Paper Heroes, Errant Stars

Image: Master of the Aeneid, Aeneas Departs From Carthage, France c. 1430-5.

“hush, paper dreams of errant stars:
here are the ones next whom all ancient fame fades”
-Torquato Tasso, Jerusalem Delivered, I. 52.[1]

In Rabelais’ Third Book the character Panurge, desirous to marry, undertakes a series of fortune telling exercises to see what the future holds. One divining method given in Chapter 12 is particularly interesting. This is the Virgilian lottery or sortes. One opens the works of the Roman poet Virgil and randomly picks a line. The first line Panurge alights upon is the sixty third and final of Eclogue 4:  

Nec Deus hunc mensa, Dea nec dignita cubili est
(The god [banished] him from his table and the goddess would not have him in her bed)

The line is about the sad situation of the smith-god Vulcan (Hephaestus), who, because of his lameness was not accepted by Jupiter (Zeus), and whose sexual advances were turned down by Minerva. In fact, he tried to rape her and begat the Athenians in the process. To Rabelais’ protagonist, Pantagruel, the line foretells that Panurge’s wife is going to turn out a hussy and make him a cuckhold precisely because the noble, virginal Minerva is absolutely opposed to such things. To Panurge himself, however, it signifies that his wife shall be as beautiful as Vulcan’s true wife, Venus. Very obviously, the interpretations of the two characters diverge wildly from one another as well as from the immediate context of the quote.

Whether it is divination by dice, dreams or by consulting a haggard old sybil, Panurge always supplies an overly optimistic interpretation to what he gets: he will marry soon, his wife shall be beautiful and loyal. Pantagruel always interprets the results pessimistically: Panurge is unlikely to marry and if he does his wife will be obnoxious, beat him, cheat on him etc. More than anything of course, all this is simply Rabelais taking the piss out of divination – one only ever sees what one wants to see. A fact that is often overlooked is that Rabelais also made amusing ironic almanack calendars to sell as a “brand tie in” to go with his works. As Bakhtin saw so well, Rabelais was very much a man of the marketplace. Everyone gets what they want. Divination is all about “sufficiency” – about being “good enough.” Here, let’s do a couple of sortes of our own. Unlike those AI art-generating programs gadding about the place these days, the thing about Virgil is that there’s so much to be said about his work that one doesn’t have to do ten attempts to get a nice satisfying line. Go and try it yourself. Here’s mine:

Aeneid V. 531: hic membris et mole valens; sed tarda trementi” (genua labant)
([Entellus’] strength was in his mighty physique; but his legs were slow and shaky)

In Book V of the Aeneid Virgil turns his attention to imitation of the sports and games in Iliad XXIII. Something very important is different here, though. To the Greeks boxing was a sport of gentlemen, to the Romans it was performed by slaves. For this reason, Virgil does not have any important characters engage in it – he invents them for this match and then never mentions them again. The setup is easy. Entellus is your classic grizzled old boxer who shows up his cocky young and far swifter competitor. In spite of the latter unceremoniously having his arse handed to him in the fight, everyone goes away with gifts. One might compare this with the competitions and horseraces in a recently mentioned work, the Kyrgyz Funerary Feast of Kökötöy Khan from the Manas cycle, in which similar extravagance is meted out to all comers. Virgil gives us a show, even if it is by now a terribly “tropey” one, but he also reminds us of the great importance of the Gift – of jovial benevolence and liberality in giving.

And another:

Aeneid VII.1: Tu quoque litoribus nostris, Aeneia nutrix (aeternam moriens famam)

(And you too [Caieta], nurse to Aeneas, also gave [your name] to our coast in eternal fame after you had died).

Folk etymology is utilised here to explain the name of a location on the coast of Italy as it was long before Virgil’s time in many other Greek and Roman stories and histories of the landscape. Often heroes from the Trojan War were used – Aeneas, Odysseus. However, here even a lowly nurse ends up with a sema – an eternal monument to her existence in the form of a landmark. How many place names are forgotten or lose their stories and then have to be recoded with a new explanation all over again? How many are redundantly overcoded like Torpenhow Hill in England? This reminds me rather too strongly of a long unfinished essay burning a hole in my pocket on the imprinting of the deeds and battles of the Tibetan epic hero Geser on the landscape in Inner Mongolia and Siberia. Really ought to get that one finished some day soon.

But come now. Did you expect me to find anything I was not already expecting to find?

The idea of divining the future from the works of Virgil might seem very strange. The key for understanding it is twofold. On the one hand it is simply the matter that the Aeneid itself is preoccupied with Destiny, especially in Book 6 in which the protagonist visits the Sibyl at Cumae and then descends into the underworld where he is shown the long line of heroic Romans to come after him. To some mediaevals this strangely made Virgil a necromancer, which is to say someone who divined the future from the dead. Readers might recall from our essay Fairy Tale Engines the curious similarities between the necromantic Erichtho in Lucan’s Pharsalia and the Witch of Endor in the Old Testament. To the Hebrews divination of any sort, but most especially from the dead, was not merely banned but warranted death. Curiously, in Chapter 16 of Rabelais’ Third Book just before the characters go to visit the Sybil, we find Pantagruel protest that it is quite okay for them to do so because they are not Jews. Instead, it is the Virgilian and pagan side – laurel leaves under the pillow to have prophetic dreams, visiting a sybil – that permits the characters to try to deduce the personal future of Panurge.

The more important link between Virgil and divinatory interpretation stems from something a little more complex. This was the mediaeval belief that the Aeneid, in particular its first six books, which were often all scholars had access to, were in fact an allegory for the stages of human life. The most influential example of this is the Commentum Super Sex Libros Aeneidos (Commentary on the Six Books of the Aeneid).[2] This work is usually attributed to the 12th c. philosopher Bernard Silvestris, whom long-term readers might remember from our post on the “forest of matter” back here. In the Commentum the storm and construction of Carthage in Book 1 are imagined to symbolise conception and gestation. The emergence of the Greeks from the Trojan horse in Book 2 is birth. The fantastical Cyclopes and harpies in Book 3 are the imaginative play of childhood. The romance of Aeneas and Dido in Book 4 is, understandably, young love. The games of Book 5 are the tests of manhood.

