Lost Heirs and Clever Peasants

(Note: minor spoiler ahead for Star Wars: The Last Jedi)

Our story-telling traditions often make a big deal out of family and descent. Part of the classic Campbellian Hero’s Journey is the son’s need to measure himself against his father. A Real Princess™ can tell when there’s a pea under a dozen mattresses, or needs a Real Prince™ to wake her up (apparently princesses do a lot of napping). Modern stories often reinforce the importance of true family lines in similar ways, whether they’re directly invoking the mythic tradition (like Star Wars) or just because family is still an important part of the drama of our lives ( like Harry Potter).

The idea that family lines determine our characters’ stories, abilities, and ambitions is such a big part of our narrative legacy that it can seem like a primordial principle of storytelling, but in fact these kinds of stories arise from specific cultural contexts. These contexts have to do with the assertion of class.

Small-scale societies historically tended to be egalitarian. When a culture contained only a few hundred people, everyone knew one another personally, resources were freely shared, and there was no real differentiation between rich and poor, powerful and powerless. As societies got larger, up into the range a few thousand people or more, social distinctions tended to emerge because people were no longer held together primarily by personal and family relationships. In societies of this scale, some families acquired more resources and more influence than others. Over time, these differences hardened into class distinctions, with prosperous families asserting their own superiority over the less fortunate. An aristocratic class with a sense of its own importance took shape.

A rising aristocracy, however, often struggled against the older traditions of egalitarianism and mutual support. To maintain their position, aristocrats had to create and disseminate a new ideology which justified their status. In many societies all over the world, this ideology was framed by stories about heroic ancestors and special powers passed down through family lines. If you weren’t part of the family line, you didn’t inherit the special powers, and therefore you didn’t deserve to be rich or powerful like them.

Many of the ancient stories that have been passed down and become part of our common narrative tradition were stories originally told by and for aristocrats and would-be aristocrats clawing their way into positions of privilege. When ancient Greek bards recited the tales of Achilles, Odysseus, Helen, and Penelope, they weren’t just telling stories to entertain the masses. Bards and singers depended for their livelihoods on the support of aristocratic patrons, and the stories they told were propaganda for the people who paid the bills. Greek aristocrats claimed to be actual descendants of the heroes of the Trojan War and other myths. The Homeric epics are quite clear that no one from outside the family line deserves to get anywhere near the heroes’ wealth and power.

On the other hand, our story-telling traditions also include narratives that are democratic (or at least anti-aristocratic). Some of these take the form of “clever peasant” tales in which someone from an unimportant background gets the better of the rich and powerful through luck, audacity, and wits. These tales often set up the aristocrats as buffoons who are humiliated in the end and forced to acknowledge the individual merits of people with no family claim to riches or power. Stories of this type are common in folk traditions, including English Jack tales and their analogues in other cultures.

Another type of story combines elements of both, often revolving around a lost heir or disguised royal. In these stories, the hero at first appears to be an ordinary person whose individual initiative and skill earn them acclaim and awards, but they turn out in the end to be the misplaced scion of an important family. Sometimes these lost heirs know their own identity and are in hiding; other times they are themselves unaware until their true identity is revealed. King Arthur, in some versions of the Arthurian mythos, fits this pattern: having been raised in obscurity, he comes into his true heritage when he proves his special powers by pulling the sword from the stone. Robin Hood—again, in some versions—represents a different take on the same pattern: by rights a nobleman, he hides his true identity and fights for the common people. This tradition represents a degree of compromise between the aristocratic and anti-aristocratic narratives. The hero acquires something of the common touch and has to get by on individual merits, but the aristocratic claims to a unique status remain unchallenged.

When modern stories draw on these older traditions, they don’t always think about the implications of them. Star Wars, for example, has always awkwardly balanced the democratic ideals of the Republic, Rebellion, and Resistance with the mythic focus on the Skywalker bloodline. This is why I am so happy that The Last Jedi decided that Rey is not part of the Skywalker family or descended from Obi-Wan Kenobi or any other established Jedi but just the cast-off child of drunken scavengers from nowhere. (Assuming, of course, that Kylo Ren is telling the truth or even knows it to begin with, which is not a trivial assumption, but I’m going with it until we hear otherwise from a canonical source.)

Star Wars has always been told in the mode of myth, but myths don’t come out of nowhere and they aren’t just stories. Myths are stories that mean something. If Star Wars is going be meaningful in the world we live in today, it’s time to democratize the Force. We need more clever peasants these days, not more lost heirs.

