National epic

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A national epic is an epic poem or a literary work of epic scope which seeks or is believed to capture and express the essence or spirit of a particular nation; not necessarily a nation state, but at least an ethnic or linguistic group with aspirations to independence or autonomy. National epics frequently recount the origin of a nation, a part of its history, or a crucial event in the development of national identity such as other national symbols. In a broader sense, a national epic may simply be an epic in the national language which the people or government of that nation are particularly proud of. It is distinct from a pan-national epic which is taken as representative of a larger cultural or linguistic group than a nation or a nation-state.


In medieval times Homer's Iliad was taken to be based on historical facts, and the Trojan War came to be considered as seminal in the genealogies of European monarchies.[1] Virgil's Aeneid was taken to be the Roman equivalent of the Iliad, starting from the Fall of Troy and leading up to the birth of the young Roman nation. According to the then prevailing conception of history[vague], empires were born and died in organic succession and correspondences existed between the past and the present. Geoffrey of Monmouth's 12th century classically inspired Historia Regum Britanniae, for example, fulfilled this function for Britain. Just as kings longed to emulate great leaders of the past, Alexander or Caesar, it was a temptation for poets to become a new Homer or Virgil. In 16th century Portugal, Luis de Camões celebrated Portugal as a naval power in his Os Lusíadas while Pierre de Ronsard set out to write La Franciade, an epic meant to be the Gallic equivalent of Virgil's poem that also traced back France's ancestry to Trojan princes.[2]

The emergence of a national ethos, however, preceded the coining of the phrase national epic, which seems to originate with Romantic nationalism. Where no obvious national epic existed, the "Romantic spirit" was motivated to fill it. An early example of poetry that was invented to fill a perceived gap in "national" myth is Ossian, the narrator and supposed author of a cycle of poems by James Macpherson, which Macpherson claimed to have translated from ancient sources in Scottish Gaelic. However, many national epics (including Macpherson's Ossian) antedate 19th-century romanticism.

In the early 20th century, the phrase no longer necessarily applies to an epic poem, and occurs to describe a literary work that readers and critics agree is emblematical of the literature of a nation, without necessarily including details from that nation's historical background. In this context the phrase has definitely positive connotations, as for example in James Joyce's Ulysses where it is suggested Don Quixote is Spain's national epic while Ireland's remains as yet unwritten:

They remind one of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza. Our national epic has yet to be written, Dr Sigerson says. Moore is the man for it. A knight of the rueful countenance here in Dublin.[3]

Poetic epics

Examples of epics that have been enlisted as "national" include:





Prose epics

Some prose works, while not strictly epic poetry, have an important place in the national consciousness of their nations. These include the following:

Martin Rivas by Alberto Blest Gana, a 19th Century Social Realist Romance novel on the Chilean revolution of the 1850s

See also


  1. Paul Cohen, "In search of the Trojan Origins of French", in Fantasies of Troy, Classical Tales and the Social Imaginary in Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Alan Shepard, Stephen David Powell eds., published by the Centre for Reformation and Renaissance Studies, 2004, p. 65 sq., ISBN 0-7727-2025-8. "Like many of their counterparts across Europe, seventh-century scholars in France had invented a myth of the Trojan origins of Gaul" (p. 67)
  2. Epic(French) Liliane Kesteloot, University of Dakar
  3. James Joyce. Ulysses, Vintage Books, New York, 1961, 189 (p.192)
  4. Tappan, Lucy (1896). Topical notes on American authors. University of California Libraries. p. 209. Retrieved March 6, 2015. American's national epic poem.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. Trachtenberg, Alan (2004). Shades of Hiawatha: Staging Indians, Making Americans, 1880-1930. Hill and Wang. p. 61. ISBN 978-0374299750. Retrieved March 6, 2015. A 'national folk epic' writes a recent commentator...<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  6. Maureen N. McLane (July 31, 2005). "An American epic". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved March 6, 2015. Walt Whitman published the first edition of 'Leaves of Grass,' the book, including 'Song of Myself,' that more than any other has a claim to be our national epic<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  7. Bloom, Harold; McGowan, Tony, eds. (2007). Herman Melville. Bloom's Classic Critical Views. Chelsea House Publishers. p. 12. ISBN 978-0791095577. Retrieved March 6, 2015. How shall we judge Melville's total achievement, at its best? There is Moby-Dick, only (though defeated) rival to Leaves of Grass as our national epic...<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  8. "The Lusiads". World Digital Library. 1800–1882. Retrieved 2013-08-30.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  9. [1]
  10. [2]

External links

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