All of this nonetheless paled to the mediaeval mind before the interpretation of Book 6, on which more was furthered by the Commentum and similar works than all the prior books combined. At simplest Book 6 was an allegory for old age and death, but it was also far much more than this. Because of its rich classical pagan symbolism, much of which was likely quite opaque to the mediaeval scholar, the underworld katabasis of Book 6 seemed not merely alluring but temptingly overfull of potential meaning. Perhaps one of the most beautiful things I have ever read is to be found in John of Salisbury’s 12th c. Policraticus (2.15) concerning Virgil’s extended simile at VI.305-12 in which the throngs of ghosts are compared to autumn leaves :

“When the autumn is at its peak or just ending, dreams quite frequently disappear, because when the leaves of the trees are falling, the emptiness of sleeplessness reigns. In the book where he investigates the mysteries of all philosophy, Virgil seemed to have perceived this when he loaded the falling leaves in the underworld with various dreams.”[3]  

This is not to say that Bernard and John were inventing a way of reading the Aeneid from scratch. For example, as Justin Haynes notes,[4] John’s link between leaves, autumn and dreams is built upon a reading found in the most influential late classical commentary on the Aeneid, that of Servius (see here in Latin). Where John, and Bernard in particular, differed from Servius was in their systematic gathering of such allegorical interpretations into a single meaningful “whole” about human life. For Bernard Book 6 was not merely about aging and death, but rather the lost soul’s journey towards returning to God. Virgil may have clothed his work in ficmentum poeticum (poetic fiction), but beneath it there was really the story of Christian conversion – dying to the old self in order to be born into unity with God. All the fanciful harpies and pagan symbolism were really an integumentum, a mere outer covering for the fact that deep down Virgil was a Christian.

But how and why would an Augustan poet like Virgil really have been talking about Christian conversion? The origins of this lie in another late antique writer without whom Bernard and John would never have been able to think about Virgil as they did: Fulgentius. In his 6th c. De Continentia Vergiliana (On the Content of Virgil) Fulgentius has Virgil explain to a young Christian the true inner meaning of the Aeneid, including the first (known) interpretation of it as an allegory for the stages of human life. What was key for being able to claim such a seemingly absurd thesis was not to be found in the Aeneid at all, but rather in the very poem that Panurge had alighted upon – Eclogue 4 – in which the birth of a consul’s child is celebrated as the return of the Golden Age. Rather than a paean to the New Age of Augustus, it was instead read as a prophesy of Christ. Virgil may not have been well-versed in the Scriptures, but due to his powers as a vates (poet/prophet) he was able to see beyond his pagan horizon towards the coming of Christ and filled his greatest work with this truth. He came to be synthesised into Christianity as a “virtuous pagan” just like Plato, whom early Christian commentators like Clement of Alexandria also saw prophesying Christ in his description of the most just man in the Republic II.360-1, whose qualities are unchanged even if he is tortured and hung on a stauros (stake/cross). It is on account of all this – from Servius and Fulgentius to Bernard Silvestris – that we find Virgil, of all people, leading Dante through Hell and Purgatory in the Divine Comedy. It is not simply that Dante looked up to Virgil as a great writer. It was more that he was taken to be a great allegorist in whose works all of the stages of human life even unto the death of the old self and its redemption into union with God were to be found. It is also of course with many of these same assumptions that the characters in Rabelais take up Virgil’s works to divine the future, if somewhat more facetiously.

This allegorical interpretation of Virgil became even more pronounced during the Renaissance where it was joined by similar efforts such as the Christian allegoresis of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Key to this was the string of myths in Book I concerning Deucalion – the Greek Noah – whose boat is constructed to survive floods brought on by Zeus punishing humanity for murder and cannibalism in the form of Lycaon’s Arcadian werewolf cult. The similarities between Deucalion and Noah are obvious indeed, right down to both being vignerons, because the myths very likely come from the same shared ancient near eastern origin that also includes Utnapishtim in Gilgamesh. Christian interpreters quite understandably saw in Lycaon the figure of Cain, the first murderer. In the delightful introductory rant at the start of Rabelais’ Gargantua we find the author discarding these sorts of interpretations of this myth as ridiculous:

“Do you believe, upon your conscience, that Homer, whilst he was a-couching his Iliads and Odysses, had any thought upon those allegories, which Plutarch, Heraclides Ponticus, Eustathius, Cornutus squeezed out of him, and which Politian filched again from them? If you trust it, with neither hand nor foot do you come near to my opinion, which judgeth them to have been as little dreamed of by Homer, as the Gospel sacraments were by Ovid in his Metamorphoses, though a certain gulligut friar (Frere Lubin croquelardon.) and true bacon-picker would have undertaken to prove it, if perhaps he had met with as very fools as himself, (and as the proverb says) a lid worthy of such a kettle.”

However, so the reader might recall from this old post, it seems very much possible to argue that Rabelais was deliberately doing this in order to rewrite the Bible from the perspective of the giants, the children of Cain. What he was doing was allegorically redeeming mankind from the greatest sin of all – murder – through the Christlike Gargantua’s slaying of the monstrous evil giant Loup Garoux (Werewolf) in order to institute a new age of concord and brotherhood between all. By feeding back allegory against itself, all the while denying it, Rabelais may well have produced the first “secularisations” of salvation history.

But what is allegory? Isn’t it just a story that’s really talking about something else? A classic go-to today is George Orwell’s Animal Farm, in which a story about animals rising up against a farmer and then ending up just as miserable under a dictatorship of pigs is really a moral story of the Russian Revolution and its tragic outcome. Farmer Jones is the Tsar, the pig Old Major stands for Karl Marx, the dogs for the KGB, the pig Squealer for the propaganda apparatus, the horse Boxer for the true-believing prole who is worked to death for the advantage of the new porcine rulers. Several things immediately become obvious. The allegorical machine seems to posit a 1 for 1 correspondence, but in some cases it does not. Squealer is the apparatus rather than any particular individual from Soviet history just as Boxer stands in for a whole class (or caste or archetype) of people. There is, so one might note with tongue in cheek, also no Engels pig going about the place insisting that what he and Old Major created was a “science.” There is no Alexander Bogdanov pig into blood transfusions and Mars; no Gleb Bokii pig designing the Gulags while obsessing over the mind-control secrets he might glean from Siberian shamanism and Tibetan Buddhism. Before too long it all begins to balloon out of control. A proper mapping of 1 for 1 would be impossible. One might as well simply retell the entire history of the USSR in enormous, minute, statistical detail like Borges’ Pierre Menard who (re)wrote Don Quixote exactly as it was.

In short and very obviously: allegoresis oversimplifies. Because of this it must lean hard on “tapping the sign”, as I believe is said online these days concerning those political take-monkeys preoccupied with almighty Narrative explanations of anything and everything that occurs. All must be reduced to mere integumnentum for the sake of the superior metaphysical importance of the moral teleology of narrative B over the surface appearance of narrative A. This of course makes allegoresis rather clunky, lecturing and overbearing. Oh no! Covetousness enters the scene with her handmaids Obsession and Fear. At that point what one is dealing with is barely allegorical. Rather it is figurative – personification – a device that the classical and mediaeval world was extremely fond of but which to us is so ponderous as to be unbearable. Narrative B is Narrative A.  Exemplary of the “overoptimisation” of allegorical narrative with figuration is Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queene, in which close to every single dang thing that is mentioned – every knight, every damsel, every artefact and villain – is an overblown labelled symbol of virtue and vice. It’s rather too much for its own good, though like William Blake’s endless personified figures its beauty is far more palatable to most modern readers than, say, the very clunky and moralistic works of Puritan John Bunyan with his Mr Badman and all that, where there is little to no room to move at all without being clubbed over the head by the censorious Message. By comparison, Bunyan’s mediaeval ancestors, Piers the Ploughman and the Romance of the Rose are more than capable of joyously waxing about the goodness of human life as well as moralising about personified sins.

