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Tag: Iliad

Homer’s Tardis: Literature is the best kind of time machine

Classics Illustrated cover: A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court

One of my favorite kinds of speculative fiction is the time travel tale, not the H. G. Wells sort of thing that takes you into a distant, purely speculative future, but the kind that takes a modern person and sends him (or her) into the past. The earliest piece of time travel literature that I can recall reading was an Classics Illustrated version of Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, which I read probably at age ten or eleven. (I had already been introduced to King Arthur several years earlier, through a Golden Book storybook based on Disney’s The Sword in the Stone.)

Imagining past lives

Time travel stories allow us to visit the past in our imagination, but we are always conscious that we are visitors, outsiders — and therein lies the limitation of the genre. It is always more interested in commenting on (or even passing judgment on) the past, rather than showing it to us as it had been lived. When I was reading A Connecticut Yankee, I was more interested in the world Twain was ridiculing than I was in the show-off shenanigans of his Yankee. Twain had a beef with the romanticization of the past, which he believed had helped cause the American Civil War, so he wasn’t too kind to King Arthur. I found this irritating rather than illuminating.

In my teens, I also read a number of historical novels, mostly about medieval English royalty. I enjoyed the details of historical setting and circumstance, but there again I was aware of the irritating anachronism inherent in the enterprise. I didn’t particularly enjoy the way modern authors seemed to think that twelfth century England was interesting chiefly because of the dynastic struggles of the Plantagenets — I’m sure people living in those days were concerned about such things only insofar as they had a real effect on their daily lives.

Later, I got a very different view of medieval life and concerns, by reading stories actually written in the twelfth century. Now that was (time) tripping! These stories, at first seemed strange to me. I guess I was experiencing first hand the truth of that saying: “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.” To understand such a story, I had to get inside the mind of a twelfth century reader (or writer) and try to understand not only their day-to-day concerns but also the furniture of their imaginations. To the extent that I succeeded, the literature really did transport me to a world lost in time.

Homer’s epics take me to an even stranger, more primitive world, different from our own in so many ways, and yet his over-sized heroic figures seem to embody universal human traits in a marvelous way. That, I believe, is why they are, in a peculiar way, timeless. As foreign as ancient Mycenaean Greece is to us today, Homer’s stories somehow manage both to embody that age perfectly and yet transcend the limitations of history and the particularities of culture. That is a mark of Homer’s genius — not every ancient epic manages that kind of transcendence. I can understand the motives of Homer’s Achilles or  Odysseus — or, for that matter Sophocles’ Oedipus — in a way that I can’t really sympathize with Gilgamesh or some other ancient heroes, who seem to lack a truly human dimension.

Touching the past

Mycenaean sword

The bronze blade has crumbled, but the gold hilt remains as bright as when it was last grasped by some Mycenaean hero 3,500 years ago.

Coincidentally (or perhaps not), I’ve also long been fascinated with archaeology, particularly of the ancient Mediterranean world. I first discovered this fascinating field as a seven-year-old, after a traveling encyclopedia salesman gave us the A volume of the World Book Encyclopedia as a sample. (I promptly read it cover to cover, and fell in love with archaeology and, to a lesser extent, anthropology.)  I’ve since had a number of opportunities to actually walk the streets of the ancient past, in Spain and Italy. Thanks to the painstaking work of archaeologists, I’ve walked the streets of Pompeii — lost to the world for nearly two thousand years, and then brought back to light, stunningly preserved — and descended into the ancient cemetery that lies beneath St Peter’s Basilica, imagining the families that picnicked there long ago with the relics of departed loved ones. I love to read about archaeological discoveries that shed new light on the ancient world.

One such recent discovery, described in this recent news story, reminded me that Homer’s epics, wreathed though they were in myth and legend even in his day, nevertheless take place in a world that was still familiar to the poet who described them (although he lived several centuries after the events he described).

Archaeologists digging at Pylos, an ancient city on the southwest coast of Greece, have discovered the rich grave of a warrior who was buried at the dawn of European civilization.

He lies with a yardlong bronze sword and a remarkable collection of gold rings, precious jewels and beautifully carved seals. Archaeologists expressed astonishment at the richness of the find and its potential for shedding light on the emergence of the Mycenaean civilization, the lost world of Agamemnon, Nestor, Odysseus and other heroes described in the epics of Homer.


