“Epic" defines the dominant social order and is visible in a culture. One of the ways these aspects of an epic are defined is in the way they are expressed through artistic forms such as poetry. In Homer’s Iliad and The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, the most important values of each society are revealed through stories that reveal the most sacred aspects of culture, especially in terms of religion, as well as highlight through the interactions of characters within their societies the norms and standards of general behavior within society.
What emerges in a comparison between these two historically significant works is that each society had great value placed on spirituality and the divine, albeit in very different ways. Furthermore, both of these societies had differing views about what it meant for one to be heroic or noble that can actually be effectively paralleled. Although there are several differences in the social orders of each of these epics, there are some fundamental aspects of both societies that are in alignment with one another, which suggests that there might be some overarching truth that is sustained throughout the ages as it reflects concerns that are always present in our societies.
Despite vast differences, In The Iliad and The Canterbury Tales, which are works that encompass periods in world history that are incredibly different in almost every cultural respect (for example, one comes from a polytheistic culture whereas the other emerged from a distinctly monotheistic one) there are some elements of social order that are in synch with one another. One consistent theme between the works of Chaucer and Homer is the significance of the divine in everyday life. For the society reflected in The Iliad, the gods and goddesses had a direct hand in the mortal tribulations depicted and were central characters in the conflict and resolution. Homer’s sense of the dominant social order for his account of a time that was before his own had gods who were directly and explicitly involved with the lives of his characters. As a matter of course, the culture was directed by this presence and the characters understood themselves to be the pawns and charges of a host of gods and goddesses, oftentimes with conflicting needs. As an epic which directly reflects this social order, the culture presented in the Iliad is one that places man and the gods in direct communication and sometimes even battle with one another’s wills. This is an eternal and futile struggle, but one worth documenting and passing on as it speaks volumes about the volatility of this period.
In The Canterbury Tales, divinity is also an important issue and serves as the background the pilgrimage in the first place, although the influence of the divine is less keenly felt by far. Instead, since the social order of medieval times stressed the importance of an all-knowing god who was implied as a constant presence rather than directly seen, felt, and communicated with by mortals as in The Iliad. This lack of direct communication with god (not to mention he fact that this is just one, rather than multiple gods, all with conflicting viewpoints) changes the entire focus of the social order reflected in this epic poem. Instead of focusing on the god/mortal issues, the Canterbury Tales examines issues that are distinctly mortal and earth-bound in nature. Marriage, love, honor—all of these are issues that while based sometimes on religious principles, are not matters where god is directly in communication with the individual characters. The social order is thus the same in that divinity is a central driving force for the characters, but far different in scope as the religious and divine context is entirely different. These two epic accounts of social orders and cultures are, however, similar in the sense that the social orders presented recognize themselves as subject to the demands of a higher authority and neither are by any means secular. By nature of this fact, both tackle questions of god(s) indirectly by presenting cultural-based scenarios that provide complex points of analysis. For instance, in The Canterbury Tales, readers are forced to reflect on the nature of religion and God in the context of so many accounts of clergy dishonesty and in The Iliad, the characters try to work out how to best fulfill a destiny that the gods themselves have a direct hand in.
One striking similarity between these two social orders presented outside of the divinity issues is that of what is takes to define a noble or good person. In The Canterbury Tales, for instance, the Knight and his tale are seen as being representations of a culture that placed great emphasis on personal bravery, chivalry, loyalty, and fair treatment in love and war. Through the character of Achilles, the most valued aspects of a culture’s hero are explored as well, although there are differences since Achilles is arguably a flawed human being. Both cultures tend to place bravery and skill in war as important, although to varying degrees; since Homer’s world was much more likened to great periods of long, bloody war, the traits of a warrior as most valuable to the social order were emphasized. In Chaucer’s case, while the Crusades certainly were wars, the heroes in these stories were based on Christian concepts as well as a blend of older traditions that emphasized chivalry, for instance. In short, however, social order is greatly defined in an epic by its heroes and both the heroes of these tales (most notably the Knight from Canterbury Tales and various figures such as Averagus from The Franklin’s Tale as well) embody deeply-embedded cultural values—many of which can be easily extricated from the concepts of religion and divinity as discussed.
The concept of an epic also implies that there is a great task at hand; a quest that needs fulfilled. While in Homer’s case the quest is perfectly defined through the plot, in Chaucer’s, the quest varies by storyteller. However, no matter what the final end goal of the journey towards a great truth or ultimate destiny is, the passage to that end in any true epic cannot occur without broad references to cultural norms. Both of these stories, despite disparities in when they were written reflect several important truisms about the cultures they present. If we were to look closely, it would become immediately clear that many of the same basic values—the quest for heroes that most suitably define our culture and its social structure and values, as well as a keen desire to keep connected to our spiritual selves—is consistent with contemporary times. In other words, one addendum to the definition of epic that has been offered is its timeless nature. In revealing one historical culture, an epic should also reflect the current one.