Black Achilles and White Matthew

[Note: I wrote this post a month ago and have been tinkering with it on and off since. Given that the show premiers tonight in the UK (possibly already) and it’s framed as if we don’t know how the show turns out, I figured it was now or never to post it!]

Human beings have strange obsessions. When the actor Daniel Craig was cast as James Bond in the early noughties, there was an angry reaction based on the colour of his hair. “Bond not blond” was the cry – in those halcyon pre-Twitter days, there was no hashtag – a cry which largely died down when Casino Royale was released and was largely well-received.

The cry arose in another direction in 2015 when writer Anthony Horowitz said that Idris Elba – a fan and Sony executive favourite to play the spy – was ‘too street’ to play James Bond. Based on the long history of the use of the word ‘street’ in racialised contexts, this comment was interpreted as racist – Elba could not play James Bond because he was black. (It’s worth noting that when this was pointed out to Horowitz he rescinded his statement in horror.) Meanwhile, watching Elba act or seeing him in any context in which he is allowed to be suave shows that he could have been a fine Bond indeed.

Concerns over the casting of James Bond goes back to the early 1960s, when Bond-creator Ian Fleming opposed the casting of Scottish actor Sean Connery for his refined and sophisticated character. After watching Connery, however, Fleming’s opinion changed (or so the story goes). The next Bond book Fleming wrote – You Only Live Twice – introduced Bond’s Scottish ancestry. If you’re convinced by a performance, it can change your idea of what a hero can be.

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Good Greeks

As I implied in my last post, when I found out that Ursula K. Le Guin had died, my instinct was to dive into her words and worlds to find solace for the surprising amount of sorrow I was feeling. Thus, I ordered the collection No Time to Spare from my local library, which collects several of Le Guin’s blog posts.

While at the library, I decided to pick up their copy of Madeline Miller’s The Song of Achilles, even though I had been listening to the audiobook. I was trying to write something about that novel for Ancient World Magazine (which has since been published), and I wanted to check certain references (easier to do with a physical copy).

These withdrawals turn out to be a little more thematic than I had intended. No Time to Spare includes Le Guin’s June 2013 essay on Homer, “Papa H”, in which she says (p. 53):

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 to mean anything to anybody.

Much of what she goes on to say is more her area than mine – Homer as fantasy – and cannot be applied to the more historical approach to the texts I take in my work. But there is a point here about how mythological stories can have a meaning beyond that which they had in the ancient world (something I tried to apply to the Return of Hephaestos in an earlier AWM piece). As Le Guin wrote in her October 2011 blog post “Readers Questions” (p. 41):

Meaning – this is perhaps the common note, the bane I am seeking. What is the Meaning of this book, this event in the book, this story . . . ? Tell me what it Means.

But that’s not my job, honey. That’s your job.

In my piece on The Song of Achilles, I quoted one scholar, discussing the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus in the Iliad, who thought that teasing out the subtext seemed “to concern more the reader-response than the explicit intentions of the texts.” (Marco Fantuzzi, Achilles in Love. Intertextual Studies (2012) p. 190-91). But when you can produce a story as good as Miller’s Song of Achilles, I wonder if reader-responses aren’t more interesting. This is especially true of ancient reader responses, if we can discern them at all.

It was with this in the back of my mind that I read an Aeon article by Catherine Nichols yesterday, “Why is pop culture obsessed with the battle between good and evil?” The article has several themes: nation building while the Brothers Grimm were collecting their fairy tales; the idea that nations have a particular ‘character’ , othering other nations. She points to the Iliad and the Mahabharata as examples of older tales that avoid this dichotomy. Le Guin, too, argues that the true tragedy of the Iliad is that Homer doesn’t take sides (No Time to Spare, pp. 53-54):

“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.”

After reading the article, I Tweeted about whether or not I thought this was true. In modern versions of the myth, it seems to me, the Trojans are increasingly becoming the ‘good’ side of this war. The creator of the forthcoming BBC/Netflix series Troy: Fall of a City claims to be telling the Trojan side of the story – but this is what Homer did, as well as the tragedians of fifth-century BCE Athens. I can’t think of a version of the story that presents the Greeks as blameless. Even Le Guin admits that the Trojans are her favourites (No Time to Spare, p. 56):

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.

