A One-Body Problem

After the release of Ken Liu’s translation Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem it ended up on the reading lists of a lot of powerful people. A recent interview with US President Barack Obama in the New York Times includes his reflections on the trilogy, which he read over the last couple of years of his presidency. He commented,

“The scope of it was immense. So that was fun to read, partly because my day-to-day problems with Congress seem fairly petty – not something to worry about. Aliens are about to invade.”

I found it interesting to see such a powerful figure comment on a book about the big picture, but it also reminded me of something I’d thought about the Remembrance of Earth’s Past series while reading The Dark Forest and Death’s End that hasn’t yet make it into any of my writing about those books. In these novels [SPOILERS AHEAD!], there are a number of reactions to the Trisolaran invasion, from the ETO collaborators to the Wallfacer project, but no one in the trilogy, as far as I can recall, simply denies that the invasion is happening.

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But it is important what we make of these stories. What meaning we find in them, as wanderers by the seashore find first one shell, then another, and then form them into a chain of their own making.

Vandana Singh – “Somadeva: A Sky River Sutra”

At the start of this year Goodreads and publishers on Twitter did their usual thing of asking people what their ‘reading goals’ for the year are. I used to set myself reading goals, which I didn’t meet, until 2015 when I far exceeded my Goodreads challenge. Goodreads then proceeded to use my ‘achievement’ to shame my friends who had read far fewer books, failing to acknowledge (a) that some of those friends could not reach their targets for medical reasons and (b) that reading a ridiculous number of books – including some very good books – hadn’t stopped 2015 from being a pretty miserable year. For 2016, I resolved to read fewer books and it was a better year for me personally (despite the utter horror of events more broadly). In 2017 I repeated that resolution and added that I wanted to reflect more on the books I read, in part by trying to maintain this blog more regularly and in part, as Singh puts it in one of the short stories I have been reading this year, stringing more shells together as I read both fiction and non-fiction.

[Content Warning for violence against women]

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A Postscript to We Were Rebels Once

I’m not certain that I got across what I was trying to say in my last blog, written as it was over several days when I had a lot going on. But I decided to listen to the BBC Radio 4 In Our Time podcast on Animal Farm and it made a few of the points I wanted to make clear to me. I listened to the audiobook of Animal Farm last September, and I think I also got it more then, too. The basis of this thought is that Orwell was a committed socialist – he fought on the side of socialism in the Spanish Civil War, he worked with the Labour Party and was friends with Nye Bevan; but his writing was generally critical of the Left – be it Stalin or socialism – and less obviously so of the Right. Therefore he was adopted, after his death, by the Right and you are as likely to find someone on the Right quoting Animal Farm (or Nineteen Eighty-Four) about the dangers of socialism or communism as you are someone who would have actually agreed with Orwell politically.

When I listened to Animal Farm last September one of the things that struck me the most was the way in which history was re-written, and how the animals of the farm (particularly Boxer) were taken in through their devotion to Napoleon so much so that he could re-write history that they themselves lived through. Yesterday, Meryl Streep’s comments about the PEOTUS at The Golden Globes were criticised by some on the basis that Hollywood celebrities were not to be listened to – by fans of Ronald Reagan who had just elected a reality television host as president. But the most interesting comment that I saw was journalist Glenn Greenwald’s observation that talk radio hosts are considered legitimate political commentators when they are just as wealthy and privileged (often more so) than Meryl Streep, just as distanced from the everyday lives of ordinary people. I can’t help thinking that between Nancy Isenberg’s history of class in the USA and Michael Kimmel’s Angry White Men I should be able to put together an answer to this, but in many ways being aware of the problem is enough.

Animal Farm is very specific to Orwell’s contemporary Russia in many ways but there are also elements to Napoleon’s take-over that are general and relevant right now. One of the messages of Animal Farm and, now, Rogue One is that one of the most important aspects of progress is longevity, is continuing to make the future better than the present – donkeys live a long time. In Rogue One, the Rebels sacrifice their lives but are successful (for about a quarter of a century, at least); in Animal Farm, what initially looks like a utopia is ultimately destroyed by those in power.

