CriticaLink | Aristotle: Poetics | Guide to Book XXIV

The Components of the Epic
The epic shares all of the basic components of the tragedy except song and spectacle. Like the tragedy, the plot of the successful epic depicts a change in fortune for the hero and requires reversals and/or recognitions. Here again, Homer provides "our earliest and sufficient model" (63).

Aristotle goes on to enumerate the differences between epic and tragedy. The epic is composed in a different meter–the hexameter–and does not allow for mixed meters, as does the tragedy. The epic is not as restricted in terms of magnitude as the tragedy; epics enjoy the capacity to include many more episodes than a tragedy could accommodate. Furthermore, the narrative medium of the epic allows for the depiction of events that occur simultaneously, an impossibility for tragedy within the conventions of ancient Greek stagecraft.

Homer is Aristotle's favored example in his discussion of the epic. Rather than trying to represent the entire complex phenomenon of the Trojan War, Homer focuses on a single event in each of his epics, bringing in other events as episodes to add drama and diversity without distracting from the central story. Homer's epics are for this reason most like tragedies: their stories are focused and unified wholes, not simply sequences of episodes.

Homer gets high praise here for knowing his place as regards his role as a narrator. Unlike many epic poets, he speaks comparatively little in his own voice, allowing his characters to advance the story through dialogue and speeches.

In a famous passage, Aristotle admires Homer's capacity to lie and offers a sophisticated theory of fiction, arguing that poets should strive for "probable impossibilities" rather than "improbable possibilities" (63). One of Aristotle's examples of a probable impossibility is Odysseus's arrival in Ithaca while asleep. The suggestion seems to be that if a poet can successful establish a fabulous or uncanny series of events, we as readers will be more willing to suspend our disbelief than if the poet represented ordinary actions in a strained, unconvincing manner.