Ends of Eras

Part of the journey is the end.
—Tony Stark

“The Saga Comes To An End”

We have a lot of extended stories coming to a close this year.  At this writing, eleven years of Marvel Cineverse movies have concluded with Avengers:  Endgame.  It won’t by any means be the last Marvel movie—we’ll see many of these characters again—but the overall story that began with Iron Man in 2008 has reached its end.  The TV series Game of Thrones released its finale on May 19, 2019.  In December, we anticipate the conclusion of the Star Wars trilogy of trilogies (The Rise of Skywalker).

On the book side, David Weber’s Honor Harrington series (she first appeared in 1992) arrived at a conclusion of sorts with Uncompromising Honor (2018).  There are plotlines still unfinished, and Honor herself may reappear in later stories, but it seems clear her personal narrative arc has closed.

Even a blog post by the FCC’s General Counsel, of all things, has given a nod to this convergence of endings.

I’m going to assume it’s coincidence that these sagas of different lengths are finishing up together.  It does seem like a good moment, however, to reflect on what the resolution of these stories says to us.

(Miraculously, this post seems to have managed to avoid any actual spoilers for Endgame.  But please note that the links, if you follow them, are full of spoilers.)

 “A really long story”

The fact that we have all these long-running series, by itself, brings up some topics that are familiar in this blog.  For instance, it confirms that readers and viewers of our own era are not as lacking in attention span as pundits might claim.  An article by Douglas Wolk, the weekend of Endgame’s release, was titled:  “Americans crave complex ideas.  Just look at the Marvel universe.”

Wolk credits Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, back in the 1960s, with bringing extended stories spanning multiple magazines to comic books.  He notes also that such vast tapestries draw us together by giving us shared topics to talk about:  “to be drawn into conversation to understand them better”—to share reactions, insights, theories about stories that “mean more to us together than alone.”  I can testify to this, as a veteran of many an animated office conversation on what was so good about Captain Marvel or whether people were satisfied with the ending of GoT.

A wide-ranging story also satisfies our appetite for visiting a fully-realized world.  This is the value of what Tolkien called “Escape” in his pivotal essay On Fairy-Stories—the refreshing sense of leaving our ordinary world temporarily behind to immerse oneself in a new and different world.  It was Tolkien who (in the Foreword to The Lord of the Rings) gave his primary motive as “the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story”—but who is also one of the great worldbuilders.

The Craving for Epics

But these aspects mostly reflect the sheer size of the saga.  More to the point, perhaps, is that many of us also share an appetite for what we might call the epic:  a mighty struggle in which one side is clearly fighting for something worthwhile, and gains some success, as distinct from a tragedy.

Not everyone has this taste:  some of us prefer more limited stories about individual people’s fates (for example, in the romance genre), or stories that disdain the whole good-versus-evil business as insufficiently gray.  And some massive sagas fit the epic pattern better than others.  Game of Thrones is notorious for its ambivalent characters and refusal to grant unambiguous victories.  Still, from what I hear, the finale did at least bring the Westeros civil war to an end, and (mirabile dictu) many of the more decent characters survived.

Mark Ruffalo (who plays the Hulk), discussing the Avengers movies, said:

You also see the power of storytelling.  One thing I think about these movies that’s really exciting is they’re forward-leaning in the narrative of good versus evil.  We’re able to transcend some of the divisive narratives that are happening now.  (Quoted in Anthony Brezican, “All for One,” Entertainment, April 19/26, 2019, p. 20.)

It’s fascinating to hear a good-versus-evil narrative described as “forward-leaning,” after so many years in which such stories have been derided as passé.  But the remark has further implications.  It matters how things come out in the end—good, bad, or mixed.  And this means there has to be an ending in which some kind of resolution occurs.

Letting a Story End

I can’t really evaluate a story until I’ve seen how it comes out.  I’ve seen stories that were pretty off-putting in the early stages, but managed to redeem themselves at the end.  And I’ve seen some that seemed promising, but ended in a way that ruined everything that had come before.  One is reminded of the ancient adage about a human life:  “Call no man happy before his death, for by how he ends, a man is known” (Sirach 11:28; Aristotle discusses a similar statement by Solon in Nicomachean Ethics I.10).  Since a person’s life is a story, the connection makes sense.

That a story needs an ending might seem a truism if it weren’t that we have lots of stories that don’t end.  For example, comic books and soap operas (“daytime drama”) go on indefinitely, as long as people are willing to read or watch.  The occasional subversion of this pattern is noteworthy for its rarity—for example, the story in Kurt Busiek’s Astro City comic where a costumed hero called Jack-in-the-Box, himself a son who has taken on his father’s hero identity, deliberately trains a successor to take over the role (“Father’s Day,” in Astro City:  Family Album (1999)).

In more conventional literature and movies, we find other timeless, perpetual characters.  The irascible detective Nero Wolfe figured in tales spanning the period from 1934 to 1975, without major changes in his age or situation, despite the major changes in world events and American culture over that time.  The character’s fixity is actually kind of appealing; it seemed odd when a later Wolfe book written by Robert Goldsborough shows Wolfe’s sidekick Archie Goodwin using a computer in place of his trusty typewriter.  Similarly, P.G. Wodehouse’s Bertie Wooster survived innumerable scrapes and confusions from 1923 through 1974, with similarly unsettling chronological consequences (Bertie encounters a protest march in one of the later books).  In the movies, James Bond has eternal life, though actors may come and go.

Dragonflight coverBut barring these iconic perennial characters, a series that goes on indefinitely without an ending—or past its ending—is in danger of becoming humdrum.  When Anne McCaffrey started her Dragonriders of Pern series in 1967, the charcters were fighting the periodically recurring scourge of “Thread,” but aspired to find a way to end it once and for all.  In All the Weyrs of Pern (1991), they actually accomplished that goal.  That wasn’t the end of the stories; almost twenty other Dragonrider books have been published since by McCaffrey and her children.  But I found that I lost a good deal of my interest once the driving force of the original plot ended.  It was always pleasant to visit Pern, but the motivation of an ongoing plot was absent.