Since at least the age of Goethe (who despised allegory) very few writers have been fans of purely allegorical narratives, let alone figurative ones. Aside from Orwell in the last century perhaps only C. S. Lewis might immediately spring to mind as a successful example. His friend J. R. R. Tolkien infamously considered Narnia’s allegorical nature “tripey” – tacky, naff, cheap and nasty etc. How then did Lewis succeed? Anyone who opens up The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is basically being given a crash-course in the classical and mediaeval fantastical journey, from Homer and Virgil to The Voyage of St. Brendan, with all the allegorical overtones of the soul’s journey through hardships to reach salvation implied. And yet, at the same time, it’s also simply just a really enjoyable story. Lewis was of course one if not the last prominent believer in the old mediaeval synthesis of the wisdom of Athens upwards into that of Jerusalem. Indeed, perhaps he was the last notable person who unironically took the Christian overcoding of things like Eclogue 4 seriously.

Nonetheless, some will perspicaciously interrupt at this point and say that Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings is very much an allegory. So Tolkien said, what it was really about was the destructive power of modern technology as a kind of malicious sorcery – a notion he shared with Lewis, as this interesting article lays out:

“By [the Machine] I intend all use of external plans or devices (apparatus) instead of development of the inherent inner powers or talents — or even the use of these talents with the corrupted motive of dominating: bulldozing the real world, or coercing other wills. The Machine is our more obvious modern form though more closely related to Magic than is usually recognised…The Enemy in successive forms is always ‘naturally’ concerned with sheer Domination, and so the Lord of magic and machines.”

As the article also notes, from Russian efforts to rewrite the story from the perspective of Mordor as Enlightenment technopolis to China Mieville’s efforts to be “aesthetically” as far from Tolkien as possible, technology as diabolical libido dominandi is hard to avoid overlooking in the text. Nonetheless, the far more common interpretation of the LOTR is of course one that downplays the technological outgrowth in favour of simply its ontological basis in Christian-Platonism and its belief in the “non-existent” capacity of evil to create anything of its own – it can merely corrupt. When the first preview for Amazon’s expensive new Tolkien show hit YouTube, the comments section was full of angry fans simply copying and pasting that very sentiment again and again in a myriad of different languages. The (formerly) richest man in the world spending 25 million bucks per episode on poorly-written CGI tripe overcoded with a bit of twee American “diversity” moralism has nothing to say at all, except perhaps that the Real Intersectionality of tech barons and PMC activists is very much real indeed.

There are other common interpretations of LOTR of course. One is that the LOTR is simply an extension of the European epic racism of the Song of Roland and Jerusalem Delivered in which conflict with the very Turkic Orcs and swarthy Easterners is elevated to the cosmic level. No wonder that tweedy Trads and neopagan LARP-ers are such big fans of it. Instead, and far more commonly LOTR is simply about the little guy as the real hero capable of great courage to stand up against immense power and temptation. Aragorn, in comparison with Frodo and Sam is completely 1D – he’s just there for the sake of epic furniture. To some degree I think one must admit that all of these meanings are certainly intended by the author and that is that. In many ways, it is not because Tolkien refused “tripey” allegory that he has been successful, but because the work is allegorically polyvalent. Nonetheless, no one ever knows what audience they’re going to get. Tolkien, notably, did not like the fact that the hippies took to his book like ducks to water. And yet how could they not when it seemed to be about cheerful pastoral societies threatened by greed and technology? What could be more 1969 than Robert Plant slipping a reference to Mordor and Gollum into the folk-rock song Ramble On?

When my old man first read the LOTR in the early 70s he was so astounded by it that he would only read one, maybe two pages a day because he wanted to savour it – he didn’t want it to end. It took him about a year to read the whole thing, which is also about the length of time it took me to read it when I would have been about 10 or 11. I haven’t read it since, but I cannot help think that it did exert something of a formative influence on my interest in epic literature – as surely as my old man’s occasional drunken recitation of the utterly vile but delightful Ballard of Eskimo Nell. My father-in-law, by comparison, the most normal, down to earth guy you’ll ever meet, has read a grand total of two books in his whole life – LOTR and the Hobbit and that is that. There’s probably a lot of people out there exactly like this.

But let’s step back a moment. Whence did Lady Allegory gain her wings?  As we have spoken about in previous essays on this blog, Western thought has long had at its basis a series of extremely unstable fissures. One is, as noted above, the compatibility of Athens and Jerusalem. Another is the idea of that deep down there is really concord between the ideas of Plato and Aristotle. A third – indeed the most ambitious and quixotic – is the Renaissance idea of the prisca theologia (ancient theology), in which all traditions – Greek, Arab, Scholastic, Hebrew and what were at the time assumed to be Egyptian and Zoroastrian – all really agree and stem from the same esoteric Ur-religion. One could add a fourth, but more correctly perhaps a zeroth: the very problem that properly launched the allegorical method as a means of textual criticism in antiquity. This is the ancient Neoplatonic idea that contra to what is said in the Republic against Homer and the poets as corrupting influences, that deep down Plato and Homer agree. Plato simply does not want the foolish and the young to have access to Homer because all they would see would be the gods being petty and cruel. The wise, however, can see through this narratio fabulosa, as Macrobius called it, to hidden allegorical meaning underneath. At very least one must concede that much of Plato’s “project” and its many swerves does seem to be about trying to argue for a “just” view of the world in which creation is a product of rational concord and harmony to counter the popular views of Greek polytheism found in the poets and playwrights. Let’s also not forget that it was on account of supposedly inventing false gods to replace the old ones that Socrates was put to death.

