Power of Literature

In this era of austerity pushed by (predominantly conservative) politicians, education is generally the first target. This short term thinking, of course, fails to account for the long term benefits of an educated populace. Or, to be cynical, perhaps it does account for those benefits, but sees them as drawbacks (“I love uneducated voters”, as a current Republican stated while campaigning). Of all the academic fields, the arts & humanities are the primary targets. And, often, when someone decides to go into my field (English Literature), they get grilled by family members because of it.

First, people tend to mistake English for grammarians. That is, I think obviously, not all we do. In fact, we rarely do grammar as students in the field, though many of us teach it as grad students & adjuncts, because we have to.

Second, people generally don’t understand why we bother studying literature. It’s all just reading, after all. Or they think that we all focus solely on “Great Books” and ignore popular works.

To break this, I want to look at a piece of literature, briefly, to discuss the power of literature. In this case, a piece of popular writing: Richard III, by William Shakespeare.

People tend to forget that Shakespeare was the J.K. Rowling of the late-16th and early-17th centuries. He was popular. He wrote pop culture plays. He wrote for money (through his part ownership of the acting company).

But, on to Richard.

Our popular image of Richard III is that of a conniving, treasonous, hunchback who ran from his battle at Bosworth against Henry VII.

This is the image that Shakespeare presents and it has been part of pop culture and history books for at least the last century.

However . . .

Shakespeare used Thomas More’s history as his major source for the play. This is of great importance.

More was part of the court of Henry VIII and wrote under him. That Henry was, of course, the youngest son of Henry VII, who deposed Richard III by force. Likewise, Shakespeare was writing under Elizabeth I, granddaughter of Henry VII.

To keep things brief, both More and Shakespeare were writing propaganda pieces to enhance the reputations of the ruling family and cement their claim to the throne (by deposing a bad, murderous, hunchback king).

Shakespeare’s literary account was bought by generations of historians and sold in classrooms for even more generations.

Eventually, enough historians, and others, looked at other primary sources, ones contemporary with Richard. They looked at portraits, legal documents, and other records. They found that Richard was fairly popular, first as a noble and later as a king. Because of this work, historians have, by and large, changed their view of Richard, but it’s still filtering down.

All because of a work of literature.

This is part of why we study literature.


“What should we learn? Literature. [. . .] If literature is kept alive, then the dao, the moral way, is kept alive; and if the dao is kept alive, then teachings of the sages and worthies are kept alive. Thus we have much to gain from studying literature. Moreover, its influence can be more inspiring [than being in the presence of a great man] because it calls upon us to articulate our ideas and beckons us to draw analogies. Thus what literature offers us is more than something to rely on: it takes us by the hand and bolsters us up; it holds us by the arm to get us on our way.”
– Cheng Yaotian (18th c. Chinese scholar); from Analects, Confucius (2014 Penguin edition)

Fantasy: Origin of the Genre and Tropes

In thinking about the fantasy genre and history, my mind circled around a few topics.  One that it kept coming back to was the origins of the genre and its tropes.  There are many scholars and others who have argued that the origins of the fantasy genre are the ancient Greek epics, perhaps even the Mesopotamian epics like Gilgamesh.  I tend to disagree on that point, in large part because the ancient epics, and the myths, were all religious in nature.  That is to say, they were considered to be part of the religious canon of their respective cultures.

I would argue that the modern fantasy genre begins with the medieval romances and epics/sagas.  These tales possess all the elements of modern fantasy, display most of the tropes, and concern many of the character types involved in the genre.

But, wait, you say . . . the romances and sagas involved God and gods.  Weren’t they religious?

Yes and no.

Although they often incorporated religious elements, whether the devotion to the Abrahamic God in the Arthurian tales or the presence of Norse deities in the northern sagas, they were not considered part of their respective cultures’ religious canon (or cultural origin stories, for that matter).