This may be a personal predilection; it may account for why I have difficulty staying interested in a TV series for very long.  The exceptions occur where the ongoing character or story arcs are sufficiently compelling to keep me engaged.  The Good Place, for example, achieves this by turning into a quite different kind of story in each of the three seasons so far, but with continuing characters who still seem to be reaching toward an end.  Chuck succeeded in a somewhat similar way, but the original premise was clearly played out by the last half-season; it was a good thing the series ended when it did.  When even a major movie comes across as “just another episode,” that’s a buzz-killer for me.

Closure and Continuation

Theatre critic Ann Hornaday focused on the virtues of conclusion in an excellent article upon the release of Endgame.  One such virtue arises from the very existence of an overall arc, and the associated worldbuilding:  “When contemporary experience seems to be composed of narratively nonsensical shocks to the system, the attraction of coherent, well-constructed alternative realities cannot be underestimated.”  Moreover, a good long story can engender a powerful sense of fulfillment, of achievement, from the closure of an appropriate ending.  It’s worth keeping mind that the word “end” means not just where something stops, but also a goal toward which we strive.  A fitting close is a good thing even if the ending also involves dealing with death—“absence and interior loss,” as Hornaday puts it.

As noted above, the conclusion of an iconic hero’s story is unusual enough that to see such a character retire and reach an end is both somber and refreshing.  We hate to see them go, but if they’ve lived a full life, we feel a kind of elegiac nostalgia.

This works best when the world goes on, but new characters take over—just as in real life.  It won’t surprise anyone that some of the heroes in Endgame do reach their ends; others continue.  Honor Harrington retires, but her successors will carry on while she finally enjoys the fruits of a well-earned victory.  As readers and viewers, we ought to be willing to let a beloved character go.  This reluctant release may be echoed in the story itself.  When one of the characters in Endgame tells another that it’s okay for them to go, it reminded me of what I said to my own mother, at the hospice staff’s suggestion, when she was ready to die.

While we love our heroes, the hero’s journey does have an end (which need not be death; the cited Wikipedia page labels it “The Crossing of the Return Threshold”).  We need that fitting closure to make a good story.

Is it unrealistic to expect neat endings that wind up lives, or at least careers?  Not really.  The wise Sam Gamgee was right to suggest that the great stories never really end (The Two Towers, Book IV, ch. 8); and as Bilbo said, “the Road goes ever on” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book I, ch. 1).  But the episodes, the substories that make up those grand tales, do have their moments of closure.

We do achieve or complete things, sometimes.  We go through high school or college, and then graduate (mostly).  After a courtship, we marry—which starts a new story.  Elsewhere I’ve quoted Alasdair MacIntyre to the effect that in Jane Austen’s novels, marriage occupies the place of death in real life—an ending we don’t move beyond.  Yet we do move on; and the milestone event is no less an achievement because another phase of the story continues afterward.  “Each happy ending’s a brand new beginning.”  We need both closure and continuation.

This duality is most prominent when one person’s arc winds down and others begin.  It’s not just one story with its phases and milestones, but a vast array of overlapping stories.  Everyone has a story, and they are all woven together.  “In the plan of the Great Dance plans without number interlock, and each movement becomes in its season the breaking into flower of the whole design to which all else had been directed” (Perelandra, ch.17).

So we celebrate the closing of these mighty sagas, and we look forward to the new stories that will follow them.

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Temporary Death

Back from the Dead

Bringing back the dead is a tricky business, story-wise.  For a major character to die adds gravitas.  It gains our sympathy; it makes us take the story more seriously.

But in adventure stories, characters who die have a pretty good chance of turning up again later.  This has become such a convention that we are often adjured not to assume someone’s dead unless you actually see the body.

There’s a strong temptation for a writer to save a beloved (and sometimes lucrative) character; yet the return undermines the impact of the death.  Are there ways to manage that dilemma?

The White Rider

Gandalf faces Balrog with sword and staffThe theme of one who was dead who turns up alive has a very long history—as we may note particularly in this Easter season.  For the literary trope, however, I think of Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings as the the ur-example.  Gandalf’s loss is appalling for the reader, and his reappearance is a classic example of the sudden turn beyond hope that Tolkien called “eucatastrophe.”

LotR comes early enough in the history of modern high fantasy that it may have been unexpected, at that time, for a character to really die and then come back.  Merely apparent death is much more common—even in LotR.  An article I read once observed how frequently someone is thought to be dead in the course of the story.  For example, Aragorn thinks Frodo has been killed by an orc-spear in the Mines of Moria (Book II, Ch. 5).  Sam assumes Shelob has killed Frodo, when in fact the spider has merely put him into a coma (Book IV, Ch. 10).  Éomer believes Éowyn is dead, but when she’s borne back to the city she is found to be alive (Book V, Ch. 6).  Et cetera.

Gandalf the WhiteGandalf, on the other hand, really does die at the end of his extensive combat with the Balrog.  But this isn’t as fatal as it seems.  Gandalf is a semi-divine spirit, one of the Maiar, and his mission in Middle-Earth is not yet complete.  He says:  “Naked I was sent back—for a brief time, until my task is done” (Book III, ch. 5).  The “naked” is not simply a bodily description.  In passing “through fire and deep water,” he has given up his old self, Gandalf the Grey, and become an elevated version, Gandalf 2.0, the White Rider.

This is perhaps one clue as to what makes a return from death succeed, in a narrative sense.  It isn’t easy, and it isn’t trivial.  Gandalf’s being “sent back” is extraordinary, and it changes him in deep ways.  To my mind, this death-and-reversal add to the depth and power of the story.