My old teacher Roger Sworder, while not much of a fan of the concord between Athens and Jerusalem, most certainly believed in the other three concord puzzles – particularly the touted Platonic-Homeric agreement. A photocopy of a translation of Porphyry’s Antrum Nympharum (Cave of the Nymphs) concerning the allegorical symbolism of Odysseus being dressed by nymphs in the Odyssey was one of the first things I received at university at 19 years old. I still have it in my draw. What Porphyry saw in this scene, particularly in the weaving of clothes for the hero by the nymphs, was an allegory for generation and birth – the nymphs are making Odysseus, the naked roving soul, a suit of flesh into which to be born inside the womb. It is this school of allegorical interpretation, found in Proclus, Macrobius and others, that made its way down to Bernard Silvester’s interpretation of the Aeneid in the Middle Ages. The men of Odysseus, consumed here by the Cyclops or Scylla, turned there into pigs by Circe, cursed for eating the Cattle of the Sun until the hero is left alone, represent the stripping away of worldly appetites. That Polyphemus is gluttony and Circe sex are obvious. The Cattle of the Sun are a little more esoteric. Each of them is imagined to symbolise a day of the year – they are the birthdays of all Odysseus’ men. By killing and eating them and then the cows monstrously rising from the dead, what one has is a Pythagorean “vegetarian” moral lesson on the curse of being incarnated in a body and having to consume other living animals to survive.[5]

In antiquity there were also other curiously odd interpretations of the Odyssey, in particular that favoured by the Stoic Crates of Mallos and geographer Strabo after them in which Odysseus’ plane (wandering) takes in the entire globe. Crates and Stabo represent a kind of very strange anti-allegorical method. Instead of hidden esoteric moral meaning, the voyage of the Odyssey and its monsters are simply coded versions of very sober and sensible things: peoples and landmarks of different climatic zones. The foggy Cimmerians dwell at the South Pole, the Laestrygonians at the North Pole and so on. Crates and Strabo were far from original in this. Rather they were attempting to defend older ideas against the then dominant Alexandrian fashion of regarding the plane as simply fantastical and its locations too indefinite to find equivalent with any known places.[6] Sworder, so one might note, was a big believer in this approach to the Odyssey as well.[7] Amusingly, many years ago I was at a classics conference when some rather pompous fellow said to someone who was giving a presentation “Strabo!? Never trust Strabo! He was a Homeric fundamentalist!” Well, I’ve known actual Homeric fundamentalists. They’re rather harmless, even if one might find the idea of the Greeks and Phoenicians having circumnavigated the entire globe to be as absurd as Scylla. One of the great things about the Odyssey and Homer more generally is that it can never produce enough gloriously eccentric theories. One of the most enchanting but not particularly strong theories is that of Samuel Butler, avid Lamarckian and author of Erewhon. So Butler believed, it had been written by a very clever but probably quite short and plain woman who basically “Mary-Sued” herself into the text as the tall and beautiful Nausicaa. Robert Graves was convinced. He even wrote a novel about it.

But what can all this teach us? So far, the most important take away is perhaps simply that we do not like to give up on things. The Neoplatonists liked Homer and found in him their own esoteric teachings; the geographers found in him the prince of geographers. Mediaeval man found Virgil to be of such wisdom that he was a Christian philosopher. The basis for allegoresis is a kind of fascination with ways of looking at the world and living in it that have become “now-transcended or partly-transcended moral order[s]” as Alasdair McIntyre aptly put it concerning the fact that thousands of years later, we still can get something out of Homer, the Norse Sagas, the Irish Ulster Cycle. But why did Irish monks bothered to write down stories about heroes who are barely disguised gods from a dead pagan culture? Why is it that the Christianisation of Beowulf is so obviously late and half-arsed? Why is it that the Aeneid and its children, the Pharsalia, Argonautica, Thebaid, Achilleid, even the long dull Punica all survived down through the Middle Ages continuing to exert influence on knightly Romance to some degree?

One very obvious reason is simply that human beings seem to find it very hard to say “no” to stories about heroic and exciting figures. Even after the pagan timocracies that birthed these stories have passed away we are endlessly drawn back to them. The evo-psych types would of course say that we are “wired” to pay utmost attention to “dangerous” people – to be on their good side or be as far away from them as possible. Indeed, perhaps there is something in this. The Norse Sagas would certainly seem to epitomise this. Most are simply about people who were notable for being dangerous – men like Grettir for being an abject psycho who lasted nineteen years as an outlaw; men like the Gunnar in Njals Saga with his almighty halberd and endless patience; overbearing men like Hrafnkel, who, because his enemies did not kill him when he was down, ended up their overlord instead.

What allegoresis does is capture and overcode these “dangerous” old figures and their exciting escapades and puts them to use for a higher purpose. There is perhaps no more obvious example of this than the transformation of the old celtic heroes and their faerie platter of infinite food into King Arthur’s pious Christian knights riding out in search of the Holy Grail. In The Quest of the Holy Grail a great deal of the wonders and monstrosities encountered by the questing knights are not merely figurative or allegorical, but explained in great detail after each encounter – both for the knight and the reader to learn a moral lesson. For example, at one point in his quest for the Grail the knight Perceval narrowly escapes being seduced by a woman into losing his virginity, only awakening from her spell when he sees the cross on his sword. At this realisation her tent explodes into poisonous fumes and the damsel angrily flees away on a magic ship. Perceval is overcome with shame and wounds himself with his sword as a show of contrition to God. While he is lying in this state, exhausted from blood loss and his spiritual ordeal, a man arrives in priestly white robes, explaining to him (and us) the true nature of the woman. She is in fact the Devil (p. 105):

“The tent, which was round like the canopy of the world, signifies evidently the world which will never be purged of sin; and because sin dwells forever in it, she would not have you lodged anywhere but in the tent; therefore, she had it prepared for you. And when she called you and said: ‘Perceval, come to sit down and rest until nightfall,’ she meant that you should be idle and should feed your body upon earthly and lust-satisfying meats. She did not recommend that you do any work in this world or sow any seed such as good men will reap on the day of judgment. She invited you to rest until nightfall, that is until death shall overtake you, which in truth is always called night whenever it overtakes man in mortal sin. She called you because she was afraid that the sun would overheat you. No wonder she was afraid! For when the sun, by which we mean Jesus Christ, the true light, warms the sinner with the fire of the Holy Spirit, the chill and ice of the devil cannot do him much harm, provided he has fixed his heart upon the lofty sun. Now I have told you enough about this lady to enable you to know who she is, and that she visited you rather for your woe than for your good.”

Perhaps the most outstanding example of this allegorical edification is found later in story in connection with Lancelot. The Lancelot of the Quest is a wretched figure. Due to his lusting after Queen Guinevere God has cursed him to lose his strength. Lancelot is never able to win the Grail – that symbol of almighty spiritual unity with God. Instead, he is only ever allowed to behold it for the briefest of moments in which he fails to comprehend its true nature as Christian salvation. Disobeying the warnings of God Lancelot sneaks a peek inside the room in the Grail Castle where it is being used to celebrate the Mass (p. 229):

“Yet he looked into the room and saw the Holy Vessel covered with a red silk cloth. And all around he saw angels serving the Holy Vessel, some holding silver censers and lighted candles, others holding crosses and altar vessels, and there was none who was not doing his part. In front of the Holy Vessel there sat an old man dressed like a priest, and it appeared that he was assisting at the sacrament of the mass. When he was about to elevate the body of Our Lord, it seemed to Lancelot that above the good man’s hands there appeared the figures of three men in the air, two of whom placed the youngest of them in the priest’s hands; and thus he raised him on high and appeared to manifest him to the people. Then Lancelot, who beheld these things, was not a little astonished: for he saw that the priest was so burdened with the figure he held up, that it seemed he must succumb beneath the weight. When he saw this, he wished to go to aid him, for he thought that none of the others present had any intention to lend a hand. Then his desire to come forward was so great that he forgot the prohibition which had been laid upon him not to set foot within the room. Then he advanced quickly to the door, saying: “Ah! fair Father Jesus Christ, may it not bring me to punishment and loss if I wish to help this worthy man in his necessity.” Then he went in and walked toward the silver table. And when he approached it, he felt a breath of air, as it seemed to him, as hot as if it were mixed with flame, which smote him in the face so fiercely that he felt as if his face were blasted with the heat. Then his strength failed him, like one whose power of body and of hearing and seeing is affected, and all his limbs were powerless. Then he felt several hands seize him and carry him away. And when they had roughly picked him up, they cast him out of the room and deserted him there.”