Both genres were inherently linked to history and shaping society.  The sagas and epics reinforced societal norms through tales of punishment for violations.  They also set and reflected social ideals.  Most focused on tribal warfare, whether mortal or divine.  For their part, the romances and lais focused on royal courts and proper behavior.  They were, arguably, written in an attempt to pacify the wild warriors of the early-12th century French court (and spread throughout Europe).  It is believed that the romances, and lais, may have originated in the court of Marie of France, daughter of Eleanor of Aquitaine.  At the very least, she was a major patron of romance writers.

I’ve chosen three examples to look at a bit more closely, and will address them in chronological order.

 

Beowulf

(10th century; trans. Seamus Heaney, Norton, 2002)

Throughout the Anglo-Saxon epic Beowulf, we see many elements of modern fantasy.  We have the (semi-)wandering hero, who is also a prince.  We have a monster threatening civilization, in fact we have a pair of them.  In the first two thirds, the Grendel section, we have magic swords—“a sword in her armor, an ancient heirloom / from the days of the giants” (1558-9) that could slay Grendel’s mother.  In the less well known final third, we have dragons and barrows—“Then an old harrower of the dark / happened to find the hoard open, / the burning one who hunts out barrows, / the slick-skinned dragon” (2270-3).  Many of the elements found in Beowulf’s story continue to appear throughout Tolkien’s work and that of his contemporaries.

 

Yvain: The Knight of the Lion, Chretien de Troyes

(c. 1170; trans. Burton Raffel, Yale UP, 1987).

Chretien’s romance, written for Marie of France, is chock full of modern fantasy tropes, many of which also happen to be tropes of the medieval romance.  The questing knight, attempts to restore honor, fights with monstrous beasts, and sacrifice appear throughout the romance.  Chretien discusses giants, different from the Norse, as herdsmen and monsters.  He writes, “And I saw, / Sitting on a tree stump, a lowborn / Creature, black as a Moor, / Huge, and hideously ugly” (287-90).  Later, in order to complete his quest of honor, Yvain needs to infiltrate a castle.  He meets a woman who “gave him the little ring / And told him it had such power / That, just as bark hid the wood / Of a tree, and no one could see it, / So this ring would conceal anyone / Who wore it, as long as the stone / Sat in his palm” (1025-32).  In short, she loans him an invisibility ring, possibly the earliest appearance of one that I can recall.

 

The Story of the Volsungs

(13th century; trans. Douglas Killings & David Widger, Project Gutenberg, 2013)

The Volsunga Saga is one of the most well-known of the Norse sagas.  It appears throughout our culture and tales, from Richard Wagner through Rick Riordan.  But, the original features the dragon hoard as one of its primary elements, including the dragon.  “Now crept the worm down to his place of watering, and the earth shook all about him, and he snorted forth venom on all the way before him as he went” (Ch. 18).  It also includes both dwarves and elves, although the Volsunga Saga tends to conflate the two.  Some versions consider Andvari an elf, others a dwarf.  As Killings and Widger translate, “there was a dwarf called Andvari, who ever abode in that force, which was called Andvari’s force, in the likeness of a pike, and got meat for himself, for many fish there were in the force; now Otter, my brother, was ever wont to enter into the force, and bring fish aland, and lay them one by one on the bank” (Ch. 14).

Content Questions

With the last of the Codex material posted, I now need to generate content again.  🙂

There is a project I’m working on, but as it’s handwritten (my preferred for fiction), it’s not exactly postable.

So, I’ll open this up to the hive mind.  Are there any questions or is there anything you’d like to see my take on covering:
– Writing (fiction or non-)
– Fantasy (written or film)
– Sci-Fi (written or film)
– Worldbuilding
– Education (post-secondary)
– History (pre-17th century)
– Gaming (Tabletop RPGs; I’m a bit behind, but still follow such things)

