Aesthetics / Africa / Culture / History / Mythology / Recommended books / Thoughts

On Epics

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I am currently reading the Mwindo Epic, a tale from the Banyange people in Congo. I really enjoy this book. This story was recorded in writing by Daniel Bebuyck, Amato Buuni and Stephano Tubi during a performance in 12 sessions on 12 days, performed by  the Nyanga bard Candi Rureke sometime in the mid-1950s. It was then published in print, alongside with an introduction and a commented English translation, prepared by Biebuyck together with Kahombo C. Mateene, in 1969. A paperback re-edition came out in 1989 and is today available as a book on demand.

I am generally not very interested in fiction – with a few exceptions, however. As I was “weeding” out my bookshelf from time to time, most novels have gone, while essays, letters, autobiographies and similar types of non-fiction have become more. One of the exceptions are epics and mythological stories. I find on my bookshelf the Illiad and the Odyssee, the Tibetan Gesar epic, the Gilgamesh epic, the Edda and several other similar books, and the Mwindo epic is just the most recent addition in this section. Why do I like such books, with their sometimes strange and bizarre stories?

One reason might be that reading old epics and poetry, on one hand, has a dimension of scholarship in it. There is history, language studies and cultural anthropology involved. I belong to the people who find such stuff interesting. In the Mwindo book for example, I enjoy reading the introduction and the footnotes just as well as the main text.

Secondly, such texts, coming from a cultural context very unlike my own, are often somehow strange both in their content – sometimes quite bizarre from our point of view – and in their style, form and structure. This has an aesthetic effect of “defamiliarization” that I like. I have written about such effects in my article Verfremdung.

And I think there is a third reason why I feel attracted to this kind of texts. Typically, such texts come from oral (non-writing) cultures or from early stages of writing cultures that still have strong oral residues. In his book “Orality and Literacy”, Walter J. Ong writes (p. 68):

Oral memory works effectively with ‘heavy’ characters, persons whose deeds are monumental…Colorless personalities cannot survive oral mnemonics. To assure weight and memorability, heroic figures tend to be type figures: wise Nestor, furious Achilles, clever Odysseus, omnicompetent Mwindo (‘Little-One-Just-Born-He-Walked’, Kábútwa-kénda, his common epithet).

 On the other hand, in modern written literature, more realistic “round” characters with a subtle, realistic psychologies develop. Ong writes (p. 149):

 …the flat, ‘heavy’ or type character yields to characters that grow more and more ‘round’, that is, that perform in ways at first blush unpredictable but ultimately consistent in terms of the complex character structure and complex motivation with which the round character is endowed. Complexity of motivation and internal psychological growth with the passage of time make the round character like a ‘real person’.

In the development of western literature during the 19th and 20th century, “round” characters with more subtle psychologies appear and moreover, the psychology of the characters and their interactions becomes a central topic of the literature in this period. Many modern readers might find old-style epics less interesting exactly because their characters are “flat”. For me, it is the other way around.

In a previous article, I had already noted that – probably due to my personality structure – I seem to lack some of the sense for such psychological subtleties and, as a result, such books “don’t talk to me”. This kind of psychology, however, is lacking from the traditional epic and some other comparable types of stories.

These stories have different topics. Mwindo kábútwa-kénda and polú-tropos Odysseus (Odysseus of many ways) might be flat characters lacking realism, and these stories might not contain much of everyday, realistic psychology. But in a sense, while they are not yet philosophy, such stories are on the same dimension as some types of philosophy, capturing, within the horizon of their respective cultures, some basic aspects and experiences of human life and existence. And that is probably the 4th reason I am interested with them.

Besides that, they are just entertaining, at least for me.

(The picture, showing an episode from the Odyssee, is from

14 thoughts on “On Epics

    • The text in Nyanga language is just 53 pages, so it can’t have been full-day performances, but they did it in 12 sessions. I think it took longer than normal because they had to write it down, they obviously did not have a recorder. There are some places where Rureke, acting as Mwindo in a song, was showing that he was a bit impatient, eg. (page 81) in a scene describing the start of a journey, Mwindo sings and adresses the scribes writing down the story:
      “Scribe march!
      I am going with the aunt.
      The little one has slept, all prepared for the journey.
      There are several instances of this, where a line like “Scribe, move on” is inserted.

  1. I don’t find the epic archetypes flat. I think in the oral tradition, it’s necessary to repeat certain attributes to characters “white-armed Hera,” etc. just to keep our bearings. Of course, we have to make certain historical allowances, but I find I don’t have to make too many. It feels just as relevant to me as anything I read today.