The Descent into Routine

Unfortunately, that’s not always the case.  If the return is taken for granted, then we aren’t moved or edified by the dying.  We don’t believe it in the first place.  In fact, reading or watching a death we know is reversible tends to make us cynical.  The writers are playing on our emotions, and we feel manipulated rather than moved.

Batman and Wonder Woman mourn SupermanIn the 2016 movie Batman v Superman:  Dawn of Justice, Superman dies at the end.  Did anyone believe for a minute this death would last?  No one is going to kill off such an iconic character.  If nothing else (here’s the cynical part), the future income stream from Superman stories is an irresistible lure.  Just as with the comic-book “Death of Superman” sequence from which the idea was taken, I suspect my reaction was shared by many:  here’s a cheap trick to get our attention.

To be sure, there are some affecting moments in the transition from BvS to Justice League (2017), in which Superman is revived—partly because reviving him is arduous and difficult, as further discussed below.  But those moments are not easily attained.  The artifice is too transparent.

Westley recovers from death with Inigo and FezzikI have somewhat the same reaction, for a different reason, to The Princess Bride—one of the flaws in that admirable tale.  Goldman’s narrator makes a great deal out of telling his son (in the movie, grandson) that Westley dies (ch. 6).  Really.  He’s not faking.  And naturally, the boy is outraged.  The hero isn’t supposed to die!  Yet he did.  —But no, the author has tricked us.  Westley isn’t really dead.  Miracle Max tells us, “there’s different kinds of dead:  there’s sort of dead, mostly dead, and all dead.  This fella here, he’s only sort of dead . . .” (ch. 7).

That’s cheating.  We may be willing to accept the trick in The Princess Bride because it’s already such a roaring stream of clichés, so enthusiastically devised and appreciated that we never do take the story quite seriously.  But we aren’t really moved.  Our appreciation is of a different order:  we’re laughing fondly at the author’s willingness to indulge with such unreserved gusto in the most absurd fairy-tale stereotypes and gimmicks.

If we’re commenting on Batman v. Superman, we really ought to say something about Avengers:  Infinity War/Endgame.  But it’s too soon—too many spoilers.  Maybe another time.

Variations

Incidentally, the routine return can apply to villains as well as heroes.  A hero’s recurring nemesis may also be an iconic character, and the fact that the nemesis keeps coming back is a convention we rather enjoy.  TV Tropes refers to it as “Joker Immunity.”  Superman’s Lex Luthor, Spider-Man’s Green Goblin, the Fantastic Four’s Doctor Doom:  if any of them appear to be dead in the comic books, we can be pretty sure they’ll be back.  On the other hand, movie series don’t run on forever in the same way that comics series do.  The screen adapters of Spider-Man can thus afford to “expend” the Goblin, or Dr. Octopus, because they’re only going to make three or four films in a given series.  There isn’t time for repeated recurrences of an arch-enemy.

Doctor Doom is rescued by the Ovoids

On the other hand, it’s notorious that we hear Emperor Palpatine’s sinister laughter at the end of the most recent Star Wars IX trailer (4/12/2019). immediately following Luke’s voiceover line, “No one’s ever really gone.”  Some movie series do go on that long . . .

Once revival has become routine, it’s a noteworthy exception when an author is willing to let a main character go permanently (Killed Off For Real; see a list of film examples, and also the trope Deader Than Dead).  J.K. Rowling, for example, killed off Albus Dumbledore for good, well before the end of the Harry Potter saga.  Veronica Roth’s Divergent series allows the heroine herself to die at the end, though this seems to have been omitted from the corresponding movie.

In Star Wars, the regular appearance of “Force ghosts” provides a sort of compromise.  The fallen heroes don’t come back to life, but they do hang around to provide advice, commentary, and snarky explanations.

The Search for Spock

Let’s return to an instance where a temporary death does work to see if we can determine what makes that possible.

Spock's death in Star Trek 2Along with LotR, my other go-to example is Star Trek II:  The Wrath of KhanWrath is generally considered to be among the best of the Trek movies (for example, here, here, and here), and a sizable part of its draw is the death of the beloved Spock.  Like Gandalf, Spock perishes heroically, subjecting himself to a fatal overdose of radiation to make a crucial repair that saves everyone else on the Enterprise.  And his loss is fully realized by his long-time friends, along with the new characters we’ve just gotten to know.  Maybe I’m sentimental, but Kirk’s eulogy at Spock’s funeral has always struck me as a genuinely moving moment.

At the same time, there was no doubt in my mind when I first saw the film that Spock would be back.  The whole atmosphere of the final scenes in Wrath—hopefulness so intense you can almost taste it—lent itself to anticipating eucatastrophe rather than a final end.  The shiny “casket,” nestled in the burgeoning growth of the Genesis planet, seemed to promise some kind of resurrection.  What made us feel Spock’s death so effectively, even though we were morally certain we’d see him again?

Part of it is that these characters had had such a long history together.  We’d seen their relationship grow over three TV seasons, and we’d been recently reminded of that history in the first Star Trek movie, flop though it was.  To the numerous loyal Trek fans, at least, these were truly iconic characters, and we were emotionally invested in them.  The history had built up a kind of emotional potential that the death sequence could draw upon.

Spock's funeralEven more important, the other characters were visibly affected.  They didn’t know Spock would be back.  We grieved for Spock through his friends.  The screenwriter and director wisely gave us enough time, in the final sequences, to absorb and appreciate that grief with the other characters.  I suspect this, more than anything, is what makes a provisional death effective:  a powerful portrayal of other people’s response to the loss.

Finally, the heroism of Spock’s final acts, and the overwhelming sense of something wonderful that’s been achieved on the Genesis planet at the end, lend depth and further feeling to the event.  We respect his sacrifice, and it means something.  The hope for new life doesn’t necessarily erode the gravity of the death.