Poor Lancelot has failed to understand the figurative symbolism of what he is seeing. So ignorant and fallen is he that he can only behold an old priest trying to pick up three men (the Trinity) and is hurled out of the room for his mistakenly heroic efforts. So “reified” and clunky is this that to the modern reader it cannot help but seem more of Monty Python and the Holy Grail than serious spiritual message. And yet, even if this message is far less subtle than the moral ambiguity of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, there is an immensely important lesson here about the consequences of taking symbolism far too literally.

Across the rest of Eurasia a curiously similar pattern seems to emerge when heroic narratives are encountered by later and “higher” religious systems. Perhaps the main exception to this would be in the Islamic world where the islamification of the heroes of the Shah Nameh and Inner Asian heroes like Manas and Dede Qorqut is very late and weak. One might compare this with a work deeply inflected with Islamic “courtly love” (though many Georgian scholars may protest otherwise) – The Knight in the Panther’s Skin – and how this barely Christian (but certainly Platonic) work was interpreted for the Christian edification of the reader when it was first printed in the early 18th c. For instance, the protagonist Avtandil’s reticence to tell his friends about the cause of his inwardness – his love for princess Nestan-Darejan – was interpreted as the reticence of the deeply reigious to bore their pals by telling them about their deep love for Jesus Christ (!) In the mediaeval Christian and Islamic worlds the symbolic overlap between language of the human beloved and the love for God long formed a core part of the language of mysticism. Consider, for example, the long history of mystical interpretation of the thoroughly sexual Song of Songs. The problem with this “carrying upwards” to “higher” forms of desire, however, is that it is also reversible. Maybe the Sufis and Terese of Avila were just, well, horny. As many have argued, it’s quite likely that Rustaveli, the author of Panther, was enamoured with the “real” Nestan-Darejan – his patroness Queen Tamar. Such “bottom up” understandings of mystical desire were certainly the best that Bataille and the 20th c. Freudian mystics could get out of such things. And yet, because of its convertibility, it is always possible to simply reverse the libidinal allegory back upon itself once again.

In the Buddhist world, however, overcoding of the old stories is not merely strong, but often masterly in a manner unattained in the West. Consider, for example The Journey West. Monkey, Sandy and Pigsy are clearly pre-Buddhist folk-heroes and trickster sprites. However, by fusing them with the legends about the Buddhist culture hero Xuanzan (Tripitaka) going to India to retrieve scriptures, it becomes possible to create an exciting narrative in which their entertaining but ultimately venal and prideful natures are redeemed. You get the best of both worlds – fun and a serious lesson. Even granted that Waley’s influential English translation (to which we have linked above) dispensed with a great deal of the Chinese poetry and basically transformed Journey into a kind of picaresque novel for Western readers, both the fun and the lessons continue to shine through. So too do they even in the classic old Japanese-British TV adaptation Monkey, for all its manky props and cringy accents. I am strong reminded of a kid I went to school with whose very Christian mother would not let him watch the show due to it being “immoral” and “pagan.” In truth, one would be hard pressed to find anything on television then or now quite so moral as Monkey – and much of it not too distant in spirit from Christianity at all.

The Tibetan Gesar is a similar case. In origin he is basically just an amusing pre-Buddhist trickster figure. I’ve spent a lot of time on Geser/Gesar over the years – in particular the Mongolian versions of his stories. I often tell students that there is something like a “Geser spectrum”. He is always oscillating between being simply a very naughty boy with superpowers and a very serious incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara who has come to Earth to redeem it from evil and sin personified as monsters. Perhaps the most perfect example of this is the difference between Tibetan and Mongolian versions of Geser’s katabatic journey to the underworld to retrieve the soul of his dead mother. In Tibetan versions Geser does not get her soul back. Instead, he gets a free and very nasty tour of Hell and all the punishments that await the wicked and the assurance that there’s nothing he can do about it. In Mongolian versions, on the other hand, Geser simply marches down to the underworld and gives its ruler a damn good hiding before recovering his mother’s soul and having it reincarnated as a series of divine beings in Heaven. In The Journey West, so one might note, Monkey also goes down to the underworld at one point early in the story. In order to stop his monkey people from death by old age he simply erases their death dates from the files. One can very much tell that its author Wu Cheng En was a bureaucrat with a very good sense of humour indeed.

The Hindu Mahabharata, on the other hand, is a rather different kettle of fish. It is principally about two families of super-powerful ksatriya warriors fighting each other in chariots, even if it has been overcoded by Brahmin poets, causing this combat to become dull and ritualised compared with the sort of familiarity with actual blood and gore one would find in Homer. Traditionally it is regarded as immense bad luck, even a curse, to keep a copy of the Mahabharata inside one’s house – as enormous as a full set of it is.[8] This is quite simply because it is all about a cosmic war that while lasting only eighteen days, leads to the death of billions of people. Of all its marvellous characters, its most astounding figure by far is of course Krishna. From chasing milkmaids in his youth and winning the Kuruksetera War through trickery, to the demise of his people in internecine strife at the end of the epic for taking the piss out of a Brahmin by dressing a boy up as a girl, it is very difficult to square Krishna with the almighty divine teacher of the yogas in the Bhagavad Gita chapter. Krishna may have incarnated to institute the Kali Yuga through his underhanded lying in the war, to be “the destroyer of worlds” as he famously shows himself in the Gita, but he is also “dangerous” in a far simpler heroic and trickster sense. 

As well as this there is simply the matter of the sheer beauty of epic language that prevents us from wanting to let go of the old stories. This applies in a great many cases for why certain works, both prose and poetic, have surely survived. For instance, most of the pagan Norse myths we know today were only preserved in the Poetic Edda as material for learning how to be a great poet. Its author, Snorri Sturluson, also famously “euhemerises” the Norse gods into heroes who fought in the Trojan War. The forces of Jerusalem and Athens gang up on the little guy, but without them we would know next to nothing about him at all. Similarly, Byzantine monks were supposed to regard Homer, Plato and Herodotus as mere lexis – sources to be mined for style and vocabulary. And yet authorities long remained paranoid that someone would try to take their paganism seriously – as Plethon eventually did. Lucretius’s Epicurean epic poem De Rerum Natura was copied down again and again just long enough for Poggio to find the only remaining copy. Wordsworth and others have famously said of Lucretius said that he could have been “the greatest who ever lived if he had had but a different subject,” but no, no, no.  It is by virtue of his greatness as a poet, as too that of Ovid and filthy old Catullus, that his work survived as surely as that utter sycophant Pliny the Younger did on account of monks wanting to write fancy letters just like his.