– Shapeshifters

– Magic (historical or genre)
– Anything else interesting

Charlottesville, American Fascism, & White Supremacy

While I generally try to avoid political or real world cultural issues posts here, the events of last weekend in Charlottesville, VA deserve, I think, some commentary. I waited on writing this, and posting it, to fully gather my thoughts and response to the situation. Even so, this may ramble a bit, my apologies in advance. First, despite a certain “world leader’s” claim, there were no “many sides” and the situation was clear cut. The situation is always clear cut when neo-Nazis and white supremacists are involved and there are always only two sides: neo-Nazis/Supremacists & everyone else. There really is no middle ground here. I’m the first to argue against oversimplifying and dichotomies, but, in this case, there are only the two and it really is that simple. Claims of equivalency between the neo-Nazis/Supremacists and the antifa/BLM movement are false; the former use violence against people simply because of their skin color or for being Jewish in order to kill or intimidate, the latter use violence less often, but do so to protect people of all races & creeds from being beaten or killed. Regardless, the default state should always be Nazis = bad, no “buts”, no “what abouts”, no excuses. Nazis always = bad.

A little semi-digression.

My paternal grandfather was the child of Polish immigrants. He was an irreverent Catholic. He was not, to my knowledge, especially political. He was known to occasionally indulge in what can euphemistically be called “ethnic humor”. I never heard him raise his voice in anger (it probably happened, but I don’t ever recall it). He was also an NCO in the U.S. Army MPs during the occupation of Germany after WWII. In this role, he sometimes escorted Nazi officers, particularly SS officers, to their trials. Occasionally, in the process, he shot at, or ordered others to shoot at, Nazis. Keep in mind, the second largest ethnic population sent to the concentration camps was the Poles, possibly some of his relatives. I can only imagine what he’d think of the events in Charlottesville and those on the American Right who stood up for Neo-Nazis.

(To Head off Objections: No, people who fought in the Korean War did not fight communists or Marxists. They fought fascist oligarchs. The same holds for the entire Cold War. Cuba? Military dictatorship. Yes, they called themselves communists, but they weren’t any more than I’m a Catholic, no matter what I may choose to call myself.)

Back to the main point.

The central element of white supremacy, and really the neo-Nazis, is this idea that they are somehow “defending White Culture”. However, “White Culture” (or “White European Culture”) is a myth. There is no such thing. There are many white, European cultures, not a single unified one. A culture involves traditions and tangibles, ex. food & attire. “White Culture” lacks both. Rather, there is Irish culture, German culture, Romanian culture, Canadian culture, etc. The argument that says, “If White Culture is racist, then so is Black Culture” is another false equivalency. In the U.S., if you ask a white person (or Asian or Latinx) what country (or countries) their family originated in, they can probably tell you. Ask the same question of a black individual and the majority are unable to say, because it’s impossible to tell unless their families immigrated in the 20th century or later. Thus, “Black Culture” or “African-American Culture” is not equivalent to “White Culture”, it is equivalent to saying Irish culture or Vietnamese culture or Puerto Rican culture.

That brings to mind another thing I keep hearing: “Let’s get rid of the prefixes, we’re all Americans.” I have two problems with this. First, no one ever says this when a white guy identifies as Irish-American or German-American. The prefixes only seem to be a problem for certain people when they’re used by someone who is black (African-American) or brown (Mexican-American, etc.). Second, those prefixes are an important part of our American culture, a reminder that we are a hybrid culture, a multicultural society, Frankensteinian if you will. In the States, it’s difficult to find anyone, except a recent immigrant, whose lineage is entirely from one country. Virtually all of us are mixed something, e.g. multicultural. For example, I’m a mix of Polish (paternal) and Anglo-Scots-Irish (maternal). This also goes to cultural festivals. There are those who complain about “black pride” festivals or black history month, of course they say nothing about the country’s numerous Irish cultural festivals, celebration of Oktoberfest, etc.

On the whole, the States are an experiment on a number of levels. We’re not the first multicultural society in existence—Rome, China, India, Russia, and others beat us there—nor are we the oldest multicultural society is existence—again, see China, India, Russia. To think otherwise is sheer ignorance. But, we’re, most of us, trying very hard to make it successful despite elements of our society that wish to sabotage society.

