Epic Conventions: Part One (Catalogues, Lists, Geneaologies)
Today I’m going to share a little about epic conventions found in The Faerie Queene. If the term “epic conventions” sounds intimidating, don’t worry; these are basically just story patterns, common tools writers used to organize their long adventure tales.
We still use artistic patterns, even if we don’t use formal conventions. Instinctively, we know when a jump scare is about to take place in a movie. Though a song is new to us, we can usually tell when the chorus is about to begin. The bookish girl is probably going to have a Cinderella moment. And if a story makes you fall in love with a dog, friends, don’t get too attached to him.
Modern culture delights in disrupting and defying such artistic patterns. Shrek is funny because the prince is bad, the ogre is good, and the big Cinderella moment is, well, unconventional. Going back several hundred years, however, we also find authors like Cervantes and Edmund Spenser openly twisting conventions for the sake of humor. Those authors were bright enough to tease and shock readers by upending expectations, just as they were able to use patterns in all seriousness to maximize their narrative power.
Edmund Spenser wrote The Faerie Queene attempting to give Britain an epic poem equal to the Iliad, The Odyssey, or The Aeneid. There are all sorts of reasons why his moment called for the development of a grand national tale. Perhaps we can explore those in another post later. But in terms of literature, at the time in which Spenser was writing, most of the glories of British poetry, prose, and drama had not been written yet.
Chaucer had accomplished a great deal in the 1300’s. But the first three books of The Faerie Queene were published in 1590, and Shakespeare’s first play was written and performed somewhere between 1589 and 1591. Get this: Hamlet wouldn’t be written until nine to eleven years after the first three books of The Faerie Queene were published. Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus wouldn’t be published until 1604. Paradise Lost wouldn’t hit until 1667. And of course, the well-known Romantic poets like Wordsworth and Coleridge weren’t going to show up for another two hundred years after Spenser. So even though many of us consider Britain the birthplace of poetry in the English language, Spenser’s world had almost none of this glory behind him.
The events represented above are purely fictional and are performed by unpaid meme faces. Do not attempt.
However, the Greek and Roman epics were esteemed in the late 1590’s. So, to elevate his homeland and honor his queen, Spenser chose a model that borrowed many conventions from that genre.
I’m hoping to keep these posts short enough to read in just a few minutes, so today I’m just going to offer a partial list of conventions used in epic literature. Then, I’ll zoom in on one convention found commonly in The Faerie Queene. Tomorrow, you’ll have all this background behind you, so I’ll jump right in to explaining two more conventions you’ll find in Spenser’s work.
(If you are a great scholar, please know that I’m trying to keep these updates accessible to teenagers who are encountering epics for the first time. If you are a teenager, please know there are wise scholars waiting to blow your mind with more about this poem and the epics upon which Spenser leaned to create it.)
A PARTIAL LIST OF CONVENTIONS
- Invocation to the Muse
- Declaration of Theme
- Elevated Language
- Epic Digressions
- Intervention of Gods
- Extended Speeches
- In Medias Res
- Epic Similes
- The Heroic Oath
- Epic Battles
- Visit to the Underworld
- Poetic forms
TODAY’S EPIC CONVENTION: Catalogues/Lists/Genealogies
“Bears. Beets. Battlestar Galactica.” When Jim makes this joke in the office, he’s giving a nod to an old rhetorical technique called enumeration. Enumeration is employed to make a story feel grander and more powerful by the inclusion of lists.
We don’t use enumeration much in story these days. In general, modern writers are urged to be devastatingly efficient with their words, stripping away every bit that doesn’t directly enhance a main idea. But for thousands of years, humans approached story a bit differently. Genealogies, catalogues, and lists were included to help orient readers within the vastness of time and space, and also to expand a created world within a story.
We still use a form of this technique in movies and television, occasionally. When the camera pans over a wide army of orcs, it’s cataloguing the scope of a battle. When Avatar: The Last Airbender shows us the generations preceding Aang, we understand where he falls in time.
In The Faerie Queene, you will find three sizeable genealogy sections as well as a few catalogues/lists. For example, in the very first episode of the poem, Red Cross Knight, Una, and their dwarf companion enter a dangerous wood, and Spenser takes the time to name every sort of tree they encounter. Here’s an excerpt from my rendering:
“. . . the sailing pine, the cedar proud and tall, the vine-prop elm, the never-dry poplar, the oak for building (king of all forests), the aspen for staves, and the cypress for funerals. There were also the laurel (reward of mighty conquerors and sage poets), the weeping fir, the willow worn by heartbroken lovers, the obedient yew that yields to a bender, the birch for arrows, the sallow for the mill, the myrrh that bleeds sweet in its bitter wound, the warlike beech, the ash used for nothing ill, the fruitful olive, the plantain round, the holm-oak, and the maple that is beautiful on the outside but unsound within. Oh, trees, and trees, and more trees all around! Delight led the travelers deep into the wood, though they did not realize they were losing their way until the blustery storm was overblown.”
Such a list accomplishes multiple things at once. As a form, it elevates The Faerie Queene, connecting it with “Ennius and Virgil and Ovid, Seneca and Lucan and Claudian and Statius, Boccaccio and Chaucer and Sannazaro and Tasso” (Tonkin 1989:58). It also assigns meaning to the trees, making the wood feel like a place pregnant with stories of their own. Finally, it impacts our emotional state as readers. Mark Rose notes the strategic, almost hypnotic effect of this particular list: “as the catalogue of woody virtues continues, we too get caught up in the song until, like the knight and lady, we can no longer see the forest for the trees: we too are becoming lost in nature” (1975:7).
To help modern readers realize when an epic genealogy, list, or catalogue is coming, I marked these with italics in my rendering of The Faerie Queene. If you enjoy such expansiveness, you can read those sections. If you simply want to skim these technicalities and get back to the plot, that’s also an option. However, I do think understanding what such lists are and why authors included them can help us process such elements when we encounter them.
Rose, Mark. Spenser’s Art: A Companion to Book One of The Faerie Queene. Cambridge, MA:Harvard University Press, 1975.
Tonkin, Humphrey. The Faerie Queene. London: Unwin Hyman, 1989.
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- A magic ring, a lost tale, and a phoenix February 24, 2023
- Epic Conventions: Part Two (Invocation to the Muse), and “What is Prose?” February 24, 2023
- Epic Conventions: Part One (Catalogues, Lists, Geneaologies) February 24, 2023
- Duality and Pageantry February 8, 2023