The return of the epic

Emily Beswick praises epic scope in a culture of brevity

Matt Healy from The 1975 (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“It is a curse having the epic temperament in an overcrowded age devoted to snappy bits,” wrote J.R.R Tolkien prophetically in 1944. The author of The Lord of the Rings never experienced the world of the five-second snapchat or 140-character tweet, but his words seem to resonate on an extraordinary level today.

One of the chief reasons why The Lord of the Rings is so loved—and cursed by some—is the sheer length of the text. Tolkien’s blend of breath-taking fantastical scope with a reverent attention to detail is something that J. K. Rowling has recaptured in more recent times. The irresistibility of the Harry Potter and Middle Earth universes lies in the minutiae of invented languages, species and landscapes which form an epic, self-contained realm of imagination. Paradoxically, the richer the fantasy world, the greater opportunity there is for sequels: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and Rogue One: A Star Wars Story this year have both grown out of storylines unexplored in the ‘original’ stories.

As the big screen leads, so the small screen follows. Game of Thrones undoubtedly echoes the epic visual fantasy of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, but the television format also lends itself to even greater possibilities. The TV box set is the ultimate visual epic, as a potentially limited three-hour film can be spun out into a twenty episode series—or longer. There are even fewer constraints on the number of plot digressions and red herrings, allowing the audience to immerse themselves in a slow-burning narrative.

And so to music. Much is often made in music journalism columns of the imminent “return of the album”, after the dark years of 89p iTunes downloads. Yet I think there is a case for designating 2016 a vintage year for albums, and especially for long, epic quests of albums that require at least an hour of listening. The name of the 1975’s I like it when you sleep, for you are so beautiful yet so unaware of it is a portend of the album epic to follow: frontman Matt Healy challenged listeners to “sit through an hour and fifteen minutes and seventeen songs… it’s quite an emotional investment.” A diverse range of genres is traversed, but at a remarkably languid pace only possible in an album with so much sonic space. Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo is a similarly sprawling affair, while Beyoncé’s Lemonade weaves together both visual and musical strands into a cultural event of unparalleled scale.

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Meanwhile, my favourite album this year, Miranda Lambert’s The Weight of These Wings, is an unexpected double album that recounts Lambert’s emotional response to her recent divorce from fellow country music star Blake Shelton. Instead of a vengeful tirade against her ex, Lambert produces a poignant self-examination, dividing the twenty-four songs into the exterior and interior of her personality: “the nerve” and “the heart”. The stages of pain, acceptance and finally release are documented not as an assured process, but as a slow, uncertain journey of false starts and dead ends. Time is used on these lengthy albums as a tool for self-reflection and growth.

To return to Tolkien, the “snappy bits” he criticised back in the 1940s were part of the growing influence of American popular culture in Britain, which many believed was threatening our national identity. Indeed, the epic has always had a sense of nostalgia about it, hearkening back to an era where we had time to absorb culture at a slower pace. Lord of the Rings always seems to come back into fashion when this feeling is felt most acutely: the novel was reprinted and rehabilitated in the 1970s, as a reaction against technological revolution took hold.

In 2016 there is a lot to be said for escaping the instantaneous gratification of clickbait and Facebook with stories which require time and commitment. Perhaps one of the most radical cultural acts you can do nowadays is shut yourself away from the rest of the world and read Lord of the Rings.