Re-History: Revisiting History in Worldbuilding

History is an important element of every worldbuild, regardless of genre. In Clancy-style thrillers, the history of nations and the history of organizations are important. David Morrell built entire action thrillers out of small pieces of history, and built secret organizations and societies with their own histories. On a larger scale, Tolkien and George Martin constructed huge continental or global histories going back several millennia.

Facing this daunting task, one thing writers and worldbuilders find themselves facing the question of what to include. Limiting history to rulers, battles, and wars gets boring and dull fast. Histories can include foundations of nations, cities, other sites, and organizations; reigns of rulers and dynasties; conflicts between nations, leaders, religions, and groups; treaties, good & bad times (ex. the Great Depression); inventions of note; first contacts between civilizations and species; the rise and fall of nations, families, and organizations.

In fantasy, urban fantasy, and sci-fi, history forms the foundation of current events and national or species relations. It affects current organizational relations as well, ex. the mages and clergy are at odds because the priests tried to purge magic from the country 100 years ago.

The depth and detail of histories varies widely, for a host of reasons. We know that Tolkien’s history is very complex and detailed thanks to the Silmarillion and Lost Tales. Frank Herbert’s was probably equally detailed, based on what Kevin Anderson and Brian Herbert have been able to reconstruct from his notes. Rowling and George Lucas’s histories seem to have started rather sketchy and been filled in when needed. Michael Moorcock seems to be somewhere in between. The depth of detail also depends on the length of the piece. Neil Gaiman didn’t need to be excessively detailed in putting together a history for Neverwhere, a relatively short standalone novel. Herbert needed a detailed history for his extended epic. The role of history in the piece can also determine detail. For Neverwhere, detail and depth were not particularly necessary, just a general knowledge of London history and the Atlantis legend even though that history forms the plot. On the other hand, the history of Middle-Earth drove the plot of a wide ranging epic.

Once the history is outlined or fleshed out, how does it get incorporated?

The methods are almost as varied as the elements of history itself, sometimes they aren’t even necessary.

History can be introduced through the laws and cultural traditions of the setting. J.K. Rowling’s wand usage laws derive from the wizarding world’s history with non-human species. Frank Herbert’s imperial edicts against artificial intelligence have their roots in the Butlerian Jihad, 10,000 years before the events of Dune.

Tolkien utilizes the songs and stories of the elves, dwarves, hobbits, and Rangers to convey elements of Middle-Earth’s history.

In certain settings and types of stories, courses and books can relate parts of history. A good example of Rowling’s use of the school setting to convey her fictional history.

The very landscape can be tapped to tell the reader about the world’s history. For example, Tolkien’s use of the Argonath, the Barrows, and Weathertop or George Lucas’s shots of the temple of Yavin IV.

Family and national relations are another good way to bring in the world’s history. George R.R. Martin does this well, if in a somewhat heavy handed way, with the Starks (former Kings of the North) and the relationship between Dorn and King’s Landing.

Species relationships build out of the family and national ones. Rowling’s discussion of the various Goblin Rebellions and the plots present in many vampire-werewolf movies—in which ancient relationships lead to species conflict—are good examples.

The appearance of organizations or groups can be used as a moment to narrate or describe some history. For example, Martin’s use of the return of the Faith Militant under Cersei Lannister-Baratheon.

Other times, the entire plot of the story can reveal world history or the real world antecedents of the fictional world. The entire plot of A Song of Ice and Fire (Martin) is based on the English War of the Roses. Harry Turtledove builds most of his secondary worlds out of history, including Videssos and the setting of the Fox novels which are treated almost like alternate histories.

Turning to real world history is often an excellent option for finding inspiration for fictitious histories. There are many interesting elements, moments, and odd things in our own history that spawn plots, cultures, or even entire worlds. For instance, the appearance of the Plague in Europe, which yielded significant socio-economic and religious change. Or the sumptuary laws that were instituted throughout most of Europe to differentiate the impoverished noble class from the wealthy mercantile classes. Perhaps even the family relations of the European heads of state leading up to and throughout WWI (almost all of whom were cousins).

