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Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Editorial: What makes something epic?

One definition of epic is a football match in which the winning team wins 7-1.

Just saying, Brazil.

Editorial: What makes something epic?

What is epic?

I've seen it listed amongst words that are overused today, and I'm not entirely sure I buy what's being sold there, but it's certainly a word that I, personally, overuse, and that I became rather abruptly aware that I overused when listening to Mark Kermode's Transformers 4 review. Still, it's interesting to query whether there are any criteria we might apply to it, especially as it's such a nebulous concept.

We can define what things are epic: Lord of the Rings is epic, Game of Thrones, Star Wars, etc, and it often has very little to do with their quality (the Star Wars prequels, after all, exist). It's more difficult to define what epic actually is. 

That's an epic beard, though. So wispy.

(The word, of course, is Ancient Greek, referring to a lengthy poem telling the story of the journey of a hero. I'm not entirely sure we can still use that definition in good faith, seeing as it has been used in other meanings since before Shakespeare.)

So over the past few days I did a lot of pondering of the question 'What makes something epic?' I also consulted with Reecey of Nine Over Five, which was a great help. I think now, possibly, I may have come up with three criteria that can be used to define something as epic.

What it isn't: Something good, or something successful, either commercially or in achieving its goals. Coraline is excellent, but it's not epic, and it wouldn't have worked if it was. In true Dahlian tradition, Gaiman keeps the scale of Coraline very small, the stakes high on a personal level but not on a macro level, and the tone more dreamlike than mythological. Nobunaga the Fool, which objectively failed at the task it set out to do, is epic, undoubtedly so.

So. The criteria.

1: For something to be 'epic' it must have a semblance of the mythological.

This ties back to the original meaning of the word actually. In Greek literature, the stories of heroes were the stories of the gods, because through heroism one was deified. Heroes were mythological figures who from mortal origins came to mingle with the gods, vanquish evil, and then joined their ranks – or, sometimes, they were gods cast down to mortality who regained their divine status.

I can think of several modern 'epics' that have the same theme: In Okami, one of the most undeniably epic video games I've ever played, you play as Amaterasu, the Japanese goddess of the sun, descended to the mortal realm in the form of a white wolf, with nobody around her able to recognise her for a goddess. She journeys across the world, vanquishes evil in her own name, and at the culmination of her story, is recognised as a goddess and regains her full power. In Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, we see Link undergo a similar journey, starting as a lowly goatherd and ending as the Hero of Twilight, servant of the goddesses and the realm, saviour of two worlds, and inheritor of a long legacy of heroism. 

Okay, the goats were a little weird, but.

But the touch of the mythological doesn't have to be someone engaging in heroic actions and becoming deified or semi-deified. It can also be divine wrath, or the semblance of it. It's why disaster films can often feel epic: Because in antiquity, natural disasters – floods, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes – have been considered the province of gods. Nuclear war also falls into this category: Everyone's familiar with the Oppenheimer quote about 'I am become death, the destroyer of worlds', but he's quoting a religious text referring to the god Shiva. There is a vastness and an absoluteness to the destructive power of nuclear weapons that rivals a volcanic eruption easily, and it presses that 'wrath of the gods' button in our head.

For example, look at this clip of Aldnoah.Zero, currently licensed by Crunchyroll (which isn't about nukes, but is very close): 


It's not a religious thing – I'm an atheist, after all – but a cultural one. The idea of a set of vast, destructive entities has been a part of culture worldwide for longer than we've had the means to record them, after all, and even if we know that volcanoes don't erupt because a deity is enraged now, we've spent long enough with that notion that it's written into our cultural consciousness.

If we apply this to Star Wars or Lord of the Rings, then it fits perfectly: Star Wars is the story of a young farmboy who becomes a warrior-priest wielding the power of an omnipresent deity-like force to vanquish a great evil, and is heavily designed after stories of heroes from antiquity, while Lord of the Rings contains both the elements of a mortal becoming deified (Frodo, who starts off as a simple Hobbit and at the end is travelling to the realm of the gods) and divine wrath (everything Sauron does).

2: For something to be epic, it must have an element of the mundane.

By which I mean it must be lived, or liveable. Sort of.

Let's use an example we've already used, Okami. In Okami, you will spend a good forty hours exploring the world of the game, meeting the many people there, meeting their families, and so on, and so forth. Frequently, the tasks you will help them with are just the mundane tasks they need to get by. Sometimes you're a nuisance. You see them when they're happy, and quite often when they're at their lowest. 

Swirly helpful wolf god.

Let's also take Pompeii, which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago. The disaster in Pompeii only hits in the last half an hour or so: Before that, you spend most of the film following the lives of several characters as they go about this thriving, bustling city with no idea of what's coming.

In both these cases, you obviously haven't and can't live it, because you neither live in Japanese-mythology-soup-painting-world or ancient Campania, and it'll take more than a plane ticket to get you there. But you've spent time with the characters, with their world, and that time spent adds up to much the same principle: You know this place. You have an emotional attachment to these characters and to their world.

Let's flip the coin for a moment and talk about the other way this can be done, using the aforementioned Aldnoah.Zero and the Michael Bay disaster film Armageddon. In Aldnoah.Zero, you don't know any of these characters, and in Armageddon, you do know, but you don't care because they're all absurd caricatures of stereotypes meant to appeal to the lowest common denominator, although I'm not entirely convinced anyone actually likes or really remembers the characters of Armageddon.

But they are occupying worlds roughly (sometimes very roughly) like our own, and both Urobuchi and Bay show, however briefly, that they are, at least on a streets-and-buildings level, normal worlds with normal people doing normal things in their normal day-to-day lives, and that all the abnormal stuff, all the weird things with lunar teleporters and meteorites and Bruce Willis, all of that has never affected these people and never encroached on their worlds. They're like us, and there's an element of the lived and mundane there. 

Then, explosions happen.

If we look at how this applies to the three examples I gave at the beginning: All these stories are long, giving you a lot of time to get to know their worlds, and in the case of Game of Thrones, it draws heavily on our own history.

3: For something to be epic, it must be framed in a grandiose fashion.

Well, that's painfully obvious,” some people might be saying, “you might as well have said 'for something to be epic, it must be portrayed as epic.'”

It is pretty obvious, to be honest, but it's worth mentioning. Epicness doesn't just happen. The same events by two different writers may be heart-stoppingly epic or equally heart-stoppingly soporific.

I say 'framed' because you can't really pin down precisely what method you'd use to do that. If it's television, film or a video game, then a good soundtrack is an absolute must (like Lord of the Rings, Star Wars, Game of Thrones, Aldnoah Zero, Okami, Twilight Princess etc); if it's a comic book, you'll want striking colours and angles; if it's literature, you'll need your most emotive language. 

Darth Vader agrees.

How it's framed depends on the medium, but it needs to be done in such a way that a sense of awe is created. An audience should feel like the people depicting these events are awestruck at what's going on, that there's a sincerity to their portrayal of the events they want you to think of as epic.

So, those are my criteria, formulated after thinking about it on and off for about three days and consulting a few people about it. Agree or disagree as you will. Also, explosions are pretty. It is known.

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