Agamemnon, Nestor, Odysseus — those guys are all buddies of mine, whose homes I’ve visited, not by touring archaeological sites, but by way of the time machine created by Homer. I’ve lived through their travails with them, grieved with them and for them. No travel agent can provide that kind of experience. And even though archaeology can allow us, literally, to touch the past, it cannot allow us to live it. Ancient literature, however, when read well, can do just that.

Timeless truth

This may be one reason Homer’s epics were so highly regarded, even in his own day. The ancient Greeks believed that the best was already behind them, and they sought to learn from the past, where greater wisdom lay than anywhere in their contemporary world. Homer’s heroic poems capture the past so masterfully that Greeks in following centuries actually regarded them as a kind of encyclopedia or textbook that they used to educate their children. This is why, in Plato’s Republic, Socrates objects to “the lies of the poets” — every son of a prominent family was steeped in Homeric literature from a young age, a practice that Socrates (both the historical Socrates, and Plato’s literary character) believed filled their heads with dangerous ideas, not just of bravado and heroism but warped ideas about the gods. (Curiously, this puts Mark Twain and Plato on the same side.) One of the most important things Plato is doing in The Republic is proposing a better way of educating young men destined to be leaders. He objected not so much to fiction as to false ideals, which is why he has Socrates invent truer fictions.

Ornate book cover, The Iliad and The Odyssey, Homer

Keep your Tardis, this is my time travel device of choice.

Today, I don’t think we need to worry that Homer will warp the minds of our young — quite the opposite. Today, in fact, we may have the opposite struggle — to get young people (and older ones, as well) to see how much truth is conveyed by these ancient tales of legendary figures. Few people in the modern world appreciate the real value of imaginative literature. Time travel stories, though, remain popular, and one of  TV’s most popular characters is the time-traveling Doctor Who, so there may yet be hope.

I’ll be returning to my series on ancient epic, by the way, so get the Tardis warmed up for a return to Augustan Rome and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I’m also planning a post on some of my favorite time travel fiction, including Jack Finney’s Time and Again, and Andrew M. Seddon’s Ring of Time.

©2015 Lisa A. Nicholas

Epic poetry and the moral imagination

This fall I’ve been teaching a course on Medieval Epic Poetry, a continuation of the Ancient Epic course I taught last spring, in which we read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey and Vergil’s Aeneid, poems that are all deeply grounded in a pagan worldview but nonetheless examine human nature, and particularly human excellence, in such an authentic way that they continue to speak profoundly to readers in our own day.

Still, the pagan world that produced those works valued things that sometimes run counter to Christian values, so their heroes may seem strange and not entirely admirable to a modern Christian.

Nonetheless, all the poems we read in the Medieval Epic course are written by Christian poets who have, to one extent or another, appropriated the epic tradition and made it their own.

What does it mean to be a hero?

ancient vase Achilles and Hector

Achilleus was famous for his godlike rage.

This shows, on the one hand, the powerful appeal of the epic form and, on the other hand, the way Christians have always been able to “baptize” the best of pagan culture.  One of the key, defining features of the ancient epic is the hero upon whom the poem is focused. For ancient Greeks and Romans, to be a hero meant to be, in some way, godlike. If you know anything about the gods of Graeco-Roman mythology, however, you’ll realize that being “godlike” did not necessarily mean being “virtuous” in the ethical or moral sense; it simply meant being super-humanly good at something, and being able to get away with things that would never be tolerated in mere mortals. Achilles, for instance, was noted for his godlike rage, which made him a most excellent warrior, but the Iliad makes no bones about the fact that he turns his godlike rage against his own friends and allies, and even prays (successfully) to Zeus that they will suffer mightily for having offended him. So the Christian poet who chose to wrote an epic tale had to wrestle with the problem of the hero – what should he be like, if not like Achilles or Odysseus?

Beowulf: A Christian gloss on pagan heroism

Illuminated capital, Beowulf slays the dragon

Beowulf’s final heroic act proved to be disastrous vainglory.