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Learning New Things

Still under the weather, so not a full post this week.  Instead, a few things I learned this week:

  1. Muslims have been part of the U.S. military in every major war the U.S. has ever been involved in.  Several were documented as members of the colonial army fighting the British in the Revolutionary War and nearly 300 died in the American Civil War (Captain Moses Osman was the highest ranking in the Civil War).
  2. Sikhs have been part of the U.S. military since WWI.
  3. Until 1980, men in the U.S. military were allowed to have beards while on active duty, Reagan changed that policy until it was reversed in the early-1990s.
  4. I really, really hate third person present perspective, especially when it shifts between limited and omniscient (editing job; more on this later).
  5. Being congested sucks, especially when you do your best fiction writing by hand . . . oops, sorry, already knew that.

Anyway, writing largely on hold as I’ve shifted back to handwriting all my fiction.

De-Bunking Myths, Seeking Werewolves

For whatever reason, I’ve been seeing a lot of people bemoaning modern werewolf stories, whining that “werewolves have become sympathetic” as if this is both new and bad.

Rather than respond to each individually, I thought I’d do a list of werewolves in one place instead. Because this is an incomplete list, I’m limiting it to European, mostly named, and pre-modern (mostly to demonstrate a point):

Alphesiboeus & Moeris – werewolves in Greece, no ethical commentary given (Virgil, Eclogue VIII, 1st c. BCE)

Niceros’s Soldier – potentially violent werewolf, but no violent action in the story (Petronius, Satyricon, 1st c. CE)

Lycaon – man cursed by Zeus with a wolf shape for crimes against the gods (Ovid, Metamorphoses, 1st c. CE)

Demarchus – one of many werewolves of Arcadia, Olympic champion (Pausanias, The Description of Greece, 2nd c. CE; also mentioned by St. Augustine of Hippo, The City of God, 4th/5th c.)

——— – neutral discussion of werewolves (Isidore of Seville, 6th/7th c. CE)

Alphouns – sympathetic werewolf, prince of Spain (Guillaume de Palerne, 12th c.; translated to English as William of Palerne, 14th c.)

Bisclavret – sympathetic knight-werewolf (Marie de France, “Bisclavret”, 12th c.)

Ossory-Meath Werewolves – sympathetic werewolves, married couple (Gerald of Wales, History and Topography of Ireland, 12th c.)

Gorlagon – sympathetic werewolf, king (Anon., “Arthur & Gorlagon”, 14th c.)

Peeter Stubbe – monstrous werewolf, put on trial in Germany (1590)

Jean Grenier – monstrous, yet sympathetic, child werewolf, put on trial in France, deemed psychosis (1603)

Ferdinand – psychosis werewolf induced by incestuous desire (John Webster, The Duchess of Malfi, 1614)

Wolf – the monstrous wolf-man of Little Red Riding Hood (Charles Perrault, 1697).

As we can see, the sympathetic and monstrous varieties of werewolves have existed side-by-side for well over 2000 years. In fact, the sympathetic werewolf seems to trace back further in history (and pre-history) than the monstrous variety (see Adam Douglas, The Beast Within, for a good starting history of the figure).

What Really Happened?: Layered History in Fiction

I’ve been toying with the idea of layered history lately. In short, this is a situation where my mind is going off on scores of tangents at once with regard to a worldbuild and I’m not sure how everything’s going to settle or pan out. Then this lightning bolt strikes, a seed is planted (mixing metaphors!), and something interesting comes out of it.

The idea of layered history is intrinsic to urban fantasy, regardless of whether there is a hidden magic or public magic world. It is also intrinsic to Lovecraftian horror (ex. Hellboy). And, of course, the realm of conspiracy theories (the Reptilians, ancient astronauts, etc.).

It is the idea that there are multiple layers of understanding history, or rather multiple layers of information about history. What people believe history is versus what it really is.

