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Inspirational Reads

America's Epic (???)

May 29, 2007

If there was one thing I learned while I toiled through the labors of my sophomore year at St. Joe's, it was 'What makes an epic'? In fact, that could have been the subtitle for the classes designated Core III and Core IV. St. Joe has a requirement that you must take a certain set of core classes (cleverly referred to as the 'core system') which helps a student become more rounded and eliminates the need for a science major to take art history to fulfill the degree requirements at the school. Many colleges around the country have adopted a similar style (I think Notre Dame might...but I'm not certain) of requirements for their undergrads, and on the whole, it's a very worthy, very nice class system. Everyone is tossed in together, so you are going through this with your classmates and friends. At the same time, Cores V and VI (the Science Cores) are easy three credit hour As for people like yours truly, who were science majors to begin with and basically phoned in the course.

But, I digress. This is not a discussion of the merits of the Core System as applied by St. Joe's (although, I will take one last chance to wander off topic and mention that the on-campus bar is called Core XI, the core you take AFTER you've taken all the others...very clever, those undergrads). This is a discussion of the epic saga type of story.

One of the things we studied in Core III and IV was how nations and people could identify (and be identified) by their epic stories. The Babylonians had Gilgamesh, the Scandinavians had Beowulf (who introduced it to English when they invaded), the Greeks had both the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Jewish people had the Torah, the Romans had the Aeneid, the French had The Song of Roland, and the British (including both the Angles and Saxons as well as the native Britons, Scots and Picts) had King Arthur. There are others, but you get the point, and I don't need to continue naming them all.

With one exception, and I'll toss that in here: in the early Twentieth Century, an English scholar by the name of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien decided that Beowulf and King Arthur weren't sufficient enough for the English people, and so he undertook the task of writing a modern epic for the Brits. Nearly a hundred years later, it was set to film, grossed millions, pissed off several fans who felt the stories needed to be translated to the screen verbatim, and allowed bumper sticker makers everywhere to relate the works of Tolkien to the current regime in power in America. I, of course, speak of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The notion that we can still, in this modern age, relate to epic stories is very important, especially relating to this post.

There are certain core themes that appear time and time again in epic stories. There's, of course, the brave hero: Odysseus, Aeneas, Beowulf, Gilgamesh, Arthur... The hero, most often reluctantly, will undertake a task that seems greater than themselves, often with the aid of a mentor or advisor in the beginning, but later has to go through the trials and tribulations by themselves. The task usually involves the destruction of a great evil, and more often than not involves a long, arduous journey for the hero before he ultimately arrives victorious in the end. And, of course, there's the question of morality. At some point, the hero must make a decision, and it's usually an internal struggle, as to whether they will ultimately do good or take the easier, quicker path and turn to evil. This is often referred to as the "tragic flaw".

There are also a few other things that go into the story: mystical powers, enchanted weaponry, heavy symbolism, and poetic prose/poetic language. These don't necessarily factor into the story, but are ways of devoloping the plot and describing the action and characters in the epic. One should remember that these stories, more often than not, were told around a campfire or sung by a bard for all to hear, and were often recited from memory, thus the need for symbols and poetic language and all.

I've pointed out how several nations and peoples can be identified (and identify with) the epics that are tied to their cultures. However, in America, we do not have an epic saga that we can identify with. Or do we? This is one of the questions that was raised during my sophomore year classes, and the argument was laid forth that the tales of the Old West were as close as we'd ever get to having our own epic story (indeed, the Western is a uniquely American film genre; despite the rise of the Spaghetti Westerns, the action was still set in the American West). Is this true? Is this the only epic story that we'll ever get here in this country?

Let me try something here. I'll write a brief description of the epic of Beowulf: Beowulf took his sword and struck down the evil Grendal, the embodiment of evil, and thus freed the world of his darkness. Good, right? Concise, gets the point across, and pretty much has all the makings of an epic story right there, no?

Let's try substituting some more familiar names and see what happens.

