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The Iliad–And What It Isn’t

Achilles Tends PatroclusSometimes there’s a book that you hear about all your life–bits and pieces. You think you know what it’s about. And then you actually read it–and it isn’t. Not quite.

The Iliad is one of those books. We briefly covered it in one of my college history classes, and I was required to read its “sequel,” The Odyssey.

Except that The Odyssey isn’t really a sequel to The Iliad. In fact, the two books are so different that some literary critics have claimed Homer couldn’t have written both. The Odyssey is fantasy to The Iliad‘s war novel. The Odyssey ends happily; The Iliad‘s ending is ambiguous enough that Aristotle pointed to Homer as the first Greek tragedian.

And there is no Trojan horse. (Here I’m hoping to hear gasps of horror from those who haven’t read the book.) Evidently there were so many versions of the Troy epic floating around ancient Greece that nobody really cared about the Trojan horse anymore. Or something like that. At any rate, Homer focuses the story more on Achilles. Achilles is wronged by Agamemnon (the idiot) who takes Achilles’ favorite war captive as his own. So Achilles goes to his mother, a minor goddess, who convinces Zeus to teach the Greeks in general, and Agamemnon in particular, a lesson. Only tragedy convinces Achilles that the needs of his countrymen are more important than his personal grievances.

In all honesty, I got somewhat tired of reading about who-killed-whom by the end of the story. And the Greek system of morality could be…interesting. As much as the ancients worried about their wives and children being taken in battle, apparently declaring non-combatants to be off-limits wasn’t really a consideration. Maybe they wouldn’t have been able to survive on their own anyway; I’m not sure. I’ll leave that question to the historians.

I re-read the introduction after finishing The Iliad. Usually I read through books chronologically–if I do anything unusual, it’s only skipping to the end to see how the story turns out. But the introduction helped me put The Iliad into its historical context. Trying to write a unique epic about the Trojan War was, for Homer, equivalent to a modern-day writer trying to create an original dystopian novel, without plagiarizing Brave New World or 1984. There’s this, too–it might be difficult to create a single narrative of the Trojan War. It was, after all, extremely long. When C.S. Lewis began a [never finished] novel about Menelaus and Helen, he started it with Menelaus already inside the horse.

I’m getting pictures in my head of a particularly awkward Greek council of war. “So,” says Nestor. “Everything else has failed. Why don’t we pretend to go home, but actually stuff ourselves into a giant wooden horse instead?”

Come to think of it…I understand why Homer left that part out.

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Posted by on May 28, 2013 in Classic Literature

 

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Fantasy Q&A

Q: So what is fantasy, anyway?

A: There are many definitions of fantasy, but I’ll narrow it down. 1) It has to do with boring teachers, the beginning of summer break, and baseball. 2) Something to discuss with your therapist. 3) A literary genre that I happen to like. Too much.

Q: Maybe you should see the therapist after all….

A: Me, and a lot of other people.

Q: You mean computer geeks?

A: It’s true that a lot of technology-lovers also like fantasy. But many of those who have written classic fantasies have hated technology. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s novels, for example, most of the evil characters are also adept at using technology for evil purposes. Mordor is, in essence, an industrial wasteland.

Q: So who started this whole fantasy thing, anyway? Tolkien?

A: Good question. We don’t know. But it’s thousands of years old—just read The Odyssey.

Q: You mean the ancient myths? But people believed those. See why fantasy is dangerous?

A: Once people began believing the myths, they became a part of religion, not fantasy. As long as you know that your stories are stories, you are safe.

Q: With so many serious problems in the world today, how can you justify reading fantasy instead of realistic fiction? Isn’t that escapism?

A: J.R.R. Tolkien addressed that very question on a number of occasions. His question: What group of people is most worried about escape? The answer: Jailers. In any case, if you are unjustly imprisoned, getting out is the sensible and realistic thing to do.

Q: I expected a serious answer to that question.

A: I was being serious. And good fantasy is always applicable to real life. At the very least it will deal with ethical questions, which we all have to face. And many fantasies go beyond that. C.S. Lewis and N.D. Wilson both snub progressivism. J.R.R. Tolkien criticizes pragmatism. Madeleine L’Engel attacks central planning.

Q: But isn’t fantasy unrealistic?

A: There are two answers to that.

No. If C.S. Lewis had had Aslan stand up on the Stone Table and dance a jig, we would say his books were unrealistic. But Lewis didn’t do that. Narnia had many fantastical elements—talking animals, shape-shifting serpents, enchanted weather. But put together, they all made sense. You say, “If Narnia were real, this is how things would be.”

Yes. Of course. So is every other story. So-called “realistic” stories about someone becoming a multi-millionaire, overcoming all obstacles to find the man of her dreams, and so forth, are often untrue to life. In fact, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, they are more likely to deceive some people into thinking that such things could really happen. No sane child will make killing a dragon his life’s goal for very long. But to overcome all obstacles to become the hero of the soccer team—that seems realistic. And for some people it could very well become an obsession.

Q: Who is this C.S. Lewis you keep bringing up?