Whether or not we agree with Le Guin’s assessment of Hector, we can admit that the actions of the Greeks take some work to fit with modern social values. In The Song of Achilles, Miller’s Patroclus cannot be taken as an ancient character, and even Chiron and Odysseus spout ideas that are thoroughly modern. In this setting, Achilles seems quite strange. His pursuit of fame, even at the cost of his life, is so alien to the modern world, as are the reactions to Agamemnon’s threat to it. Le Guin can’t stand him – “a sulky, self-pitying teenager” (ibid. pp. 55-56) – but does not mention the artistic skills, which Miller’s Patroclus thinks should be his true glory: “His skill with the lyre. His beautiful voice.” (Song of Achilles, p. 366)

But then there is Briseis, the most difficult obstacle for the modern rehabilitation of Achilles. Le Guin isn’t having it: “his big snit is over a girl he was given to rape but had to give back to his superior officer, which to me rather dims the love story.” (No Time to Spare, p. 56). In Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy (2004) the attempt to make the story true love is undermined by the fact that she is his war captive – it all feels very unsavory, as I suspect Le Guin would agree. (I go into more detail about this on a forthcoming AWM podcast, so look out for that!)

Miller avoids this difficulty in part because Achilles’ true love is Patroclus – he distrusts Briseis and is happy to see her taken by Agamemnon (the subtext being that he suspects Patroclus’ closeness to her). But Briseis in turn distrusts Achilles because he slaughtered her family and her people – his values cannot be modern, but at least he can avoid being a mass rapist. (Incidentally, Patroclus’ insistence that Achilles take the captured girls so that they would not suffer at the hands of another king feels like one of the more obviously modern parts of the story.)

If I have a concluding point, it’s that one of the values of Miller’s work is that she manages to maintain some of that ancient tragedy by not making the Trojan War ‘Good vs. Evil’, even as she gives the characters modern moral stances. For all that Le Guin and Nichols praise the Iliad for not being the war between good and evil, the actions of the Greeks mean that it is difficult for their side to easily elide with modern morality. Miller has to cut Achilles’ sacrifice of twelve Trojan captives on Partroclus’ funeral pyre, for example (but maintains the sacrifices of Iphigenia by Agamemnon and of Polyxena on Achilles’ tomb by Neoptolemus, comfortable immoral or amoral characters). The Iliad may not be the war of good versus evil, but the modern world appears to have chosen a side.

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.

Prometheus Unbound (2 of 2)

I started to write this blog immediately after I had written the previous Prometheus blog, which can be found here. That was some time ago. My life has kept me away from writing this blog and the film has faded into memory a little, now generally only refered to as a joke (saying “So that’s what Prometheus was about!” whenever someone says something profound, or stupid) or as a proverbially bad film. Furthermore, what I wanted to do with the blog changed after I read Film Critic Hulk’s very long analysis which I felt covered everything which needed to be said about why the film was bad, and what needed to be done with it.

After reading The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell I began to have some more profound thoughts about the questions prodded by Prometheus. One of my problems with The Sparrow was that the aliens did not feel to me to be suitably alien, as they engaged in what was basically a Capitalist system, and while there were a couple of fundamental differences the aliens were fairly similar to humans, with similar motivations and desires. One of the beautiful things about the Alien franchise was that the xenomorphs were so completely alien in so many ways. The lethal, perfect predator desired by The Company, evolved for survival. It did not appear to be intelligent in the way that we are, but it was smart and skilled. It adapted. In Prometheus we learned that, contrary to known facts about the evolutionary process, they shared the same creators as us, which were basically massive humans (even having the same DNA!).

In the Hainish Cycle/Ekumen books I find that Ursula Le Guin has a good excuse for the similarity all the species have to human beings: they are descended from the same ancestors, the Hain, who colonised the universe in a far distant past. Some, such as the Gethen, appear to have been the result of genetic engineering, while the Athsheans have evolved to be very different indeed. There differences are intended to reflect on aspects of Earth society and this works. I suppose that in The Sparrow they are intended to look very similar, but to turn out very, very different. In Alien, it seems to me, they were intended to be absolutely terrifying. In Prometheus they were designed to… what? To generate a question. To ask “what if we were made by another species?” But the answer is provided by the film: “Ah, but who made them?” It’s not actually an answer. It’s a deferral of the question. It’s like asking what a Lego structure is made from and answering “Lego”. The real answer is plastic, but it’s being deferred to sound clever, even though it isn’t.

