I’m currently in the midst of reading the incredible Musashi by Eiji Yoshikawa, and my mind went on a tangent (which is surprising to no one). I couldn’t help but compare it to other novels I’ve read, particularly those I’d describe as epics.
I use the word epics but it’s difficult to know what exactly comprises an epic novel, as opposed to a regular one. Going further, it’s clear that there are certain stories which qualify as epics, regardless of form factor. I’m talking about books like The Count of Monte Cristo, movies like The Godfather, and TV shows like Breaking Bad. What isn’t clear, however, is what distinguishes these epics from “regular” novels, movies, and TV shows.
I suspect that part of this distinction has to do with character development. With epics, it feels like the character goes through a “hero’s journey”, something akin to what Joseph Campbell discusses extensively in his work:
While there isn’t a perfect mapping between stories following the Hero’s Journey format and epics, there is definitely overlap. And perhaps these stories resonate with us because of some deep mental wiring in the human brain. Or not.
That said, the Hero’s Journey doesn’t fully explain the appeal of the epics I’m referring to. There’s at least one more factor, which I’ll call the world immersion. The creators of these epics are able, through their art, to construct a world that is deeply, utterly, and perhaps incredibly…real. After reading a Harry Potter book, you feel like you’ve been to Hogwarts. Ender’s Game puts you in the mind and environment of a futuristic, genius child soldier. The Godfather makes you a member of the Corleone family.
Most importantly, when you finish one of these epics, you’re forever changed. It’s almost as if YOU went on a journey. The characters you encounter in the story feel like real people that you’ve spent time with. Without a doubt, the emotions you feel along the way are real. And this effect is the true power of an epic.
As an added bonus, once you’ve read one of these epics, it feels as if you’ve gained admission to a secret club. And people who aren’t members of the club are judged. Don’t believe me? If you’re a Harry Potter fan, watch yourself the next time you meet someone who hasn’t read the books or watched the movies. You’ll see what I’m talking about.
While I don’t have a formula for creating an epic (and I don’t think anyone does), here are some of the best epics I’ve ever read:
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas
The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
The Lord of the Rings series by J.R.R. Tolkien
The Game of Thrones series by George R.R. Martin
Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card
A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
East of Eden by John Steinbeck
I’d love to hear thoughts on this. What defines an epic? Are there key factors I missed? And please send me your recommendations for other epics I need to read or watch!