Sunday, 1 February 2015

My Very Own Epic: Part 1

The Lineaments of my Own Face
A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that that patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.
Jorges Luis Borges, in the Afterword to his collection Museum, translated by Andrew Hurley.

Way back in distant 2013, I wrote a few posts about how to use different literary genres to help you understand someone else’s worldview. And then I made a quiz about it, but I don’t think the quiz exists any more (not my doing: maybe there’s a time limit). Leah Libresco picked all of this up and featured it on Unequally Yoked, too: it even made one year’s Turing Test. (The post to which featured it links has some interesting discussion in both the post proper and the comments, if you’re interested.)

In case you forgot about all that, or didn’t know it happened in the first place, my idea was basically this: genres with very specific conventions can be a good way of framing your understanding of a worldview you’re wondering about. The epic in particular requires its writer to incorporate a lot of elements of the writers’ own worldview: it has divine intervention, so what are the divinities in question and how do they intervene?; it has an underworld, so what would count as an underworld in this worldview?; its protagonist is supposed embody the most important virtues, so what virtues are those, and how would they appear in a narrative? So if I’m confronted with someone else’s worldview, I could try and work out what it’s epic would look like; this would force me to ask specific questions of it, and that might yield some interesting results. But there’s an important second step: you should also ask which genre would best express that worldview. The epic might distort the worldview too much: if the important parts of a worldview are interpersonal relationships, then the epic will be less useful than a romance novel (in the sense of love story) or murder mystery might be, because these two focus a lot on interpersonal stuff. I ended those posts with a second question—what would my epic look like, or what would your epic look like?—but that was secondary to the practice of figuring out what someone else’s epic looks like.

But what I never did, at any point, was actually perform this exercise where anyone could see me do it. I took a lot of examples from existing epics to talk about their worldviews, but that’s backwards to the exercise. I never did actually say what a Marxist’s katabasis would look like or how a libertarian might use the in media res beginning. And of course this exercise is a lot easier to me than it might be to most, since I created it out of my own strengths: a pretty strong sense of the epic conventions, and how the early modern writers used them; an obsession with understanding other people’s worldviews (and I hope some skill at it). So other people—that is, you, my readers—might find it helpful if I actually walk you through the process.

However, I plan on cheating. I’m going to describe to you what my epic would look like. This means I can talk about it all a lot more extensively, but it loses something for it: the actual work of figuring stuff out. There are two reasons I’ve chosen to do this: 1) I asked Leah at UY to do the same in the comments of her blog (long story: I was asking earnestly, but I was also kinda maybe mostly lampooning the other commenters a little?), and it’s not at all fair to ask her to do that if I’m not willing to do it myself, and 2) the question has been bothering me for a good while now and I felt compelled to get it out of my system.

But there’s something else, too: it seems rather presumptuous to plan someone else’s epic. Of course I talked about this in the original posts, but I found I was balking when it came to trying the exercise. I have no issue doing it in private, for my own purposes, but to come out and try to tell another person’s story on my blog, just as an exercise? It seemed too much. True, I have no problem explicitly trying to work through someone’s worldview in public; and true, I could preface the epic the way I try always to preface those attempts, saying, “This is how I understand what this person is saying, and please correct me if I’m misrepresenting anything.” Maybe I’m being over-scrupulous. I could also try it for an abstraction—postmodernism, American libertarianism, nerdfighter-ism, transhumanism—which would hopefully not try to speak for anyone in particular. Or, I suppose, most people for whom I might attempt this are far more famous and secure than I am anyway, so it probably doesn’t matter to them if I do this: Richard Beck, or Judith Butler, or David Deutsche, or John Green. Anyway, reasonably or not, I felt uncomfortable, and it seems easier and better to put my own ideas out in this form than someone else’s when I might misrepresent them. Watch this space, I suppose; I may yet show my attempt to do this for someone else’s worldview, which is really the point.

Of course, you are quite free to do it yourself; in fact, I suggest you give it a shot before reading the next three posts, so that my own responses don't bias you. Also, in future, I might attempt any or all of the following: exploitation flick, YA dystopia novel/film, zombie apocalypse film, murder mystery novel, supernatural horror novel, western film, romantic comedy; I might even try computer games, like a first-person shooter, a role playing game (maybe massively multiplayer, maybe not), or a strategy game (either turn-based or real-time). But for now, the epic.

A few notes before we get any further: some of these posts will discuss depression, and one will discuss suicide. I’ll give content warnings for those posts, but I want to give you a chance to turn back now. Second and far less important, I should give credit to Rich Burlew’s articles on worldbuilding for tabletop rpgs; a lot of my approach here is based on his approach there.

I’ll end this introduction with the epic conventions I’ll be considering; I mentioned them all in my first post about epic conventions, but this presentation might be easier for you to follow. Bear in mind that these are related to early modern epics and their descendants; I'm sure classicists won't quite recognize this list.