In a similar manner Virgil largely appears to the modern reader with no awareness or belief in his allegoresis or even his “necromancy”, as simply a very good poet. If you have a half decent Latin teacher, the Aeneid will still likely be the first proper work you read together. And what a marvellous thing it is indeed, with its floating nouns and transferred epithets and verbs knitting together like a kind of elegant algebra. It is the language, clarity and skill of Virgil that makes his works the apex of Latin poetry. By comparison, try reading the Aeneid in English, whether that of Dryden or modern free verse like that of C. Day Lewis (Daniel Day Lewis’ pa). Unless the reader is a massive Romaboo, her eyes will very soon glaze over, tired of what cannot help but seem to amount to clunky Homeric “fan fiction” and overblown Augustan propaganda.

Let’s be honest. The plot of the Aeneid is, with perhaps the exception of the Fall of Troy, the underworld descent and Aeneas’ dalliance with poor Dido, very dry indeed. This latter episode would of course end up exerting a profound influence on a great deal of mediaeval chivalric Romance, along with the erotic poems of Ovid. Nonetheless, some scholars over the past century have now and then cheekily suggested that the Aeneid is a “failure.” How could one of the most influential works in human history even passingly be regarded as such? Quite simply because its protagonist is so damnably mono-dimensional and dull. Virgil’s Aeneas has no real equals to vie with or confide in like the Homeric champions and no real inner world. Charitably he is, as some have said, the “loneliest character in literature.” Uncharitably, he is a kind of “bot” – a mere device of pietas (duty) and Destiny so that Rome might eventually be, especially in the second half of the poem in which both he and his lacklustre Italic rival, the supposed “new Achilles” Turnus, merely seem to be devices for Virgil to write colossal battle scenes like those of the Iliad.[9] Where pathos is to be found in these chapters it is with the tragic deaths of fleeting minor characters like the Amazonian Camilla, which cannot help but stick out as deliberately contrived inserts above all the routs, gangways and catalogues. In short, where it is not dry as an old river bed, the Aeneid is a profoundly melancholy poem.

But let us not be unnecessarily mean to one of the greatest poets who ever lived. Virgil had to invent his art entirely from scratch – in Latin at least. There was no “living” Roman oral epic tradition from which he could borrow unlike the author(s) of the Iliad and Odyssey.  There had been poems about the history of Rome like the now lost works of Ennius, but nothing of the stature possessed by the Greeks. When the Alexandrian Apollonius of Rhodes wrote his Argonautica, long after the oral epic heroic traditions of the Greeks had seemingly died out in the wild, he still had a great deal to work with. So the story goes his initial efforts were so terrible he had to leave town for Rhodes. While teaching rhetoric there he rewrote it. The Rhodians liked it so much they made him a citizen. When he eventually returned to Alexandria with his new version, there too was he was hailed as a genius.[10] Apollonius’ problem was that he had not done a well-known story justice. Indeed, this is in the end the true mission of all epic composers, particularly oral epic reciters. The audience by and large knows the story. They know where you’re going. It’s how you get there that matters – whether one poetically does justice to the beautiful horse, the lovely maid, the wisdom of the elder, the fights between the heroes and villains, the tragic death, the copious feasts.

Virgil’s issue was that because he was creating a poetic form almost entirely from little to nothing, he was a perfectionist. So Aulus Gellius famously says, playing on Virgil’s imagery of a mother bear in Aeneid VIII.634:

“…the accounts which they have left us of his talents and his character, say that he used to declare that he produced verses after the manner and fashion of a bear. For he said that as that beast brought forth her young formless and misshapen, and afterwards by licking the young cub gave it form and shape, just so the fresh products of his mind were rude in form and imperfect, but afterwards by working over them and polishing them he gave them a definite form and expression.” 

The Aeneid in the end took twenty years and no one really knows whether it is finished or not. Aeneas kills dull old Turnus at the end of Book 12 and that is that. Other Latin epic poems such as Statius’ Achilleid about the youth of Achilles are obviously unfinished because of the sheer amount of effort required to produce them. Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura also seems unfinished to us, but according to my old teacher at least, it very much ends deliberately where it is supposed to: with suffering and death to mirror its beginning in love, sex and birth. Nonetheless, Gellius is absurdly harsh about the perceived lack of internal quality control in the Aeneid:

 “For the parts that he left perfected and polished, to which his judgment and approval had applied the final hand, enjoy the highest praise for poetical beauty; but those parts which he postponed, with the intention of revising them later, but was unable to finish because he was overtaken by death, are in no way worthy of the fame and taste of the most elegant of poets. It was for that reason, when he was laid low by disease and saw that death was near, that he begged and earnestly besought his best friends to burn the Aeneid, which he had not yet sufficiently revised.”

Perhaps Gellius is simply circulating the snide inventions of petty critics or just being a prick himself, but imagine if the Aeneid had been burned. There would be no Virgil to lead Dante through Hell and Purgatory; no poetic basis from which Lucan could have exercised his edginess quite so astoundingly or Lucretius rendered his Epicureanism quite so palatable; no Paradise Lost. In the science fiction novel The Man in the High Castle Philip K. Dick famously describes a parallel world in which the Germans and Japanese win WWII, but using the Chinese divinatory work the I Ching a man is able to theoretically reconstruct the history of our world in which they lost. Imagine, if you can, using the sortes to reconstruct a world without the influence of Virgil’s Aeneid. One would dare say that epic would not nearly be quite the influential literary genre that it has been until this last century. Without centuries of the adoration of Virgil no one would likely have ever cared quite so much about Homer, I think we might dare say.