But this is still not quite getting across what I was thinking. Animal Farm can be read in a number of very specific ways – against communism, against socialism, and against totalitarianism. Because I have read Homage to Catalonia and Down And Out in Paris and London and I studied Shooting an Elephant and I know a little about Orwell’s life beyond his fiction, I know (or believe) that he intended the latter reading; but history allowed those aspects to be downplayed in favour of a screed against the USSR during the Cold War. This is why I worry that, despite what the writers of Rogue One say, selling Death Star pyjama pants sends a very different message about how this film should be understood, one that could do lasting damage.

And finally, the way I believe that this damage can be countered is by progressive readings of these texts, by those of us on the Left (however broadly we define that) communicating our readings of these texts and the very important messages that they carry, by claiming these narratives for our cause. But reading these texts needs individual media literacy, literacy that governments like Napoleon’s and those in contemporary, real, human world want to discourage by telling us it’s just a story about animals, just a space fantasy, just entertainment. We can work to make things more than that.

When stories are in the public realm, their meanings change over time – in a way, this is precisely what Rogue One is doing to the original Star Wars trilogy. But how these changes happen is variable and difficult to control and not necessarily in the hands of the writers.

We Were Rebels Once

I came across Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once in a local library early last December. The premise – that feminism has gone from being a political movement to being a brand identity – intrigued me. I found myself thinking about Bridget Christie’s observation of the rise of Tory “feminists”, including then-future UK Prime Minister Theresa May, in contrast to former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who has called feminism “poison”. Christie observes that, while these Tory MPs were calling themselves “feminists”, their actual actions had a disproportionately negative impact on women. By December 2016 I was well aware that antifeminist anger could also generate political capital, but it wasn’t the only place where political movements were being assumed with words that might not be backed up with actions. In the aftermath of the US Presidential election a few weeks before, the writers of the then-forthcoming Star Wars prequel Rogue One positioned themselves, and their film, in direct opposition to the President Elect. Having now read We Were Feminists Once and seen Rogue One, I wanted to reflect on the film and this claim in the light of that book. This blog post will contain spoilers.

“We know how many people flocked to the movies that have been heralded as game-changing feminist statements, but we don’t know whether those numbers will change deeply gendered systems that make game-changing feminist movies a necessity to begin with.”

Andi Zeisler, We Were Feminists Once, p. 255

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Hope and Despair: My Top Ten Books of 2016

I decided a couple of days ago to go back over the books that I read this year to try to establish, largely for myself, a kind of top ten that were books I would recommend to others. It was more difficult than I expected – I read very few novels that really stuck with me this past year, so it became mostly non-fiction, which is unusual for me. Some of the things on this list feel like filler because I could only get about five books I absolutely loved if I cut out books that I’d re-read (perhaps I should have included Terry Pratchett’s Only You Can Save Mankind, though). I originally planned to post this list to Twitter and Facebook, but as I reflected on them and what they meant to me, I found a lot more depth than I had expected. Thus it has become a blog post. The books are presented in roughly the order in which I read them, not in any way intended to be a ranking based on relative enjoyment or quality.

  1. Men Explain Things to Me – Rebecca Solnit

I think that, if I’d got around to reading Solnit’s Hope In the Dark (it’s primed on my kindle), it would have made this list rather than Men Explain Things to Me. That’s not to say that Men Explain Things to Me didn’t affect me, but the thing that has really been going through my head the past few weeks/months are Solnit’s reflections on despair and optimism (both, in her interpretation, forms of certainty cause for inaction) and hope, which promises the possibility of a good outcome if one works towards it, in the essay “Woolf’s Darkness”. I’ve see a lot of people since November talking about embracing despair, not giving in to hope, but I think they use ‘hope’ the way Solnit uses optimism. Reflecting on this alongside my (joint-)favourite film of the year, I came up with an example:

OPTIMISM: The Empire has built a Death Star, but let’s wait and see if they actually use it, it could be fine.

DESPAIR: The Empire has built a Death Star! We must disband the Rebellion and go back to living in fear!

HOPE: The Empire has built a Death Star. Let’s try to steal the plans and blow that shit up.

The last one is what we need right now. Perhaps not the ‘blowing shit up’ part, but definitely the resistance. We need hope, an aim, a motive, not to give in to the worst possible outcome and let the Empire destroy us.

