I just read a great post on Black Gate today by Fletcher Vredenburgh about being an older reader of science fiction and fantasy in a world where the genre has expanded and diversified into a dizzying array of choices, leaving many of the once-classic works sitting on the wayside, unread, displaced by flashy newcomers in the field. I have a huge soft spot for heroic fantasy from the first half of the twentieth century, so it struck a chord with me–especially the idea that these works are still worthwhile even when the world has seemingly moved on from the very specific context in which they were written. The values of someone from a hundred years ago in our own country can be just as alien as when we cross the border elsewhere. But has everything mutated to the degree where the literature of yesteryear can seem unapproachable, where age is such a turnoff due to dissonance?
Maybe not. Because just as when we deal with another culture, we’re still able to empathize if we have it in us, and there are some elements of the human condition that we all share wherever our time or place.
I’ve been reading The Iliad for the first time. It is perhaps the greatest example of a form no longer practiced in the western world–the epic poem. Some commentators have noted that the values and culture displayed by the characters and the narrative voice in The Iliad are so alien, so impossibly distant, that we can’t identify with them. It is an artefact of a dead past, and any interest in it derives from its strangeness.
Yet once I started reading, I found it remarkably easy to slip into the world of the Trojan War despite the temporal distance separating me from Homer. The characters and actions are just that compelling, and within the landscape of the poem itself, understandable. The Iliad is still a gripping narrative, and while the characters are indeed larger-than-life, they also show frequent flashes of their own humanity.
I wonder if being a fan of heroic fantasy didn’t help ease my way into the story and Homer’s style of telling it. The Neoclassical and Romantic literary movements saw the resurrection of interest in the old epic style once shared by wildly disparate cultures–an Akkadian poet compiled and composed The Epic of Gilgamesh, a Christian monk set down Beowulf millennia later, and Homer rattled off The Iliad some time in-between. All espoused different value systems and ideas of heroism yet their works were still linked by style and sweeping content. That interest led imitation and ultimately expansion through the mere act of writing new material within a different context. This was not a new process; medieval authors were just as keen to build on The Aeniad as their neoclassical descendents (see: Milton), but the grand style of men interacting with gods and mighty battles diffused so broadly it found its way into pulpy adventure tales of indomitable heroes contending against supernatural threats. I still find these sorts of stories irresistible, no matter when they were first told, or whether it was considered “high” or “low” entertainment at the time.
There is something in tales of the eternal clash between men and between gods that will always speak to me.