A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
The word ‘epic’ is trendy now. It’s replaced “fab”, “phat” and “awesome” as a description for something superior. But dictionary.com shows the original meaning to be “an episode in the lives of men in which heroic deeds are performed or attempted.” And that’s what I want to talk about today.
Epics have been around for thousands of years, in fact, the word comes from the Greek epikos meaning speech, word, song. The oral tradition of telling stories was common around the world, in nearly every culture. The Icelandic/Norse type are called sagas and were family stories, the events of many generations woven together. That’s the model for fiction writers of the last couple of centuries. Showing how historical events affected families over generations, educating the reader through an emotional connection.
The mid-twentieth century was rich in authors specializing in epic fiction. Everyone from James Michener’s geographically based sagas, R. F. Delderfield’s quiet scholary English villages to Taylor Caldwell’s novels of Biblical personalities. The 1970’s and 80’s brought John Jakes’ American history soap operas and James Clavell’s brilliant Asian worlds.
But where are the historical sagas of today? There’s still a few authors pursuing that format; Edward Rutherfurd, Penny Vincenzi, Ken Follett. But nothing like the output of just a few decades ago. Why is that?
Is it people’s attention spans, that people aren’t willing to invest the time in something not electronic? The three authors I named have all been on the best seller lists, so that can’t completely explain it. Is it because many of the earlier books were popularized by films and TV mini-series? Except for Follett, none of the other authors’ works have been filmed, so this may have some validity.
Instead of multigenerational tales, people seem to prefer single volume heroic deeds, such as those by Nelson DeMille or Clive Cussler. But those are more like adventure tales, another form of story telling that has been around for centuries.
I’m guessing that sagas are a more frequent device in modern fantasy and manga works. Neither are a genre that I read, so maybe one of our commenters could say. If true, it still doesn’t reach the level of previous saturation. Why has fictional sagas lost so much of their popularity in the last 2 decades?
And maybe VL readers could tell me what their favorite epic fiction is, if there are authors I’ve overlooked or their theory on why this type of book is no longer as prevalent as it was just a generation ago? Surely I’m not the only one who misses them?
Jackie especially liked Leon Uris and James Clavell’s epic novels.