Luke took his lightsaber and struck down Darth Vader, the embodiment of evil, and thus helped bring about the fall of the Galactic Empire and its oppresive reign.

Yep. That works, too, doesn't it?

Now, I've been pretty critical of George Lucas in the past for the vile things he spewed forth onto the screen starting in 1999. I felt that the Star Wars prequels could have been done a lot better (and I still contend that). It was the completion of the epic, however, and so those stories were important. Still, they could have been done a lot better.

Last night, the History Channel ran a program about the things that influenced the making of Star Wars and how it fits into the epic story category. It was, over all, a very fascinating premise and it was very well done. We saw how both Annakin Skywalker and Luke played the roles of the heroes, but where Annakin failed at his internal struggle of good versus evil, Luke succeeds. Ultimately, it is Annakin who destroys the evil in the galaxy, and then opts to die and thus eliminate all of the darkness from the galaxy (as we see it). While Luke is the Epic Hero, Annakin turns out to be the Tragic Hero who spends a long time as the embodiment of evil in the galaxy (the same relationship exists with Frodo and Gollum).

As I watched, it was evident that all of the pieces were there for the epic story: the hero, Luke and Annakin; the great evil, the Empire, Palpatine and Vader; the mystic power, the Force; the mentor, Obi-Wan and Yoda; the enchanted weapon, Luke's lightsaber(s); the symbolism, Vader's mask and outfit, Palpatine's cowl. All that we're missing is the poetic language.

The only reason we don't see the poetic language is that we aren't reading the story, we're watching it. However, I defy anyone to dispute lines such as "Do, or do not, there is no try" or "I am a Jedi, like my father before me" or even "I love you"/"I know" are not poetic in their nature (especially since the last showed up twice in two different points in the story). They may not be written or delivered in iambic pentameter, but that doesn't make them any less poetic.

Overall, the comparison of Star Wars as the modern American epic versus the ancient epics holds up. One important thing that I felt was done very well was that people outside of the Star Wars universe made all the comments on the films and their role as the American epic. George Lucas' image from college was seen once in the show. None of the cast or crew were interviewed, either. Everyone who commented on anything was from outside of the making and the presentation of the story, and this lent an extra bit of credence to the claim that this is America's epic. All of those interviewed found roles for all of the characters in Star Wars as applied to traditional epics. The fact that they could even find a role for Jar Jar really impressed me (and amused me, as he was related to the Parasite often seen in Greek theatre). Kevin Smith was inciteful and funny, and I wish that there would have been more of his interviews, but I won't complain. I will say that Peter Jackson did a good job of not relating any of the symbols, characters and themes found in Star Wars to the Lord of the Rings, although they are clearly there (as there are with all epic stories).

Once the show was finished, I turned the tv off and sat there in my chair for probably a good thirty minutes, reflecting on my own works. I began to immediately start classifying all of my characters into the archetypes listed during the show (I focused more on the Hundred Kings Saga, as this is uniquely my own epic...although my wife might claim that Zumsticks would be my epic). The only thing that I could not find in my story was the comic relief characters, and I began to realize that the inclusion of someone who provides emotional relief could help make the rest of the characters seem more real. That being said, I could pick a couple of characters who might best be the C-3PO/R2-D2 or Merry/Pippen of my story, but even they play ever-increasingly dramatic roles in the story. I still haven't made a decision, but it is something that I will have to think about as I wrap up The Boar War (where Skulk the fox is my comic relief), ship it out for review and pick the Hundred Kings stories back up.

Okay, I'm rambled too much, but I've been quiet on the blogosphere recently. I will post again later tonight to explain more about the silence. And yes, it does involve a video game, but no, that's not the main reason. By the way, if you're a Star Wars fan or just interested in what I've blogged onto the screen here, I highly recommend watching the History Channel program. As I said, it was very well done and rather insightful on many accounts.


Chemgeek said...

Excellent post. Well written and informative.

I am truly convinced that chemists, in general, understand more about things like literature and the arts than the writer or artist knows about chemistry.