Moreover, the sequels navigated the difficulty pretty well.  Star Trek III:  The Search for Spock did unavoidably undercut the resolution of Wrath a bit.  The Genesis planet is unstable; it isn’t quite as wonderful as we thought.  The adversaries in Search are much more mundane than Khan (who had his own history with the Enterprise crew).  And the death isn’t permanent.

Yet the complex, gradual, effortful reconstitution of Spock manages to become something wonderful in itself, rather than just a reversal of the loss.  The notion that Spock’s katra or spirit survives adds an element of the mystical or sublime to the science-fiction texture of the series.  The notion that it survived in McCoy’s head gave the situation humor and irony.  The unconventional expedients the Enterprise crew must use to get McCoy back to Genesis provide both adventure and a maverick sense of, well, enterprise.  Meanwhile, the scenes of Spock’s body re-growing from childhood to adulthood as accelerated by the Genesis effect have their own sense of wonder.

Spock is rebornWhen the Vulcan ceremony of reintegration rejoins Spock’s spirit with his body, the impact of the result is heightened by the fact that Spock is clearly changed by his passage through death.  (The final film of the trilogy, Star Trek IV:  The Voyage Home, continues this theme by showing Spock visibly struggling to get used to life again.)  The return, which takes two whole movies to complete—a quest in itself—is far more than a handwave.  It’s an achievement.

Conclusions

From these examples I think we can pick out some factors that help a story to make good use of a temporary death, as opposed to a routine we-know-they’ll-be-back.

  • The death is heroic; it means something.
  • We care about the lost person—and so do the other people in the story.
  • The other characters experience the death fully, even if the reader or viewer knows that it won’t be permanent.
  • The deceased character is absent long enough to let the loss sink in.
  • The deceased character earns the return. It doesn’t come easy.
  • The returned character is transformed in some way by the experience.

When an author can incorporate these elements, we the audience can extend our “willing suspension of disbelief” to sympathize with the rest of the cast in their loss, even when we are aware in propria persona that the beloved dead aren’t gone for good.

The Great American Read

PBS is conducting a poll asking about our favorite novels in connection with a TV mini-series, “The Great American Read.”  Through October 17, we can vote each day for one or more of 100 candidates.  I haven’t watched the TV shows—but the poll alone is fascinating.

The Great American Read, logo

In my area, Fairfax County Public Libraries is running its own variant.  They’ve broken down the 100 books and series into brackets, like a tournament.  We vote on a series of pairs—which of the two we prefer—and the candidates get whittled gradually down to a climactic final round.  They’re about halfway through at the moment.

The Best and the Best-Loved

Looking at somebody else’s “Top Ten” (or Top 100, or generally Top N) list is always interesting.  We may be talking about books, classic rock songs, movie heroes and villains, or almost anything:  the most common reaction, I suspect, is when we look at some of the entries and ask ourselves, how could that possibly have gotten on the list?  Or, conversely, how could they ever have left out this?

Obviously a list of the “twelve tallest buildings” or “five longest rivers” is going to be relatively uncontroversial.  But when there’s no quantitative measure that can be applied, the lists are bound to have a subjective element.  Reading them stimulates us to ask—what could were the listmakers have been thinking when they made those choices?

With the Great American Read (“TGAR”), the subjective side is even more emphasized, because the list (and the poll) is about “America’s 100 best-loved novels,” not the best novels.  The criteria aren’t the same.  There are books we respect, but don’t like.  My favorite piece of music, as it happens, isn’t what I would judge the greatest piece of music.  A more personal appeal is involved.

Someone for Everyone

It’s clear that PBS was at pains to include something for everyone.  The books cover a wide range of genres.  The list includes plenty of “classics”—the ones we got assigned in high school—and also a lot of popular volumes that couldn’t be considered classics by any stretch of the imagination.  (I suspect there are no high-school reading curricula that include Fifty Shades of Grey.)

In other words, we’ve got our “guilty pleasures” right alongside acknowledged masterpieces.  I always enjoy the way alphabetical listings produce similarly odd bedfellows:  on my bookshelf, Jane Austen rubs shoulders with Isaac Asimov, while Tolkien is bracketed by James Thurber and A.E. van Vogt.

Adventures of Tom Sawyer, coverAlice's Adventures in Wonderland, coverAlmost any reader should find something to vote for in the TGAR collection.  If you don’t like Tom Sawyer, how about Alice in Wonderland?  Not enthused about The Godfather—try The Pilgrim’s Progress?  If you’re not in the mood for 1984, maybe you’ll find Anne of Green Gables more congenial.

By the same token, I’m guessing almost no one would accept every book on the list as a favorite.  If there’s someone whose personal top ten list includes The Handmaid’s Tale, Atlas Shrugged, and The Chronicles of Narnia, I’d like to meet them.

The F&SF Division

Isaac Asimov, Foundation, coverIn my own sandbox, the science fiction and fantasy field, the listmakers came up with an interesting cross-section.  I was a little surprised to see Asimov’s Foundation series on the list:  it’s great stuff, and an SF classic, but I’d have thought it was “inside baseball,” widely known only among card-carrying fans.  Another classic, Frank Herbert’s Dune, is probably more widely read.  (I notice the entry for Dune is not marked as a series, which is a good thing.  While there are quite a few follow-on Dune books, after the original the quality drops off exponentially.)

Other SF picks are more contemporary.  We’ve got The Martian, which I’ve mentioned before, and Ready Player One, which was just made into a movie this year—both good choices (by my lights), though not yet perhaps seasoned enough to be classics like the Asimov and Herbert entries.