With the xenomorphs ruled out the most alien aliens I know of are the Areikei/Hosts in China Miéville’s Embassytown. The Areikei are very different to the human beings whom they host but are changed by their contact with the outside world in a number of ways which make them more similar to humans, but they are still incredibly different in both biology and social structures. This is perhaps due to my ignorance with a lot of SF but they seem very alien in ways that I can’t see being easily topped. But what, then, is the point of creating an alien species? It is different in Embassytown, which explores the nature of language, to the use in Prometheus, which is closer to The Sparrow and A Case of Conscience by James Blish. These three narratives aim to ask questions of the place of human beings in the universe and in relation to god when there are other intelligent beings in the universe. One of the key questions, both in the fictions and for the Catholic Church, is the importance of the crucifixion in the wider universe.

I didn’t notice the correspondence in Prometheus between the disaster which occurred on LV-223 and the crucifixion – that they were both 2000 years ago. Once this is pointed out one can begin to see that the problems began to occur because humanity killed the Engineer’s embassy to Earth who was Jesus Christ. I’m not entirely certain what Prometheus is trying to say with this. Catholic dogma always taught me that the crucifixion was necessary to the forgiveness of human beings for the sin of Adam (who they also taught me was fictional). Also, it is followed by the resurrection. Removing the divinity of Christ from the question and the resurrection as the proof of the power of god’s love seems to me to render the story of Christ fairly meaningless. He is not much more profound than any other ancient philosopher, it’s just that his story thrived in a way that others didn’t. It suggests to me a great ignorance about the religions of the world in the early Roman Empire – why, for example, was it not Mithras, or Alexander of Abonoteichus who was the Engineer, and the rejection of their teachings the problem? It seems to me that Christ has done very well, and being annoyed because he was sacrificed (when individual Engineers had been sacrificed to create life anyway, in the opening scene of the film) disregards the fact that he was the most influential figure on the last 2000 years of human history. Although I suppose portraying god as a petty, stupid creature actually comes as close to the god in which I could actually believe as any representation of god I have heard.

The Sparrow and A Case of Conscience never directly reference the crucifixion, as I recall. Jesus plays something of a side-part in their narratives; perhaps analogous to contemporary Christianity? But they do question, if there is other life in the universe, what part do they play in creation? Like Prometheus they don’t really provide an answer – how can they? We have not yet encountered extraterrestrial life and it is questionable whether religious belief will play much of a role if we actually do so. The likelihood is generally decreasing. But they ponder the question in a way Prometheus completely fails to do. Blish mentions that the Catholic Church has guidelines for the treatment of extraterrestrial life, but the internet is not very forthcoming with them. It involves the question of whether the beings have a soul; if they are fallen (as we are) in which case they need to be saved; if they are not fallen then how do we interact with them? A Case of Conscience was written before he knew of this guide, if it exists; The Sparrow appears to exist in ignorance of it.Prometheus doesn’t even seem to think that it will cause a problem, except in the sense of deferring the question which I mentioned above.

Something which is acknowledged by The Sparrow but which appears beyond the grasp of Prometheus is that science and religion aren’t actually in competition. Not really. The argument is that while science can tell you what happened it cannot tell you why it happened. As The Sparrow puts it (and I have heard elsewhere, an In Our Time on the subject can be found here) “God is in the why”. This is a fault inherent in both modern religious thinking – which tries to insert god into science where it doesn’t belong, as in the intelligent design hypothesis – and in modern atheism – which in general can prove that religion probably isn’t right, and has no real basis, but can’t actually prove it wrong in most cases. I believe that there are actually some biological arguments to suggest that religion is actually wrong, but I don’t know them so I won’t come down on that side of the argument. Instead, I will resort to popular culture. For you see, the real answer to this question (which a lot of proper atheists will accept and probably tell you) comes from a lesser-known quotation of the Jedi Master Yoda in the film The Empire Strikes Back:

There is no why.

This is fundamental to being an atheist. If you think there is a reason why, then you are agnostic. That’s OK too. Here we have reached the state of philosophy, and there are no right answers. Or rather there should be no way of confirming the right answers. If a god appeared to me and explained all the whys to me in a logical way which made sense to me I’d start believing that there was one. Or would I know there was one? I’m afraid my philosophical education was cut short when I decided archaeology was the most interesting part of Classics.

