, a list of elements for Cinderella would probably include Cinderella, the wicked step mother and her two daughters, the prince, the fairy godmother, the glass slippers, the pumpkin coach, her banishment on the night of the ball, her running from the ball at midnight, losing her slipper along the way, and the moment when her foot fits the glass slipper. Students will probably find that there is broad agreement on most of the elements on their list: why did most or all of the students in their group identify the same moments or elements in the story?
Next, ask students to compare their list of story elements with other groups in the class. Do they notice similarities in these lists? Ask students to work together on reasons why there are similar elements in each of these stories. What do these elements represent? They should work together to identify what each of the elements they have compiled symbolizes. Ask the student groups to again compare their lists, which they will probably find are similar even for different stories. How does the presence of these similar elements in the fables or fairy tales they have just discussed help them to remember the sequence of events in those stories? Remind students that epic poems are much greater in length than fairy tales, and that certainly bards must have used mnemonic devices to aid them in their telling. How might similar elements, or the presence of a predictable story cycle such as the epic hero cycle, helped bards in the memorization of much longer epic poems?
These elements act like memory markers in the telling of the story, helping the teller to remember how the story unfolds. Breaking the story down into more easily memorized smaller pieces of narrative, and then memorizing the order of these smaller narratives, is a mnemonic device that has been utilized by bards since Homer's time. If the teller can remember these markers, he or she can then elaborate and expand the details of the story for specific audiences, making the telling more personal to the audience. Ask students to work with their groups to come up with answers for why traveling bards might have localized elements of the stories they told as they traveled from one city or town to the next.
Ask students to write a definition for epic poetry, and to give at least one example of a traditional epic poem, such as The Iliad. Ask students to fill in the right side of the chart with the corresponding information from an example of a story that follows the epic hero cycle. Ask them to name at least one modern story that follows the epic hero cycle.
Ask students to define "oral tradition" and "literary tradition." Have them write a short essay explaining at least one mnemonic device that would have helped bards in remembering poems that were thousands of verses long.
More advanced students can be asked to complete a more extensive essay. While they may not all remember or agree on certain details of the stories they have discussed in class—was Cinderella's dress pink? White? Blue?- most of them will agree on the most important elements. Ask students to think of examples of stories set in distant times and places that have been changed to bring the stories closer to contemporary audiences. Examples might include movies such as West Side Story, Troy, or the recent modern telling of Cinderella in which the ball is imagined as a school prom. Ask students to write an essay about the contemporary telling of an old story which answers the following two questions:
2 class periods