Epics, both FOLK and ART EPICS, share a group of common characteristics:
the HERO is a figure of imposing stature, of national or international importance, and of great historical or legendary significance;
the SETTING is vast in scope, covering great nations, the world, or the universe;
the action consists of deeds of great valor or requiring superhuman courage;
supernatural forces—gods, angels, and demons--interest themselves in the action and intervene from time to time;
a STYLE Of sustained elevation and grand simplicity is used; and
the epic poet recounts the deeds of his heroes with objectivity.
The epic contains long catalogs of heroes or important characters, focusing on highborn kings and great warriors rather than peasants and commoners. The epic employs extended similes (called epic similes) at appropriate spots of the story, and a traditional scene of extended description in which the hero arms himself.
Epic poetry begins with The Epic of Gilgamesh. It is unlikely that any Medieval or Renaissance European writer had read Gilgamesh.
The European epic tradition begins with Homer in Greece around 800 BC.
English epics begin with Beowulf. There are others in Anglo-Norman, which are largely unread today. A number of romances reach epic length, but not epic status. Piers Plowman is long, but not an epic. Chaucer writes an epic poem, Troilus & Criseyde, which was extremely well received in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Primary epic--poetry "which stems from heroic deeds and which is composed in the first instance, in order that such deeds may not be forgotten." It is practical in purporting to record historical events and deals with the real world, "however much glamour may be added in the process."
Secondary epic--poetry which may deal with heroic legend or with more abstract themes than the type available to primary epic, and which is composed, not as an historical record of the past, but as the poet's artistic interpretation or recreation of legend or theme. The combination of the poet's 'seeing eye' and his personal style together create something which is not based on reality, but has a life of its own to be transmitted to the mind of the reader."
A long narrative poem in elevated style presenting characters of high position in adventures forming an organic whole through their relation to a central heroic figure and through their development of episodes important to the history of a nation or race.
In Greece alone the epic, as an artistic form of poetry, came first. In Greece alone the poet did not have to balance alternatives: he whom the Muses inspired was in the earliest period a singer of heroic lays, in the next age a lyric poet, in the next a dramatist.
The Greek epic is thus isolated not only because, like all Greek literature, it is untouched by foreign influence, but also because it is the earliest product of that literature. By its isolation the Greek epic gains its supreme originality in comparison with all later poetry which lies under the attraction of the thoughts and ways of thought of the past.
Epic spreads out a pleasing tale with no set lesson to teach or special impression to make. It has its own rapidity, what may be called objective rapidity.