Vulpes Libris

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.

Monday Soapbox: Epic Novels


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.

11 comments on “Monday Soapbox: Epic Novels

  1. Jill Aurellia
    March 21, 2011

    The Jewel in the Crown by Paul Scott

  2. Stace
    March 21, 2011

    Does Frank Herbert’s Dune count? I thought that was pretty epic!

  3. rosyb
    March 21, 2011

    This sent me running to the search engines to see the difference between epic and saga. I always associated epic with ancient greek stuff like Homer – heroes and big deeds and battles and adventure, and saga with long but more domestic tales about endless generations of a family…so it was interesting to see “saga” has a lot of meanings and started with the Icelandic sagas. And now is associated with that more domestic vein I talk of.

    For some reason “saga” sounds a bit more squelchy and melodramatic to me, whereas I consider “epic” to be heightened but drier – not sentimental. Hmm. I don’t know where I get these associations from!

    I loved ancient greek myth and stories as a child.

    Like you, Jackie, James Clavell’s Shogun is excellent and a very exciting read.

    Would The Lord of the Rings count as epic?

  4. ChrisCross53
    March 21, 2011

    Rosy, like you I always think of an epic following the classical tradition, so there is a heroic quality to the tale, with big deeds and battles, and idealistic quests and characters struggling against the fates or the Gods. Somehow an ‘epic’ novel always seems bigger (but not necessarily better!) than real life, and the emotions more intense. Icelandic sagas seem, on the face of it, to deal with similar issues, but I never think of them as being quite so ‘grand’ – and I have a feeling there were stylistic differences. Were the Icelandic sagas written in prose, while Greek epics were long poems?

    Personally I wouldm’t class the Raj Quartet as an epic, but Lord of the Rings is, and Dune could be… what about Gone with the Wind? Or the Far Pavillions (I only mention this because I am re-reading it). Interestingly, the comments ear out what Jackie says, as the novels mentioned so far are all older… nothing from the 21st century.

  5. Jill Aurellia
    March 21, 2011

    Why wouldn’t the Raj Quartet Be an epic?

  6. ChrisCross53
    March 21, 2011

    I don’t think the characters or the action are ‘heroic’ enough… but I’m open to persuasion. After all, we’ve all got different ideas on what an epic is – I did say it was a personal opinion!

  7. RJR
    March 21, 2011

    I love Dorothy Dunnett’s huge historical sagas. A lot of people prefer the Lymond ones, but I’m fonder of Niccolo, the self-made dyer’s works apprentice with the fearfully complicated mind.

  8. Pingback: Epic Novels (via Vulpes Libris) | The Calculable

  9. Nikki
    March 26, 2011

    I can’t remember reading any epics, that’s pretty sad really. I might chase up any suggestions!

  10. Pingback: Soapbox: Larger than Life Characters and the Curse of the “Relatable” « Vulpes Libris

  11. Kerry Letheby
    November 7, 2012

    I have only just discovered this post 18 months after it was written. It caught my attention as I have just published my first novel with is a generational saga. Some have told me such a novel is very ambitious for a first time author, but it’s early days yet, and the small amount of feedback I have had has so far been positive. Time will tell.

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