What is the American Epic?
Your answer to that question is dependent on what you consider an epic to be.
I had some pretty firm ideas before I sat down to write this post, but I dug out my literature manuals, just in case. A Handbook to Literature by Harmon and Holman defines an epic as a “long narrative poem in elevated style . . . in adventures . . . [related] to a central heroic figure and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race.” A New Handbook of Literary Terms, on the other hand, describes the epic as “a genre with the ambition to define a whole culture,” that “present[s] narratives of sustained obligation, handed down from heaven to earth; they require the interaction of . . . gods and mortals.”
Poetry, once ubiquitous in the world of literature, is now of much less importance than it once was. Consequently, I can’t see any particular reason that a modern epic would have to be a poem. This frees us up to examine the whole realm of literature and frees me up to make a perhaps radical claim.
Star Wars is the American Epic.
Now before I can build a defense of why I believe this to be the case, I have to lay out a couple of ideas. First, initially sent down this particular rabbit hole in part by a video by Matt Colville. He’s mostly known online for a series of videos on YouTube in which he gives advice to new players of Dungeons & Dragons on how to run the game more effectively. Recently, he’s done a couple of videos about the most recent Star Wars movies. At the start of these, he apparently felt the need to defend his choice to talk about them, and said this:
“ . . . whether we like it or not . . . Star Wars is our culture. I don’t sociologically, I mean artistically. Star Wars is one of the few works of art that we pass on, engage with, from one generation to another . . .” See his full video here.
He then goes on to compare the social impact of Star Wars in America to the social impact that the Iliad and the Odyssey had on Greek culture many centuries ago. And while he makes some dubious claims about the state of literature in Greece at the time, and while he doesn’t seem to have the proper language to say this explicitly, he is sliding up against the idea that Star Wars is the American epic. So, while I believe that I am expanding on this point beyond what he does, I do want to make sure to establish that I’m drawing some inspiration from him.
Secondly, I want to establish that there’s room for this topic. A quick glance at Wikipedia’s List of Epic Poems suggests a couple of conclusions, namely that while there is no hard limit on the number of epics a culture can have, there is a trend towards having just one or two per culture per time period. Additionally, the relative significance of single works seems to diminish as time progresses. The 19th and 20th Centuries have just about as many entries as the rest of the list combined, suggesting that the quality of the list might be declining.
At this point, I want to establish a point of semantic significance. An epic of a culture is a story that is told in the epic form (whether in poetry or in prose). The epic of a culture is not only written in the style of an epic but also takes on special significance within in the culture. It is widely recognized by all members of the culture, and literature from that culture will often refer back to the epic in ways that might be opaque to an outsider, but crystal-clear to an insider.
And while I was confident I could prove Star Wars’ cultural presence, showing its relation to literature is much harder. Offhand, I can make the case that almost everyone knows what a lightsaber is, what the Force does, who Luke’s father is, and what type of fighter was used to blow up the Death Star (helped in this regard by the fact that the Rebellion names all of its fighters after the letter they most closely resemble). At this point, it would be hard to argue that Star Wars wasn’t at a minimum culturally pervasive.
But, in fact, I can show that it has influence on literature and other media. I’ve found lists of Star Wars references in other movies, television shows, and the scientific community has even adapted names from the series into the names of species. Beyond this, Star Wars is often credited with advancing the special effects industry and greatly impacting how Hollywood does movies, creating the summer blockbuster. This movie or series of movies is a strong contender for the title of the American Epic.
I say all of this just to tie Star Wars back to the Odyssey and Iliad. The reason there are so many epics that take the form of epic poetry is that the incredible cultural pervasiveness of those stories lent a special kind of significance back to the form they were written in. Likewise, Star Wars has not only become a cultural touchstone but is also impacting both the industry that spawned it and the forms that new films take.
If I haven’t convinced you of Star Wars’ significance at this point, I’ve done my job poorly.1 But, I’m certain I haven’t proved it was an epic or even THE American Epic.
Of course, maybe it’s all just a ploy. Maybe I’m cutting my article off halfway to force you to come back tomorrow and read the thrilling conclusion for yourself.
Have a good day, and may the Force be with you.