Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.10.21

Dean A. Miller, The Epic Hero.   Baltimore and London:  Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000.  Pp. xiv + 501.  ISBN 0-8018-6239-6.  $52.00.  

Reviewed by Peter Gainsford, University of Manchester (
Word count: 2601 words

For this review I have had to coin some additions to Beta Code for the purpose of transcribing some Icelandic characters: d( = eth t( = thorn o, = o with cedilla

This is a huge topic and a large book; with such an ambitious title, Miller is wise to impose on himself certain limitations. He does not restrict himself in the periods he covers, but he confines himself geographically to European epics (though he does refer to the Persian Shâh-nâma and the Indic Mahâbhârata several times).

M.'s approach is essentially to subdivide the topic of 'the epic hero' into as many sub-topics and in as much detail as possible, and then give examples of epics and characters for each category. This is not clear from his introduction, where his focus is on the ideological aspect of the enterprise. Of course any division of a topic into categories is heavily ideological; and clearly this book represents a very different kind of taxonomy from that of the Finnish School's treatment of folktales, or Propp's taxonomy of folktale functions.1 M.'s taxonomy is thematic, rather than based on motifs or motifemes. The benefit that a reader will get out of M.'s book probably lies in its breadth: for it makes no attempt at being exhaustive, which is frustrating, as exhaustiveness would seem to be the main purpose of any kind of taxonomic treatment. In fact it is not clear what exactly M.'s programme is, or at what kind of audience this book is aimed, for the book will be very inaccessible except to professional academics or advanced postgraduate students. M.'s approach seems to oscillate between the anthropological and the literary, and the range of material covered is selective.

The book begins with consideration of what M. understands by the word 'hero'; the subsequent consideration given to the word 'epic' leads to an exceptionally broad understanding of the term, with the result that a very diffuse range of texts are discussed in this book. The Iliad rubs shoulders with the Aeneid, Don Quixote, the Nibelungenlied, the Chanson de Roland, Icelandic saga, the Welsh mabinogi, the Irish Táin Bó Cúailnge (Cattle-Raid of Cooley), Serbo-Croat heroic songs, Paradise Lost, the Alexander Romance, a number of lesser-known 'epic' tales, and even Greek tragedy. Those hoping for any kind of complete coverage will note that the Argonautica and the Kalevala are each mentioned only once and in passing, and that many important epics are mentioned not at all: the Greek Epic Cycle, Statius, Silius Italicus, Valerius Flaccus, Nonnos, the Hildebrandlied, Kûdrûn, and others. In other words, this is not a treatment of 'the epic hero': it is a listing of examples of heroes who display (carefully subdivided) characteristics, taking examples from only some of the best-known 'epic'-like tales from each of a number of European cultures.

It is a large book, and for that reason alone merits a reasonably substantial account of its content. M.'s starting-point is to place himself ideologically. He identifies himself with those writers on mythology (not epic) who deal in Grand Theories of Everything, the most recognisable of whom will probably be Joseph Campbell.2 At the same time he makes himself an intellectual descendant of Dumézil, referring particularly to Dumézil's 'theory of trifunctionality'. 'Dumézil's theoretical structure is precise and elegantly calculated yet generous and not restrictive', he says (p. ix), but the reader is assumed to have a prior knowledge of Dumézil's work on this topic; for M. does not explain the theory of this 'key tripartitive idea'.

In chapter 1 M. examines the idea of 'the' hero. He is looking for Grand Unifying themes: mortal risk, military virtue, kleos aphthiton; a definition of the term 'hero' that can be applied univocally across all European periods and regions. This leads into a highly selective history of 'the hero': early Greek myth, for which no authority later than Fontenrose is cited for his understanding of the Greek use of the word;3 this is followed by consideration of the hero's 'tragic' potential, for which Vernant and Daniel Madelénat are the two authorities mentioned.4 Discussion follows of the hero in chivalric literature, the Renaissance, and Romance: here M. is setting out the various modes of epic narrative on which he will draw.

In the second part of chapter 1, 'The hero and heroic literature', M. tackles the problem of the meaning of the word 'epic'. After a very selective literature review, he emerges with a table giving a four-fold categorisation of heroic narratives: epic, saga, folktale, and romance (p. 49; his comments on the table, p. 48, speak of five columns, which appears to be a simple slip). The rows in this table seem to draw parallels of some kind between, e.g., the Aeneid (listed under 'epic'), Eddic sources (saga), and Greco-Roman romance (romance); further down the table, Byzantine Greek epic (epic) is juxtaposed with Saxo Grammaticus (saga) and the oldest Russian byliny (folktale); other mysterious parallels follow. The meaning and ramifications of this tabulation--not so much the columns, but the rows--need further explication.

Chapter 1 closes with a continuation of the literature review, entitled 'The hero in our time', which focuses on certain early-to-mid-twentieth century anthropologists' and psychoanalysts' Grand Unifying theories of the hero-warrior, ducking backwards in time to Frazer, and finally closing with an account of Campbell.

