Mining, metalworking, and the epic underworld : the corruption of epic heroism and the emergence of commercial ethos as represented in the epic line from Homer to Milton /

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Tormey, Warren
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Middle Tennessee State University
I contend that economic realities and practices give shape to the epic form and define its motifs as much as the traditions and conventions of the genre that epic poets inherit and reinvent. Epic poetry is traditionally read as a repository for values associated with heroism in Western Civilization. My focus instead seeks to establish that the epic text also reflects and comments upon a culture's identity in economic and social spheres. Moreover, when biographical and historical details about the epic writer's life are available, these likewise help to reveal the pool of imaginative resources that the epic poet draws upon.
In this way, epic literature documents the economic and social lives of a developing tribal culture as much as it does the chivalric ethos or proto-mercantile dimensions, or the colonial ambitions or early industrial efforts of a more developed national entity. This pattern of economic and social development is evident in the "epic line" that connects the battle and underworld images in the pre-Christian works of Homer and Virgil, the anonymously composed tribalism depicted in Beowulf and chivalric grandeurs of the Song of Roland, the prolo-commercial travel narratives of Dante's Inferno and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the colonial subtext of Spenser's Faerie Queene, and the incipient industrial motifs used to depict Hell in Milton's Paradise Lost..
I read all of these texts with an eye on the economic and social systems which shape and are represented in them, and I locate the common symbol that connects the epic genre to the economic and social life of a culture in the symbols and imagery of metals and metalworking. Metals are the materials of empire, as they are essential and fundamental to a cultures immediate survival, as well as to its longterm economic health. They help to define and transform its social hierarchy, and most frequently represent the currency that defines its class system. Moreover, they figure prominently in the common epic motifs of battle (weapons), journey, underworld descent, and the articulation of social strata.
Likewise, mining is the activity that makes metals available to human commerce and industry, and it requires both a large-scale manipulation of the landscape and a descent into underworld regions. The significance of underworld imagery in epic is in part determined by the essential importance of mining and metalworking to cultures of varying degrees of development. Within the epic narrative, the underworld regions represent a problematic, morally ambiguous space where metals figure prominently and comment most vividly on the commercial and social ambivalences of the epic poet's world.
Whether represented by the prophetic visions worked by Olympian smiths, in the arms and armor donned by epic heroes, the currencies that both dictate the interactions within emergent mercantile societies and determine their moral standards, or in the weapons of warfare used by celestial rebels, metals constitute the essential imagistic substance of epic. They are drawn from subterranean recesses which shed light on the economic realities of the epic poet's world, and in the line connecting Homer and Milton the conjoined motifs of metals and the underworld depict important stages in a larger pattern of economic and social development in western civilization that proceeds in close conjunction with the perpetuation and reinvention of the epic genre.
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