Moreover, without both, James MacPherson would likely never have produced his epochal Ossian from a few snatches of old Scottish highland songs and a great deal of his own intervention and passed it off as ancient Gaelic tradition. In the late 18th c. everyone from Johann Herder to William Blake became enamoured with it as a last remnant window into the deep time of Celtic culture fading away under British domination. To Herder Homer belonged to be bright and youthful “spring” of Greek culture; Ossian was the melancholy “autumn” of an oppressed people dying out.[11] Without Ossian there surely would never have been Herder’s Romantic revolution in “culture” in which everywhere the folktales and songs were passing into oblivion and needed to be saved. Without this, a great many epic songs from Ireland to Yakutia may well have died out without hardly anyone having ever cared or noticed at all. Complain all you like and quite rightly about “romantic nationalism” giving us the Nazis, but without Herder’s fears of cultural oblivion we would have very little left at all after the past two centuries of technological and cultural acceleration. Herder is just as much the father of “multiculturalism” too. In the USSR, for instance, collectivisation and modernisation destroyed the transmission of the old oral epics, but at the same time without their utilisation as a means of creating “national cultures” in the 1940s they would now be gone forever. If anything brought this to an end it was of course the Zhdanovshchina of the late 40s-early 50s in which the Party paranoically turned upon the folklorists (among others) for not being nationalistic enough. If half the Turkic peoples of Central Asia told a version of Er Toshtuk, then it could not only not be a national epic, but its choice as epic had somehow been the result of a conspiracy of “rootless cosmopolitans” trying to undermine Soviet culture.[12] In many cases it was not until the 90s after the fall of the USSR, that the Buryat Abai Geser, the Kyrghyz Manas, the Uzbek Alpamysh and others could make a return as symbols of ethnic revival, by which stage most were already long dead in the wild. Such is the bittersweet bullshit of so very much of human life.

And yet, even long before this, during the 16-17th centuries the Aeneid was supplying the basis for the first attempts at the creation of modern national epics. It’s almighty language of mystified imperial Destiny was impossible to resist. Soon we have Camoes’ Os Lusiados about the destiny of Vasco da Gama and Portugal. There is Spenser’s Faerie Queene celebrating the England of Elizabeth I while it already looks back towards the Middle Ages. There is Torquato Tasso’s Jerusalem Delivered as celebration of the First Crusade while looking towards Catholicism’s victory at Lepanto and believed imminent victory over Islam. And then there is Gondola’s (Gundulic’s) epic of Osman about the battles between the Slavs and the Turks. That Gundulic borrowed from Slavic folksongs as surely as from Tasso and Dante already seems to set the basis for “romantic nationalism” two hundred years in advance.[13]

And yet there is a sad “realist” double side to all this. The worse Spenser’s luck became, especially after the loss of his castle in Ireland, the less he could believe in the immense faerie edifice he had set up around Queen Elizabeth. Camoes was treated appallingly by his fellow Portuguese wherever he went – from Macau to India – and yet continued to quixotically believe in a kind of transcendent ideal Portugal until the very end. For that matter, Gundulic’s choice of hero, the Polish prince Wladyslaw, was not a particularly heroic figure. In reality, he was sick on the day of the Battle of Hoczym in 1621 when Osman II’s army was defeated, or, more truthfully: the Poles and Turks had simply just called it a draw. Gundulic’s Ragusan countrymen did not know a great deal about this of course, which allowed Gundulic to reappropriate Wladyslaw as a shining symbol of Slavic unity. Nonetheless, Osman’s hubris and eventual death at the hands of his own men in 1622 seemed to Gundulic to make him the perfect subject for waxing poetically about the powers of Fate and Fortune. Although Osman is the bad guy, he takes over the epic entirely – even including its title. However, like many of the ancient epic poets Gundulic died before he could finish all of his poem. In 1844 the two missing cantos were completed by South Slavic nationalist poet Ivan Mazuranic.

Tasso perhaps fared the worst of all of them. He became entangled in the arguments of his day about the superiority of epic as described by Aristotle (which pretty much meant just the Iliad) and the remnants of mediaeval Romance such as Ariosto and Tasso’s own father continued to write. As Margaret W. Ferguson observes: “Tasso had to prove the superiority of his Christian epic to Ariosto’s poem, which was, in Tasso’s view, ethically and aesthetically confused, an ‘animal of uncertain nature’.”[14] In the end, crushed by this and the pettiness of some of his younger critics, Tasso succumbed to madness and paranoia about persecution, tried to stab a man, and was even locked up in a madhouse for a number of years. To Goethe and Byron, he became the archetype of the suffering poetic “mad genius.” Late in his life he even rewrote Jerusalem Delivered to take out all the witches, dragons and even the female characters entirely in favour of simply ripping off the Iliad and adding a millenarian vision at the end. Spoilers: no one liked it. There may be one – perhaps two at most – people on this entire planet who have ever read Gersualemme Conquistata. I am not one of them.

In a strangely ironic sense what Tasso had done to his own work was what he had done to the enchanted forest that sits at the heart of Jerusalem Delivered as the main complication holding back the titular city’s conquest by the crusaders. In his Allegoria del Poemo, so one might note, Tasso explicitly refers to the enchanted forest as a symbol of “falsity” and “the “multitude and variety of opinions of men.”[15] This symbolism derives from Dante, but in a far larger sense it stems from the irrational “forest of matter” we find in Bernard Silvestris. Nonetheless, by rewriting his poem what Tasso was left with was not some glorious Christian victory over devils, pagan polytheism and enchantresses, but simply a completely empty story with no soul at all. In Jerusalem Delivered he created something amazing – something that had almost nothing in common with the First Crusade at all and everything in common with the best parts of Petrarchan lyricism and Romance with its magic and suffering lovers. But what of Virgil? Without him there would certainly not be quite so much Destiny in Jerusalem Delivered, nor quite so many enormous battles. So too perhaps no Amazonian Clorinda who is clearly Camilla all over again (who in turn was simply the Greek Penthesilea reworked). It would most certainly not be “epic” in any bearable sense at all.

By comparison with all this, one of the most interesting and recurrent 20th c. interpretations of the Aeneid is that Virgil was having second thoughts about Rome’s greatness. The overwhelmingly melancholy spirit of the poem in spite of it being all about the almighty Destiny of Rome is absolutely deliberate – it is the feeling of a man who maybe did believe in some New Golden Age once, but is now having misgivings.[16] And yet perhaps the strangest piece of allegoretic undermining in the poem might be the fact that when Aeneas returns from the underworld having seen the future imperial destiny of the Romans, at the end of Book VI he passes through the Gate of Ivory – the path whereby false and deluding dreams come to the living. The Gate of Ivory and its mirror version, the Gate of Horn, through which true prophetic dreams come to the living, originate in Book XIX of Homer’s Odyssey. Nonetheless, that Virgil may well have been calling bullshit on the Empire from the start, that it was nothing but a false dream, is deeply unsettling. Many have long noticed Virgil’s strange choice and attempted to explain it away, but it is a sore tooth that refuses to be cured. Perhaps there might seem something a little reality bending in it – as though all of our history since Aeneas has been one great big illusion. Philip K. Dick may have believed that the Roman Empire “never ended” – but imagine if it never really began at all. One might compare this with the far less wild (and thus a little disappointing) interpretation given by Jorge Luis Borges in his lecture “Nightmares”: “For Virgil, the real world was possibly the Platonic world, the world of the archetype.”