Does this make life pointless? Is this a negative attitude? I believe Jean-Paul Sartre had something to say on the matter, but in this circumstance my actual source for my personal philosophy is Mr Joss Whedon again,* in his second greatest television series (bearing in mind I haven’t watched Dollhouse) and, if you are reading this Jonathan, this is a SPOILER ALERT but I am going to remove character names and not mention where it is from to reduce that, if you want to read it nonetheless.** This is what I think:

“[…] it’s like nothing I do means anything.”

It doesn’t.”

Doesn’t what?”

Mean anything. In the greater scheme, in the big picture, nothing we do matters. There’s no grand plan, no big win.”

You seem kind of chipper about that.”

Well . . . I guess I kind of worked it out. If there’s no great glorious end to all this, if . . . nothing we do matters . . . then all that matters is what we do. ‘Cause that’s all there is. What we do. Now. Today. I fought for so long for redemption, for a reward, finally, just to beat the other guy. But I never got it.”

Now you do?”

Not all of it. All I want to do is help. I want to help because I don’t think people should suffer as they do, because if there’s no bigger meaning, then the smallest act of kindness is the greatest thing in the world.”

Yikes. Sounds like you’ve had an epiphany.”

That’s what I keep saying, but nobody’s listening!”

So where to conclude? That I got more out of an episode of one of Joss Whedon’s shows than I got out of the entire film Prometheus? Is that such a surprise? I think I get more out of that than I get out of most of the ancient literature I’ve read, except perhaps Lucretius, which taught me not to believe in an afterlife and won me a lollipop from Josie Long. Perhaps that asking the question isn’t enough, proposing an answer is necessary? But I have admitted to believing that there is no answer. Accepting, then, that there is no answer. But this is not good for everybody. Some people want an answer. Sometimes it is hard, believing or understanding the universe to be pointless.

But perhaps it is this. I loved The Sparrow. I liked A Case of Conscience. And I was raised Catholic. While I was wondering around colleges the other day I commented to the girlfriend that I was glad we’d had religion, as it had produced so much or beauty. And it still does, if you would like to look at Aaron Sorkin’s question of theodicy in the excellent West Wing episode “Two Cathedrals” below. I don’t believe in a god, and I don’t think that it is necessary to do so. But I do think that it is essential to come to that conclusion yourself, and to have a reason, and to understand that it means no reason. But no reason doesn’t matter. If there’s no reason, everything is important.

Which perhaps is the more scary answer, after all.

* This episode of this particular series is actually written by Tim Minear, but as he was an executive producer on Firefly and worked on Dollhouse too, we can say fairly strongly that he was close to Mr. Whedon.

** Obviously it’s from either Buffy or Angel, as you’ve seen Firefly and Dollhouse (which I haven’t). And a later point than I know you to be at. But you can get an idea about it, if you don’t read the quotation, from the commentary on Objects in Space, if you have the Firefly DVDs. Or if you know anything about Sartre, which neither I nor Joss Whedon really do.

Voices

The narrative voice in fiction relates to a number of other issues which I find exceedingly interesting. The most important of these is the approach the novel takes to the subjective nature of reality, the fact that events differ when recited from a different point of view. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the Akira Kurosawa film Rashomon, or the short stories on which it is based, but I have neither seen the film nor read the stories. This tells a story from a number of narrative perspectives, each shining a different light on events, each story slightly different. I am getting ahead of myself. The point is that the narrative voice is incredibly interesting and yet I doubt that many authors put much thought into their use of voice. Is this a good thing or a bad thing? Would some things be better in a different voice to the one in which they are told? These are some of the questions which have been on my mind recently.*

Reading back over an old diary/notebook of mine recently I came across my discussion of this theme on 6th August 2010. I read it out to my girlfriend, and she told me about a story by a friend of hers which she had read recently which had been written in the first person. It was clearly a very personal piece, she told me, and she had questioned her friend’s decision to write it in the first person. Her reason for the questioning was the issue of “show, don’t tell” and its relationship to the emotions of the narrative voice. Her basic argument was that in the first person feelings can be stated, whereas in the third person they have to be carefully shown. The issue of “show, don’t tell” is a complicated one, which will come up a few more times I think, but I don’t want to get into a detailed discussion of it now. I think that it is a good guideline, but believe that there are some things which need to be shown and others which need to be told. The key is to know which, and to have a reason.