We’ve got the comedic Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the classic Frankenstein, the satirical Sirens of Titan, the young adult Hunger Games, SF horror in Jurassic Park, dystopian tales in both 1984 and The Handmaid’s Tale.  We have what you might call prehistorical fiction, The Clan of the Cave Bear, which I’d class as a variety of SF, and time-travel romance in Outlander (also recently come to video).  A Dean Koontz novel, Watchers, which I’d never heard of, may represent the SF thriller.  Then there’s Atlas Shrugged, which probably belongs in SF given a technological premise, although these days it’s more often thought of as a political tract.

Of course it’s always possible to regret the omissions—Heinlein or Brin or Bujold, for example—but a list of 100 nationwide favorites in all genres is never going to be able to pick up every quality work.  Since the TGAR candidates were largely chosen by a random survey of 7200 Americans, it’s easy to see why more widely-read examples are favored, whether or not they represent the highest quality.  The focus on American readers also introduces some selection bias, which might account for omitting, say, Arthur C. Clarke.

Lord of the Rings, coverOver in fantasy, the “high fantasy” epic is well represented by The Lord of the Rings, The Wheel of Time, and A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), with the children’s division held down by the Narnia tales and Harry Potter.  Again, there are some familiar subgenres:  satire (Gulliver’s Travels), whimsy or children’s books (Alice, The Little Prince), horror (The Stand), young adult (Twilight).

I was a little surprised to see three entries in what one might call the Christian fantasy column:  The Shack, Left Behind, and something called Mind Invaders.  When an item turns up that you’ve never heard of, it’s a useful reminder of how far-ranging people’s tastes really are.

An Author’s Range

The list can also spark some interesting reflections on the range of a prolific author.  Probably most people would pick Dune as Frank Herbert’s leading entry, and Pride and Prejudice as the most well-loved of Austen’s several great novels.  But the only candidate for Dickens on the list, for example, is Great Expectations.

Great Expectations, coverNow, I’m fond of Dickens, but Great Expectations isn’t one of the stories I particularly like.  Yet it does seem to come up frequently whenever Dickens is mentioned.  (I don’t even hear quite as much about A Tale of Two Cities, which we did read in high school—possibly chosen for school because it’s relatively short; assigning a class one of Dickens’ doorstoppers would have consumed an entire semester’s worth of reading time.)  Is Expectations really representative of Dickens’ best?  I’d have picked Little Dorrit or Our Mutual Friend, say, if I’d been in on the original survey.  Or David Copperfield, maybe, as the most accessible to a modern reader.  But, again, the list suggests there’s a reservoir of interest in Expectations that I just don’t happen to share—a broadening thought.

In a similar way, it may be harder to come up with the most representative Stephen King or Mark Twain novel—there are so many of them.  (The listmakers did confine themselves deliberately to one entry per author, which makes sense.)  Even within a single author’s oeuvre, it’s intriguing to see which work a majority of readers picked as outstanding.

Incommensurable Goods

After enough of this kind of reflection, we may find ourselves with a certain skepticism about the whole comparison process.

The Fairfax County bracket system, entertaining as it is, only strengthens this impression.  There is a sorting algorithm to create a ranking by going down the list and placing each item in turn in relation to those above it.  And it’s fun to weigh random pairs of works against each other, even within the particular classifications the libraries used (Classics, Midcentury, Late Century, Contemporary).

But the match-up process yields some odd results.  (I understand sports tournament designers also have to take care to ensure good playoffs.)  There’s some plausibility in a face-off between Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights.  But what should we make of pitting Anne of Green Gables against War and PeaceThe Great Gatsby against Alice?  In some cases the entries hardly seem to be in the same weight class, so to speak.  It strikes me as a no-brainer to match The Lord of the Rings against Where the Red Fern Grows, a novel I’ve never heard of.

Even within a given author’s work, one can wonder about how conclusive a comparison actually is.  There’s a scale factor that makes some matches clear:  Asimov’s sweeping Foundation series seems a more logical “top” candidate than even an excellent short story like “The Last Question” or “Robbie,” just because of its greater scope and size.  But it can be hard to decide between stories on the same scale—two great short stories, say, or two very different novels.

Natural Law and Natural Rights, coverAt this point I’m reminded of an argument made by philosopher John Finnis in his Natural Law and Natural Rights (1980).  Noting that one of the classic objections against utilitarianism (“the greatest good for the greatest number”) is the inability in practice to reduce all possible good and bad things to a uniform measure of “utility,” Finnis takes the position that there are a number of categories of human goods that can’t be reduced to each other.  His list of such goods includes life, knowledge, play, aesthetic experience, friendship, practical reasonableness, and religion (ch. IV.2, pp. 86-90).  These goods aren’t interchangeable.  They are literally “incommensurable”—they can’t be measured against each other.

It’s possible that some similar principle of incommensurability applies to the books we’ve been discussing.  Would I want to give up, say, Pride and Prejudice in favor of The Lord of the Rings, or vice versa?  They’re unique achievements, and we realize something quite different from reading each of them.  We might be able to create some rather vague order of precedence—for example, by the traditional question of what one book you’d want to have with you if marooned on a desert island.  But that’s not the same sort of comparison as equating a dollar with ten dimes.

On the other hand, the fun of weighing (note the measurement analogy) one story against another suggests there’s some common element, or elements, in our enjoyment of a good book.  If nothing else, such match-ups can get some entertaining discussions going.

Prophecy and the Plan

The ancient prophecy is a staple of fantasy.  This child will kill his father and marry his mother.  Not by the hand of man will this being fall.  The source of the information is often vague, but once we’ve heard the prophecy, we know it’s going to come true—somehow.

There’s a comparable science fiction trope:  the long-term Plan.  But the Plan functions rather differently.  Let’s take a look at the two together.

Foretold and Foredoomed

An entire story may be built around the unavoidable destiny that lands on an unlikely or reluctant hero.  Or the mysterious message from the past may relate merely to one aspect of the story—perhaps the only way to accomplish some task (“the penitent man will pass”).  Either way, in the words of TV Tropes, Prophecies Are Always Right.