  1. The Secret History of Wonder Woman – Jill Lepore

I don’t make much of a secret of the fact that I tend to prefer the history of comic books to the actual comic books themselves. The Secret History of Wonder Woman is concerned as much with the creator of Wonder Woman (and the women on whom she was based) than the actual history of the comic book character and her use and abuse over the past 75 years (which could have dovetailed nicely with Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminist Once, discussed below), but it’s still a fascinating history of a comic book icon. At the time of reading I found it paralleled Charlotte Gordon’s dual biography of Marys Wollstonecraft and Shelley, Romantic Outlaws, which I read in 2015, in that it chronicled the ways in which supposedly progressive men can be blind to the experiences of women. I think that this remains a significant barrier in progressive circles; I suspect that, if we looked at the Democratic Party and the support given to Barack Obama and Bernie Sandars but not to Hillary Clinton, we might find that it is one of the sources of the current problems in the world today.

  1. The Birthday of the World – Ursula Le Guin

Of course Ursula le Guin makes it onto a list of my favourite books from any year; and this year I read the last of her Hainish/Ekumen stories. This collection contains many stories that reflect on change over time, particularly “The Matter of Seggri”, and the idea that progress is gradual but happens. It is, I would say, optimistic more than hopeful. But that is perhaps doing it, and le Guin, a disservice. This year I also listened to the audiobook of The Dispossessed, which I originally read in 2012, and reflected on its message that progress, equality, and freedom are on-going projects, ones that require work and maintenance. The Dispossessed is subtitled An Ambiguous Utopia, and I thought about what undermines the utopianism of Anarres, the anarchist society of the novel. It is, perhaps, that the society was optimistic – “we have created an anarchist society, therefore we are free and equal” – rather than hopeful – “we have created an anarchist society, through which we can strive for freedom and equality”. “The Matter of Seggri” is far behind the utopias of The Dispossessed, but one might look on it as a hopeful tale, where the difficulties and struggles of Seggri past are overcome as it progresses towards a more equal society.

4 & 5. Every Heart a Doorway – Seanan McGuire/A Calculated Life – Anne Charnock

I didn’t read many novels this year, as a proportion of the books I read, and few of them really stuck with me in the way that a lot of the non-fiction did. Besides Philip K. Dick’s VALIS, these two novels were the most thought provoking.

Were I being completely honest, I would admit that the novel that most affected me this year was Way Down Dark by James Smythe; it doesn’t make the list because the effect was negative. Perhaps I had already been down because of the referendum bullshit but Way Down Dark is the first thing I can date this year that made me really despair. It was so hopeless and bleak that it put me off reading for a while afterwards, and may explain why I read so few novels after it. As I reflected in my Goodreads review of A Calculated Life, it is possible that I enjoyed it so much because I had not enjoyed the previous, overlong, stodgy book that I read. Looking back, perhaps it was also because I followed it up with Way Down Dark.

  1. The Inconvenient Indian: A Curious Account of Native People in North America – Thomas King

The Inconvenient Indian stands apart from many of the other things that I read in 2016. I didn’t – couldn’t – review it on Goodreads, I couldn’t think how to encapsulate what it made me think and feel. I still can’t. What I can say is that it has made me reflect on some of the other histories that I read, both for my research and for pleasure, and how they discuss Indians, and colonialism, and colonization. They do not often come across all that well. Perhaps the most important key theme of the book is that of betrayal – how Native and First Nations people have constantly be betrayed by the promises and treaties that colonial Canada and the United States of America make with them. It has made me notice how far in the background Native rights are in most discussions of progressive politics in both the USA and Canada, and how easily they can be discarded once a ‘progressive’ party wins an election, but also how progressive media consistently ignores or marginalises Native peoples – or depicts them with tropes and clichés, as a people that belong in and to the past (King’s ‘Dead Indians’).