My preference has usually been for the third-person narrative. As of August 6th 2010 I had read 32 books that year of which 12 had been, at least in part, first person. One of these was the book Gateway by Frederik Pohl, which has become a byword for bad first-person narratives in my mind not due to any explicit problems with the book, but because I could not stand the narrator, Robinette Stetley Broadhead. This isn’t really a legitimate reason – you can dislike main characters in third person narratives, although in those circumstances it is less likely to be so strongly rubbed in your face. I wonder if this is a guide: if your main character is likable, then you can get away with first person narrative. Emilio Sandoz, one of the main protagonists in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, is very likable, but he could not be the narrator for two reasons: the first is that he would have to be an unreliable narrator; the second is that the book contains a mystery.

This brings me to the first “legitimate” use of the first person: the investigator. Crime novels are perfect examples of an opportunity to use the first person narrator, for when there is a mystery to be solved who is better to take you through it than the person charged with solving it? In 2010 my first example was China Miéville’s The City and The City; another would be Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe novels, and any number of others. For the Sherlock Holmes stories, of course, we cannot solve the mystery as quickly as Holmes does – that would be too easy – and so Conan Doyle uses Watson as a medium through which we see the events, gather all the evidence, but who is equally stunned by Holmes’ deductive powers as we are. Taking us through the path to a discovery – this is a use of the first person.

Then there is the narrator who knows something which we do not – and who often tries to hide it. Gateway falls into this category; another book I read in 2010 which does is Edwin Abbott Abbott’s Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions. This is essentially the story of a revelation, which must be revealed by the individual who received the revelation. A further dimension of this is the unreliable narrator. I have only read one/four books which are explicitly known to have an “unreliable” narrator, which are Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series. I think these will need a re-read before I can comment fully on this use of the first person. The naive narrator, however, is aptly presented in The Hunger Games trilogy, where Katniss Everdeen is so painfully unaware of her own circumstances at times that it’s hard not to shake your head and wonder at her.

A couple more thoughts emerge from The Hunger Games. I think that Suzanne Collins is fairly brave, especially in Mockingjay, not to push Katniss into every event of importance in order to show it. She allows some things to be told. We are taken by surprise, and we don’t know everything because Katniss doesn’t, even if we sometimes have more insight than she does. On the other hand, Katniss often has to explain things about her world which she shouldn’t have to do, unless she knows to whom she is talking (i.e. us, in the far past of her world) about which she gives no other indication. The finest examples of first person literature must be those when the audience is known, and it is believably the reader. Addressing the reader and pulling them in – “Call me Ishmael” – is the trick to the first person, it seems to me.

The Hunger Games and The Book of the New Sun also fall into a category of books which are the “first person historical narrative”; in these cases a major figure from a historical period is discussing the events which they lived through. In my opinion, regardless of what Graves himself says about them, one of the most interesting examples of this are I, Claudius and Claudius the God by Robert Graves. I read I, Claudius from Christmas day 2006 to an early point in 2007, but had to stop reading Claudius the God as I was studying Roman history I.vi, from Caesar to Claudius, at the time, and it was terribly confusing. But Graves was (very, very) well read in his Roman history, and I believe Claudius is made to highlight the fact that he makes a conscious decision contrary to that of the (real human being) Caius Julius Caesar when he choses to write in the first person. This, it seems, is an admission of bias, and of a subjective perspective on the history through which Claudius lived – and indeed, who else could have seen through Clau-Clau’s act of always playing the fool but the man himself? You wouldn’t trust a historian who told you he was not an idiot unless it was the man himself, prooving the contrary.

Once we are this far back in history it seems no greater difficulty to leap to the first example of a first-person narrative in the western literary tradition: Books 9 through 12 of The Odyssey, in which the travels of the hero are recited by the man himself. We cannot say whether or not there is any element of the unreliable narrator in “Homer”‘s consciousness – after all, we know Odysseus sits down and converses with gods, as he does with Athena when he returns to Ithaca. But we can interpret it as such now – Odysseus is the only survivour of the Ithacan ships which departed Troy ten years earlier; there are no voices to counter his account. If there is a modern literary novel based on this premise I would really, really like to read it, so please let me know.

The Odyssey follows a narrative structure which was common in the epistolary novel; that is the narrative-within-a-narrative. One of my first encounters with this method was Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë, which features a framing narrative by a Mr. Lockwood, who in turn recites the story which was told to him by the housekeeper at the Grange, Nelly Dean. It is questionable how successful this is, as Nelly is places in several scenes where perhaps one might not expect a nursemaid to appear; it does, however, allow for a great deal of speculation about what Cathy and Heathcliff got up to when she wasn’t around.** Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein also uses the device of diaries and reporting-direct-speech within letters etcetera to tell the story. This is perhaps the best way to use multiple-first person narratives, short of the means used in Rashomon and the short stories on which it is based, which I still haven’t read, even though it’s been more than an hour.

