The Epic Saga As Compared With the Pseudo-Epic


Throughout history the great adventures of men have been told in epics. Tales have been exaggerated, qualities have been amplified and men's egos have risen due to the influence that they have. The idea of an epic is as old as time itself and it is in fact and epic which is our first true "classical" piece of literature, The Odyssey. The story is known by almost every child in America and has been parodied countless times by nearly every comedic body in existence. It's reputation is a reflection of the impact that an oral epic had on civilization. The Aeneid is less well known, which is good for it was simply a cheap Roman knockoff of the famous Odyssey. These two epics were read by nearly every educated person in the Western World even up to today. They told of something great, of man becoming something more and that is something that has never left Western Culture. Finally, Gulliver's Travels is an epic that parodied all that was supposedly great in the early eighteenth-century. Therefore it is a mock-epic and one that all children know of if for no other reason that the tiny people and towering giants. Comparing and contrasting these three stories can provide unique insights into how epics have evolved over the thousands of years they have existed. However, epics can only be analyzed if they are properly defined. Therefore, the definition of an epic must be set before any analysis can occur.

Epics can be stories of great men or great events. An epic is defined by Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary as "a long narrative poem in elevated style recounting the deeds of a legendary or historical hero." In that definition it become easy to compare and contrast these three stories. However, there is more to an epic than a definition. An epic becomes an epic only after it does something special. An epic must touch the people to whom it speaks to. It must develop unto itself that same cult that today's Star Wars or Harry Potter movies have developed. Otherwise, an epic is simply "a long narrative poem in elevated style recounting the deeds of a legendary or historical hero." The Odyssey and The Aeneid did that very well as shall be discussed later. Gulliver's Travels also did that and that is part of the comparison between these three novels. For this essay there is one other part to add to the definition. These three novels are share a common theme. They are all about a voyage. They are stories about epic voyages. These voyages all involve Person "A" going to place "A" and encountering obstacles along the way. This will be very important to the ideas that each epic tried to convey to its audience. For this paper then, an epic has been defined and the specific type of epic, a voyage, has been chosen. Armed with this knowledge The Odyssey and The Aeneid can be analyzed.

The Odyssey was written around 800 BC in conjunction with The Illiad and these two stories have pretty much set the stage for what an epic is. The Odyssey told the tale of Odysseus a brave and cunning Greek commander in the Trojan War. Now that the Greeks are victorious he can return home to Ithaca. The story comes about as a result of Odysseus' slighting of the gods who now exact their revenge. For ten years Odysseus and his crew are battered around to strange and dangerous lands until only Odysseus is left. Upon his arrival home, he must now contend with the many suitors who have tried to court his wife in the twenty years of his absence. Throughout the story Homer, the author, used Odysseus' exploits to convey multiple messages to the Greeks. For example, in Chapter X, Odysseus was given all the winds except that one which will take him home. His crew disobeyed his order not to open the bag of winds and as a result, they all died having come within sight of Ithaca. The message behind this is clear and concise, "Obey your superiors." While in that particular story the crew suffered for disobeying Odysseus, there are some tales that Homer provided which show the exact opposite. The raid at Ismaros on the Kikonians is a very good example of both messages. Odysseus directed the raid and his men were successful. However, the ignored his warnings that they should leave and as a result, "out of each ship, six of my strong-greaved companions were killed." Furthermore, the example of the Cyclops is yet another example of why it is very important to follow your assigned leader. The Greeks were being eaten and there seemed no hope. However, crafty Odysseus got his crew (at least all those who hadn't been eaten) back to their ship. If his men had doubted and ignored his crazy scheme then they would not have escaped from Polythemus and wound up very quickly as his next meal. The final, and perhaps best, example of how following your leadership can work, is the example of the Trojan Horse. For ten years nothing had been achieved except more and more death. Odysseus finally stumbled upon a solution and when he was followed, Troy fell in a matter of hours.

The theme of loyalty is just one message that Homer was trying to convey. There are more strewn throughout The Odyssey. Monogamy and faithfulness are both strongly advanced in the epic. Penelope stayed true to Odysseus and he returned to her. They then lived on happily. The suitors, who were trying to break Penelope away from her hope for Odysseus, ended up dead. The message is quite clear; if you try to break up a strong marriage, bad things will happen. Furthermore, Agamemnon wound up dead as a result of an affair his wife had with a palace guard. The guard and Agamemnon's wife would up dead because they killed him and were in turn killed by Orestes, Agamemnon's son. The point of that is that had Agamemnon's wife stayed true and faithful, three people would not have died unnecessary deaths.

Together, all the themes can be summed up in one super-theme. That is the idea of trust. All the topics dealt with it. Odysseus' crew never trusted him and they died as a result. Penelope trusted in Odysseus to return home and she was rewarded with his safe return. People who had a great amount of trust ended up doing well in the epic voyage that is The Odyssey.

