Recommended Reading: Medea

160407MedeaOne of the hallmarks of modern storytelling is toying with the conventions of a genre. Familiar stories get retold with surprising twists and the tropes that everyone can see coming are turned upside-down and inside-out. It’s not just a modern game, though. Older stories can be just as cunning with their twists. When I’m trying to think about how to do something different with a familiar tale, one of the examples I look back to is Euripides’ tragedy Medea.

Medea is one of the classics of ancient Greek theatre. There are plenty of good translations available and it’s not hard to get your hands on one. If you’re looking for an online edition, here are a few. I discussed the play before in comparison to Star Wars, so I won’t bore you with summarizing the whole plot again (check the link if you want a quick reminder). Rather, I want to talk about two interesting things Euripides does with the story.

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The Misuses of Myth

160208sphinxMyths, legends, fairy tales, and other stories passed down through the generations are at the root of our storytelling tradition. They are the earliest stories in our literature and some of the first stories we learn as children. It is no wonder that we keep going back to mythology looking for deeper meanings. The drive to find hidden meaning in myth leads to some misguided interpretations. Two common mistakes are Freudian theory and the “forgotten history” theory.

Freudian slips

Freudian theory holds that myths are expressions of universal human drives which we have suppressed in the name of civilization. As the things that we cannot talk about openly come out in our stories, we can hold up mythology as a mirror to our own subconscious in order to see our hidden impulses better. Sigmund Freud’s attempts to explain the human psyche by reference to dreams, myths, and other supposed insights into the unconscious are at the root of this approach, but there are other classic exemplars, such as Bruno Bettelheim’s The Uses of Enchantment, which applies the theory to the Grimms’ fairy tales. (Note that I am speaking of Freudian theory as a way of interpreting myth; I am not in any position to judge Freudianism as a psychological theory.)

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The Myth Is Strong With This One

It’s well known that George Lucas drew inspiration from mythology when writing Star Wars. Luke Skywalker, the young hero from the planet farthest from the bright center of the universe, gets the call to adventure delivered by droid and goes off on a Campbellian journey to rescue a princess, seek out an ancient mentor, and finally confront his fallen father. The prequel trilogy gave us the tragic version in which Anakin, the great warrior, was driven to madness and destroyed the things he loved the most.

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There are smaller touches of myth throughout the Star Wars hexalogy. Luke receives his father’s lightsaber like King Arthur drawing his father’s sword from the stone. The escape from the imperial garbage masher has hints of Jonah and the whale. Luke in the Wampa’s cave has shades of Beowulf.

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Like most of the rest of geeky internet, I’ve been watching the trailers for The Force Awakens with excitement. I’ve been struck by something, especially in the latest trailer. The mythology that this latest iteration of Star Wars is working hardest to evoke is… Star Wars.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer (Official) via Star Wars

Star Wars has transcended being a movie franchise or even an expanded universe. It has reached the point where we can speak of it in terms of mythology.

One of the definitions of myth is that it is a story you know even if you can’t recall ever being told it. Star Wars has that. It is part of our cultural consciousness to the point that even people who haven’t seen the movies (yes, they exist) recognize the sound of a lightsaber and the cadences of the imperial march. Star Wars was all over my childhood, and even though I didn’t get around to seeing the movies until I was a teen (I was a Star Trek fan and young and dumb enough to think that I had to pick one over the other), I recognized Darth Vader, Princess Leia and Yoda on my friends’ lunchboxes.

Another characteristic of myth is that all myths are versions. There is no original, no canon. Though some may disagree on whether this is a good thing, Star Wars has always been an evolving story, getting new versions from small tweaks to big changes. (Yes, I see you in the back in the “Han Shot First” shirt, you can put your hand down.) The new wave of Star Wars movies leaves the old hexalogy alone but reboots the post-Return-of-the-Jedi expanded universe.

For those of us who grew up in the world of Star Wars, it is hard to imagine a time when these stories were not a part of the popular culture, yet there was a time when no one had heard Darth Vader’s breathing or Yoda’s grammar, when no one knew what a lightsaber or a Death Star was. By connecting to the ancient stories we already knew, Star Wars made itself feel timeless. Now it has become a part of that universal memory to be played upon and invoked in its own right.

Images: “This is the weapon of a Jedi knight” via The Film Fatale; wampa via giphy.com

Post edited for style.

In the Seen on Screen occasional feature, we discuss movies and television shows of interest.

Theodor Kittelsen’s Naturalistic Fantastical Art

Norwegian Theodor Kittelsen (1857-1914) developed into one of Scandinavia’s most popular artists. He’s especially well known for his nature paintings and illustrations of fairy tales, legends, and trolls.

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Theodor Kittelsen: Trollet som grunner på hvor gammelt det er [troll wonders how old it is], 1911. Via Wikimedia Commons.
His art clearly shows how strongly the Norwegian nature inspired him. Kittelsen’s style is said to include aspects naturalism, mysticism, and Art Nouveau.

Kittelsen Collage
Theodor Kittelsen, clockwise from top left: Nøkken [water spirit], 1887–92; Gutt på hvit hest [boy on white horse]; Kvitebjørn Kong Valemon [white bear King Valemon], 1912; 12 villender [12 wild ducks], 1897. Via emmeffe6 on Flickr (one, two, three, four).
The element of a boy on a white horse is connected with water spirit tales. Apparently some näkki water spirits (to use my native Finnish term) can turn into horses to capture humans to pull underwater. I don’t remember that aspect of the näkki stories from my childhood; perhaps there’s a difference between the Scandinavian and Finnish tales.

The landscapes in Kittelsen’s paintings remind me of the Finnish wildernesses a lot. There’s also something solemn and contemplative in the mood of his imagery that makes me connect it with Tolkien’s art and writing, on one hand, and, on the other, with the illustrations of Tove Jansson (see examples of her work on Alice in Wonderland and The Hobbit provided by The Official Moomin site).

Out There is an occasional feature highlighting intriguing art, spaces, places, phenomena, flora, and fauna.

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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