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An epic simile is a long, explicit comparison of two highly complex subjects. Its purpose is to help the reader visualize the original subject while enhancing the formal tone of the epic, or long poem. The ancient Greek poet Homer is generally considered the creator of the epic simile, which is also known as the Homeric simile.
Similes, at their most basic, are simply direct comparisons of two different things, often using the words “like” or “as.” In the cliché, “He is as busy as a bee,” the last three words are a simile. All similes tend to compare the subject to something extremely familiar to the intended audience so that the scene is easily imagined.
Epics, on the other hand, are long, formal narrative poems such as Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad, Virgil’s Aeneid, and John Milton’s Paradise Lost. Every epic concerns serious events and heroic deeds, such as the Trojan War in the Iliad. Even mock epics, which treat trivial matters with the formality of an epic, contain epic similes to add to their satire.
Compared to a simple simile, an epic simile is more complicated and lengthy, frequently formed “like a . . . when it . . .” It enhances the poem’s formality and grandiose nature through its complexity. In book 22 of the Iliad, instead of stating that Achilles chased Hector, Homer compares them with a hunting simile, beginning: “As a hound in the mountains starts a fawn from its lair.”
While a regular simile typically compares only one object, an epic simile may draw similarities between several aspects of a person or situation. For example, in book 12 of the Odyssey, Homer describes the six-headed monster Scylla as a fisherman, waiting on a rock. In addition, the simile continues by comparing the men to fish, “writhing, gasping out their lives.”
Furthermore, an epic simile usually takes precedence over the story, simply because of the simile’s sheer size and complexity. Many epic similes last for several lines, as the author draws out the various comparisons. For example, both the hunting metaphor in The Iliad and the fishing simile from the Odyssey last for six lines.
Epic similes are occasionally confused with conceits, since both are lengthy, complex similes. Conceits were favored by the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century for their surprising subjects, such as the comparison of a flea bite to sexual activity in John Donne’s poem “The Flea.” The epic simile, on the other hand, simply paints an intricate picture without attempting to shock or surprise its readers.
In my experience, epic similes are one of the things that make people complain that a certain book, poem, etc. is "too hard." They get lost in the similes and can't find their way back.
I encourage my students to try different comprehension techniques as they are reading a difficult book -- one that helps a lot of people is to picture the action as a movie in your head. That can help you avoid being distracted by the epic simile, which may have its own subject and object that would not appear "on screen," so to speak.