A: C. S. Lewis was an Oxford literature professor who wrote the Chronicles of Narnia, a seven-book fantasy series. The major character in the series is Aslan, a regal lion who loosely corresponds with Jesus Christ. Some people may feel inclined to blame Lewis for later Christian allegorical fantasies that combined biblical truth with terrible writing. Lewis, however, explicitly denied that the Narnia books were intended to be allegorical. Poorly constructed copies are to be blamed, not on their authors having read too much Lewis, but on having read far too little.

Q: I’ve heard Narnia has a witch in it. Isn’t that bad?

A: Yes. The White Witch is very bad, which is why she is killed at the end of Lewis’s first Narnia book. You’re right that you should be cautious about stories that include magic, since some fantasies can become occultic. But most of the pioneers of modern fantasy have been at least nominally Christian, and their careful treatment of magic shows that.

Q: What do you mean by “careful”?

A: Tolkien said that “magic,” in our language, is a problem word, because there is no distinction between evil magic—the sort that no one has a right to practice—and what I will call natural magic. “Natural magic” is the sort of “magic” that the good characters can safely practice, because it is simply a part of being what they are. Thus, Tolkien’s Elves can use their “art” to reclaim an important jewel from the Dark Lord, N.D. Wilson’s characters have the strength of dandelions or aspen trees in their blood, and Lewis’s lion Aslan can create the world. That’s a short explanation, but it’s a start.

Q: Okay, okay. I understand. But you have to admit that Lord of the Rings fans are really annoying.

A: No, I don’t.

Q: But all those coffee table edition books…and Elf languages…and fake Gollum voices…and people yelling “You cannot pass!” at the top of their lungs….

A: Well…maybe they—that is, we—can be a little annoying. My only comfort for you is this: they are few and far between. Avoid certain online forums, go underground when each new Hobbit movie comes out, carefully screen your friends, and you probably will survive. If the Nazgul don’t catch you first.

 
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Posted by on March 21, 2013 in Fantasy, Humor

 

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Off to Find Ourselves

Reading The Goose Girl was satisfying in any number of ways, but one of the more unusual was that its heroine, Isi, is the oldest child in her family.

Perhaps “satisfying” isn’t the right word. “Smirk-worthy” will do. It’s difficult being an older sibling whose younger siblings enjoy pointing out that they are the ones all the fairy tales justify. Cinderella, they insist, was a younger sister abused by her older sisters. Personally, I think it’s at least arguable that Cinderella may have been near the ages of her step-sisters. But most fairy tales that I have read do seem to either use a younger sibling or an only child as the hero. My real problem may be that I haven’t read enough fairy tales. But there is still a real pleasure to see an older sister come into her own. Especially since she was mistreated largely because of her quiet personality.

There is something intrinsically satisfying about that, at least–watching someone who never fit in, who was never allowed to be her true self, find her place. But a conversation the other day made me think a little more about why that is so satisfying.

I forget the exact words–something to the extent that people up through the Middle Ages wrote literature focused on life-and-death struggles, and that the people after the 20th century wrote literature that was about finding meaning in life. It’s an interesting categorization. I’m not a literary critic, of course, and can’t make those sorts of blanket statements. But–thinking back to what pre-modern literature I’ve read–I don’t recall any pre-modern hero going on a quest to find himself. Odysseus’s journey was mainly about survival. The heroes in The Iliad are generally trying to kill one another. And, while the quests of Arthur’s knights are not always done out of physical necessity, they are generally focused on saving someone or undoing some evil. If they are related to the knights at all, the knights are usually trying to prove or disprove some aspect of their character–and character, after all, has eternal repercussions. What you don’t find in the pre-modern era are stories about conflicted heroes trying to figure out who they really are. They already know. They were born knowing.

We, on the other hand, have choices that, if not unlimited, are certainly greater than those most pre-modern people had. Peasants almost never became knights. And knights almost never became peasants, green thumb or no. Choices are nice. But having a great number of them leaves a person in the middle of another dilemma. If a choice has to be made, which choice is the right one? And how can we decide? Should we ask our parents? Take a personality test? Get a bunch of old ladies to pray about it? Get an opinion from a guidance counselor? Write an advice columnist? Look deep into our hearts? How about a combination of them all?

Choices aren’t a bad thing in and of themselves. Isi gets offered very few free choices in The Goose Girl; much of her growth is a matter of necessity. I don’t envy her. But choices, though not a bad thing, aren’t themselves very satisfying. The many choices we are offered have left our society feeling hollow. And so we go on a search for meaning–for the place where necessity and choice collide. Are we primarily trying to find ourselves? Maybe–in one sense. We lost ourselves in the Fall, after all. We had a choice. We made the wrong one.

John called Jesus “the Word”–our ultimate communication from God. Communication implies meaning. There is only one real place to find ourselves. Unlike Isi, we can’t understand the wind or speak our thoughts to a horse. We aren’t in a book. But we do have a Book. And it’s only in that Book, and through the Word it talks about, that we can reach the meaning that mankind has been looking for.

 
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Posted by on January 25, 2013 in Fantasy

 

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