The Inconvenient Indian was published in 2013, towards the end of the Harper era (although obviously that was unclear at the time). One might have thought that with Justin Trudeau’s election things were looking better and that now, when I think about The Inconvenient Indian, I am hopeful that the cycles of mistreatment have come to an end. But 2016 has not been that kind of year. In fact, when I jokingly commented in December 2015 that Trudeau’s flip-flopping regarding his statement that Return of the Jedi was the best Star Wars film was a poor indicator for his time as Prime Minister, I didn’t expect to be proven as right as I have been this past year. It’s difficult, because as a spousal immigrant in Canada the Liberal government has improved things for me, and for those who come after me, in the ways in which they have changed the application procedures and decreased the waiting times. But the government has still betrayed its promises to First Nations people, still allowed more pipelines to be built, still isn’t prioritising missing and murdered First Nations women. The Inconvenient Indian actually provides the best check to my hopeful side in what has happened since it was written and since I read it.

  1. Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?/Why Not Me? – Mindy Kaling

I listened to a few audiobooks by comedians this year and Mindy Kaling’s were the best. It’s difficult to fit this into the narrative of hope, optimism, and despair that I’ve established throughout this account. I can reflect on the (optimistic) jokes in the first part of The Mindy Project season 5 that assume Hillary Clinton’s victory in the presidential election. But I think that, mostly, I like to think that a funny, successful person wrote a couple of books that I really enjoyed.

  1. Death’s End – Cixin Liu

I have some reservations about recommending Death’s End, especially as it is the third part of a trilogy of exceptionally long novels. The first, The Three-Body Problem, was fantastic; the second, The Dark Forest, began terribly but ended well. The trilogy is certainly worth reading if you can cope with the misogyny. But, in a way, it is even bleaker than Way Down Dark. Throughout the trilogy humanity goes through stages of hope and despair, trying to find new ways to survive, sometimes just about holding on. Despair, it seems, is the best course of action. Indeed, it is clear at some points that hope and optimism – or at least, attempting to stifle despair – causes more problems for humanity than it solves.

  1. Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era – Michael Kimmel

Like The Inconvenient Indian, Angry White Men was published in 2013 but remains a pretty solid explanation of how what happened in 2016 happened, three years before it actually, uh, happened. This book details the circumstances in which the anguish of white men is turned to anger, and how it is directed against those who are coming up from beneath them rather than against those above them who hold them down. It also provides the handy term ‘aggrieved entitlement’ to explain how men react to no longer being the centre of attention.

While I do not think that Kimmel is guilty of the blindness to women’s suffering that I attribute to William Moulton Marston or the men in the lives of Marys Wollstonecraft and Shelley, I found that my interest in the failings of supposedly feminist men were not met by this book. It’s a topic that I find a lot of interest in because it is something that I feel myself and that I am trying to be self-reflective. It doesn’t really fall within Kimmel’s remit, which is to look at the angry masculinity of a certain kind of man, but I think that the entitlement of progressive men also needs to be considered, even though it is yet to be aggrieved.

As with The Inconvenient Indian, subsequent events have affected how I react to Angry White Men three years after its original publication. Kimmel is a little over-optimistic in his conclusions. His implication is that we don’t actually have to do anything; these men are in decline and will eventually be drowned out. That doesn’t seem to have actually happened; in fact, it seems like the harmful forces that take advantage of these men’s anguish have managed to do so to an extraordinary degree. But the book offers me hope, even if that hope is fragile: that those who have gained rights will not back down; that the lack of progress over the next few years will show these angry white men that their optimism has been misplaced; that left-wing movements can take over where right-wing ones have previously held sway. Ultimately, it shows me that there is a way through this darkness; it’s just that the way through needs to challenge the right, admit how neoliberal economics have failed, and to hold fast to the importance of the rights that have been gained over the past decades. It’s a sliver of hope, but it is there.

  1. We Were Feminists Once: From Riot Grrrl to CoverGirl, The Buying and Selling of a Political Movement – Andi Zeisler

The last book that I read this year, and one on which I am still mulling. It will have been written with some awareness of what might happen in 2016, but was published before much of it happened; but there is still a tone of hope in the dark as Zeisler presents a difficulty in a modern progressive movement and reflects on how to make the best out of it. But the part which made me the most hopeful was a section in which Zeisler discusses the attacks on female bodily autonomy under the Bush administration in the early ‘00s, and the way in which 9/11 was used to prevent criticism of the government. Zeisler comments that subsequently, social media has created connections and support networks between women so that it is more difficult to feel as alone as one could in the early ‘00s. Here, again, is a shred of hope. As Kimmel concluded, women and minorities are not suddenly going to back down and forget that they are still treated unequally; under Bush, the spectre of terrorism and the lack of social media made it difficult to challenge attacks to past gains, but in the next few years such a defence might be possible. It’s not much, but it’s there. Again, it is why hope (understood to mean looking for solutions) is better than optimism or despair (assuming an outcome, positive or negative). The fight will get more difficult, but it will not become impossible.