As the examples on the Tropes page indicate, this is not strictly true:  writers can subvert or otherwise play with the fulfillment of a prediction.  But there wouldn’t be much purpose in introducing the prophecy if it didn’t have some relevance to the plot.  Most commonly, this is because it’s valid.

Statute of sibylThe device goes back to some of the earliest stories we have.  The Greek tale of Oedipus, for example, involves a prediction that a child will bring disaster on his city by killing his father and marrying his mother.  The very actions by which his father tries to avert this outcome turn out to produce it.

Shakespeare’s Macbeth provides a slightly less antique example.  The title character is emboldened to stage a revolt by the “prophetic greeting” of three witches (Act I, Scene 3).  Macbeth is further heartened by hearing that “none of woman born” will harm him, and that he won’t be beaten until “Great Birnam wood to high Dunsinane Hill/Shall come against him,” (Act IV, Scene 1).  Both statements turn out to be true, but not as Macbeth interpreted them:  his opponents approach his stronghold holding “leavy screens” of branches (Act V, Scene 6), and he is slain by Macduff, who was birthed by Caesarean section (Act V, Scene 8).  In both these cases the message appears to be that you can’t fight fate:  the prophecy will come true despite all attempts to prevent it.

The motif carries through to modern fantasy as well.  Harry Potter’s Divination teacher, Professor Trelawney, is generally played for laughs, but her serious predictions come true.  In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, the White Witch is right to fear the “old rhyme” that her reign will end when two Sons of Adam and two Daughters of Eve are enthroned in Cair Paravel (ch. 8).

Fated but Free

Eowyn slays the NazgulThe Lord of the Rings provides some interesting examples.  TV Tropes lists a number of vague premonitions by various characters.  But a more specific case occurs when the Witch-King of Angmar, secure in Glorfindel’s prediction that “not by the hand of man will he fall” (Appendix A, I.iv), boasts that “No living man may hinder me!”, and is met by Éowyn’s defiant “But no living man am I!”  (Return of the King, book V, ch. 6, p. 116).

The main issue of the story, however, is subject to no such foreknowledge.  No prophecy gives a hint as to whether the Ring will be destroyed and Sauron defeated.  As TV Tropes points out, free will as well as fate exists in Tolkien’s world.  There is no certainty of outcome in this world’s battles.  As Chesterton puts it:  “I tell you naught for your comfort, yea, naught for your desire / Save that the sky grows darker yet and the sea rises higher.”

The foretellings we do see in fantasy seem to be guaranteed by some trans-human source:  paranormal, supernatural, even divine.  This is why they can generally be relied upon to come true.  But what of science fiction, which tends to invoke science rather than the supernatural?

Foundation

What often takes the place of prophecy in SF is a vast, far-reaching plan of some sort, whose fulfillment is guaranteed not by the supernatural but on some scientific basis.  This is, in effect, the science-fictional version of prophecy or fate.  Such plans typically are made by human beings (or similar creatures).  They are reducible to human intent—and conditioned by human fallibility.

Seldon sits in front of city (Foundation)The classic case is Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy.  Hari Seldon, inventor of a new science of “psychohistory” that statistically predicts the aggregate actions of human masses (as distinct from the acts of individual persons), realizes that the millennia-spanning Galactic Empire is headed for an inevitable collapse.  To cut short the subsequent thirty thousand years of chaos and barbarism, Seldon launches a plan to establish two “Foundations” from which civilization may be restored more quickly—in a mere thousand years.  Seldon’s mathematics allows him to arrange things in such a way that the Seldon Plan will inevitably prevail—at least to a very high order of probability (given that we’re dealing with statistical conclusions here, rather than superhuman insights).

The stories Asimov tells about the early years of the Foundation thus carry an atmosphere that’s similar in some ways to that of a prophecy in fantasy.  The leaders and people of the Foundation on the planet Terminus have confidence that they will prevail; but they are not privy to the details of the Plan and have no idea how that will occur—just as the Witch-King did not anticipate he would be slain by a woman, or the Pevensie children know just how they can succeed to the king-and-queenship of Narnia.

On the other hand, Seldon’s Plan is not quite as infallible as the typical prophecy.  This becomes evident when an individual known as the Mule upsets the psychohistorical scheme by changing its underlying assumptions about human behavior:  the Mule has mutant mental powers that could not have been predicted by Seldon.

Galactic Networks and Race Minds

The Snow Queen coverJoan Vinge’s 1980 novel The Snow Queen (very loosely based on the plot of Andersen’s fairy tale) also involves a Plan, though the characters are not aware of this initially.  They come to realize that the “sibyl network,” a vast interstellar information system run by technology beyond their understanding, has its own purposes and is seeking (like Seldon) to shape events to promote reconstruction after a collapse of civilization.  But they’re not fully aware of what the sibyl network is trying to do, and they don’t know whether its Plan will be successful.

Unlike the Plan that underlies the Foundation stories, Vinge’s Plan is not made by human agents—though the computer “mind” behind it is a human product.  But like the Seldon Plan, this long-range plan is not guaranteed to succeed.  The sibyl network is not as infallible as the mysterious sources behind the standard fantasy prophecy.

The long-term plan, or purpose, may also belong to a race or species consciousness—a mind (of sorts) that arises from humanity as a whole.  The “terrible purpose” that Paul Atreides struggles with in Dune is that of a subliminal racial consciousness that is driving relentlessly toward an interstellar jihad as a way of mixing up the gene pool to refresh the species.  This quasi-mind does not seem to have a specific plan in mind, but the overall drive, like the statistically-based Seldon Plan, is irresistible.

