This blog post is included in:
No Time to Spare
Thinking About What Matters
by Ursula K. Le Guin
Introduction by Karen Joy Fowler
December 5, 2017
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
I was thinking about Homer, and it occurred to me that his two books are the two basic fantasy stories: the War and the Journey.
I’m sure this has occurred to others. That’s the thing about Homer. People keep going to him and discovering new things, or old things, or things for the first time, or things all over again, and saying them. This has been going on for two or three millennia. That is an amazingly long time for anything to mean anything to anybody.
Anyhow, so the Iliad is The War (actually only a piece of it, close to but not including the end), and the Odyssey is The Journey (There and Back Again, as Bilbo put it).
I think Homer outwits most writers who have written on The War, by not taking sides.
The Trojan war is not and you cannot make it be The War of Good vs Evil. It’s just a war, a wasteful, useless, needless, stupid, protracted, cruel mess full of individual acts of courage, cowardice, nobility, betrayal, limb-hacking-off and disembowelment. Homer was a Greek and might have been partial to the Greek side, but he had a sense of justice or balance that seem characteristically Greek — maybe his people learned a good deal of them from him? — His impartiality is far from dispassionate, the story is a torrent of passionate actions, generous, despicable, magnificent, trivial. But it is unprejudiced. It isn’t Satan vs Angels. It isn’t Holy Warriors vs Infidels. It isn’t hobbits vs orcs. It’s just people vs people.
Of course you can take sides, and almost everybody does. I try not to but it’s no use, I just like the Trojans better than the Greeks. But Homer truly doesn’t take sides, and so he permits the story to be tragic. By tragedy, mind and soul are grieved, enlarged, and exalted.
Whether war itself can rise to tragedy, can enlarge and exalt the soul, I leave to those who have been more immediately part of a war than I have. I think some believe that it can, and might say that the opportunity for heroism and tragedy justifies war. I don’t know, all I know is what a poem about a war can do. In any case, war is something human beings do and show no signs of stopping doing, and so it may be less important to condemn it or to justify it than to be able to perceive it as tragic.
But once you take sides, you have lost that ability.
Is it our dominant religion that makes us want war to be between the good guys and the bad guys?
In the War of Good vs Evil there can be divine or supernal justice, but not human tragedy. It is, by definition, technically, comic (as in The Divine Comedy): the good guys win. It has a happy ending. If the bad guys beat the good guys, unhappy ending, that’s mere reversal, flipside of the same coin. The author is not impartial. Dystopia is not tragedy.
Milton, a Christian, had to take sides, and couldn’t avoid comedy. He could approach tragedy only by making Evil, in the person of Lucifer, grand, heroic, and even sympathetic — which is faking it. He faked it very well.
Maybe it’s not only Christian habits of thought but the difficulty we all have in growing up that makes us insist justice must favor the good.
After all, “Let the best man win” doesn’t mean the good man will win. It means, “This will be a fair fight, no prejudice, no interference — so the best fighter will win it.” If the treacherous bully fairly defeats the nice guy, the treacherous bully is declared champion. This is justice. But it’s the kind of justice that children can’t bear. They rage against it. It’s not fair!
But if children never learn to bear it, they can’t go on to learn that a victory or a defeat in battle, or in any competition other than a purely moral one (whatever that might be) has nothing to do with who is morally better.
Might does not make right — right?
Therefore right does not make might. Right?
But we want it to. “My strength is as the strength of ten because my heart is pure.”
If we insist that in the real world the ultimate victor must be the good guy, we’ve sacrificed right to might. (That’s what History does after most wars, when it applauds the victors for their superior virtue as well as their superior firepower.) If we falsify the terms of the competition, handicapping it, so that the good guys may lose the battle but always win the war, we’ve left the real world, we’re in fantasy land — wishful thinking country.
Homer didn’t do wishful thinking.
Homer’s Achilles is a disobedient officer, a sulky, self-pitying teenager who gets his nose out of joint and won’t fight for his own side. A sign that Achilles might grow up some day, if given time, is his love for his friend Patroclus. But his big snit is over a girl he was given to rape but has to give back to his superior officer, which to me rather dims the love story. To me Achilles is not a good guy. But he is a good warrior, a great fighter — even better than the Trojan prime warrior, Hector. Hector is a good guy on any terms — kind husband, kind father, responsible on all counts — a mensch. But right does not make might. Achilles kills him.