The Odyssey,'s importance and lasting significance is that it stabilized the Greek world. Through a very popular story Homer managed to create an atmosphere throughout the Ionian world that adhered to the principles of loyalty, obedience, fidelity, and most importantly trust. The idea of sending cultural messages through an epic in which the hero encounters strange new lands and people was not abandoned. If anything it was strengthened by the next great voyage epic, The Aeneid.

The Aeneid is propaganda. That much cannot be denied. However, it is perhaps the greatest poetic piece of propaganda ever and Virgil, in writing it, created a masterpiece. Thus it is that The Aeneid, despite whatever propagandistic messages it had, conveyed other cultural messages that were far more meaningful AND it delivered them in such a way so as to make The Aeneid a pleasure to read for generations. The plot is simple, Aeneas, the ranking surviving Trojan, must lead the survivors of Troy to a new home. Throughout the journey, Aeneas's heart was ripped apart and in every which way. He was tested and battered. The only thing that kept him going was his faith in what he was doing. His faith in destiny and his desire for a better place for his people were the only things that allowed him to survive the agonies he was put through.

In this voyage epic the tone is very similar than that of The Odyssey. Here the tone is dark, Aeneas is fighting time. His people cannot run forever. They must find a home, they must find their destiny and soon. Likewise, in The Odyssey it was all about getting home. Odysseus needed to get back to his wife before it was too late. This then is a good point to begin analyzing The Aeneid. It was a near carbon copy of The Odyssey. The Odyssey had many sections were Odysseus was tempted by women and in The Aeneid Dido came the closest of any foe to ending Aeneas's journey. However, she didn't and that is worth asking why?

The answer lies in the first of the themes of The Aeneid. That theme is stoicism and more specifically the promotion of it. Just as The Odyssey promoted trust and all that that implies, The Aeneid promotes duty and honor. It is prominent throughout the novel. Even as Troy burnt to the ground, Aeneas saw his duty in rallying those survivors. He put aside all worries for his son and father, for his wife and mother, until he was sure that those survivors he had gathered could survive. Then he went back for his family. It was business first, and strictly so. He felt no terror when he was doing his duty, he was "weak" only when he was with his family. The loss of his beloved wife did not stop him. Most people would have wept and broken down at the loss of their spouse, but not Aeneas. His duty called trumps over that. It was seen even more prominently in the Dido-Aeneas love affair. They both fell for each other but Aeneas denied himself the love and comfort that Dido offered because he was needed to lead the Trojan survivors onward. Even though it was directly contrary to what was best for him, he left Dido. That is the kind of ideal that the Romans at the time of Virgil's writing were real "big on." They loved the idea of the state being all important and everything else being secondary.

Stoicism was what Rome needed. It had just undergone two very bloody civl wars in which power-hungry men, supposedly, had tried to take over Rome. What Rome needed was a philosophy that worked in favor of stable government and that gave an heir of legitimacy to the new conquests that Rome had acquired. Virgil supplied those requirements in three parts. The first was to give the legitimacy that Augustus needed. This was accomplished in conjunction with the legitimization of Roman conquests. In the Trojans Virgil found a perfect vessel. Virgil gave Aeneas a shield that saw the future and one of the things on the shield was Rome becoming an empire that ruled the world. Thus it was destiny and that not only gave the conquests legitimacy but it gave Augustus legitimacy in that it also contained his victory. Therefore he was also part of the destiny of Rome. The third part is the part that has already been explained. Stoicism focused the people of Rome on the task of ruling the government and not trying to take power for themselves. In these ways, Virgil promoted the stability of Rome.

There is one more aspect of The Aeneid that deserves attention. When the Trojans have finished their wandering to Carthage and Sicily and are now in Italy, they are attacked. They lose at first but at the end the Trojans win their land and build a new home. They are not alone though. The very people that they defeated have now joined them in making a new society. There are no longer Estrucans and Trojans, they are now Romans. If an epic is in elevated style, this is where the elevation peaked. Aeneas has created a new society. He has created the people that would conquer the world and not by subjugating these people. They were welcomed in. In a sense this epic had two messages. The first was the promotion of stoicism and the other was a message for foreign nations. The second message was "Join us and look what you can be part of." These two messages greatly impacted Roman society and foreign affairs by giving the early Roman Empire a clear purpose and that was a purpose of rational governing.

Now, there was a long period in European History where the voyage epic was not a popular style of writing. In fact it would be just over 1700 years in between the writing of The Aeneid and Gulliver's Travels. Gulliver's Travels is an interesting successor to the previous two. Right from the start it is clear that Gulliver's Travels is no Aeneid or Odyssey. The style is prose, not poetic, it is in English, not the classical languages. The litany goes on and one. However, the real differences lie beneath the skin. They lie in the context of Gulliver's Travels. They lie in what it had messages about, what it promoted, and what it didn't promote.

