Category Archives: The Iliad

There Will Be Superheroes

A call to abolish them is completely misguided

Superhero

Superhero, by Vegas Bleeds Neon. Licensed under Creative Commons BY-SA 3.0.

The other day I came across this article, which reviews the claim of film critic David Denby that our society needs rescuing from our obsession with superheroes, and that the movie business never will be mature and realistic until it stops focusing on fantasies like these. As if a future where people only told realistic stories was somehow desirable. This is an utterly ridiculous call, because human society has created superheroes for thousands and thousands of years. Why on earth would we collectively ignore the way our mind works? Stories of fantastic powers and superhuman doings are not necessarily dumbed down stories for the lowest common denominator.

Of course I don’t mean humanity has been inventing guys in spandex flying through the air for thousands of years. But we’ve never been able to resist giving characters in our stories super-human abilities. Even in stories where Achilles was not dipped into the river Styx (ie: The Iliad), he has super-human fighting ability – not just because good fights make a good story (see, humans haven’t changed much), but also because we’d like to see what such a super-good fighter would be like. Beowulf was the only man courageous enough to fight a rampaging dragon, showing what could happen if we could overcome our natural-enough inclination to run away. King Arthur gets to show off what a ‘perfect king’ might be like. Paul Bunyan gets to be gigantic. All in all, people throughout history weren’t shy about inserting unbelievable characteristics into otherwise somewhat-realistic stories. And I don’t think things have changed much. People with special abilities – Superman, Spiderman, Harry Potter – still fill our stories. And I don’t think that needs to change. Just because a story is a fantastic story, doesn’t necessarily indicate our society’s literature or film culture is does not realistically “reflect the soul” of North America.

Because superheroes give us a picture of what rising above our circumstances could look like. They can get past all our frustrating limitations in a way no one else has the power too. And because they can do that, they can also examine if what we think we want would turn out to be a good thing after all. Let’s take Achilles, the supreme realization of someone who hit all the targets for a perfect hero in ancient, ancient Greece. (To us, he comes off as a self-centered jerk, but trust me, to them that was apparently what their heroic ethos required). Does that make him happy? No, throughout The Iliad, he is continually placed in situations that make him furiously angry, as a result of living up to this ideal. And our modern superheroes fill the same function. Want the ability to make all those criminals who get away with evil crimes to pay? Well, there’s responsibility that comes with that. And would it actually make the world a better place?

So we get the hope that comes with watching someone rise above petty human circumstances, and do what we can only dream of. But we can also see that consequences of what this would be like, without have to bear the responsibility for that ourselves.

And this is unrealistic? I suppose what Denby means in the article I linked above is that we can use this type of thing as an escape from reality, to avoid facing what’s actually wrong with our society right now. Presumably he thinks we should have more movies (movies are the focus of his piece, actually) that deal with human limitations, our inability to reach perfection. Facing our problems is the only way to deal with them, and so on. But isn’t there room for both? Humans need to look up to something, and need to have some kind of hope. Otherwise superhero stories would never have been written. Depression can easily lead to apathy, after all.

And, like I said before, these stories force us to examine our ideals. Are men with inhuman fighting ability really what we want to see in our world? How about men with infinite power? Or men with an unswerving drive to see justice done? I think the answers stories about humans with fantastic powers can give us astounding intelligent answers to this – though it certainly produces immature answers as well. Because it’s easy to let our assumptions about what our society thinks is worth pursuing go unexamined. And even super-human abilities will run up against unexpected limits. (After all, the world itself is still imperfect).

So yes, more superhero movies, please. But also more stories on a mythic scale, of the type humans used to sit in circles around a bard to listen to.

What do you think about superheroes – completely unrealistic, or worth making stories about?

And a heads up to all who’ve been enjoying my blog – tomorrow I am doing a free giveaway of my latest ebook, Prince Charming, over at Amazon. Is Prince Charming actually charming, or merely an entitled brat? This is your chance to get your hands on the story, so go check it out!

(This post contains affiliate links)

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Filed under Randoms & My Life, The Iliad

A Fighter or a Philosopher? Achilles Ponders

“One and the same lot for the man who hangs back and the man who battles hard. The same honor waits for the coward and the brave. They both go down to Death, the fighter who shirks, the one who works to exhaustion.”

– Achilles, The Iliad (Book 9, 385-388, translation by Fagles, 1990)

Like I said before, I was utterly amazed by the characterization in The Iliad. The characters are all somewhat well-known in our culture already – Helen, Paris, Hector, Achilles, Odysseus – that we feel like we know what they are all about. What I loved about The Iliad was that these characters could surprise me, even though I knew the plot. Like the above quote with Achilles. He’s downright philosophical! You’d think he’d be a bit of a dumb brute, completely focused on fighting and fighting alone, or whining away in his tent. Well, apparently he’s spent some of the time away from battle musing over life, and the purpose of his warrior’s ethos. (In fact, the above quote really reminds me of Ecclesiastes).