One way to deal with the problem is illustrated in the first work we read is in the Medieval Epic course. Beowulf, a Norse hero tale reworked by a Christian monk for a Christian audience, presents
a vibrant depiction of a pagan hero which is also a Christian commentary on the inadequacy of pagan values. For the Christian, the greatest hero is always Christ Himself, who was not merely godlike but actually God Made Man, who won the greatest possible victory – over sin and death – not through his power and might but through his deliberate weakness and willing defeat (see my earlier post on the Heliand for more on this). So for the Christian epic poet, every true hero must be, in some important way, Christ-like (“godlike” in the sense of being like the God Made Man). Often this means that he will be self-sacrificing (as Beowulf is, saving his people from a dragon, but dying as a result of his wounds): many times, we will see the hero “harrowing Hell,” literally or figuratively redeeming the souls of the dead, as we find Aragorn doing in Tolkien’s The Return of the King (there is an analogous scene in Beowulf); like Christ, the hero may win a great victory by virtue of his humility rather than his might, as Frodo does, another Tolkien character. (Tolkien was, like the Beowulf poet, inspired both by Norse myth and by his Christian faith.)

In this final regard, however, Beowulf falls short – he is not a Christian, after all, and his insistence that he fight the dragon on his own is a not humble self-sacrifice, but a magnificently heroic gesture of vainglory. Although he defeats his foe, he gets himself killed in the process, thus leaving his people undefended. Left without a king, they are doomed to be destroyed by hostile neighbors, who have nothing to fear in the absence of a powerful king. The Beowulf poet reminds his reader of this sad consequence at the end of the poem and thereby manages to pay homage to a great Danish hero only to expose the weakness of a culture that exalts vainglory over truly selfless heroism – such a culture, the poem suggests, bears within itself the seeds of its own destruction.

Sir Gawain: Moral courage and Christian humility

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

Sir Gawain kneels humbly before his foe.

This is a message that also haunts the Arthurian literary tradition, as we saw in the second work we read this semester, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This poem was written by a Christian poet, for a Christian audience, and its hero is himself a Christian, Gawain the nephew of King Arthur. Many elements of pagan mythology – in this case, Celtic – are also to be found in this poem, but they are found in the antagonist, not the protagonist, and Sir Gawain manages to come out of the conflict a victor, albeit a flawed one. Yet here the hero acknowledges his flaw, is humbled by it, and willingly returns to King Arthur’s court penitentially wearing a badge of shame, which will always remind him of his ignoble behavior.

However, the noble lords and ladies of Arthur’s court do not recognize the penitential reminder of the green sash that marks Gawain’s shame; instead, they admire it as a trophy of victory and even decide to wear a similar sash, much as football fans may sport “fan gear” bearing the number of their favorite linebacker. In the discrepancy between Gawain’s shame and humility and the admiration of Arthur’s court, the poet indicates the vainglory of the court and signals the difference between nobility of birth and nobility of character, and foreshadows the ultimate downfall of Arthur’s realm, which is narrated in other Arthurian romances.

Is heroism dead?

In many ways, our contemporary culture has much more in common with the ancient pagan worldview than the medieval Christian one; modern folk are more likely to admire the battle rage of Achilles or the self-serving cleverness of Odysseus than the humility of Gawain. Yet it is remarkable that, if you were to ask ordinary people to name a defining characteristic of the hero, most would say that a hero must be self-sacrificing. They might cite a firefighter who risks his life returning to a burning building to rescue a cat, or a bystander who tries to save a woman from a mugger. To this extent then, the Christian concept of the hero as one who risks his own life to save the weak and the innocent has made a lasting impression on the modern imagination.

kanye-west-kim-kardashian

He may be strong, but he’s no Hercules.

Unfortunately, too many popular “heroes” resemble degraded versions of Achilles or Odysseus, excelling at one (perhaps inconsequential) thing, while presenting poor examples as human beings – professional athletes who break records in their sports, but live lives of disgusting excess and moral depravity, celebrities who shamelessly parade their vile lifestyles before the public eye, wealthy executives who make millions even when they destroy the businesses they run, and so on.  These decadent “heroes” risk nothing but expect to have everything, and they infect the popular imagination like a virulent social disease.

Perhaps it is no wonder that the study of the epic tradition continues to thrive in Christian environments – “classical” Christian academies, homeschool curricula, Catholic liberal arts colleges, etc. What was, for thousands of years, mainstream culture has been abandoned by the modern world, leaving a great impoverishment of the modern moral imagination.

But this continues to thrive in what is now the Christian counter-culture, among those who still aspire, themselves and their children, to live lives that transcend the degraded mundane existence that is the “new normal.” Anyone depressed or disgusted by our toxic contemporary culture, anyone who aspires to be a member of the new moral counter-culture, could do much worse than to pick up one of the great works of the epic literary tradition and catch a glimpse of true heroism.

©2012 Lisa A. Nicholas