Genre, Convention, Parody, and the ‘Middle Flight’:
Heike monogatari and Chaucer

[excerpt from introduction]

With its large cast of characters, the Heike covers the social and geographical gamut from the highest courtiers and Buddhist clergy to simple fishermen on remote islands. The rivalry between the two clans, Taira and Minamoto, resulted in fighting over the length and breadth of the country, and affected the lives of all ranks and occupations; provincial warriors and lowly female entertainers are among those with important speaking roles. There is hardly a page of the work that does not rely largely on dialogue, which ranges in register from the highly rhetorical to the colloquial. Except in set speeches modelled after Chinese examples, the latter tone predominates: plain and pithy language that is clearly the forebear of modern spoken Japanese. This is the aspect of the Heike, too often neglected in discussions about its “epic” qualities, that distinguishes it sharply from the unrelenting “high style” of writers like Virgil, with their restricted epic vocabulary and exclusion of mundane topics. It was to the high style that Milton referred when he says, in the invocation to the Heavenly Muse at the beginning of his epic poem,

.... I thence
Invoke thy aid to my adventrous song,
That with no middle flight intends to soar
Above the Aonian mount, while it pursues
Things unattempted yet in prose or rhyme.

Chaucer and the contributors to the Heike usually fly at more modest altitudes. This is no disparagement, for they are in good company in this “middle flight”, a mixed style that enables them to make use both of the low (humble) and high (elevated) styles. [...]


Poetica 44 (December, 1995), pp. 23-40.
For an offprint of this article please contact:
Michael Watson, Faculty of International Studies, Meiji Gakuin University,1518 Kamikurata-cho, Totsuka-ku, Yokohama 244, Japan

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