In other words, in urban fantasy there is always the surface layer of history: real world history, the things we were all, theoretically, taught in school about world history from pre-historic archaeology to the Renaissance to the Boxer Rebellion to both Iraq Wars. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll refer to that as mundane history.

Beneath the level of mundane history, all urban fantasy and Lovecraftian horror offers a paranormal history. This is the history of the non-humans, the magical elements of the world. In hidden magic worlds, this is a history that normal people know nothing about. In open/public magic worlds, it may or may not be common knowledge. Rowling codified paranormal history as the History of Magic classes at Hogwarts. Charlaine Harris (Southern Vampire/True Blood) kept vampiric history secret from humans, even after vampires went public, even moreso the histories of the weres, shifters, fae, witches, and others who hadn’t gone public. The True Blood writers took things a step further than Harris and introduced a third layer of history known only to a select handful of vampires (the “vampire bible” and Billith line, in all its absurdity).

I’m currently working on an Earth based urban fantasy setting in which there is mundane history and paranormal history. One group also believes that it has figured out and filled in some of the holes in paranormal history. In truth, they know a handful of little things and extrapolated the wrong things from what little they know, so there’s also real history to account for.

Tradition vs “Tradition”: Werewolves (& Other Shifters, Really)

Thinking about history, I think about traditional figures, particularly shapeshifters since I’ve spent a long time studying them. When I think about traditional figures, I like werewolves especially because there’s a divide between what most modern audiences consider to be traditional and what actually is traditional. For the purposes of this post, I’ll refer to the latter as traditional and the former as “traditional”.

The modern “traditional” is really a new phenomenon that is largely built out of Hollywood, rather than the traditional figures of folklore, legend, myth, and literature. For the purpose of this post, I’ll focus solely on cases of supposed actual change, not psychology (Sigmund Freud, Henri Boguet, James I of England, Simon Goulart).

According to the “traditional”, werewolves have a number of interesting traits. Most of these traits would be unrecognizable to pre-modern audiences. For instance, “traditional” werewolves take a wolfman shape, sometimes in addition to a wolf shape. “Traditional” werewolves are forced to change at the full moon (a theory posited by Gervase of Tilbury in the medievla era and dismissed by his peers, a theory that was never posited again until the 18th century), possibly coming about due to theories about ties between the moon and madness. “Traditional” werewolves are regenerative and vulnerable to silver (likely tied to the moon change, also a relative cheap precious metal). Finally, “traditional” werewolves transmit their condition through biting victims (or sometimes transfer of other bodily fluids), an idea that doesn’t appear before germ theory.

On the other hand, the traditional werewolves of the ancient through early modern eras were rather different. They only had human and animal shapes, no hybrid form. They did not regenerate (nor share injuries between forms, a concept that developed in 18th c. literature). All traditional werewolves changed for one of four reasons: curse, genetics, ritual, or an item. The most well known curses are in Gerald of Wales, Ovid, and William of Palerne. Marie de France seems to work with genetics. Petronias’ werewolf and Demarchus of Acadia were ritual based. Item based change, with an attendant deal with the devil, was most commonly use in the early modern/Renaissance era. Werewolves of the eras could be cured, typically by being struck three times by certain objects (with the spread of Christianity). They were a mix of monstrous (classical and early modern) and sympathetic (classical and medieval). Virtually all traditional werewolves were male (only one female comes to mind, in Gerald of Wales), from Lycaeus to Alphouns, Bisclavret to Gorlagon.

The “traditional” has become considered traditional due, I think, to saturation. Most modern audiences know the werewolves of movies and modern horror novels (and urban fantasy of the last decade). Few know the older stories, especially the early modern, medieval, and classical.

Are the “traditional” in any way worse than the traditional? No. But, as some authors rediscover the older sources, I’ve seen readers scream that the figures “aren’t right” because they don’t have the “traditional” attributes. I think this is another area where some awareness of history and awareness of just how young some of our “traditional” things really are is helpful.