“Whatever happened to the epic?” by Jo Ann Cavallo

Miguel de Cervantes famously claimed to have composed Don Quixote de la Mancha to combat the imaginative hold that books of chivalry had over his contemporaries. Reading the novel for the first time as an undergraduate, however, I had been instinctively drawn to the eponymous hero who decided to transform his own life into a heroic adventure in which he could act out the role of knight errant. What’s more, I could relate to the protagonist’s obsession with chivalric narratives since I was an avid reader myself. When I entered graduate school in 1981, however, where “secondary reading” had taken primacy as “literary theory,” I learned to my dismay that the epic genre had been proclaimed dead.

If “video killed the radio star,” as the song recorded by Bruce Woolley and the Camera Club for the Epic label maintains, who or what killed the epic? Or was it simply a natural consequence of our modern world—with industrialized warfare, the proclamation of democratic principles, and the perceived preference for entertainment reflecting the trials of everyday life? According to Mikhail Bakhtin’s The Dialogic Imagination, recently published in English translation at the time, it was the novel, a many-voiced dialogic genre, that rendered obsolete its “monologic” predecessor.

If truth be told, I didn’t spend much time pondering the question of the genre’s demise since the actual epics that I proceeded to study absorbed all my attention. Besides, the examples that most fascinated me, Matteo Maria Boiardo’s Orlando Innamorato and Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso, were highly dialogic according to Bakhtin’s own definition. The Russian theorist had never considered Italian Renaissance epic poetry, I surmised, when formulating his conception of epic as monologic.

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