The spiritual odyssey and the Renaissance epic

Date of Completion

January 1988


Literature, Classical|Literature, Comparative|Literature, English




The spiritual odyssey is a psychological voyage which leads to the religious perfection of the hero. It is an experiential form, the mythic core of which is the hero's choice between spiritual life and death. The content of the form depends on cultural definitions of religious values.^ The Odyssey and the Aeneid provided the Renaissance with literary models of the spiritual voyage. Through allegoresis, the motifs and images of the classical epics could be reconciled with Christianity. Through allegory, Renaissance poets used classical figures to present Christian versions of the journey of the soul. Because of the values of Renaissance Christianity, the hero of the Renaissance epic yearns for spiritual life, though he might paradoxically welcome biological death.^ The conflict between happiness in this world and life after death is presented in Catholic terms in the Italian epics of Ariosto, Vida, and Tasso. The Italian and classical epics were transformed by Spenser, Milton, and Bunyan into vehicles for Protestant thought. The decline of the classical and allegorical traditions after Bunyan fostered the growth of the novel and the death of the epic. In response to the rise of religious dissent and the flourishing of secular interests, novelists began to treat the hero's relation to this world rather than to the next; and the journey of the soul became more properly a voyage of the mind. ^