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Rewriting Novels and Stories as Epic Poems

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The following guest post, part of our “Teacher’s Corner” series, is by Rebecca Newland, a Fairfax County Public Schools Librarian and former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress.

Mural depicting the muse Calliope (Epic Poetry). Thomas Jefferson Building, Northwest Corridor, First Floor, 2009.
Mural depicting the muse Calliope (Epic Poetry). Thomas Jefferson Building, Northwest Corridor, First Floor, 2009. //

Epic poetry is often a regular part of the high school English curriculum. Among the epic poems most frequently taught in classrooms are Homer’s Greek epic The Odyssey, the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Old English poem Beowulf.

While epic poems typically possess a number of characteristics that set them apart from works in other literary forms, many novels and short stories taught in high school English courses share some, or even most, of the same elements as epic poetry. Novels such as J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, and Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre come immediately to mind. Beyond reading one or more epic poems, another way to engage students with the conventions of epic poetry is to ask them to rewrite a novel or short story in the form of an epic poem.

A useful document for identifying characteristics associated with epic poetry is “Elements of the Epic Hero Cycle,” available from EDSITEment, the National Endowment for the Humanities’ educational website. Based on this list, one element of epic poetry that is also evident in the example novels is the hero’s quest. In each novel, the hero, working toward a goal, faces a testanother element of an epic.  A third element that many novels posses in common with epics is that the hero must reach a low point at which he or she comes close to being defeated or giving up before triumphantly overcoming the obstacle. The challenge for students is to think broadly and creatively to explore how the elements exist in the novel and then to transform them into an epic. One way for students to effect this transformation is to truncate the novel’s plot and dramatis personae, thereby identifying and presenting the most significant events and characters from the chosen novel.

Begin by deciding if every student will re-write the same novelperhaps one the class read togetheror be given a choice of novels from those read throughout the school year or have read independently. When I have taught this, I supported choice, as I felt students would more readily see the epic elements in a novel or story they had connected with and be better able to transform it using the elements of an epic. I also asked students to include a minimum of five of the eight elements. I felt that success for all students, including the inexperienced poets, would be better ensured if they were able to choose the elements they would like to use.

After the writing has finished, offer students the opportunity to share their epics aloud in the form of an “Epic Day.” I would also suggest a time for reflection, asking students:

  • Which elements of your epic make you most proud?
  • Which parts of the process were the most challenging?
  • What did you learn from converting a novel or story to an epic?

In what ways do you engage students with a variety of poetic forms?