Created By: LordGro on January 5, 2013 Last Edited By: ArcadesSabboth on June 13, 2013

Heroic Literature

Heroic epics, lays and sagas that aggrandize legendary heroes.

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Heroic literature is a genre of literature dedicated to the presentation of heroic legend. There are other genres (like mythography or pseudohistory) and media (like theatre) that conserve heroic legend, but this is the genre that really gave the word "heroic" its flavor: It tries to hold the audience in awe with the larger-than-life deeds and adventures of those famous people of the old time who were so much stronger and braver than folks today.

Heroic literature comes in different formats:

  • Heroic Lay a.k.a. Heroic Ballad: Narrative poem of short to moderate length that tells one episode or adventure from the career of a hero. It is the oldest format and already existed in oral form before writing. It is intended to be recited or sung to an audience and can be heard "at a piece."
  • Heroic Verse Epic: Narrative poem that is (much) longer and tells a more complex story than a Heroic Lay. It may tell a sequence of legendary events with a lot of characters and detail, or it may try to recount the life of a hero in its entirety. The earliest epics may have been composed orally by welding several heroic lays together, but the format was greatly furthered by the arrival of writing, which allowed poets and performers to keep track of much longer poems without their heads exploding (speaking figuratively). It is too long to be heard at a piece and therefore frequently divided into handy chapters or sections.
  • Heroic Tale and Heroic Prose Epic (a.k.a. Heroic Romance): Heroic legend as written prose narratives. While heroic legends certainly have been told in oral prose since the dawn of time, as a written genre this is actually the youngest type of heroic literature, as the format only became popular at a time when reading and writing was sufficiently widespread so that tales of ancient heroes were no longer exclusively intended for performance by professional singers or reciters.

Plotwise, heroic lays and epics revolve around one or several of three main conflicts:

  • Man vs. Monster: The simplest conflict that usually follows a Black and White Morality model: Good hero fights and vanquishes bad and ugly monster.
  • Man vs. Man: Much closer to common human reality, heroes in such conflicts often come away much less lustrous, as the morality model tends towards Grey and Gray Morality.
  • Man vs. Fate: In settings where gods are held responsible for human fortunes, this will often also mean Man vs. God(s). Differently from the other two conflicts, heroes can never actually win this fight. Rather, heroism in such kinds of stories is demonstrated by enduring the blows of fate with heroic determination.

Heroic Literature is one of the oldest genres of literature. In Europe, it eventually gave birth to the daughter genre of Chivalric Romance, which eclipsed Heroic Literature as the most popular genre in the High Middle Ages. It declined further and almost disappeared as a living genre around the Renaissance, but experienced a short revival in the wake of 19th century Romanticism, when there was a wave of collections, translations, remakes and emulations of heroic lays and epics.

Heroic Literature is also one of the most important inspirations to the modern Fantasy genre.

Epic poems that tell historical events are another genre that is strongly influenced by heroic poetry, but not part of it.

Examples of heroic literature:



Classical (ancient Greek and Roman)






Mesopotamia (Sumerian/Babylonian/Akkadian)



Quiché Maya
  • Popol Vuh: Prose epic (plus Sacred Literature)

Russian & Ukrainian


Community Feedback Replies: 24
  • January 5, 2013
    I intend to make Heroic Epic a redirect.
  • January 5, 2013
    I really think this is splitting things too fine. Legend seems more than adequate as it stands. It's possible that some of the description here could be mentioned there, but I really don't think we need two separate pages for this. People are likely to be confused enough with the distinctions between myth and legend.
  • January 6, 2013
    But is it really that confusing? IMHO Heroic Literature is a bona fide genre that has not very much to do with legends of saints (except that both can be classified as legend). I consciously limited the definitions of the various genres of legend in my Legend draft to the very basics, because I don't want that page to get much longer. A separate page like this one would be the opportunity to talk about the "heroic" genre in a little more detail.

