Home is behind, the world ahead,
and there are many paths to tread
through shadows to the edge of night,
until the stars are all alight.
J. R. R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings
Let’s dive right in to planning my epic. I’ll break it up into a few posts to keep them shorter and more manageable; the divisions are arbitrary.
Digressions are the first I’ll consider because they’re structural. Epics are often characterized by digressions from the main story, either because a character takes up pages and pages to discuss their backstory or because the protagonists get lost or are tempted to stray from the course. Way back, when I made the quiz for this, Leah responded to the prompt about digressions, noting that she was sorely tempted to overlook opportunities to help others when they varied from what she thought was the bigger picture or narrative. I suggested in the comments of her post that epics probably wouldn’t suit her, then, but an anti-epic might, where the real crux of the story was in the digressions, not what at first appeared to be the main arc. It would be worth considering how to structure such a story, though; the climax would be pretty anti-climactic if it became clear it was no longer the point, right? Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the quest the protagonist thought she was on might not be the quest she needed to be on, and so what at first seem like digressions turn out to be the main direction of the narrative, and attempts to turn back to the main narrative turn out to be digressions. But as compelling as such a story sounds, that idea is in response to what Leah said, not what I might want to say. Instead, I would use digressions to talk about other people’s stories. Structurally, they would be a way of breaking out of the protagonist’s way of looking at the world; other characters would divert him or ask him for help, and in these encounters he would have to acknowledge that they exist and are different from him. He would be changed by these encounters, so that as he moved back to his quest he’d be better equipped to deal with it. I’m a little bit worried about the implication that you should help others because you’re better for it yourself, but I’ll let that rest for now: that sort of issue is always a problem in fiction.
On to katabasis: one of the more iron-clad conventions, almost all epics involve a descent to the underworld, which describes the journey to this underworld and often describes the underworld itself. This might be a digression or it might be fundamental to the whole story. The katabasis depends a lot on the setting, I think, so it cannot be pinned down before I pick a setting. But whatever the underworld turns out to be, it would be a metaphor for depression; indeed, in a certain setting, it could literally be depression. It could always be both: the protagonist, upon descending to the underworld, might simultaneously develop depression. This reminds me of an idea I had for katabasis before: the underworld to which the protagonist might descend could very well be the world we live in now. There’s precedent for this: our world is supposed to be Fallen. Paradise Lost missed an opportunity there; I agree that Satan’s defeat and plunge makes a catchy opening for the epic, but he could have depicted, in the Original Sin, an entire world in free-fall. Do not get me wrong: I love this world we’re in. But to many people it might well look like the underworld. At any rate: whatever the underworld is, it is a metaphor for depression, and the sorts of ailments in the world to which depression can make one sensitive.