Something similar seems to be at work in A.E. van Vogt’s mutation-after-humanity novel Slan (1940).  In this future setting, the human species is mutating not at random, but in such a way as to consistently produce a “higher” type of being—smarter, stronger, kinder, with telepathic powers.  One character remarks:  “We have always assumed far too readily that no cohesion exists between individuals, that the race of men is not a unit with an immensely tenuous equivalent of a blood-and-nerve stream flowing from man to man” (ch. 18).  Apparently there is some vague but irresistible analogue of systematic purpose at work in humanity as a whole.  (Greg Bear’s 1999 novel Darwin’s Radio, by contrast, suggests a distributed genetic mechanism for such a wave of mutation, without requiring a single overall mind to account for it.)

Ongoing Guidance

A master Plan that spans generations may be designed to operate without intervening human guidance.  This is true of certain lost world-ship stories, in which the loss of knowledge on a generation ship is deliberately arranged in advance.  In Clifford Simak’s Target Generation (1953), for instance, a book of instructions has been secretly passed down from generation to generation, to be opened only when the starship finally reaches its destination.

Of course, the transmission of such a plan won’t be reliable if it’s subject to human error or accident.  I’ve often felt that the long-dead planners who relied on a secret book in Target Generation ought to have been thrown out on their ears, when the flight was being arranged, for resting the survival of an entire shipload of people on such a fragile and undependable strategy—like the wacky souls behind the Rube Goldberg setup in City of Ember, entertaining as both those stories are.

Second Foundation coverSeldon’s Plan at first appears to function in this pilotless way.  But it turns out there is a hidden agency responsible for monitoring the Plan and correcting any deviations:  the Second Foundation, as skilled in psychohistory as the original Foundation is in technology.  The canny Seldon built in a safety net to take care of just such a random variable as the Mule—because a human-based plan lacks the mysterious paranormal guarantee of a prophecy.

 

Exceptions

Sitting squarely between the F&SF camps in this respect is Star Wars, the exception that proves the rule.  Lucas’s brain child is sometimes referred to as “science fantasy” rather than science fiction, not just because it does not delve into scientific plausibility, but because it simultaneously mobilizes both fantasy and science-fiction tropes; that’s part of the reason the movies are so widely accessible and successful.  The prophecy that Anakin Skywalker will “bring balance to the Force” (whatever exactly that means) is cited throughout the series.  But there’s no real explanation in the movies, at least, as to how this prophecy works or what makes it reliable information.  It’s a fantasy trope, not a science fiction motif.

There is, however, a genuine SF exception of sorts:  time travel stories, when they rely on knowledge gained from being in the future.  For example, in Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonflight (1968), time-traveling dragonrider Lessa assures her compatriots in the past that they will accompany her back to her own time in their future, because that explains their mysterious disappearance, which Lessa already knows about as part of her own history.  Here the source of future knowledge is neither human nor superhuman, but sheer facticity—or, from the standpoint of the characters, experience.  They tell about future events that they’ve already seen happening.

For the Reader

Both types of projections into the future, prophecies and plans, set up a certain kind of tension in a story.  There’s a sort of security—we know how things will turn out, at least in a general way.  (Or if the outcome is tragic, as with Oedipus, the effect may be dread rather than security.)  At the same time, there’s a tension in that we don’t know how the story will arrive at that end.  The power of this combination is proved by the long tradition of such stories throughout human civilization.

The long-term plan or prediction evokes awe at the deeps of time—how something said long ago may still have effects today.  And it generates a certain wonder at the way in which things surprisingly work out.  In either form, they’re a useful part of a storyteller’s arsenal of effects.

Goddess-Born

Aeneas

Recently I started listening to Mike Duncan’s podcasts on the History of Rome (2007-2012).  It’s interesting that he takes seriously the story of the founding of Rome by Aeneas.  Not that he believes it actually happened that way; but he does recount the tale as if it were history.  Of course, Duncan observes that we don’t have much of anything except legends to go on for the early history.  And it does make a good yarn.

The Aeneid, cover (Penguin)I’ve always had a fondness for Aeneas.  It dates back to when I took fourth-year Latin in high school.  That class—which turned out to be a sort of independent study, since no one else signed up for the course—consisted largely of translating parts of the Aeneid.  As it happened, my encounter with the Aeneid was also the occasion for a kind of epiphany.

So what makes Aeneas, and his story, so cool?

The Poem

The Aeneid is an epic poem, the Romans’ answer to the Greeks’ Iliad and Odyssey.  Unlike the Greek epics, which are attributed to the near-legendary Homer, the Aeneid was composed within recorded history, between 29 and 19 B.C., by Publius Vergilius Maro, generally referred to in English as Vergil or Virgil.  The work was seen as celebrating Roman history and its culmination in the Empire of Augustus Caesar, and became a kind of national mythology of Rome.

Vergil developed his epic out of a scattering of legendary sources, including some mentions of Aeneas in the Iliad.  Wikipedia summarizes the work this way, incorporating some useful cross-references:

Virgil took the disconnected tales of Aeneas’s wanderings, his vague association with the foundation of Rome and a personage of no fixed characteristics other than a scrupulous pietas, and fashioned the Aeneid into a compelling founding myth or national epic that tied Rome to the legends of Troy, explained the Punic Wars, glorified traditional Roman virtues, and legitimized the Julio-Claudian dynasty as descendants of the founders, heroes, and gods of Rome and Troy.

Painting of Aeneas recounting the fall of Troy to Dido

Aeneas tells Dido of the Trojan War (Pierre-Narcisse Guérin)

The Aeneid describes how Aeneas and his followers, escaping from the fall of Troy, set out on extended wanderings about the Mediterranean in search of the new home they are destined to find.  They stop for a while at Carthage (Rome’s traditional enemy), which is actually where the poem begins.  Aeneas tells the story so far to the attentive Queen Dido of Carthage, who is enamored of him.  It’s a classic example of starting a story “in medias res” (into the midst of things).