    Some time ago there was an Heroic Epic draft that didn't go anywhere. This would be the page for Heroic Epics and a little more.
  • January 14, 2013
    What about parodies like The Rape Of The Lock?
  • January 15, 2013
    ^^ I certainly find it confusing. And I'm fairly familiar with a few of these. I don't think Legend should be limited. That will confuse people. I could see this as something separate, and often overlapping--a list of specific works, rather than cycles of legend. Thus Robin Hood would just go under Legend, because there's no unified work that defines him, but The Mabinogion would go under both, because it's both a cycle of legends, and a specific work.

    (That would also mean that we wouldn't need to hold up the Oral Tradition TRS any longer waiting on this.)
  • January 16, 2013
    ^^ I'd prefer to keep the Mock-heroic genre separate. I also deliberately excluded all chivalric (Orlando Furioso), historical (Pharsalia), and religious (Paradise Lost) epics.

    ^ My suggestion was not to limit Legend, but make it example-less. The whole works list would have to go. There would only be links to the relevant genres to which these works belong.

    I earlier said somewhere that Legend is a genre, but it really isn't [with the one exception of Legends of Saints -- because these started as a written genre to begin with]. Or if it is, then it's a very broad super-genre. I don't think it makes much sense to collect so different works as Sanskrit epics, Greek tragedies, The Life Of Milarepa and "The Pied Piper Of Hamelin" on one page.

    The right place to list all the works that are recognized as "source works" for a specific mythology is IMHO the relevant mythology page. I.e. Classical Mythology collects all Greco-Roman works that deal with Greco-Roman mythology and legend, without reduplicating the selfsame list on the Legend page under a subdivision "Classical Mythology". For I feel that is slightly redundant.
  • January 18, 2013
    I see what you're saying about the works list. At the same time, I still think that both Mythology and Legend should link to the mythology pages (Classical, Norse, Egyptian, Russian, Maya, Aztec, whatever) that contain the works of those cultures for those genres or super-genres. Mythology would also have a link to Sacred Literature, probably.

    Meanwhile Oral Tradition would have links to Legend, Mythology, Folklore, and Fairy Tale, but not to any particular works (since almost every work discussed on this wiki is written, with the exception of some jokes and bits of folklore which... well, don't have names or work pages, being oral).

    Are you thinking that the works list of "folk legends" would go on a Folklore or Fairy Tale page?
  • January 20, 2013
    To the Russo-Ukrainian category, Slovo o polku Igoreve (Lay of Igor's campaign) should be added, along with the specifically Russian, rather than still nondescriptly East Slavic, Zadonschina. The first is a XII century heroic epic in verse, about Prince Igor's war with the Cuman nomads, and the latter is XIV century, about Russians vs Mongols.
  • January 20, 2013
    I love this index and I want to see it grow. Bump.
  • January 20, 2013
  • January 20, 2013
    The Lord Of The Rings is definitely a good imitation of the heroic literature genre, but since it's not a presentation of a pre-existing legend I don't think it belongs on this page, in the same way that The Silmarillion wouldn't belong on the Mythology page.
  • January 20, 2013
    @Arcades Sabboth: I haven't made my mind up yet on where I would like to index folk legends. As I just wrote on the Legend YKTTW, I suggest I just launch the Legend draft as it is now.

    @aurora369: Those are entirely valid examples, but I suggest listing only actual pages on the wiki here. The number of "heroic" works in existence is obviously immense; but as this is primarily an index for wiki pages, it makes sense to limit ourselves to works that have a wiki page.

    @jamespolk: The Lord Of The Rings is Fantasy. It's not based on actual legends, and also a novel in form and style, not an epic.

    I guess the description could probably be condensed. The part about the different formats is a bit long.