In a way, I found Zeisler’s focus on the co-opting of ‘feminism’ as an identity among right wing and capitalist women such as Sarah Palin rather than on how some men use this identity as an excuse to get at women (to Explain Things to Them, as it were) more disappointing than Kimmel’s lack of discussion on the topic, as it perhaps fits better with the theme of her book. It connects We Were Feminists Once with The Secret History of Wonder Woman and Romantic Outlaws; men continue to use ‘feminist’ as an identity or gold star, especially young men, as a way of showing their ‘wokeness’, or how they are Good For Women. It is outlined well in this BuzzFeed article, which describes these men as ‘thirsty male feminist[s]’. It is worth a read, and a salient reminder that if one is a man who wishes to enact feminism then one must be careful of pitfalls, the most prominent one being dictating feminism to women and girls rather than using their position among men as a way of promoting feminism and respect for women and other genders among those of us who benefit from the patriarchal dividend. For me, next year will partially be about how to put one of Zeisler’s main points – that feminism is something that you do, not something that you are – into action in my own life. I’m still thinking about how I might do that. But I remain hopeful.

Did the Trojan War Actually Happen?

According to the third-century BCE mathematician Eratosthenes, 11th June 1184 BCE was the date on which the Achaeans stormed the walls of Troy. That makes this Saturday, 11th June 2016, the 3,199th anniversary of the most famous military ambush of all time: the Trojan Horse. Of course, most of us accept that the Trojan War didn’t really happen, or at least that, if it did, elements such as the capture of Helen, the ten year long siege, and the Trojan Horse are mythological embellishments. But some people are more open-minded. Since Heinrich Schliemann’s excavations at Hisarlik, in modern Turkey, uncovered the remains of Troy some have felt that this supported the story of the war; others too have pointed to the Hittite texts which seem to reference a series of wars in northwest Anatolia as the ultimate proof that the Trojan War actually happened.

So, did the Trojan War actually happen? I think the case is far from proven. Those who believe it has been are exercising an extreme form of the Positivist Fallacy, which is usually understood as assuming what is archaeologically visible is historically significant, but here also includes the assimilation of historical events that may have absolutely nothing to do with one another and their correlation with archaeological remains.

The date of the war

Modern scholars, if they believe in the War, tend to date it to the thirteenth century BCE. In his Very Short Introduction to the Trojan War Eric Cline more vaguely states: “If the Trojan War did take place, both ancient and modern scholars agree that it was fought towards the end of the Late Bronze Age, near the end of the second millennium BCE.” Cline gives no impression of having any doubt that the war did take place and asserts that it was actually fought between the Mycenaean Greeks and the Hittites of Anatolia. Meanwhile, the excavations at Hisarlik revealed several levels of occupation at Troy in the Late Bronze Age, including a significant destruction ca. 1300, at the end of Troy VI, originally believed to be Priam’s Troy. Subsequent excavation, however, suggested that this may have been the result of an earthquake, and Troy VIIa, destroyed ca. 1190 BCE, is now the most popular choice for ‘Priam’s Troy’.

The ancient sources are a little less certain about the date. Eratosthenes, as already mentioned, dated the sack of Troy to 1184 BCE, but the date derived from Herodotus is ca. 1250 BCE, while the Parian Chronicle provides the dates 1217-1208 BCE. Other dates derived from ancient sources vary from the fourteenth to the twelfth century. While there seems clear consensus among ancient sources that the Trojan War was historical, they generally don’t claim to know the details of this long ago war in their ancient past.

The Hittite documents that are believed to reference the war are dated to the thirteenth century. The documents are letters between several great kings, including the king of Ahhiyawa, believed to be Mycenaean Greece. In one of these discussions, the Hittite king Hattusili III mentions that he and the king of Ahhiyawa went to war over Wilusa, which is likely to be Ilium (an alternative name for Troy), and is located in northwestern Anatolia, i.e. Hisarlik. So certainly it appears that there was a war at Troy in the thirteenth century. This war, however, is too early for the destruction in Troy VIIa, which was as much as half a century later.