Image: Arthur pulling the sword from the stone from An Island Story by Henrietta E. Marshall, New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1906, via Wikimedia

History for Writers is a weekly feature which looks at how history can be a fiction writer’s most useful tool. From worldbuilding to dialogue, history helps you write. Check out the introduction to History for Writers here.

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Klingons, Homer, Falstaff, and the Dread Pirate Roberts: Understanding Honor

161024klingonsIf you grew up on Star Trek: The Next Generation like me, you’re probably most used to hearing the word “honor” come out of the mouths of Klingons, especially our beloved Lt. Worf. Star Trek offers one of the most brilliant portrayals of honor in fiction. As you watch Worf’s story unfold over the seasons of TNG and Deep Space Nine, it seems like, for all that Klingons like to talk about honor, Worf is the only one who actually cares about it. Worf always makes the honorable choice, even when it’s not the smart one. Other Klingons are cynical and self-serving. They pay lip service to the idea of honor, but they don’t follow it.

But what is honor? It seems like such a simple word, but what does it really mean? When we say that a person, either someone in the real world or a fictional character, is driven by a sense of honor, what actually motivates them? I often put this question to my students when we read the the quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon in the Iliad. They usually answer something like: “Pride,” or “Following a code.” Those are ideas related to honor. They are honor-adjacent. But at its core, honor is something else: honor is reputation.

Agamemnon and Achilles are warrior kings in a world where there is no one to enforce rules. There are no police, no courts, barely anything we would recognize as law. What is it that stops people from being constantly at war with one another? How can Achilles or Agamemnon have a single moment’s rest from every other warrior in the world trying to take away their homes, families, and treasures? Because of their reputation. Because everyone knows that if you hurt them, they will come after you and they will not stop until they have destroyed you. That’s what honor is. It’s the first line of defense.

161024achillesHonor is not an emotion, a code, or an abstract concept. It is a practical tool that Homer’s warrior kings and people in similarly lawless societies use to keep control of their homes and property. When Agamemnon and Achilles break into a fight at the beginning of the Iliad, it’s not because they’re being petty or overly sensitive about wounded feelings. It’s because neither one of them can afford to look weak. A warrior who gets a reputation for giving up easily or not standing up to defend his property is a warrior who will soon be dead.

Honor is what people believe about you. Honor is why, when the Trojans had almost routed the Greeks, Achilles was able to turn the tide of battle just by showing up—unarmed—on the battlefield and yelling his warcry. In other words, honor is like the dread pirate Roberts.

161024robertsWhich also means that there is something artificial about honor. It’s sort of a bluff. The greater a warrior’s reputation as an unbeatable fighter, the less actual fighting they have to do. At the same time, anyone who lets slip that they may not live up to their reputation is just inviting attack, which is why, like in the Iliad, warriors often fight hardest not for the things they want but for the reputation itself.

Honor only matters if it is seen, and it is only what is seen that matters. What makes honor is not what kind of person you are but what kind of person people think you are. What happens in the darkness does not matter to honor. It’s easy to get cynical about honor and call it out as a kind of bullshit. Falstaff, in Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 1, does just that:

Can honor set to a leg? no. Or an arm? no. Or take away the grief of a wound? No. Honor hath no skill in surgery, then? No. What is honor? A word. What is in that word “honor”? What is that “honor”? Air. A trim reckoning. Who hath it? He that died o’ Wednesday. Doth he feel it? No. Doth he hear it? No. ‘Tis insensible, then? Yea, to the dead. But will it not live with the living? No. Why? Detraction will not suffer it. Therefore, I’ll none of it. Honor is a mere scutcheon.

– Shakespeare, Henry VI, Part 1, act 5, scene 1

Falstaff isn’t wrong. Neither are Achilles and Agamemnon. Honor is a kind of game that everyone plays along with. The wise understand that it’s a game and what seems like cynicism is really just practicality. Only the naive think that honor is real.

This is what makes Star Trek‘s take on honor so brilliant. It seems at first that Worf is the only Klingon who understands honor, but really it’s the other way around: Worf is the only Klingon who doesn’t understand honor. Worf thinks that honor is real. Other Klingons know it’s a game—a game with the highest of stakes that they play for all they’re worth, but a game nonetheless.

Images: Worf and Martok via Memory Alpha. Achilles battling Memnon, photograph by Bibi Saint-Pol via Wikimedia (Vulci, currently Staatliche Antiknesammlungen, Munich; c. 510 BCE; black-figure pottery). Dread Pirate Roberts via History Mine.