Gulliver's Travels is the story of a Doctor Lemuel Gulliver. He is a doctor who sails four times on ships and four times finds himself stranded on a strange, unknown, land. Each time he encounters a group of people or creatures who teach him things about human nature and, coincidentally enough, mock aspects of the English world. First Gulliver encounters the Lilliputians who are 1/6 scale people. Everything in their civilization is 1/6 scale except for their moral depravity which seems to be about six time greater than Gulliver's. Gulliver was fortunate to escape from them in a boat that washes on shore. From them the message that Swift intended for the readers was to make a mockery of the English Court. The second place is Brobdingnag. There the tables have turned on Gulliver. Now he is the one who is 1/6 scale. The people there are all larger than him and, exactly the opposite of the Lilliputians, are morally larger in addition to their actual physicality. Gulliver learned much from them. They represented the classics, Rome and Greece, and Swift intended to show their greatness. The third and forth voyages are to Laputia, a floating island, and the land of the Houyhnhnms. These two places both deal with rationality. Laputia is a land of no common sense. Everything is perfectly rational but not practical. The Houyhnhnms are the opposite. They are the perfect blend of rationality and pracitcality. Throughout these journeys Gulliver has been learning and adapting to what he feels are the better parts of the other civilizations societies.

Swift sends many messages, far more than The Odyssey or The Aeneid. The most prominent of them, and the one which is of most relevance to the epic voyage theme is the quest for rationality and perfection. When Gulliver was introduced he believed that rationality solved all man's answers. However, as he traveled and as he experienced things that would not happen to anyone else, he changed. He grew to think that man was simply a beast, as embodied by the Yahoo's in book four. Every voyage took him further from what he was, a man cursed by his fall from grace, and pushed him further to perfection but at a horrendous cost. At the end of the book, after his return from the Houyhnhnms, Gulliver believes that he has achieved perfection. Swift, though, made it pretty clear that although Gulliver may believe that he has achieved perfection, he has in fact lost his humanity and therefore is not in fact a perfect human. Swift's warning is clear. Pure rationality is wrong. The second main message that Swift tried to send us was a message of relativity. In the first and second books, Gulliver is subject to enormous size differences. These differences colored Gulliver's ability to impartially judge the situation that he was in. Whether it be urinating on a fire to extinguish it or observing the horribly imperfect skin of a naked nursemaid, Gulliver's impartiality was nonexistent as a result of the size difference. These two ideas were things that Swift tried to discourage the English people from adhering to.

This brings the comparison between The Odyssey and The Aeneid to Gulliver's Travels into light. They were all epics. There is no doubt about that. They all had a hero, they were all narratives, and they recounted the deeds of heroes. The first difference is when the themes are portrayed. In The Odyssey and The Aeneid the themes are what people should emulate. The epics tried to encourage a certain thought process or a certain line of actions. In Gulliver's Travels the opposite is true. Swift's goal with his themes were to discourage people, whether it was from supporting the English court or denying the philosophy of the Enlightenment and Deists. Further, while all three epics were voyages, Gulliver's voyages were not the focus of the story as they were in The Odyssey and The Aeneid. Gulliver's were the means to an end, the end being the mysterious lands that he Gulliver found himself in. Furthermore, Gulliver returned home after each voyage. He was not a wanderer as Aeneas was, nor was he prevented from getting home as Odysseus was. In this aspect both Odysseus and Gulliver were swayed by the temptations of a better life and it was only the work of an outside force that returned them to their quests to get home.

In the literary aspects the epics are very much different. The fact that The Odyssey and The Aeneid were written as poetry and Gulliver's Travels was written as prose is very significant. It meant that while the classical pieces were artistic, Gulliver's was less so. In fact Gulliver's Travels is almost as objective and far from poetic as can be. The Odyssey and The Aeneid grabbed the attention of everyone for their beauty. Gulliver's Travels grabbed everybody for its content. The final literary difference is that Gulliver's Travels is entirely first person. In the classical pieces they switched between first and third persons. This enabled the author to be personal when describing things like Polyphemus or the sacking of Troy, but to be objective when describing Odysseus' wanderings on the sea or Dido's suicide. In Gulliver's Travels, this ability was not there but this was offset by the fact that Gulliver gave very detailed and scientific remarks about each place. The lack of third person detail also fit the story better as it was intended as a personal recollection of the events which Gulliver experienced. Those are the literary differences, perhaps the most obvious all between the epics.

While these three pieces of literature are all epics, Gulliver's Travels is hardly related to The Odyssey and The Aeneid. Though they may share a genre, they are not the same thing. An epic, is an epic, is an epic, but when 1700 years separate two stories, there can be no expectation that similarities run very deep. Nevertheless, these three stories are great examples of the influence that epic voyages have had in the shaping of both the thought and the history of European Society and culture as we know it.


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Mish, Frederick C. Merriam Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Springfield Massachusetts: Merriam-Webster Inc., 1997.


Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. New York: New American Library, 1983.