“Sing to me, O Muse, of that versatile man…” So opens that grandest of Greek epic poems, The Odyssey, 12,000-plus lines of splendidly messy glory, a hodgepodge of textual interpretations, interpolations, and other intrusions on a song that dates back nearly thirty centuries.
We call The Odyssey an epic precisely because it is at heart a song, the oldest Greek word for which is epos. In later Greek, epos became the word for any sort of narrative, so that we now consider an epic to be a long narrative poem, often recited or sung before having been written down, that relates the deeds of a hero or heroes of history or legend. Thus The Odyssey is definitively an epic, as is its older martial brother, The Iliad. So is The Aeneid, even though it was originally a written production. The Mahabharata, the Kalevala, Beowulf—all are epics. Even Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s Song of Hiawatha counts, though it’s much shorter and lacks the thrills and spills of its genre mates.
When what might otherwise be an epic, allowing for a few adjustments, travels north and west of the Mediterranean, things happen. The Vikings sang and spun wonderful tales about the gods and their mayhem, but in the medieval period they preferred history. So it is that a saga is a work in prose (mostly, anyway) that relates something that actually happened, or at least is said to have happened, usually involving kings and warriors. The greatest of these Icelandic and Norse sagas, by my lights, is a multigenerational true-crime story set in medieval Iceland, The Saga of Burnt Njal, so bloody that it would make Quentin Tarantino blush.
The Norse word “saga” is related to our “saw,” as in “old saw,” something an old-timer would say. The classical distinctions between it and epic fall on two axes: one is prose, the other poem; one is based on fact, the other not necessarily and even not likely so. But those distinctions have long been blurred. A learned article from 1922 in the august journal Modern Philology, for instance, is called “The Nibelungen Saga and the Great Irish Epic,” even though the former is a poem of 2,379 verses and thus as much of an epic as the Irish Táin Bó Cúailnge, that fine celebration of cattle rustling and its discontents.
Nowadays, “saga” and “epic” are used interchangeably to mean a work, usually fictional or filmic, that is sprawling, colossal, and otherwise staggeringly great. They’re typically terms of art in commerce, not literature. In 1977, looking for a Thanksgiving hit to match ABC’s January smash Roots, NBC cobbled together Francis Ford Coppola’s then-two Godfather films, called the seven-plus-hour edit The Godfather Saga, and ran it over four nights. The edits were heavy, as were the ad breaks; Coppola wasn’t happy, but he needed the money to finance another massive, well, epic, Apocalypse Now. In 2016, HBO reedited the films to allow some of the more adult material to remain, calling the result The Godfather Epic. To this we can say only, as a hero of epic and saga alike would not, we surrender.