Homer and the Definition of Epic
Epic, as a genre, is defined using many different criteria, from mode of discourse (although some epics are not predominantly narrative), length (though some epics are short), relationship to other genres (though not all epics incorporate minor genres), subject matter (though not all epics involve war or travel), theological framework (though not all epics mention the gods), national or ethnic significance (though not all epics are closely linked to a particular nation or ethnic group), elevation of diction (though not all use high language), mode of composition (though not all epics originate from oral composition), mode of dissemination (though not all are primarily intended for oral performance), and metre (though not all use the dactylic hexameter). It seems that one of the very few issues on which all agree – perhaps the only one – is that the Homeric poems are examples of the genre.
This paper aims to explore the place of Homer in the vast and multiform world of epic poetry. In particular, it explores the tensions and connections between two different approaches to Homer and to epic as a genre. It seems that Homer is either accompanied by Apollonius, Virgil, Lucan, Dante, Tasso, Milton, Joyce and others in a genealogy of great literary works of the western canon, or deemed similar to many epic poems from around the world – poems that are often thought to be neither literary nor western. The paper begins by tracing the origins of this dichotomy in the work of Milman Parry and his followers. It then explores its consequences with particular reference to a momentous debate over the existence and nature of epic in sub-Saharan Africa. The publications of R. Finnegan, D. Biebuyck, I. Okpewho, C. Bird and M. Mulokozi are at the centre of the discussion and show that the two approaches to epic outlined above cannot be neatly kept apart. The paper aims to interrogate some fundamental concepts which underlie the African epic controversy: the nature of epic, the definition of literature, postcolonialism and, indeed, the interpretation of Homer.