Straying just a little from my usual subject matter, one of my favorite Christmas gifts was a bound collection of postcards called The Snooty Bookshop. Anybody who takes writing seriously needs to own Gauld’s comedic take down of anybody who takes writing seriously. I was watching a new Netflix series last night and was reminded of one of the post cards. On the post card, two characters are journeying through the mountains and the too, too literate companion, walking behind the lead character says: “We’ve had our “inciting incident” and we’re on the “journey” so it seems like we’ll be having a “crisis” any minute now… ” To which the lead character answers: “This quest was a lot more fun before you got that book on story structure.”
Every opening episode of every fantasy/sci-fi series, including cartoons and animé, were a lot more fun before I read that post card. Truth is, I’ve known about this story structure since Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth popularized our understanding of myth and archetype. And to be fair, criticizing these series (along with every last one of the Marvell Super Hero movies) for following the same story arc since Gilgamesh is like criticizing Agatha Christie stories for always starting with murder. That’s the point. Some people love murder/mystery and some never get tired of the epic quest to save the whole world again, and again, and again, and again… I get it.
On the other hand, and before the invention of mass media, an illiterate public might only be exposed to one such story in their lifetime. Homer’s Odyssey sufficed for thousands of years and is thought by some to be an amalgamation of many stories. The Romans had Hercules, of whom they never tired—and all our super heroes, especially Superman, are Hercules by another name. Even the Visigoths counted Hercules as one of theirs. The stories in A Thousand and One Nights, which include Ali Baba, had their origins throughout the middle East before being compiled in Arabic. The Anglo Saxons had Beowulf. The legend of King Arthur was to the British Isles what the legend of the Odyssey and Illiad was to the Greeks. If you ask me though, the greatest quest of our time remains Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, inspired by Scandinavian mythologies. I personally consider Tolkien to be the Homer of our age. I can’t think of a single fantasy novel that doesn’t owe a debt to Tolkien’s great trilogy, including Sci-fi. Sci-fi is simply fantasy in which magic is traded for advanced technology while the modern super hero is a blend of sci-fi and fantasy possessing (or being a product of) advanced technology while also having “magical” abilities—like the ability to fly. The super hero Doctor Strange is a Gandalfian figure in a sci-fi universe.
Game of Thrones, by the way, simply substitutes “main families” for main characters, à la the War of the Roses (as George R.R. Martin himself has stated); but otherwise follows the same story arc that countless other fantasy novels follow—the families are like both the Archaeans and the Trojans. They feud and bicker like the Archaeans before the gates of Troy and are under siege like the Trojans. The army that threatens them, like the Archaean army at the gates of Troy, threatens to annihilate them (which, for all intents and purposes, would be the end of the word). It’s only the unexpected pluck of a heroine that saves them all—at least in the version by Benioff and Weiss (and itself an archetypal trope).
It seems to me, though, that the rise of mass media has made the epic quest cheap currency. Every series or movie has its inciting incident and every quest has its crisis. New York is the modern world’s Troy and every exoplanetary alien lays siege to the city with its own version of an Archaean army. And each invasionary alien is pursuing their own Helen, whether its our resources or just plain us—as slaves or as the main course. Unlike the poets of the past, who arguably possessed a tragic and first hand knowledge of war’s travesty and the wages of violence, modern writers don’t have the good sense to let New York fall (and the world with it). The Trojans—us—always win. We get to keep our Helen.
I used to love stories like these.
I watched the stop motion battles of Jason and the Argonauts or the clever Ali Baba over and over again; and as a child I wanted to be like them— fearless, resourceful and lethally good with a sword. But either the archetypal currency of the epic has gotten too cheap or I’ve gotten too old for these stories—having too much a sense of life’s ephemeral and fragile beauty to enjoy the “inciting incidents” that often involve psychopathic violence, cruelty and murder (meant to incite a violent and murderous lust for revenge). By way of example, I watched the first episode of Netflix’s Cursed last night, intended as a precursor to the Arthurian legends. True to form, the episode begins with an “inciting episode” that involves the cruel and gruesome (way over the top) slaughter of a defenseless populace (and more than once). The purpose is to hook viewers into wondering how the heroine, Nimue, is going to right all these wrongs—but she has a sword to do it, possibly Excalibur (I didn’t watch long enough) and has already spilled blood with it.
I already know how this is going to play out. This doesn’t mean there’s still not a part of me interested in watching the particulars (it’s for the particulars that one reads the sixty-sixth novel by Agatha Christie), but I can already imagine the particulars. I’m an author myself and recognize all the tricks up the screenwriters’ sleeves.
I find myself yearning for another world (or the one many of us are lucky enough to live in)—one without strife, violence or conflict. I enjoy movies and novels that happen at the pace of life (and am almost finished with my own novel). As I say, nothing much happens, but that’s how it goes. We’re doing well if each day makes us a little better.
When I need a break, my current escape is Rust Valley Restorers. I recognize these guys—like guys I’ve worked with as a builder. They have their petty squabbles, dreams and roadblocks, but I relate; and they can do damned amazing things with hardly more than a rusted frame and a shell. They’re artists. Their world is the world I recognize and want to live in—just day to day life giving them the freedom to pursue their dreams. I don’t need fantasies. Forget fighting off the invading hordes. Show me a man who can restore a pile of rust into a spotless 66 Beaumont.
I’m almost done with my novel–just over 90,000 words and full of my poetry and fables.
upinVermont | July 18 2020