Homer the Great Storyteller

Currently, I am researching academic articles for a reference volume about epics and I was in a discussion about the Iliad with a friend. In the middle of that discussion I realized that it had been a number of years since I had read the Iliad and I was speaking from memories of an updated fictional novel about the Trojan War that I had read. It suddenly confused me and feeling a little sheepish I decided that I needed to reread the Iliad.

Wow! I forgot how truly amazing the Iliad is. It is not simply a recounting of the Trojan War. It talks about different aspects of strife and begins with a dispute over a woman who was given to Agamemnon as war booty. Her father tries to ransom her and Agamemnon refuses. Chryses goes to Apollo and asks that a plague be visited upon the Greeks. To stop the plague, Agamemnon has to give up Chryseis. He is not pleased with this idea and despite that he tries to convince Chryses that she is as important to him as his own wife Clymenestra, he then wants Achilles’ war prize, Briseis, to replace Chryseis. Achilles complies because Minerva tells him to. He then asks his mother Thetis to intervene and make sure the Greeks get solidly beaten while he withdraws his troops. It is more complicated than an afternoon soap. And much more poignant.

Things that I have picked up from the Iliad so far are that in telling stories one can choose where to begin. The Iliad begins after the Greeks have beseiged Troy for nine years. The subplots that are put forth give information and perspective on the main plot, make the story interesting, and advance the themes. There is also a great deal of information that is cultural information that is in the background of the Iliad that is assumed that the reader/listener would know and bring to a reading of the Iliad. This unstated information helps to draw the reader in and tighten up the epic. It relies on readers/listeners knowing that Troy has no patron god or goddess because the Trojans didn’t keep their bargain with Poseidon when he helped to build the walls of Troy. It relies on readers knowing that Eris the goddess of strife threw out the golden apple inscribed with the words “for the fairest”. The epic utilizes cultural assumptions like that the intervention of the gods and goddesses is not always a good thing and that fate cannot be averted.

All of this raises questions in my mind to consider when I am writing a piece of fiction. Questions like the following: Whose point of view would be the best one to tell the story from in the most natural manner to get across the subplots and themes that I want to address in order to make the story the most interesting? How could I use the prior knowledge of a reader
who resides in the current time period to cleverly build the world of a future time? What kind of things could I leave unstated and yet the reader would project into a story?

I am still working my way through the Iliad and thinking about the way themes, action, and characters are depicted.

Thoughts from Researching Lisa See

I was reading yesterday about the author Lisa See and her various writings and this spawned some different thoughts.

First, her autobiographical book about her family is entitled On Gold Mountain and it is the story of her family coming to the United States and settling in California. As I was reading about this book, I read something in an interview with Lisa See where she commented on that the book that people remember about World War II is the diary of Anne Frank. This is a book written from a very intimate perspective from the experiences of one girl as she is in hiding. Lisa See said something about how this kind of intimate view can sometimes illustrate a story more than the grand perspective.

So this inspired me to think about the intimate story versus the grand view. I was wondering about what kind of science fiction or fantasy stories could be told in the intimate view and what commentary on the current time, past time, or future might be made depending on the stories and the themes. What about an intimate novel told from the perspective of a girl who is a “slip-gene” daughter trying to escape oppression and war in a series of star systems and has been detained for questioning on a Federation space station for six months? What about the story of two brothers who have been captured in a raid on their planet and are being transported to become slaves? What about the story of a street girl who sells processing time that utilizes her brain and does brain damage but the processing time has benefits/minuses to be compared with her real time life?

I am still thinking about what kinds of things are possible and what stories might come from an intimate telling.

Secondly, I read about the background for Lisa See’s novel entitled Peony in Love. The book utilizes a classical Chinese opera called The Peony Pavilion that was first introduced in the late sixteenth century. It was very popular. It also spawned a phenomena whereby lovesick maidens wasted away. The opera is about a character named Liniang who sees her true love in a dream and wastes away and is then brought back to life by the love. Educated and isolated young women from the upper classes of China would see this opera and then waste away and die in hopes of having some control over their lives. These women had little control and were married to men they would never see prior to their marriages. The hope in starving was that they would get some choice in who they would marry. The opera also inspired another book that was written by the three wives in sequence of one man that was called The Three Wives’ Commentary. It was a piece about The Peony Pavilion and it was written by women. Lisa See wanted people to know about this book and other writings that were published in China by women– thousands of pieces of poetry, literature, and commentary were written by women and published in China at a time when little was written and published by women anywhere else in the world.

I had several thoughts that were inspired by learning all of this. One was about the circumstances around The Peony Pavilion and how this particular opera touched the souls of so many women and inspired a type of fantastical hope that caused their demise. The opera had a type of power because it was relevant in an incredibly meaningful way at that time and place. I am still thinking on what would be something that would touch so many in such a powerful way (and hopefully not so destructive a way) now in our time and place.

I was also just thinking about how the facts of things are sometimes obscured. For instance, I did not know that there were thousands of women writing and publishing in China in the seventeenth century. I know now and I will go looking for translations of some of their writings. The slippery representation of history via perspectives from the present is nothing new.

I was also thinking about the way that Lisa See wrote the character of Peony in Peony in love. Peony is a “hungry ghost” through much of the novel and a great deal about Chinese ritual, customs, and metaphysics comes through. This got me thinking in some different directions and I may need to email a friend or two to brainstorm with me.