Sunday, 1 February 2015

My Very Own Epic: Part 2

There Are Many Paths to the Edge of Night
Home is behind, the world ahead,
and there are many paths to tread
through shadows to the edge of night,
until the stars are all alight.
J. R. R. Tolkien, Lord of the Rings

Content warning: depression.

Let’s dive right in to planning my epic. I’ll break it up into a few posts to keep them shorter and more manageable; the divisions are arbitrary.

Digressions are the first I’ll consider because they’re structural. Epics are often characterized by digressions from the main story, either because a character takes up pages and pages to discuss their backstory or because the protagonists get lost or are tempted to stray from the course. Way back, when I made the quiz for this, Leah responded to the prompt about digressions, noting that she was sorely tempted to overlook opportunities to help others when they varied from what she thought was the bigger picture or narrative. I suggested in the comments of her post that epics probably wouldn’t suit her, then, but an anti-epic might, where the real crux of the story was in the digressions, not what at first appeared to be the main arc. It would be worth considering how to structure such a story, though; the climax would be pretty anti-climactic if it became clear it was no longer the point, right? Perhaps it might be more accurate to say that the quest the protagonist thought she was on might not be the quest she needed to be on, and so what at first seem like digressions turn out to be the main direction of the narrative, and attempts to turn back to the main narrative turn out to be digressions. But as compelling as such a story sounds, that idea is in response to what Leah said, not what I might want to say. Instead, I would use digressions to talk about other people’s stories. Structurally, they would be a way of breaking out of the protagonist’s way of looking at the world; other characters would divert him or ask him for help, and in these encounters he would have to acknowledge that they exist and are different from him. He would be changed by these encounters, so that as he moved back to his quest he’d be better equipped to deal with it. I’m a little bit worried about the implication that you should help others because you’re better for it yourself, but I’ll let that rest for now: that sort of issue is always a problem in fiction.

An early consideration would obviously have to be the event or events I’m depicting. An epic’s plot is supposed to be of great historical or mythical import, but I can’t think of any such stories that have a particular impact on me or my thinking. I don’t have enough attachment to Canada’s history or national myths for those to work. No particular philosopher is quite enough for me to get worked up about. I’m Protestant, but as much as I might like to write set something set in the Reformation one day I don’t feel animated by its conflicts; Catholicism is just one of many worldviews that don’t work, as far as I’m concerned, and I don’t especially esteem most of the period’s Protestant thinkers. I’m Christian, but I have trouble seeing any particular Biblical episode that would work for me; even if there was one, I’d be hesitant to approach it. My field, then? Library science, let’s say? There’s little there that works for me, either. These days, of course, epics can be fantasies or science fiction, in which case you can simply design an event in that world that founds a nation or something. Let’s set this aside for the moment.

What would the protagonist’s virtues be? An epic’s characters must embody the virtues of its culture, either throughout (the Greek epics) or by the end (Faerie Queene). Compassion is the first virtue I would like to see people value more highly, and I mean compassion as distinct from empathy alone. Although I care a lot about trying to understand how other people think and feel (intellectual empathy), compassion requires personal investment in the emotional well-being of people in addition. Further, I think you can only be truly compassionate if you recognize that you don’t completely understand other people; they’re different in certain world-shaping ways that we can only approach understanding, and even then that takes a lot of time and effort. Elsewhere I’ve called this a proper attitude to difference; if you extend it past attitude into metaphysics, it might be nominalism, but we don’t need to go that far for the epic. Another virtue would be a Quest orientation, meaning 1) preparation to dealing with existential questions complexly; 2) openness to change; and 3) a positive view of doubt. This is drawing from Richard Beck; also drawing from Richard Beck would be a face-first approach to death and the fear of death. Tied up with these, the protagonist must, or must learn to, acknowledge and love the Other without forgetting that it is Other. Lately I have also been thinking about the existentialist idea of authenticity, which I tend to think of more as responsibility. By this I don’t mean I’m a disciple of Sartre, but I do think we should own our opinions and decisions, admitting that we don’t have perfect reasons for thinking what we think and that, at some point, we made a choice in our ideas. I think these virtue lend themselves well to the epic, fortunately: Quest is appropriate for obvious reasons, as is facing death and the kind of courage it requires. Openness to the Other could easily be incorporated in a story with lots of travel and unusual people and places. Compassion already corresponds to how I saw digressions, and characters in epics must make difficult choices, too, for which they might or might not take responsibility.

