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Lecture 2 Clements 1
School of Arts and Letters, Atkinson Faculty of Liberal and Professional Studies
Summer 2009
AK/HUMA 1780 6.0A Stories in Diverse Media
Homer's Epic—The Odyssey
You are probably more familiar with the term epic than you think. We use it to
describe things quite commonly. What are its connotations? What do you think someone
means when he or she describes something as epic? In a word: big. The film industry has
taken on the task of trying to be the vehicle for our current epics. As I mentioned in the
last lecture, The Lord of the Rings trilogy is an example of filmic epic. Other epics
include Troy, which is based on The Iliad—Homer's other long narrative. In terms of
content, The Iliad precedes our reading for this week, The Odyssey. Odysseus, you'll
remember if you have seen the movie, is actually a character in Troy (he is played by
Sean Bean—who also plays Boromir in The Fellowship of the Ring funnily enough!). He
uses his cunning ways to devise the plan of how to invade the city of Troy: the famous
Trojan Horse. Another filmic example, in this case taken from historical material, is
Braveheart. Given these examples, what are some of the defining features of this genre?
o each of them is at least 2 ½ hours, if not much longer
o usually extraordinary heroes
o in most cases they are men
o women are usually marginal, either helpers along the way,
sometimes the romantic interest, or hindrances and temptations to

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Lecture 2 Clements 2
avoid. Interactions with women often function as tests that the hero
must pass in order to move on in his quest.
o many, many characters
The stories often necessitate:
o Perseverance
o Overcoming hardship, difficulty, or obstacles
The subject matter tends to include:
o Standing up against a tyrant
o Good vs. evil (little complication in terms of psychological depth)
o Saving people
o Huge battles
o Many different locations
o A long journey or quest
Obviously, we are still fascinated by this type of narrative that had its beginnings
about 800 years or so Before Common Era (B.C.E.). The superhero from comic books,
and the various proliferations into Saturday morning cartoons, movies, and video games,
is a modern-day example of this same type of hero (we'll see how this model for a
character has changed and how it has not when we get to V for Vendetta and Batman).
North American movie goers are willing to fork over a lot of money to see this same
story retold, yes with variations, but basically the same quest narrative of overcoming
hardship—over and over and over again. I hate to spoil the ending, but the hero is
probably going to figure things out by the end and make it to his destination. What

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Lecture 2 Clements 3
becomes important, then, is how the hero makes that journey, how he faces obstacles, and
what he learns in the process.
You'll notice with each of the film examples above, there is also a nod to history.
Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings is so comprehensive, so detailed, that it comes across as
historical fact. He spent years building up the world of middle earth before he even wrote
the story. Peter Jackson's meticulous attention to those details is part of the success of the
movies. Tolkein's nod to history was an effort to create a particularly British mythology,
a history that he felt was lacking in Britain's past. Braveheart is also based on an
historical figure: William Wallace, a Scottish clansman who stood up to Edward I and
convinced his fellow countrymen to go to war against the English king. The English at
the time completely dominated the countryside and were becoming influential on the
continent. So for the Scots, driving them out of their lands seemed not only impossible,
but arrogant. Yet Wallace generated enough courage in his fellow clansmen to fight
against Longshanks, as Edward was known, against what seemed to be insurmountable
odds. "Ah, perfect," Mel Gibson must have thought, "let's make an epic." (If the hero
suffers sound beatings and extensive torture, Mel will find a way to play the role, or at
least direct it.)
The historical component of epics is also part of another aspect of these long
narratives. Typically, such stories are bound up in a national consciousness. The hero
either saves the entire nation (like Wallace), or, as we see more and more in the twentieth
and twenty-first centuries as the world becomes more globalized, the entire world (again,
The Lord of the Rings is an example, albeit a different world, but I would suggest its
popularity is perhaps partly a result of the current cultural moment). Since the Second
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