When he’s reminded that he has not yet arrived at his destined kingdom, Aeneas reluctantly leaves Dido, who kills herself out of frustrated love.  Eventually he arrives in Italy, where his people join forces with the native Latins, sealing the union by the marriage of Aeneas and the princess Lavinia—but first they have to defeat the local Rutuli, to whose king, Turnus, Lavinia had previously been promised.

The Story

Aeneas and his father flee Troy (Vouet)

Aeneas and his Father Fleeing Troy, by Simon Vouet (c. 1635)

The Aeneid is a story of the underdog—something that always appeals.  Rather than seizing on some glorious victor as the founder of Rome, Vergil started with the defeated refugees fleeing from the fall of Troy.  It takes some nerve to proclaim yourself the descendant of the losers.  But it bespeaks a certain humility that’s refreshing in a national epic.

 

On the other hand, Aeneas is not exactly a common man:  he’s the son of the goddess Venus and his human father Anchises.  Thus, Aeneas is frequently addressed in the poem as “goddess-born” (nāte deā).  Aeneas is in fact a demigod by ancestry—but he’s sympathetically human in character.  So he may be from the losing side in the Trojan War, but he’s definitely the Chosen One.

The Aeneid is not the tale of an essentially pointless war, like the Iliad, or the monster-ridden journey of the Odyssey.  Rather, it has a plot that moves definitely toward an end:  a victorious war (redeeming the defeat of Troy, perhaps) that results in a new beginning, the origin of Rome.  (Wikipedia says rather coyly:  “A strong teleology, or drive towards a climax, has been detected in the poem.”)  This gives the Aeneid a note of hope and uplift that’s harder to find in the Greek predecessors.

The Hero

I like Aeneas better than most of the heroes of Homer.  He makes mistakes; he hesitates at times to step up to his destiny; he has his moments of weakness with Dido; but he’s essentially well-intentioned and honorable.

Vergil depicts Aeneas as an exemplar of pietas, a central virtue for the Romans.  It’s not quite the same thing as the cognate “piety” in English.  The root sense seems to be a kind of filial respect, but read broadly pietas becomes almost equivalent to “justice”—in the equally broad sense often given to “justice” by Plato and Aristotle, where the term encompasses the whole of morality.  Aeneas is a “good guy”—and I always have a weakness for the decent person who strives to do the right thing.

One wouldn’t be far wrong to think of Aeneas as a potential knight of the Round Table.  In fact, the original descriptions of Arthur do make a legendary connection to the family of Aeneas (in the Historia Brittonum).

The Romantic

Another favorable feature, to my taste, is that Aeneas is more prone to romance than most of the Homeric heroes.  (Maybe it’s his mom’s influence at work.)

Aeneas and Anchises in Troy movieOf course, the Iliad does give us Hector and Andromache, and the Odyssey is after all the tale of Odysseus’ attempts to return to his faithful wife.  But romantic love is not the main matter of those works (I read the intrigue of Paris and Helen as more a matter of lust than love).  This is somewhat obscured in the movie Troy, where Hollywood characteristically amps up the romances of Paris and Helen, Achilles and Briseis.  (Incidentally, Aeneas appears in that movie too—for about sixteen seconds; though he does take possession of an heirloom sword to carry forward into mythical history.)

Aeneas is involved in three romances in the course of his voyaging.  To begin with, he’s portrayed as loyal to his first wife Creusa.  When she’s lost in the flight through burning Troy, he goes back at great risk to find her, but he’s too late.  He meets her shade instead, and though he tries to hold her, he can’t.  Instead, she foretells he’ll marry another.

The poem treats the idyll in Carthage as a weakness in Aeneas, because it distracts him from his destiny:  he’s tempted to settle down with Dido and give up all this strife and conflict.  But it’s the kind of weakness we moderns rather sympathize with.  When he leaves Dido, it’s for an irresistible reason—the call of destiny—and Dido’s heartbreak is portrayed as an overreaction (her dying curse provides a mythical explanation for the traditional enmity between Rome and Carthage).

Finally, Aeneas’ destined marriage to Lavinia can be interpreted as a romantic happy ending.  He names a city for her—perhaps not the typical gift to one’s wife, but certainly a grand gesture.  Not that the Aeneid treats of their relationship in any great detail.  But that leaves the field open for improvisation.  Wikipedia observes that “[t]he perceived deficiency of any account of Aeneas’s marriage to Lavinia or his founding of the Roman race led some writers . . . to compose their own supplements.”

I recently read one of those follow-up stories, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Lavinia.  It’s a good story, although it has peculiarly “meta” qualities:  LeGuin depicts Lavinia as spending a lot of time chatting with Vergil himself and pondering whether she’s real or fictional.  We still don’t get to see as much of Aeneas or their romance as I’d have liked, though LeGuin does depict the hero and their love favorably—a step in the right direction.

The Epiphany

Arma virumque cano, blue tile coasterTranslating something into another language can trigger reflections on language itself.

In high school, I would have said that plot was more important than character in a story—feeling a bit daring and iconoclastic in taking that position, since in those days the doctrine in English Lit classes was that Character Is Everything.  Style, or the handling of language I would have considered a distant third, at best.

But I remember going over my English rendition at one point, and not being quite satisfied.  The lines were accurate enough; but I wanted something more.  The lines didn’t sing.  I wanted them to sound better.  In fact—I was amused to realize—I wanted them to sound like The Lord of the Rings.  It’s an epic, with a heroic sword-and-sorcery setting, right?  Of course it should sound like Tolkien!

That was the point at which I became aware how much the language matters.  You can have a fine plot, you can have wonderful characters, but how that comes through to the reader depends on how you say it.  How you tell the story can be as important, in how it affects the reader, as what story you choose to tell.