What is the Trojan War, anyway?

The connection made between the Hittite texts and the Trojan War reveals another question that must be answered before we can safely say we have proof of the Trojan War: what do we mean when we say the Trojan War?

Perhaps the most famous aspect of the Trojan War is the wooden horse in which the Greeks hid in order to get inside the unbreakable walls of Troy and ambush the unsuspecting Trojans. Alternatively the most famous might be Helen of Sparta, the most beautiful woman in the world, who ran away with (or was raped by) the Trojan prince Paris (or Alexander) and whose husband united the whole of Greece to fight to get her back. Finally, there are Achilles and Hector, the greatest warriors on either side, one of whom was the almost invulnerable son of a goddess, the other of whom was but a mere mortal. How much of this story needs to be true if we are to have found the Trojan War?

This question might be unfair. Rather, what we want to find is the historical basis that inspired the Trojan Epic Cycle. The question must then be: how can we do so? What evidence could be brought to bear that would show us that it was this war that inspired the story that we read in the epics? For some, it is evidence enough to show that a war probably happened at probably the right place at about the right time, with not quite the right people, but near enough that it probably makes no difference. Personally, I find this an unsatisfactory conclusion.

Does it matter?

Arguably, it doesn’t matter if some people want to believe that the war between the Hittites and the Ahhiyawa was the basis of the Trojan Cycle. It only really affects them and it makes them happy, so who cares? I have three problems with this approach. The first is that the search for Homer’s Troy did massive damage to the archaeological site when Schliemann began his excavations in the 1870s. Many of those who believe in the Trojan War and Priam’s Troy mock Schliemann for calling a treasure hoard from the third millennium ‘Priam’s Treasure’ when it dated a thousand years before the date at which they place Priam, when really it is an example of why hunting for the origin of the story was a terrible idea in the first place. Secondly, in associating the historical events recorded in the Hittite documents with the Epic Cycle that we know from several centuries later we are doing a disservice to an exciting historical discovery in its own right that can tell us interesting things about conflict and conflict resolution in the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean, without relying on poems that we only know from several centuries later.

Thirdly, and related to the second point, there are just far more interesting questions to be asked about this material.

Alternative approaches

One alternative is that the Epic Cycle is much older, and if the ‘Trojan War’ actually happened then it may be that existing oral poetic forms were adapted to it, rather than new poems written about it. There are clues to this in both the poetry and the archaeological record. Susan Sherratt has pointed out that many of the features of the poem, such as the boar’s tusk helmet and Ajax’s ‘Tower Shield’, are much older than the thirteenth century, and may date as early as the sixteenth. In this case, it would be interesting to know first about the conditions represented in the Hittite documents and then to see if this affects our reading of the surviving Trojan epics – but it must be done this way around.

Another alternative is to embrace the variety in the epic tradition before it congealed into the poems that survive. Until the eighth and seventh centuries BCE there was much variety in the epic stories which intermingled and were adapted into one another, with regional differences and focus, but which were whittled down to two surviving epic traditions by the eighth and seventh centuries – the Theban Cycle and the Trojan Cycle – before the Homeric versions of the Trojan Cycle became so widespread that alternatives were almost inconceivable. However, variations survive in seventh-century art and even as late as the plays of Euripides, such as the story that Helen was in Egypt while a mirage went to Troy, or the replacement of Iphigenia with a deer before she could be sacrificed. Gregory Nagy has proposed that the epic goes through stages of change and development, before it became so well-known in the sixth century that only very minor changes could be made.

The existence of these variations makes the identification of a kernel of truth in the epic even more doubtful. Rather, they suggest an alternative way of thinking about the poems: understanding how they changed and how they reflect the periods in which they were popular and developing. It is absolutely clear that the epic cycle does not appear from nowhere in the seventh century, but how has it developed in previous centuries? Why and how does it remain relevant?

Ultimately, ‘did the Trojan War actually happen?’ sounds like an interesting question, but it obscures the much more fascinating histories of the Late Bronze Age eastern Mediterranean and the development of the Epic Cycle from the sixteenth to the seventh century and beyond.