The epic is one of the oldest literary forms. One of the first written works of literature, The Epic of Gilgamesh, is an epic. This heroic epic was followed by The Iliad and The Odyssey in Greek literature. Later in the classical era, Virgil wrote The Aeneid which is also an epic. Later, in Europe, other stories of heroes were also told using the epic form. El Cid, The Song of Roland, The Nibelungenlied, and Beowulf are all examples of European epics. During the medieval era of history, a new form began to emerge – the medieval romance. There are significant differences between the epic and the medieval romance and various works of European literature show how the epic form of literature evoloved into the medieval romance.
The medieval romance differs from the typical epic in a number of ways. One way that the epic differs from the medieval romance is that epics tend to stress heroic deeds while medieval romances tend to stress tales involving knightly adventures. In addition, epics tend to stress the values of the heroic age while the medieval romance tends to stress the values of a chivalric age. Ethics in a heroic society differ from those in a chivalric society. In a heroic society, heroes are motivated by loyalty to one’s country or homeland, and/ or loyalty to the gods. In the chivalric society, heroes are motivated by courtly love, piety, faith, and a desire for great deeds of valor.
While epics stress the values of nationalism and grave matters of national importance, medieval romances tend to be concerned with fantasy and mystery. Because of the two forms differ in their focus, epics tend to be more serious (because their concerns are much more serious) and the medieval romance tends to be more light-hearted. In addition, there are formal differences between the two forms. Epics tend to be very tightly structured while the medieval romance tends to be much more flexible in terms of structure.
There are difficulties in making these kinds of “either/ or” comparisons between the epic and the medieval romance. Because the two forms have so much in common, it can often be difficult to distinguish between them. In addition, there are several works that one might consider to be “transitional” in that the works exhibit many of the characteristics of both of these forms but could not be described as being either or even both. For example, Dante’s Divine Comedy exhibits traits of both but really doesn’t fit the definition of either. It exhibits many of the qualities of the medieval romance, but at the same time, would not really be categorized as such. In addition, a medieval romance like Sir Gawain and the Green Knight is very tightly structured. While one might be able to attribute many of the characteristics of the medieval romance to this work, it doesn’t necessarily exhibit all of those traits. Historically, these two forms merged in the 16th and 17th centuries. Works like Edmund Spencer’s The Fairie Queen or Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando Furioso show how these forms combined to create the romantic epic.
Source: Mitchell, Phillip. Dallas Baptist University lecture. Spring 2002.