marko kraljevic

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anonymous asked:

What I want: an epic for the modern age about journeys through treacherous warfare and morally corrupt societies at odds with each other... But what I'm really getting at is: what happened to epic poetry, are people still writing it? Can there be modern epics, or would a modern epic be something else altogether? I guess i just didn't really know who to ask and you seem to know a bunch so?? Like is there an Iliad or a Ramayana for the 20th century?? Also you're wonderful and your blog is <3

oh my gosh okay this is a very big and absolutely fascinating question, anon! thank you for asking it this is so interesting to think about

okay so on a technical level, epic poetry survived. the tradition which most people look at when it comes to modern epic is the south slavic epic tradition, which was studied extensively by a couple of researchers called milman parry and albert lord in the early 20th century. this stuff was written in the “south slavic” area of europe, which has undergone a lot of political changes over time but is roughly around where modern serbia, bits of albania, bosnia and herzegovina are, and is mostly concerned with the great events of serbian history, the battle of kosovo in 1398 and the area’s incorporation into the ottoman empire. 

now, this poetry is quite often quite surprising to readers used to the iliad and so on, because many of the most famous poems are much, much shorter than anything we’re used to thinking of as “epic” - often maybe a hundred or so lines long (in comparison, the iliad is i think around 16,000 lines long?). some people argue that because these poems can be roughly collected into epic “cycles” - most prominently the kosovo cycle, focusing on the events of the battle of kosovo, and the marko cycle, focusing on the adventures of the semi-mythic hero prince marko kraljevic under the ottoman empire - they can be considered larger works and therefore ‘epic’ in terms of length, but i’m much more convinced by the idea put forward by an academic called john foley, who believed that ‘epics’ did not have to be long poems, but rather (sorry i’m paraphrasing a bit here, idk what happened to my notes) poems which had ‘historical and socio-political significance in the formation of ethnic identity’, which is a definition that not only includes the big stuff like the iliad and the ramayana and the epic of gilgamesh so so on, but also stuff like the slavic poems. (he had other qualifiers too, but that’s the bit i think is most important.) so in that sense, it would be perfectly possible for a poem, under the right conditions, to be considered “epic” in the modern era, if it was important enough.

(i feel like i should note at this point that my perspective is extremely eurocentric - like, the farthest afield that i’m even vaguely confident in talking about is mesopotamia, but i’m very much aware that there was - and for all i know still is - a strong tradition of epic poetry throughout asia, which i know literally nothing about. if any of my followers know anything about this and what it looks like in the modern age, or any other epic traditions, i would be super super interested to hear about it!)

another point of interest about the south slavic poems is that they really were composed and performed well into the modern age. like, parry and lord made recordings of the performances - which you can listen to online! admittedly, the rate of composition went into sharp decline towards the turn of the 20th century - someone, i think foley again or possible johannes haubold? theorised that this was because oral epic poetry was being used as a form of historical record as well as an entertainment and ethnic identity thing, which was then rendered superfluous by the advent of written history and mass literacy - but we have examples of south slavic epic poetry being performed and composed during world war two (known as partisan songs), during the period in which parry & lord worked (a singer they met apparently composed a new epic on the spot called “the song of milman parry”) and right up to very recently with an epic called “smrt u dallasu” about the assassination of john f kennedy. so in that literal sense, yes, epic poetry did and does exist in the modern age!

however, it’s a lot harder to pin down the kind of thing which i think both you and foley might be talking about, something of massive cultural and sociopolitical importance. there’s certainly been self-conscious attempts to recreate something like this - i mean, i suppose you could even class the aeneid as one of those attempts, just a very successful one. then you have other poets who self-consciously tried to work in the homeric tradition, and even people who tried to incorporate the ethnic-identity element; the first example i can think of off the top of my head is “ossian”, which was an attempt by a scottish poet in the 1700s (not long after scotland came under english rule) to pass off a collection of poems he’d written as the work of “ossian”, a sort of gaelic homer, but i’m sure there are others! in terms of poetry there’s certainly poets who still try to write epic-length poetry; one example might be derek walcott’s omeros, which as you can probably gather from the title is a sort of homeric-style epic poem for the caribbean island of st. lucia, which is very much concerned with self-identity.

but honestly i think you have something in the idea that a modern epic might well not be a poem, but something else altogether; i think that certainly any work which would reach the massive cultural/political/social significance - at least in the western world - of the iliad or the ramayana or gilgamesh would almost certainly not be a poem, but maybe a book or a film or even a tv show. it seems quite odd to say that, i suppose, because we don’t think of those things on the same “level” as homer et al., but homer was a rhapsode, a singer, a performer who entertained people for a few hours after they finished work, and i don’t see why our modern equivalents shouldn’t be included alongside that. i mean, south slavic epic is considered “epic” by academic standards and it includes hundred-line poems performed in coffee-shops with titles like “prince marko drinks wine in ramadan” and “king vukasin caught a fairy and married her” and i’m fairly sure i read about one called something along the lines of “mina the innkeeper’s wife hits marko kraljevic with a stick” or something, soooo 

anyway sorry this all extremely inconclusive and off-the-cuff so i’m sorry if there’s any massive inaccuracies, as always if anyone spots any please do let me know so i can correct this post! i’m on mobile so i can’t put links in but i’ll reblog this later with some links to the milman parry stuff etc. oh! also, for a book which asks this exact kind of question but perhaps doesn’t offer many answers, i would suggest ismail kadare’s the file on h., which is both amazing and spectacularly nerdy in that the two main characters are very thinly-veiled versions of parry and lord. anyway, i hope that helps a bit and sorry for being so waffly