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What is an epic hero?
An epic hero is the main character of an epic poem that tells the story of a grand quest in which they use their extraordinary or superhuman abilities to achieve great things.
In literature, a hero is simply the protagonist, or main character. An epic poem (or epic) is a long narrative poem written in lofty language that usually tells the story of such a hero. Epic heroes perform deeds that you might call epic (impressively great), but they’re called epic heroes specifically because they appear in epic poems.
Two of the most enduring examples of epic heroes are ones you’ve probably heard of: Achilles (hero of the Iliad) and Odysseus (hero of the Odyssey). Those ancient Greek epic poems are attributed to the poet Homer and are among the most influential works in Western literature.
What are characteristics of an epic hero?
If the concept of a hero who uses supernatural abilities to overcome extreme hardships and complete a quest sounds very familiar (ever heard of Luke Skywalker?), it’s because epic heroes have found popularity in cultures around the world for millennia. The Epic of Gilgamesh, starring the epic hero Gilgamesh, was composed in ancient Babylon around 1800 b.c. and is considered the world’s oldest surviving work of epic literature.
The word epic comes to English via Latin from the Greek root epos, meaning “speech, word, poem, or song.” Early stories featuring epic heroes grew out of myths and legends that were shared by oral tradition (the passing of stories from generation to generation by word of mouth). As such stories became important to a culture, poets began to record their own versions in writing. Scholars often interpret epic heroes as representing the collective beliefs and values of the poet’s culture.
The specific characteristics of epic heroes vary widely from story to story. In the Ramayana, India’s Sanskrit epic from around 300 b.c., the epic hero Rama is an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu who is exiled and must join forces with a monkey king in a battle to rescue his wife and regain his kingdom. In the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf from about 700 a.d., the title hero Beowulf engages in combat with the grotesque monster Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and a dragon (sounds exhausting!).
Despite the plot differences, there are several traits that epic heroes almost always have in common. The epic hero is usually of noble birth or becomes noble during the story. He (historically, epic heroes have almost always been men) is either a god or demigod or has godlike powers or abilities. During the quest, the hero leaves home to face many tests of wisdom and strength against supernatural creatures and forces and inevitably reaches a point at which all seems lost. But don’t fear—the hero finds a way out. More than anything, epic heroes are known for their, well, heroics—brave deeds and feats of strength that allow them to survive and regain their rightful place, often as a king.
It’s this formula that has given us so many memorable characters from so many cultures. Indeed, it is difficult to think of any popular fictional hero who doesn’t exhibit at least some of these elements.
Although the popularity of the epic poem has declined in recent centuries, the tradition of the epic hero has continued into modern times with literary and cinematic equivalents like Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars saga, both Frodo and Aragorn from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games series by Suzanne Collins.
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What are real-life examples of epic hero?
While we may not write as much epic poetry these days, epic heroes still inspire many modern stories and influence how we interpret them.
My class has been arguing whether Harry Potter or Neville Longbottom is the epic hero of this series….. #icandigit
— chels✌ (@chelsmm12) January 17, 2013
Bo Jackson just sounds like an epic hero. I think he could take Odysseus or Achilles any day
— Bailey Angle (@baileyangle) December 9, 2012
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True or false?
The concept of the epic hero was invented by ancient Greek poets.