The alternation of narrative viewpoint is a feature I still find strange in novels. The first novel in which I came across this feature was Across the Nightingale Floor by Lian Hearn. I cannot tell you the reason why it was used in this book, or the sequels which followed it. I could understand if there were two separate first person accounts, that of Takeo and that of Kaede, but there are not – Takeo has a voice, Kaede has a third person narration. But it isn’t told in any really different way, except that Takeo calls himself “I” and Kaede does not. I also ought to point out that I don’t like either of these characters, although I did enjoy the series. Especially the end of the third book, for some reason. The short story “The Tain” by China Miéville changes voice in this way, with one character acting as a first person narrator type figure, which I dubbed “the expositionist” in my diary, on the basis that he sets the scene against which the third person narrative is told. I did find the first person narrative more interesting in this case though, and I wasn’t really that concerned with the third person protagonist.

Christopher Priest’s Inverted World uses this mode in a particularly effective way. The topic of the book is, in some ways, the subjective nature of reality and the way in which our perspectives are changed. I can’t go into any more details without risking spoiling the plot of the book, but there is a good reason for the person change and it is used well.

A final, bad use of the first person must be the “wish-fulfillment” first person. This is where the author inhabits the character about which they are writing and thus the character receives a great deal of favour and will often be infuriating – to me at least. In 2010 I read a fun fantasy story called Magic Lost, Trouble Found by Lisa Shearin which essentially fulfilled this. It wasn’t a terrible thing, except that it wasn’t “for me”, and as I said on 6th August 2010: “I do find Severian’s [Book of the New Sun] claims about the beauty of the women he encounters as infuriating as Raine [Magic Lost, Trouble Found] lusting over the men in her life.” A real concern on this front would be the Twilight series – but I must be fair, and I haven’t read them, so I cannot comment.

It seems to me that the third person narrative is the norm, and I would expect this to be the natural way in which to tell a story and an alternative choice is just that – a decision to do something different. But it seems as if so many books in the nineteenth century were first person, that this actually seems to be the norm. That The Iliad is third and it is not until The Odyssey that we have an extensive first person narrative suggests that it is foolish to think one is more “normal” than the other. But it is certainly the case that in my experience third person narratives are more common, and so I’m not so sure that I have that much to say about them.

The advantage is that multiple points of view, or the omniscient narrator following more than one character, becomes more possible and believable to follow. There’s no question why a third person narrative changes protagonist from time to time, and some uses of the third person take the view from inside a character’s – or several characters’ – head. But the depth of this is limited, if the “show, don’t tell” risk is not to leach into the third person narrative, at least for emotions, too. My girlfriend seemed to think that there was more art to the third person, as you have to find ways to show emotions which you can tell in the first; I would argue that what you tell in the first is not necessarily the truth, unless you show it to be. But this is not the be-all and end-all of the choice of voice.

I wonder sometimes about the choice of voice. Why, for example, aren’t the Harry Potter books told in the first person, when most of what we see is through Harry and not (for example) Hermione or Ron? In this case, I think it is a question of the ability to relate to the character. Harry is a lot more believable as an “everychild” in the third person, rather than telling a unique story. We can empathise with his feelings without having them shoved down our throats. Do I think this was a conscious choice on the part of J.K. Rowling? I seriously doubt it, to be honest. Why would she have considered this, if Harry sounded to her in the third person?

My girlfriend questioned her friend’s use of the first person, and I think, if you are a friend of a person writing a book or short story who is reading it, it might be worth asking them about their use of voice. They might not have thought about it, and you might make them really self-conscious about it so that they have great difficulty writing. Uh, but don’t let that put you off. It might stimulate some interesting thoughts in their writing. Or it might just be that the story sounds better to them in the voice it’s in – that is their decision, and it’s unlikely to be a mistake if it feels right to them. First person, third person – their choice of voice is all about finding their own voice, and that is the best way to write.

* I have never read a book in the second person, so I am not going to mention it again in this blog. But that is also interesting and everything, of course, although it’s also really weird.

** They were totally doing it, FYI.