Epic Ambitions in Modern Times

Epic Ambitions in Modern Times

From Paradise Lost to the New Millennium

By Robert Crossley

Anthem World Epic and Romance

Epic Ambitions in Modern Times examines how artists, in various forms and media, have reinvented the epic in the past three centuries.

EPUB, 230 Pages


August 2022

£25.00, $40.00

PDF, 230 Pages


August 2022

£25.00, $40.00

  • About This Book
  • Reviews
  • Author Information
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  • Table of Contents
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About This Book

Epic Ambitions in Modern Times joins an ongoing critical conversation about the persistence of the epic imagination. It has been written for an audience curious about the legacy of the ancient epics and the evolution of modern epic from its older prototypes. There are three interwoven premises in its twelve chapters ranging from Paradise Lost in the seventeenth century to the work of four feminist novelists in the twenty-first. One is that the epic impulse, the ambition to attempt the previously unattempted, never disappeared even after the vehicle of the long heroic poem came to seem old-fashioned or unrepeatable. Milton, far from annihilating future epics, left his fingerprints on the work of his successors. One subtheme of the book, inevitably, is the productive afterlife of Paradise Lost and Milton’s continuing relevance to an ongoing epic tradition. The second premise follows from the first: post-Miltonic epic is a mode of imagining that can take many forms other than the multi-book poem. The impulse to produce epic did not go extinct; it simply went underground after Milton and re-emerged in unexpected places. The epic imagination, so often waterlogged in bloated long poems, has flourished in a great variety of other forms and media: in novels, history-writing, drama and opera, film and music, painting, and fantasy and science fiction.

The third premise may perplex those who remember epic only as plodding translations of The Odyssey or unpronounceable excerpts from Paradise Lost imposed on unwilling high school students. Nevertheless, the third premise is that epic is a popular and populist kind of creation; not only do artists continue to aspire to epic, audiences still relish and even clamor for it. The most obvious cases for epic as popular art appear in the chapters on film, on Tolkien, and on twenty-first century feminist rewritings of the ancient epics. But nearly all the works discussed in this book were popular in their own day. Clarissa and The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire were eighteenth-century best-sellers; Wagner’s Ring had an immediate vogue in his lifetime and tickets to performances remain prized in our own day. Jacob Lawrence’s 60 Migration paintings caused a sensation when they were exhibited in New York in the 1940s and the whole lot was snapped up by the Phillips Collection and the Museum of Modern Art. The popularity of Tolkien—author of the century, as Tom Shippey declared him—needs no elaboration. Kushner’s Angels in America and Madeline Miller’s recent novels derived from the Iliad and the Odyssey have been phenomena of popular culture.

This book explores the pleasures and challenges of the epic imagination, the persistent appeal of epic creation for artists and of epic experience for audiences, and the scope of epic achievements in the past three centuries. Artists working in many genres and media have challenged convention and embraced newness while remaining rooted in the oldest of literary forms. These are artists who, thinking and imagining big, have produced unexpected creations. They appeal to readers fascinated by the creative process, by originality and how it is achieved, and by what lies behind and looms above the often casual and commercial epithet of “epic.”


Writing for a broad audience, this veteran college teacher provides attractive introductory accounts of, among multiple other works, Richardson’s novel Clarissa (1748), Gibbon’s history Decline and Fall (completed in 1789), Wagner’s massive operatic Ring (1876), Abel Gance’s film Napoleon (1927), Tony Kushner’s celebrated drama Angels in America (1991), and Frederick Turner’s futuristic science fiction verse epics. Particularly effective is the illustrated chapter devoted to Jacob Lawrence’s 60 small panel paintings The Migration Series (half of which are in the Phillips Collection [DC], the other half in New York City's Museum of Modern Art). This fine chapter (among others) will reward nonspecialists and teachers seeking new ways of satisfying impulses once served by the classical form. --CHOICE

