Dr Hulls writes:
I cannot say that I have actually watched the BBC’s new Sunday night dramatization of War and Peace, but I have been annoyed by some of the publicity. I cringe when I hear the frequency with which the cast describe everything involved as being ‘epic’. “It did feel really epic” gushes Lily James on her being trotted around Lithuania in a horse and carriage. What on earth does she mean by this? Long? Expensive? Cold? Violent (there is certainly much screaming in the trailer)?
Tolstoy’s novel displays many of the qualities which an ancient reader might recognise as falling into the category of ‘epic’. The main difference would be a formal one: Tolstoy wrote a prose novel, not poetry. It is a tradition which began with Homer’s Iliad, the great story of Achilles’ rage against his fellow Greeks and, ultimately, against the Trojan hero Hector, whose funeral ends the poem. This is, in the western canon at least, the poem which defines the notion of ‘epic’. It’s a long (15000 lines long), violent, fantastic, self-confessedly muscular and manly poem composed in highly stylised hexameters.
The funeral of the great hero seems an apposite way to end such a poem. Yet its conclusion confounds the generic principles which the poem works so hard to set up. The scene is more domestic, tragic and pathetic than we should ever expect. The great Trojan king, Priam, weeps as he begs Achilles to return his son’s mutilated corpse; Achilles weeps, reminded of the aging, mortal father he will never see again; the Trojans weep and feast for nine days; and so they buried Hector, tamer of horses.
A surprising ending is one of the most enduring features of classical epic. Apollonius completes his tale of Jason and the Argonauts with an irony-laden ‘and they lived happily ever after’ as Jason steams into port with his prize, Medea, the witch who will murder their children in years to come. Virgil ends his Aeneid with Aeneas slaughtering Turnus in a moment of Achillean wrath, which would be fine if Aeneas were the founding father of the Roman people. Just in case you didn’t get the irony, Virgil uses the verb condere to describe Aeneas’ sword being buried in Turnus’ chest; the verb is more familiarly used as the poet does at the very beginning of his work, to describe the foundation of a city.
Virgil’s ending was so abrupt, shocking and brilliantly confounding that the renaissance poet Maffeo Vegio thought it necessary to write an extra book and finish the Aeneid properly. It’s difficult to say exactly what ‘epic’ is or what it should be, but I am fairly certain that it doesn’t happen at 9pm on BBC1. And don’t get me started on the other televisual feast I stumbled upon over the weekend, Pixar’s Epic. As Lear once said (also not epic btw): Howl, howl, howl…