    We can relate to Achilles, for instance, when he starts a war because he didn’t get his girl. And there we see subtle psychological workings: his anger is not really about the girl, it’s a matter of pride. He claims he loves her, but really he hates Agamemnon for bringing him shame. Any well-balanced person would see that this pride is not worth fighting for, but in the Iliad it’s left as a question, which strikes me as really very modern! We see Achilles is really flawed, but these aspects of his character tell us about ourselves in a universal way.

    Contemporary literature should do the same. I think using archetypes can be really useful and doesn’t have to involve boring or flat characters, which to me is someone who has no problems or journey to go through. A modern day Achilles could be someone who seeks political power at the loss of his happiness and the happiness of everyone around him. Really, most stories are the same. How many are like Odysseus trying to find his way home?

    Your comment about “defamiliarization” might be the real issue. Sometimes it’s easier to see what’s at stake when a character is taken out of ordinary or mundane contexts. That would explain a lot about the popularity of sci-fi, which I’m starting to get into.

    • The term “flat” maybe is too flat here. 🙂 These characters are, in most cases, a bit one sided. Their psychology is understandable when you interpret it with the background of his culture in mind (a kind of mach culture, by the way, it reminds me more of street gangs 🙂 ). Achilles anger is understandable. Agamemon is taking his girl away and thus is reducing his status (τιμή). But he is not such a multifaceted character as you can sometimes meet them in modern novels.
      You might be right about the defamiliarization. For example, I like some Japanese and some African novels and one reason might be that they are presenting an unfamiliar environment.
      There is a lot of mediocre sci-fi that I find quite boring. There are exceptions. Authors I find interesting include Arkady and Boris Strugazky and Stanislaw Lem. In such books, the focus is often not so much on the psychological or generally human experience of people. They are rather thought experiments where certain ideas are being explored.

  2. I like epics, too, and would also consider them very much of a piece with the Norwegian sagas, that evidence a similar ‘exteriority’ (as some theorists would call it). And let me remark the values of that.

    The epics are by no means psychologically unsophisticated. But their insight into the psychology of their characters is determined from the outside, and is driven dynamically by context and culture (‘this is what a Greek would do;’ ‘this is what a Saxon would think’). Consequently, such characterizations actually accomplish a cultural realism that many novels in the modern era lack. And the characters get to speak and act directly without much conscious self-reflection – which is really how most people experience their actions.

    But of course occasionally you get the epic that pushes the boundaries – the Iliad is culturally determined, but Achilles represents a model easily accessible to modern readers, because of his realization of the ethical dilemmas his pride – and assumed destiny – have left him with; his rage against this still rings true.

    Besides which, it must be noted that the conventionality of the language of the epic actually gives it a power that contemporary verse and fiction – with their insistence on originality and unrestrained invention – frequently lacks. ‘The wine dark sea,’ rather than becoming cliche, acquires an almost dream-like power with every re-iteration (although I confess I would be hard pressed to provide analysis why).

    • Just some half-baked thoughts: indeed there does not seem to be much self-reflection on the side of epic characters, but such stories are used in a reflective way in some cultures. The stories often have a moral (implicitely or explicitely). African griots might adapt their tales to the situation and to their clients and might use it to comment on the situation or the people, sometimes critically. So the reflection might be in the situation of the performance. Something like that also seems to have happened in Greek tragedies which might have been some kind of public reflection of values and which often take up material from the epics.
      I have not yet thought much about the reason the formulic language of epics has such power. Elsewhere (in the context of paintings and music) I have speculated about what causes the feeling of beauty and that it depends on a mixture of order and disorder. The use of repetitive formulas provides a degree of order that a text in which you try to be innovative in every line lacks. But I have not yet thought about this much in the context of poetry.

  3. I like the way you put this. When I was a kid I read naturalistic Robin Hood stories and saw the Errol Flynn movie. Then all that stuff seemed childish as I grew into more rounded narratives. Now I am looking for an epic Robin Hood that would take in the Green Man, Robin Goodfellow and Edward Thomas’s Lob. Mythic characters generate more meanings, don’t they?

    • There seems to have been some oral poetry about Robin Hood. However, modern adaptions show that it is very hard to use such a story and not produce some kind of kitsch or something ridiculous. Using the old forms would look like an imitation. Doing something more naturalistic can easily lead to ridiculous results. You might get interesting texts, e.g. poems, by just concentrating on single scenes (the poem about Odysseaus you recently posted is an example) but doing something interesting with a material like Robin Hood would be very difficult.I am not saying it is impossible, but I don’t know how to do that (however, I am not a fiction writer).
      If you try to write fiction about mythic characters nowadays, you might end up with something like fantasy novels, which means taking away the meaning and just writing something adventurous. Some such books sell well, but I am not intersted in them. Holiwood adaptions of such stories also tend to be terrible kitsch.
      A very interesting approach was taken by Cesare Pavese in his “Dialogues with Leucò”, but that is more a philosophical book, containing dialogues between mythical characters.

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