Chapter 2, 'The heroic biography', gets into the format that M. will follow for the rest of the book. He treats the hero's parentage and birth; animal companions; the hero's youth and precociousness ('precocity'); the relationship between 'the' hero and the members of his family (parents and siblings; strangely, the possibility of a hero's having children is omitted here); and the hero's companions as an adult, especially in a triad of hero, sidekick, and tertium quid that is normally some kind of supernatural or magical helper. Throughout all this, M.'s methodology is selectively to list examples of whichever phenomenon is under discussion.

By page 108 he arrives at the topic of 'sex and marriage', a topic on which his approach has somewhat more to offer: to arrange his examples under this topic, he is forced to sub-divide it into sections on 'asexuality', 'sexuality as agon', 'predatory sexuality', and 'homoeroticism', which is helpful in that sexuality is not regarded as some simple, univocal category; the complexity of the topic is at least reflected in M.'s recognition that reducing the topic to a simple formula would be mistaken.

The final sections within chapter 2, reasonably enough, deal with 'Death and the hero' and 'Beyond death'. Immediately (pp. 120-2) we are bombarded with a hodge-podge of names and sources: the Iliad, an Albanian war-song, Q. Curtius Rufus, Saxo, Dryden, Henry Purcell, Mary Douglas, several Icelandic sagas, the French Cycle des Narbonnais, the Mahâbhârata, and Armenian epic are all cast about in the first two pages. This is perhaps M.'s style taken to an extreme: it is a dazzling display of wide reading, and yet the information conveyed seems entirely undigested. After this there follow the subdivisions that one has now come to expect.

All the remaining chapters of the book continue in a similar vein, sub-dividing the figure of the hero into numerous topics and sub-topics and providing a broad range of examples of each feature. Chapter 3 tackles 'The framework of adventure', that is to say, the kinds of geographical ('The hero in space') and political ('The politics of heroism') circumstances through which the hero ventures; obsolete terms are thrown around ('A charactery of the quest hero'), various Jungian archetypes (sovereigns, women) are mixed up with Proppian actants (helpers), along with various jargon (temporality, spatiality, sequentiality), though without any appreciation of its implications. Chapter 4 moves on to heroic speech, gestures, and personal characteristics; this is where mention is made of loci classici such as Patroklos' donning of Akhilleus' armour. Chapters 5 and 6 cover the actants that surround the hero (trickster, fool, smith, antihero, etc.--the word 'actant' is mine, and I use it loosely), and the liminal status of the hero (between life and death, immature and adult, animal and divine); and a final chapter seems to be the repository for other miscellaneous observations that M. has to make about 'the' hero and psychoanalytic approaches to myth. (Introduction, p. xii: 'Finally I return to the patent power of the epic mode itself and, in a cinematic and unsystematic fashion, review the various epic forms that allow the hero to astound us again.')

Stylistically M.'s writing is difficult and obscurantist. From the opening pages to the end the reader is confronted with self-indulgent and self-consciously esoteric language, sometimes imitating French critical theorists, sometimes earlier intellectual strains. Few will have the willpower to persevere through this self-consciously difficult, abstruse style. M. appears to cherish an ambition of emulating Lycophron.

Gratuitous words, phrases, and quotations in languages other than English without any translation are also densely arrayed through the book. Just in the introduction we find the following: p. vii: basileos [sic] kai autokratôr Rhomaiôn [sic], aristoi (not in connection with the Greek world); viii: archê, stoff [sic]; ix bios; ix: idéologie, fonction guerrière, système; xi: völkisch; xii: Sohnes Todt. At the end of the introduction (p. xiv) the reader may not at first be bewildered to find two untranslated quotations, one in Old Icelandic, the other in what I suspect to be mediaeval Romanian; some liberty is to be allowed in epigraphs, after all. But in fact this is M.'s style throughout the book. One finds phrases like fornaldarsögur (p. 50; the translation, given on p. 46 as 'tales of far-off times', is one of the occurrences of the word that is not indexed; to boot, the word is spelt differently there) and quotations like unde mîr sin houbet her für mich trüege (p. 227). Readers who cannot understand these offhand had better make sure to have Old Norse and Middle High German dictionaries by their side before they start reading; but they should also add dictionaries of Latin, French, Old French, Irish, and Welsh to the pile. Indeed the only languages that are consistently translated into English all the way through are Ancient Greek, Old Spanish, and Georgian.

M. insists on using the most 'authentic' and therefore least-recognisable names for all characters, and titles of works are never translated. Akhilleus may be recognisable to the un-Greeked reader, but what about Medb (for Mab or Maeve), T(órr (for Thor), and Ód(inn (for Odin)? There are especial problems with the Old Icelandic elements in M.'s book. A reader without Old Icelandic may assume that berserkr is a misprint, may well be unable to read the letters 'thorn' and 'eth' used in that language (even a grammar of the language would include guidance on this point!), and may well not realise that Old Norse and Old Icelandic are in fact the same language. But even the reader with Icelandic will encounter irregularities both in the spelling (e.g. 'Sinfjotli' for 'Sinfjo,tli', p. 82) and in the alphabetisation of the index (thorn correctly comes after Z, but Ó and eth are not alphabetised separately from O and D, as they would normally be in Icelandic).