    Also, I admit that Heroic Literature sounds a bit clumsy, but neither Heroic Epic nor Heroic Poetry does quite encompass everything in this field.
  • January 20, 2013
    What doesn't Heroic Epic encompass? A poem can be an epic.
  • January 21, 2013
    ^ Yes, but not everything on this page is in "epic" format: Poetic Edda is a collection of lays, not an epic. Mabinogion is a collection of prose tales, none of which is very long.
  • January 21, 2013
    If fantasy examples can be included, JRR Tolkien (who in his day job had to be expert in most of the above, and in the original languages) created his own heroic saga, long, self-contained, semi-mythological and spanning millenia - The Silmarillion. Sub-sagas within the Silmarillion cycle tick many of the above boxes - the story of Turin Turambar, for instance, is a tragic saga drawing on the ring Cycle, the Kalevala, Nordic eddas, the Mabinogion, and many more.
  • January 23, 2013
    @Lord Gro I'm not going to pick a fight over it or anything but it seems like The Lord of the Rings meets every criteria for Heroic Literature except "old". Consider that Beowulf is on the list, and that LOTR was written by a famous Beowulf scholar, in the same sort of style and with an Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.
  • January 23, 2013
    I think myth is more cosmic and deals with the deeds of gods or similar beings. Also it depends more on drawing pictures then on plot. Suppose I said that there was a giant duel between the summer god and the winter god and that the seasons shift according to who was prevailing. That would be the form of a myth; at least a subgenre of myth which might be called a "just so story".

    Legends, sagas, and other heroic literature is about mortals or near mortals(like fay, dwarves, tolkien style elves, whatever)rather then gods. Sometimes they have superpowers but other times they are just a Badass Normal. Usually the heroes come from the warrior class but that is not necessary.
  • January 24, 2013
    jamespolk and Ag Prov: "Not Old" isn't really a valid criterion, as you point out. The important difference is that The Lord Of The Rings and The Silmarillion are solely the creation of one man. This makes it mythopoeia -- very excellent mythopoeia IMO, which is why it even comes up, but true myths and legends are created by many, many people, often anonymously. The individual adaptations/versions have identifiable authors, but in a very real sense the underlying stories are "authored" by an entire culture or subculture, collectively.

    The poem Beowulf that we have had an author who composed that particular poetic version. But the story had many authors over time who had made many changes, interpretations, and additions. That one poet can't be credited with authoring the whole thing from nowhere.

    Age isn't necessarily required for this process; new legends can arise over just a couple years if people continue telling them and elaborating them. But the result is that no single person can be credited with entirely inventing them -- not even the person who first told the first version of the story, not by the time it really becomes legendary. Shared Universes (like the DCU and MCU) are the modern genre I can think of that seems to come closest to this process, because of the many authors who work in them. Maybe they could transform into legend, if it weren't for copywrite laws, who knows.

    Likewise, things can be really old without necessarily being legends -- it's not always easy to know when there's only one surviving copy, but some ancient works are known to be definitely non-legendary in origin, having solely one author who invented the whole plot (i.e. Plato's dialogues, many Roman plays, Nonnus' Dionysiaca, Euripides' Ion, and Lucian's True History).
  • February 1, 2013
    @jamespolk: Arcades Sabboth said it. I aimed for an index of narrative works that treat real-world heroic legend. Works "in the style of" heroic legends or myths belong to Mythopoeia.

    However, a work like William Morris' The Story of Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs from 1876 would probably belong here, as it is apparently a non-ironic attempt at a verse remake of Volsunga Saga.
  • March 14, 2013
    Is there anything left to do here?
  • March 15, 2013
    Take a hat.
  • June 13, 2013
    Thank you for giving this some new attention. What are your views on the name? Feedback here suggests not everybody knows what to make of Heroic Literature. If readers are going to be permanently confused about how this does not cover Heroic Fantasy, High Fantasy, or Mythopoeia, then ultimately Heroic Epic or Heroic Legend may be better, even if neither is quite accurate (at least in regard to the current defintion).
  • June 13, 2013
    I prefer Heroic Legend, if only because this seems to exclude Oral Narration otherwise.
  • June 13, 2013
    I prefer Heroic Legend, too.