Gracefully written and always interesting, it is a pleasure to read for its own sake as well as for its contributions to our understanding of the many diverse ways in which the desire for epic, “the oldest literary genre,” has been expressed by Milton and his artistic descendants. This book is a gift - Extrapolation

“A brilliant re-thinking and re-engagement with the epic and its transformations, Epic Ambitions in Modern Times: From Paradise Lost to the New Millennium is rich and capacious. Bursting with marvelous surprises and witty analyses, it is theoretically informed and historically adept. Questioning the death of the epic after Milton, Robert Crossley embarks on a lively literary odyssey across centuries, continents, and genres to trace an ever-transforming tradition of epic making in poetry, prose, visual art, and popular culture. He makes visible, luminous, and inevitable the ambitions of a panoply of writers and artists to craft and create forms of epics, but he rewards the reader by maintaining a persuasive focus on tangible, carefully-honed illustrations in modern formats and incarnations, such as Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, Jacob Lawrence’s The Great Migration, and Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia. .” - Thadious M. Davis, Professor Emerita of English, University of Pennsylvania, USA.

"Since literary theory declared the end of ‘grand narratives’ a generation ago, a major gap has opened up in our critical understanding of epic, and in our ability to recognize and appreciate the extraordinary return of the epic sensibility in the popular imagination. Robert Crossley’s erudite but genial and accessible criticism splendidly repairs the deficiency and in the process promises a new opening and a new audience for literary studies in general.”– Frederick Turner, Professor Emeritus – Literature and Creative Writing, University of Texas , USA.

“Paradise Lost is the crucial text for the narrative undertaken here, it is reinforced by numerous references to Milton’s vow to pursue‘Things unattempted yet in Prose or Rhyme’ (Paradise Lost I.16), but the fascination with epic continues in ways that Milton could not have imagined. This book is exemplary, and quite impressive.“– Patrick A. McCarthy, Professor of English, University of Miami, USA.

“This book presents genuinely new insights about Paradise Lost. I have no doubt that the readers will profit both in terms of knowledge and the sheer enjoyment of acquiring it. Excellent work, all around—a book that presents a strongly individual perspective grounded in deep reading and wide experience of literature and the world.”– Michael Bryson, Professor of English, California State University, USA.

Author Information

Robert Crossley is a literary critic, editor, and biographer and former chair of the English Department at the University of Massachusetts Boston.


Anthem World Epic and Romance

Table of Contents

List of Figures; Acknowledgments; Chapter One Whatever Happened to the Epic?, [Introduction to the fate of epic in the past three centuries and the influence of Milton]; Chapter Two Leaving Paradise, [The final books of Paradise Lost and the end of an epic tradition]; Chapter Three An Epic Told in Letters, [The migration of epic to the novel in Richardson’s Clarissa]; Chapter Four Prospects and Living Pictures, [Epic history-writing in Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire]; Chapter Five Analyzing a Soul, [Wordsworth’s Prelude and Autobiographical Epic]; Chapter Six Epic Heroinism, [The Icelandic Völsunga Saga and Wagner’s Ring]; Chapter Seven Cinematic Spectacle and the Hero, [The epic in film: Hollywood in the 1960s, and Abel Gance’s silent Napoléon]; Chapter Eight Paradise Sought: The African American Odyssey, [The Great Migration in memoir, poetry, fiction and Jacob Lawrence’s paintings]; Chapter Nine Imaginary History and Epic Fantasy, [Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Silmarillion]; Chapter Ten The Epic in Future Tense, [Frederick Turner’s three epic poems: The New World, Genesis and Apocalypse]; Chapter Eleven Eleven Heaven and Hell Reimagined, [Tony Kushner’s Angels in America]; Chapter Twelve Translating and Recentering Old Epics, [Contemporary translations of ancient epics and fictional adaptations by Margaret Atwood, Ursula LeGuin, Madeline Miller, Maria Dahvana Headley]; Index


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