The methodology as I have described it, to cite examples of particular topics and categories created by twentieth-century theoretical writings on myth, make the function of the book unclear. I cannot envisage the book being read by a general reader, because of its abstruseness; and I cannot imagine it being a scholarly resource for research. Part of the reason for this is M.'s methodology; another part is its selectiveness; another part is the fact that the index is, regrettably, incomplete. Since there is no bibliography (all sources are cited in copious endnotes), this fault is particularly obtrusive: the reader wanting to track down M.'s discussion of a particular character, or a particular text, may have little luck.

Yet a further issue for those using the book for scholarly purposes is that M. avoids discussing specific epics individually. References to a given epic will be scattered throughout the book. This is, to be sure, a standard part of the methodology of the particular kind of comparativist school to which M. subscribes; but it is a serious fault nonetheless. At no point will the reader find any guidance on the social, cultural, literary, or political context in which a particular epic originated; for M.'s programme revolves around the task of pinning down 'the' hero, delineating some imagined archetype that acts as a template for all epic heroes. That this is a fruitless task will be readily imagined when one considers what parallels might exist between, say, Virgil's Aeneas and the Icelandic Njal, and then tries to imagine what profit is to be gained by finding something in common between them. Even if some useful point of comparison or differentiation is found, how will this tell us anything about the socio-cultural or literary context of other heroes?

M.'s ambition is from the outset one that is doomed to an appearance of simply listing the knowledge gained from a vast amount of reading. The breadth of the book is from a certain point of view admirable, but it does not gel together in such a way as to contribute to the interpretation of any one epic, or any one hero. This is not helped by the secondary sources upon which M. draws: he cites little that is written on a single specific text, and very little indeed that has been written since 1980.

However, possibly the most serious problem with the content of M.'s book is his treatment of women. For M. there can be no such thing as a female epic hero (or heroine). Outrageously for a book on this topic, he makes absolutely no reference to the mediaeval German epic of Kûdrûn; and though the Nibelungenlied is discussed frequently, there is no index entry for Kriemhild, who utterly dominates the second half of that epic. A particularly revealing slip is in the index entry for Njal's Saga: the entry begins, 'Njáls saga: evil woman in, 118, 126 ....' It will come as no surprise that there is no matching entry for 'evil men' in Njal's Saga. Under the index entry for 'female characters' there is a reference for 'woman warrior', which turns out to be a section on Amazons and various equivalents, but there is far more to female aspects of heroism than is covered by such a narrow view of heroism. For example, no one who has looked into the figures of Penelope and Helen and their κλέος, or into Deborah Lyons' work on heroine cult,5 or into the Hesiodic Catalogue of Women can doubt that speaking only of men in early Greek epic is missing much more than half the story: in the wake of the work of Lyons and other such as Katz, Felson-Rubin, M.L. West, Murnaghan, and Doherty,6 it is frankly impossible to speak of concepts of heroic identity in Greek epic without considering female heroic identity. Yet the reader will find not a single mention of Penelope, Helen, Klytaimestra, or other heroines in this book.

The book is esoteric but not innovative, and has nothing to contribute to the understanding of individual texts. It may well represent a more advanced state of scholarly ideology than Joseph Campbell's early work, as the blurb on the inside covers suggests; but many things have happened to the study of mythology, and even more to the study of particular epics, since Campbell. M. simply ignores work that has been done on specific epics; instead he prioritises broader, less fact-laden, writing about myth, and the result is not one that can be recommended.


1.   E.g. Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson (1961), The Types of the Folktale: A Classification and Bibliography (2nd revision), tr. and enlarged Stith Thompson, Helsinki; Vladímir Propp (1968 [1928]), Morphology of the Folktale (2nd edition), tr. L. Scott, revised L.A. Wagner, Austin and London.
2.   Joseph Campbell (1949), The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Princeton.
3.   J.E. Fontenrose (1966), The Ritual Theory of Myth, Berkeley.
4.   J.-P. Vernant (1988 [1973]), 'Tensions and ambiguities in Greek tragedy', in J.-P. Vernant and P. Vidal-Naquet, Myth and Tragedy in Ancient Greece, tr. J. Lloyd, New York; Daniel Madelénat (1986), L'épopée, Paris.
5.   Deborah Lyons (1996), Gender and Immortality: Heroines in Ancient Greek Myth and Cult, Princeton.
6.   Marylin Katz (1991), Penelope's Renown, Princeton; Nancy Felson-Rubin (1994), Regarding Penelope, Princeton; M.L. West (1985), The Hesiodic Catalogue of Women, Oxford; Sheila Murnaghan (1987), Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey, Princeton; L.E. Doherty (1995), Siren Songs, Ann Arbor.

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