On to katabasis: one of the more iron-clad conventions, almost all epics involve a descent to the underworld, which describes the journey to this underworld and often describes the underworld itself. This might be a digression or it might be fundamental to the whole story. The katabasis depends a lot on the setting, I think, so it cannot be pinned down before I pick a setting. But whatever the underworld turns out to be, it would be a metaphor for depression; indeed, in a certain setting, it could literally be depression. It could always be both: the protagonist, upon descending to the underworld, might simultaneously develop depression. This reminds me of an idea I had for katabasis before: the underworld to which the protagonist might descend could very well be the world we live in now. There’s precedent for this: our world is supposed to be Fallen. Paradise Lost missed an opportunity there; I agree that Satan’s defeat and plunge makes a catchy opening for the epic, but he could have depicted, in the Original Sin, an entire world in free-fall. Do not get me wrong: I love this world we’re in. But to many people it might well look like the underworld. At any rate: whatever the underworld is, it is a metaphor for depression, and the sorts of ailments in the world to which depression can make one sensitive.

A description of the dawn is easy after that: when a person has depression, mornings are supernaturally difficult to face. When at my worst, I was utterly miserable any time I was awake early enough to see the sun rise. When recovering, I was usually excited and thrilled to see the sun rise, those rare times it happened: to be able to be awake, and really awake, before dawn made me feel filled with possibility. So one or both of these feelings would be a filter for describing the dawn.

And divine intervention. Epics pretty much always contain divine intervention; a secular epic might do so metaphorically, but it stills seems almost indispensable. It ties into some of the other conventions: scope (contains the divine world) and import (if the gods intervene, it must matter). How would I handle this? Well. Look: I’m not the sort to see miracles in the world, except to say that the world itself, in its entirety, may constitute such. Otherwise, to point to a particular event and say, “God did this,” does not seem to me to be a helpful habit of thought. I’ve written about my feelings on this topic before. I live in a year of Holy Saturdays. It feels like there’s a God-shaped hole in the world, and I don’t mean that humans have a desire for God but don’t know it; I mean that the world lacks compassion, justice, fairness, truth, love, sense. In what way could make epic thus have divine intervention? In a fantasy world I suppose I could have fantasy gods—and that might be a great solution! I have some ideas for that!—but let’s say, for now, that what draws me so much to the idea of the Other is that that is the closest I can come to approaching God: some radically different thing which I cannot hope to understand, which stands gulfs and leagues away from me even if it stands next to me or, for that matter, in my own heart (since I think, to some extent, we are Other to ourselves, too). Divine intervention is thus, precisely, what we get when we open ourselves to the Other: that is, to the stranger, to the recognition that our friends aren’t precisely who we thought they were, and to the strange unfathomable world. This sense that divine intervention appears both as 1) a conspicuous absence of divine intervention and 2) opportunities to engage with the Other works well with what I planned for katabasis, virtues, and digressions.

Let’s move on to scope; what would fit in the epic depends on the setting, so it would be difficult to say at this stage. But I want to indicate something: while people normally say that epics are vast in scope, to me they seem to reach toward being complete in scope. This is impossible, obviously, but in some way the attempt is there: the Odyssey involves the whole Mediterranean world; The Faerie Queene was supposed to give a complete account of virtue, except that Spenser did not finish it; Paradise Lost famously justifies God to man, and that’s about as big as you can go; even Wordsworth’s Prelude, which may or may not be an epic, attempts a complete depiction of Wordsworth’s intellectual development (The Recluse, the poem for which the Prelude was to be the prelude, was going to be an epic properly speaking, but Wordsworth never started it). Perhaps, just perhaps, I might try to include a vast number of characters with different ways of looking at the world; the vast scope might be in the ways people can be different from one another.

References to discoveries and to history depend a lot on the setting, too. But, in broad strokes, I do think both discoveries and history are important. In particular, history can help us figure out where we are now to a significant extent; psychology is lately pretty important to me, as I think has become obvious, and there are a lot of questions I have that I don’t think are answered yet. What we know matters, and I’d like to show that. However, in a fantasy setting, I’d have to go with the more abstract relevance of discoveries: if there is something to discover, there’s something we don’t know. Our vision of the world is incomplete and is always and forever incomplete. (Compare this to Lord of the Rings, where scientific discoveries tend to be bad, associated with war, orcs, and Saruman, in keeping with Tolkien’s reactionary conservative environmentalism.)

This makes a good segue into the next point, but I’ll save that for the next post. End with a hint for the future, right?

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