Ancient Models for Writing About Language Barriers

160718graffitoThe ancient Mediterranean was a multilingual place. Although a few languages were in common usage—Phoenician, Greek, Aramaic, Punic, and Latin, in different times and places—many other languages were spoken, including Iberian, Gaulish, Etruscan, Oscan, Hittite, Hebrew, Egyptian, and Numidian. Many people, especially in the great port cities like Carthage, Rhodes, and Alexandria, would have encountered numerous different languages in their daily lives. It is no surprise that this experience of a polyglot world was reflected in classical literature. The ways in which ancient writers represented multilingualism and language barriers offer some useful models for us as speculative fiction writers today.

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Recommended Reading: Homer, The Quarrel of Achilles and Agamemnon

150928IliadOne of my weaknesses as a writer is dialogue, particularly dialogue that needs to carry subtext. I’m not good at writing the kinds of things that people say when they’re not actually saying what they’re saying. When I need inspiration for how to write a scene in which people say one thing while really conveying something else, the place I look is the argument between Achilles and Agamemnon in book 1 of the Iliad (lines 101-244).

There are a lot of good translations of the Iliad available if you want to check it out. I’m especially fond of the Robert Fagels translation for the strength of its poetry. Richmond Lattimore’s version is good if you really want to get close to the rhythms and patterns of the original Greek. The translation on Perseus is older and less readable, but you can pick up the scene I’m talking about around the middle of this page (start after [100]). There are plenty of other choices.

To set the scene: As the Iliad opens, the Trojan war has been going on for ten years and has come to a stalemate. The Greeks are not able to breach the high walls of Troy while the Trojans cannot dislodge the Greeks from their camp on the shore. To break the impasse, the Greeks have begun trying to put pressure on the Trojans by raiding the smaller towns nearby that are allied with Troy. One of these raids carried off a young woman, Chryseis, who was awarded to Agamemnon as his prize. Chryseis’ father Chryses, a priest of Apollo, comes to the Greek camp to ask for his daughter’s return, but Agamemnon refuses and sends him away. Chryses prays to Apollo for aid and Apollo obliges by spreading plague through the Greek camp. After ten days of suffering, the Greek kings gather together to discuss the situation. The seer Chalcas reveals the cause of Apollo’s wrath.

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Hugh Jackman to Play Odysseus?

Hugh Jackman might play the eponymous protagonist in the forthcoming Odyssey movie.

Twitter Hugh Jackman

According to The Wrap,

“[…] Jackman doesn’t have a deal in place yet but has had multiple conversations with the filmmaking team about playing Odysseus, the hero of the film who embarks on a long voyage home following the conclusion of the Trojan War.”

I rather like Jackman’s work, and it also turns out he has actual Greek ancestry which is nice. (Too bad that Chris Sarandon, who also is of Greek issue, is too old now; he’d make a wonderful Dread Pirate Roberts Odysseus.)

Image: Hugh Jackman on Twitter

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Lionsgate to Adapt The Odyssey

Flickr Robert The Odyssey of Homer Easton Press

The first great European adventure story, The Odyssey by Homer, is being adapted again to the big screen, this time by Lionsgate. So far the project includes director Francis Lawrence and producer Nina Jacobson (of the Hunger Games movie adaptation fame), and writer Peter Craig (known for co-screenwriting The Town and Mockingjay Part 1 and Part 2). According to Deadline Hollywood, production is planned to begin early in 2016.

With the advances in visual effects technology, this adaptation will surely look grander and more epic than any preceding ones. I hope that the screenwriting will be great, too.

Image: The Odyssey of Homer – Easton Press edition by Robert on Flickr (Creative Commons license CC BY 2.0)

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History for Writers: Introduction

640px-Herodotus_plate_in_Volissos_entranceWriters of fiction and writers of history have long had a kinship with each other.

It is a telling fact that Herodotus, founding father of western historiography, saw himself as carrying on the work of Homer, the great epic poet. Herodotus himself has often been accused of being better at spinning a yarn than at getting his facts right, and Homer tells us quite a lot about the real warlords and merchants of his day through his stories of epic battles and heroic wanderings. Fiction and history have always sat at the same table. As a professional historian and an amateur writer, I’ve spent plenty of time thinking about how the two go together.

Writing fiction means imagining people and worlds that do not exist. That, in its essence, is also what the study of history is about. Now, historians must keep our imaginations grounded in testable evidence and rational argument, but all those facts add up to nothing without imagination. We will never shadow the emperor’s agents as they crept the back streets of Rome sniffing out agitators, or break bread with a gang of workers in the shadow of a half-built pyramid and listen in to their work-camp gossip, or watch over Confucius’ shoulder as one petty, corrupt, minor official after another slowly drove him to consider whether there could be a better way to live. Those people and the times they lived in are gone, and if we are to make any sense of the evidence they left behind we must try to imagine the worlds in which they lived.

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