The famous Helen plays a quite small part in the Iliad. Because I know that she’ll come through the whole war with not a hair in her blonde blow-dry out of place, I see her as opportunistic, immoral, emotionally about as deep as a cookie sheet. But if I believed that the good guys win, that the reward goes to the virtuous, I’d have to see her as an innocent beauty wronged by Fate and saved by the Greeks.
And people do see her that way. Homer lets us each make our own Helen; and so she is immortal.
I don’t know if such nobility of mind (in the sense of the impartial “noble” gases) is possible to a modern writer of fantasy. Since we have worked so hard to separate History from Fiction, our fantasies are dire warnings, or mere nightmares, or else they are wish-fulfilments.
I don’t know any war story comparable to the Iliad except maybe the huge Indian epic the Mahabharata. Its five brother-heroes are certainly heroes, it’s their story — but it’s also the story of their enemies, also heroes, some of whom are really great guys — and it’s all so immense and complicated and full of rights and wrongs and implications and gods who interfere even more directly than the Greek gods do — and then, after all, is the end tragic or is it comic? The whole thing is like a giant cauldron of ever-replenished food you can dive your fork into and come out with whatever you need most to nourish you just then. But next time it may taste quite different.
And the taste of the Mahabharata as a whole is very, very different from that of the Iliad: above all because the Iliad is (unjust divine intervention aside) appallingly realistic and bloodthirstily callous about what goes on in a war. The Mahabharata’s war is all dazzling fantasy, from the superhuman exploits to the super-duper-weapons. It’s only in their spiritual suffering that the Indian heroes become suddenly, heartbreakingly, heart-changingly real.
As for the Journey:
The actual travel parts of the Odyssey are related or ancestral to all our fantasy-tales of somebody setting off over sea or land, meeting marvels and horrors and temptations and adventures, possibly growing up along the way, and maybe coming back home at the end.
Jungians such as Joseph Campbell have generalised such journeys into a set of archetypal events and images. Though they can be useful in criticism, I mistrust them as fatally reductive. “Ah, the Night Sea Voyage!” we cry, feeling that we have understood something important — but we’ve merely recognised it. Until we are actually on that voyage, we have understood nothing.
Odysseus’ travels involve such a terrific set of adventures that I tend to forget how much of the book is actually about his wife and son — what goes on at home while he’s travelling, how his son goes looking for him, and all the complications of his homecoming. One of the things I love about The Lord of the Rings is Tolkien’s understanding of the importance of what goes on back on the farm while the Hero is taking his Thousand Faces all round the world. But till you get back there with Frodo and the others, Tolkien never takes you back home. Homer does. All through the ten-year voyage, the reader is alternately Odysseus trying desperately to get to Penelope, and Penelope desperately waiting for Odysseus — both the voyager and the goal — a tremendous piece of narrative time-and-place-interweaving.
Homer and Tolkien are both also notably honest about the difficulty of being a far-travelled hero who comes home. Neither Odysseus nor Frodo is able to stay there long. I wish Homer had written something about how it was for King Menelaus when he got home along with his wife Helen, whom he and the rest of the Greeks had fought for ten years to win back, while she, safe inside the walls of Troy, was prissing around with pretty Prince Paris (and then when he got bumped she married his brother). Apparently it never occurred to her to send Hubby #1, Menelaus, down there on the beach in the rain, an email, or even a text message. But then, Menelaus’s family, for a generation or two, had been rather impressively unfortunate or, as we would say, dysfunctional.
Perhaps it isn’t only fantasy that you can trace right back to Homer?
Ursula K. Le Guin is a founding member of Book View Cafe. Her most recent book is Out Here: Poems and Images from Steens Mountain Country, co-authored with photographer Roger Dorband.
She contributed an original poem, “In England in the Fifties,” to Book View Cafe’s anthology Breaking Waves, which benefits the Gulf Coast Oil Spill Fund.