Now, if you want more surprises, check out The Iliad‘s characterization of Paris and Helen. I really feel the movie, Troy, (probably the most well-known movie version of this famous epic) really fell down when trying to portray these people as powerfully as they are portrayed in The Iliad. And I think it really fell down when it tried to portray Achilles, but I could write a whole post on that, so I’ll refrain for now.

Have you ever read a story where you thought you knew the plot already, but were surprised by how good the story actually turned out to be?

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Filed under Quotables, The Iliad

Unicorns in the Streets: What is Genre, Anyway?

by Erin Stevenson O’Connor, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported

J.K. Rowling just released her latest book yesterday, and surprise, surprise, it is not about wizards. Or magic. Or unicorns. She has firmly departed her old stomping grounds of children’s fantasy, and forayed into what might be called contemporary adult fiction. Which got me thinking – why do we draw such hard and fast lines between different types of writing, anyway?

No Fantasy in Realism

“I had a lot of real-world material in me, believe you me,” Rowling is quoted as saying. “The thing about fantasy—there are certain things you just don’t do in fantasy.” She makes it sound like the gulf between realism and fantasy is wide and impassable. But looking back over a history of literature, it doesn’t appear that there was always such a hard line between fantasy and realistic stories. The Iliad depicts a drawn-out conflict between two war-like groups, a situation that would’ve been somewhat familiar to people at the time. Yet fantastic elements such as the interference of gods and Achilles battling with a river are added without a second thought. In medieval literature, knights go off to fight dragons and mythical creatures, as well as more mundane enemies. Beowulf slays a dragon. King Arthur pulls a sword out of a stone. MacBeth consults with witches. The line between the realistic and the fantastic seems to be very blurry – perhaps to the point of not existing at all.

(To be fair, what we know as a ‘novel’ was not invented till about the 17th century either. The Iliad, for example, was an epic poem and certainly not a novel. The same for Beowulf.)

Of course, part of the reason for this was that for historical peoples, the world was a mysterious place and mostly unknown. There really might’ve been dragons beyond the next hill, but you didn’t really know because you’d never gone there. In our modern times, we’ve lost that sense of wonder when we gained the ability to circumnavigate the world in hours, and map DNA down to the very last detail. Fantastic creatures such as unicorns and dragons just don’t belong in our everyday life, or even our typical imaginations. They are only acceptable sectioned off behind a little label called ‘Fantasy,’ with the understanding that ‘Fantasy’ and ‘Realism’ are very different things.

But Really, Why Genre?

I think it’s because we, as humans, like to know what to expect in stories. Not to know every detail, of course, but to be able to predict general outlines. If it’s a fantasy novel, it’s going to have magic, some kind of Dark Lord, and yes, maybe unicorns. If it’s a mystery novel, it’s going to have a murder – and probably someone who’s wrongfully accused, a detective of some sort, and a second murder that raises the stakes of the case. The readers know a bit of what to expect beforehand, so while hopefully the plot will keep them at the edge of their seats, they are still entering a comfortable world where events happen according to unspoken rules. A nice contrast to the randomness of reality.

And genre conventions do go back a long way. The ancient Greeks didn’t have novels like we do, but they did divide their plays into two types: comedy and tragedy. The audience knew to expect different things in each one. Shakespeare also had comedies, tragedies and histories (slightly different from what the Greek meanings of those words were). Of course, not all Shakespeare plays fit into the categories assigned to them, proving that while genre is a useful concept, it does not solve all problems across the board. Creators want freedom to subvert conventions, including the conventions of genres.

So there you have it. When J.K. Rowling announced her latest book was ‘adult realism,’ she (and her publishers) were signalling exactly what kind of audience they expected to buy the book. Genre is a useful tool for letting the reader know what to expect, but the categories are not the hard and fast categories we like to think of them as. Writers like to break rules, and more than that, categories and styles of literature have changed over the years.

But does this mean a unicorn could never walk down the main streets of New York, and still be called ‘realistic’? Maybe not nowadays, but who can say about the future?

Note: I missed my Quotables post this Monday – it just completely got lost in the shuffle. Unfortunately I have a bit of a busy semester ahead of me, so once in a while I may resort to only posting once a week. If a post doesn’t go up, rest assured I have not forgotten about my blog! I just have not managed to juggle my priorities well enough. I hope this will not happen often. 🙂 

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Filed under On Writing, The Iliad

Read The Iliad!

Achilles battling the river, by Max Slevogt. {PD}

“Sing to me, Muse, of the wrath of Achilles…”

– Homer, The Iliad

I was blown away by how good The Iliad is. I’ve read classics before and wondered why they were considered classics, but I have no doubt as to why The Iliad managed to survive for thousands of years. And I’ve never been a major fan of stories full of random violence, or depressing war stories. But somehow the characters of The Iliad leap off the page at you and say something about humanity in general, despite living in a culture that is completely foreign to us.

Yes, I was told to read it for school. But I’m glad I actually did read it, instead of just pretending I did. 🙂

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Filed under Quotables, The Iliad