1. What is it?

An epithet is a form of accepted nickname that can be added to, or used instead of, a real name or noun.

It can be a description added to a name or object (e.g. ‘Peter the Great’) or a substitute for a name (‘The Good Book’ to refer to the Bible).

Epithets occur in real life and history.

In literature, they often appear in fantasies, epics, or when characters are controlled by fate (e.g. star-crossed lovers).

2. Why use it?

An object or person has become commonly known by this term.To add glory, fame, or infamy to a name, or give a nickname that summarises a character.

3. Examples

“I’m a bit busy this afternoon” Francis said, before explaining he had a meeting with Leo the Professor.

The early kings of England included William the Conqueror, Richard the Lionheart, and the unfortunately named Ethelred the Unready. Ethelred’s epithet is actually a play on words: whilst Ethelred means ‘noble counsel’, ‘unready’ originally meant ‘bad counsel’, reflecting Ethelred’s incompetence.

When he walked into the room the patients stopped, their hesitation not a sign of respect, but of fear. Some wondered whether his medical expertise went so far as to be able to hear the blood shift and hiccup in the staff’s hearts. What certainly was conspicuous was his power. They called him Dr Ratched, Ogre of the D Wing, and on occasion he even caught their whispers: “I won’t be able to while Ogre is here.” Within a facility built for care, fully grown adults were unable to summon the bravery to fight him. In short, The Ogre ruled.

4. Examples in literature

The Lord of the Rings
by J.R.R. Tolkien

Know Your Book

Title: The Lord of the Rings
Author: J.R.R Tolkien (1835-1910)
Published: 1954-1955
Language: English
Genre: Fiction; fantasy; epic; adventure
Plot: Frodo is left a ring by his uncle, Bilbo. However, this Ring of Power could cause great evil if in the wrong hands and so a group begins a quest to take it to the fires at Mount Doom where it can be destroyed. On the journey they encounter problems and enemies, including the armies of Sauron – who wants the ring in order to rule all – and an untrustworthy creature named Gollum.
Setting: Middle-earth
Characters: Frodo Baggins; Sam; Aragorn; Gandalf; Legolas; Boromir; Sauron

Excerpt from ‘The Fellowship of the Ring’, Chapter VII:

When all the guests were seated before his chair the Lord looked at them again. ‘Here there are eight,’ he said. ‘Nine were to set out: so said the messages. But maybe there has been some change of counsel that we have not heard. Elrond is far away, and darkness gathers between us, and all this year the shadows have grown longer.’
‘Nay, there was no change of counsel,’ said the Lady Galadriel, speaking for the first time. Her voice was clear and musical, but deeper than women’s wont. ‘Gandalf the Grey set out with the Company, but he did not pass the borders of this land. Now tell us where he is; for I much desired to speak with him again. But I cannot see him from afar, unless he comes within the fences of Lothlorien: a grey mist is about him, and the ways of his feet and of his mind are hidden from me.’
‘Alas!’ said Aragon. ‘Gandalf the Grey fell into shadow. He remained in Maria and did not escape.’

Skimming, Scanning and Basic Comprehension

1. About what is the Lord confused?
2. What power does Lady Galadriel have, and how is it limited?
3. Which phrase confirms that something bad has happened to Gandalf?  
Identifying Techniques

4. What narrative voice is used in The Lord of the Rings?
5. What epithets are used in the passage? Highlight them.
6. Light and darkness are common imagery techniques in The Lord of the Rings. How is darkness used in this passage? Underline the words that depict darkness.
7. The reader is being persuaded that Gandalf is in trouble. Which of the three persuasive techniques – ethos, logos, and pathos – is used to do this? 
Text Analysis

8. What does the term ‘Gandalf the Grey fell into shadow’ mean?
9. How does the mood and tone change between the first and third of the given paragraphs?
10. In what ways is Aragon’s line different from the two previous speakers?  
Provoking Opinion

11. What do you think will happen to Gandalf?
12. The Lord of the Rings is a fantasy book. What do you feel are the key factors in making a book a fantasy? What types of characters and settings do you prefer?
13. The Lord of the Rings is also a journey. Can you think of any other books that are based on a journey? What ideas or parts do you feel a plot based on a journey must contain?
14. For many people, the film adaptation of The Lord of the Rings has given them an idea of what these characters may look like. Do films affect the way in which you see characters?

The Iliad
attributed to Homer

Know Your Book

Title: Ἰλιάς (*trans: The Iliad)
Author: Ὅμηρος (Homer) (c.800 BC – c.701 BC)
Published: c. 8th century BC
Language: Homeric Greek
Genre: Epic poem, Homeric epic
Plot: After ten years of fighting, the Trojan War enters its final battles. Amongst the heroes on the battlefield are the likes of Achilles, Ajax, and Hector. Meanwhile, the Gods meddle in affairs, aiding their favourite warriors, until Zeus bans their interference. Amongst the many battles, Patroclus is slain, sending Achilles into a frenzy that will end the war but bring dishonour and the wrath of Gods upon him.
Setting: The Trojan War
Characters: Achilles; Ajax; Hector; Agamemnon; Paris; Menelaus

Excerpt from Book 1 (translated from Greek):

In answer to him spoke swift-footed brilliant Achilles: “Most glorious son of Atreus, most covetous of all, how shall the great-hearted Achaeans give you a prize? We know nothing of a hoard of wealth in common store, but whatever we took by pillage from the cities has been apportioned, and it is not seemly to gather these things back from the army. But give back the girl to the god, and we Achaeans will recompense you three and fourfold, if ever Zeus grants us to sack the well-walled city of Troy.” In answer to him spoke lord Agamemnon: “Do not thus, mighty though you are, godlike Achilles, seek to deceive me with your wit; for you will not get by me nor persuade me. Are you willing, so that your yourself may keep your prize, for me to sit here idly in want, while you order me to give her back? No, if the great-hearted Achaeans give me a prize, suiting it to my mind, so that it will be worth just as much—but if they do not, I myself will come and take your prize, or that of Aias, or that of Odysseus I will seize and bear away. Angry will he be, to whomever I come. But these things we will consider hereafter. Let us now drag a black ship to the shining sea, and quickly gather suitable rowers into it, and place on board a hecatomb, and embark on it the fair-cheeked daughter of Chryses herself. Let one prudent man be its commander, either Aias, or Idomeneus, or brilliant Odysseus, or you, son of Peleus, of all men most extreme, so that on our behalf you may propitiate the god who strikes from afar by offering sacrifice.”

1. Which of the following is not an epithet used in the passage?

a) Swift-footed Achilles
b) Godlike Achilles
c) The Great-hearted Achaeans
d) Brilliant Odysseus
e) Wide-ruling Agamemnon

2. Agamemnon’s attitude to Achilles is

a) appreciative
b) submissive
c) amiable
d) disdainful
e) defiant

3. Which of the following are not described via epithets in this passage?

a) Titles and authority
b) Qualities worthy of respect
c) Family connections
d) Physical appearance
e) Personality flaws

4. Achilles and Agamemnon view each other as

a) worthy opponents
b) foolish challengers
c) potential allies
d) irrelevant irritants
e) intelligent teachers

5. What plot device is hinted as being central to both The Lord of the Rings and The Iliad?

a) A feast
b) A festival
c) A death
d) A journey
e) A deception


5. Tasks

Task 1: Create epithets for 3 people you know.
Task 2: Write a scene in which at least one of the characters is referred to by an epithet. Although the exact background of the epithet does not need explained, the reasoning for it should be implied from the actions or words within the scene.