Epic conventions I will discuss:
  • katabasis, meaning a descent to the underworld; for instance, in Paradise Lost Satan is thrown into Hell, and in Lord of the Rings the Fellowship go into the Mines of Moria, and then Gandalf falls from the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm
  • divine intervention (of some kind); for instance, in Homer’s Odyssey Poseidon and Athena perpetually interfere, while in the Lord of the Rings Gandalf himself is technically a minor angel
  • references to new discoveries and inventions, usually scientific or geographic in nature; for instance, in Paradise Lost there are many mentions of Copernican astronomy and the “invention” of gunpowder, while Wade Davis’s One River is actually just about scientific discovery
  • references to history; for instance, The Faerie Queene has ample reference to English history, and there’s a strange case in Paradise Lost, because when an angel gives Adam a vision of the future, all of that future is history for the reader and author
  • a vast scope, often in terms of space and time but not necessarily; for instance, Paradise Lost is literally about the history of the universe, while The Faerie Queene is a comprehensive guide to virtue and not, say, geography
  • an “aristocratic” protagonist, by an ancient and early modern sense of aristocratic; for the Greek’s, this literally means an aristocrat, but the anarchist and egalitarian Tolkien had hobbits
  • a protagonist who embodies, or comes to embody, virtues valued by the writer/writer’s society; this is literally the point of The Faerie Queene, but even in the Iliad we have the brave Achilles and in the Odyssey with have the crafty Odysseus
  • the central event is of great historical or mythical importance; Paradise Lost, obviously, involves the creation of both the world and sin, but One River has the formation of a field of science; this qualification becomes a bit strange or strained in more contemporary fantasy works, though I’d note that as the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise became more and more like an epic, it also put the fate of piracy itself in jeopardy
  • several digressions, either narrative (flashbacks) or literal (getting lost); in the Faerie Queene the knights are always straying from the path of virtue, which gets them into trouble, while in the Greek epics digressions tend to be the point of the story, such as Odysseus trying to get home but consistently being forced into unwanted adventures
  • the use of epithets; Achilles is “lion-hearted” in the Iliad, while in The Faerie Queene St. George is almost always called the Red-Cross Knight instead of his real name
  • beginning in media res, that is, in the middle of the action, with flashbacks periodically filling in the narrative; Paradise Lost opens with Satan being cast into Hell, with the war in heaven and the creation of the universe described later, and One River begins with the latest generation of ethnobotanists, alternating chapters between the author’s own adventures and those of his precursors
  • catalogues of objects; lists of trees, or of demons, or of dogs, or of food, or of weapons, or of warriors… in The Faerie Queene Spenser lists trees native to England so the reader knows where the story takes place, but it’s hard to tell why Ovid decided to name of each of Acteon’s hounds
  • ekphrasis, meaning the description of pieces of art; in the early modern period particularly, literature was very self-reflective and had a high view of art, so it tended to include descriptions of it constantly
  • a description of the dawn; Ovid and Virgil did it, so everyone else does; however, it notably appears in both The Lord of the Rings and The Pirates of the Caribbean
  • a half-woman half-snake being, usually with the woman part above the waist and the snake part below; often evil and a boundary guardian; in The Faerie Queene, she is the monster Errour, representing a straying from the path (and the Catholic Church), while in Paradise Lost, she is Sin itself, and also guardian of the gates of Hell; the Narniad includes the Lady of the Green Girtle, who becomes a giant snake
  • a talking tree, or a person that had been transformed into a tree; in The Faerie Queene this is a man who had been seduced by the witch Duessa (also the Catholic Church) and turned into a tree for his mistake, but in Lord of the Rings these are Ents, reflecting Tolkien’s love for trees, environmental leanings, and (possibly) friendship with C. S. Lewis (as I read somewhere that Treebeard is a surrogate for Lewis in the novel, while Professor Kirke is a surrogate for Tolkien in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)
Epic conventions I won’t discuss:
  • twelve books; because Virgil wrote the Aenead in twelve books, so all the early modernists decided they should, too, though as far as I know most of them failed to do so
  • verse; epics are traditionally written in verse, but no one wants to read a verse epic these days and so even those few people who do write epics don’t write them in verse
  • heroic couplets; see above
  • invocation of the muse; most epics, in the traditional sense, start with an invocation of the muse; this can be very interesting, and can reveal a lot about the poet, but it sounds stilted to us now, so I don’t plan to include it

*Wade Davis probably did not mean to write a conventional epic when he wrote One River: Explorations and Discoveries in the Amazon Rain Forest, but it meets pretty much all of the criteria. I say he probably didn't because a lot of the criteria seem entirely accidental, and because almost no one intends to write a conventional epic any more, because almost no one even knows what that is. But the specific tropes do seem to crop up a lot: even the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has a lot of them, especially in the second and third movies (especially if you're willing to include Will's father, when he becomes part of the ship, as a talking tree). I'll include both as examples because a rigid definition is unnecessary, but for the purposes of the exercise I'm going to be stricter on myself.

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