Wednesday, June 3, 2009


The fantasy novel has always liked things of epic quality, things dramatic, immense and vast. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is often discussed as if it were the first truly epic fantasy story. Page-wise, the three-novel tale was not a short one. Yet, it was also gigantor in scope, spanning not only numerous landscapes, but many cultures, characters, and languages. As another epic feature, Tolkien’s story emphasized culturally significant issues, such as the nature vs. technology dichotomy, or the general WW II-era unease displayed in Tolkien’s frequent contrasts between the local and the foreign. Most importantly, though, the trilogy involves the biggest, grandest and most human of subjects; it’s all about life, death, friendship, loyalty, good, evil and war. And, of course, the Fate of the Universe - the nature and survival of the universe itself is always a solid indicator of something that is totally EPIC.

In The Neverending Story, the very existence of the universe disintegrates before The Nothing. Only Atreyu can save it, but while doing so he loses Artax to the Swamps of Sadness. It was heart-wrenching, and I’m not sure that I really ever got over this part of the movie, even as an adult.

So fantasy loves the epic. After all, there’s even a subgenre called epic/high fantasy.

Sci-fi isn’t immune either, with Asimov’s Foundation series or Herbert’s Dune saga being about as epic as you can get, spanning thousands of years, characters and cultures, with the latter mixing in some serious existential questions here and there for fun.

Also a fan of the epic-ness is the entire genre of metal. There’s no question that metal has always included mythical elements - plus its big 80s heyday coincided with the rise of Dungeon and Dragons (read more on metal and D&D here).

My favorite band in 6th-grade. And yes, I still think they rule.

While there actually is a subgenre called ‘epic fantasy metal,’ metal’s love and dalliance with fantastical and momentous themes shows up even in the art and songs of mainstream bands; it also positively saturates the more subgenre-oriented groups.

Ever popular in Tallahassee, Florida, land of my Master's degree.

So it makes perfect sense that metal has finally merged with the ancient epic. In particular, it has embraced one of the most famous and enduring epic stories known to us, the tale of the founding of Rome. Livy, the Roman historian of the late 1st century BCE, tells of the twins Romulus and Remus, exposed as infants and nursed by a she-wolf. Many accounts of twins or siblings end up with an insurmountable rift growing between them, oftentimes because one is good and the other is bad. Romulus and Remus seem to be relatively normal (if you count wolf-suckling as normal), at least up until they come into conflict over the foundation of Rome. Brother kills brother and, when all’s said and done, Romulus is the lucky guy to get a city named after him.

I’m not sure why this hasn’t happened more often, but lucky for us, there’s now a band out there called Ex Deo that has created a concept album about Roman history. It’s a death metal group that’s a side project of another band, but apparently they’re getting pretty popular among death metal connoisseurs. And it looks like, now that their new song about the 13th Roman Legion is out, even Italy is a fan. The lead singer recently said:

“Word of mouth has been spreading like wildfire worldwide about EX DEO at the moment! I didn’t think there were so many metal heads that were into the concept of the band and Roman history as much as I am. I was anxious to see the response of the people of Italy and Rome today and the media there has accepted us with open arms. Now with their seal of approval we can show the world ROME! [We have] another defiant track called 'Legio XIII.' It’s a song in honor of ROME's most devastating and lethal Legion ever assembled; the 13th Legion which helped bring Caesar to power.”

And so Roman epic becomes popular again. Hollywood tried to do the ancient epic it with Homer and Brad Pitt, but failed. Perhaps instead we can pin our hopes on Ex Deo. Check out the totally amazing video for their title track, ‘Romulus.’ For those without a death-metal-trained ear, the lyrics go along these lines: “Romulus, from the wolf's mouth, I feed eternity/ Romulus, with my brother's blood I opened wide the gates of time/ Standing at the hill cliff, a flock of birds crown me/ I am fathered by the god of war, I am the king of Rome/ Then his jealousy blooms, the envy to lead my people/ So perish everyone who shall leap over my wall!"

I can’t wait for the 13th Legion video!

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