Some have attempted to utilise the Gate of Ivory for allegorical purposes of their own of course. One need only consider Winnie the Pooh author A.A. Milne’s 1929 play The Ivory Door. The play takes the form a three-act fairy story. A king tells his son who is about to succeed him that the one thing he should never do is walk through the ivory doorway that hides behind a tapestry in their palace. If he does, he will be killed by demons. The king does not know whether this is true or not, but for generations the rule has been followed. One day the new king cannot take the temptation any longer and goes through the ivory door. It leads into a long, dirty tunnel. He does not find any demons, but when he emerges from the other side back into the kingdom people are shocked at his appearance. Covered in muck they are convinced that he is a demon. No matter his protests, the “demon” is thrown into prison. His wife to be goes in search of him, finds the door and goes through it, and once again she is assumed to be a demon. The only person who knows the truth about what’s going on is their sergeant Baram who uses the opportunity to seize the throne. Baram has them exiled. In the epilogue many years later a small child asks a king whether the story he has been told about how Baram defended the kingdom from demons is true.

The obviously intended allegorical meaning of The Ivory Door is that tradition is, if not completely made up, then over time doomed to simply become a kind of inescapable enclosed system in order to simply keep the social order reproducing itself. Thus is Baram’s defence for his greed to the prince: “Do not take our stories away!” Any attempt to uncover the truth about such things will be punished and simply become fuel for the order to further reassert its legitimacy. Help! You’re trapped in a very small metaphysical system. Whatever appears simply proves the system right – the “sign is tapped” and that is that. From vulgar Christianity to vulgar Marxism the beastly question is always “what would have to happen in order for this to proven incorrect?” to which the adherent, perhaps blinking a little at first, must answer in a roundabout way: “Nothing can happen because it’s correct.” The totality refuses to take “no” for an answer. Its End has already been written and it is simply waiting for it to be completed. One believes not because it is absurd, but because whatever appears makes too much sense.

And yet perhaps the joke is somewhat on Milne too. In the past on this blog, we have spoken at length about the true essence of Athens and Jerusalem as the Christian-Platonic stack of Varro and Augustine’s “three religions”: theatrical religion (the mythic world of the poets and the stage filled with all sorts of fantastical things), civic religion (statues and cults of the state) and natural religion (the True religion – the position beyond the simulacrum idol/copy). It is this which lurks behind all “hermeneutics of suspicion” from the Marxian “ruthless criticism” to the Nietzschean genealogy of slave and master morality, the inner workings of the Freudian unconscious, and Luxury American Moralism’s Two Genders of Discourse (which is to say nothing but race and gender). Allegoresis is very much a product of this. It is simply the variety which attempts to redeem the “least true” theatrical back towards the “most true” natural position – just as Milne himself is doing. In truth it may well be this metaphysical machinery that is the true delusional Gate of Ivory through which we have long since passed. Round and round we go through the tunnels, through an enchanted wood of our own desgin. And yet, just the same, if Virgil can become necromancer, philosopher of life, prophet of Christ, father of national epic, propagandist and saboteur of empire, failure to some and the greatest of the poets to others, then perhaps there shall always be hope that in our inability to give up on old stories that no allegoresis will ever truly manage to stick for very long at all.

What does it mean to live in a culture in which theatrical religion has come to completely dominate everything? Everywhere I go the past couple of years the distance between just about any topic of conversation or debate and American superhero movies seems to be becoming shorter and shorter. They’ve most certainly gobbled up all of “sci-fi” and action adventure in any culturally relevant sense and shat out the bones. Even mentioning this is rather haram of course, not because it is trying to pretentiously elevate one’s snout above the great unwashed, but because these franchises – and their monopolistic owners more generally – have become so totalising and accepted that to even bring this up is now pointless and boorish. It is as though even if everyone now seems well and truly sick of the stupid things, American superhero movies have become a kind of almighty cultural gravity well from which not even the faintest ray of light can escape. Whatever Appears can always be relayed back to them. On the edgier parts of Twitter one can find derogatory terms like “Marvel movie politics” in relation to the puerile representation of the world as battles between hyperreal images of Good and Evil. I have even seen amusing reference to a “Democrats cinematic universe” in which the American left of Jacobin and the DSA and the NGO types and so on are simply inane spinoffs of the DNC. The American(ised) world has fallen into the dullest sort of overhyped kitsch and cannot, for the life of it, get up.

I know very little about American comic books. My old man is a big fan of comics – there were always lots around as a kid. Most of them were British or Francophone – 2000AD, The Beano, Tintin, Asterix, Heavy Metal. While I may not be able to draw for toffee, both my older and younger brothers are cartoonists. The latter a few years ago even had a little show on public access television in Melbourne. It was lots of fun. When it come to the American stuff, I do recall us having at least one Spiderman comic as kids back in the 90s. It was all about clones and didn’t make a lick of sense. Years later I was to learn that this was from a very famous series so absurd and convoluted that not one at Marvel had any idea where it was going at all. This is not to say that I did not like the comic. I liked that it made no sense and that I had to try to work out or make up the context to get it. That comic may well have even played a formative part in the reason why as an adult I like to open books up in the middle and then read them backwards towards the start to work out what’s going on.

Perhaps the stronger influence was a bizarre graphic novel adaptation of Lawrence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Of all the books I have somehow lost over the years, the loss of this one annoys me the most. It may well be the most 90s piece of Big Brain “postmodernism” I think I have ever come across. Yes, it’s not just Tristram Shandy – a book infamously digressive and circuitous – but in Martin Rowson’s visual rendition thoroughly grubby and “meta”. Now and then the artist and his talking dog even insert themselves into the story to explain what they think is going on, matters of 18th c. socio-economics and so on. It’s amazing. As a kid I understood absolutely nothing in it, but it was so weird and alluring that trying to crack it every few years became a small life goal of a sort. By the time I was twenty-three I think that in some naïve sense I had “got it” – and then I bloody lost the thing. One of these days I should really get around to finding another copy.

Page 7 of Martin Rowson’s graphic novel of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy. Here the author announces his Faustian intentions to tell a story like no other.

One thing is nonetheless clear about capeshit (a lovely term) that has always been clear about it: there is nothing “mythic” about it. Now and then, someone shall say offhand that superhero comics represent modern or contemporary myth. The thing about myth, though, like its cousin mysterium, is that it is by nature opaque. It has been inherited but no one is entirely sure what it all means – not for all the allegoreis in the world. What is there really to say about American superheroes except mumble, mumble atomic age, American imperialism, consumerism? Society finds itself well and truly lived in and that is that. The stuff is pure surface, no matter how many parallel universes it complicates itself with; no matter how “meta” it becomes about its own deconstruction like The Boys. Indeed, both of these traits are now exceedingly dated – they belong to the late 20th c. Dark Age of American comics. Except cheap overcoding with the Two Genders of Discourse there’s nothing left to say about them at all.

From Plato’s speculations on the true meaning of the Phaethon myth down through mediaeval allegoresis to the Cambridge Ritualist, Frazerian, Jungian and Freudian interpretations of myth that dominated this last century the entire point has been that it needs explanation, indeed invites over-explanation to the point of monotony. To Max Müller all myths were basically about the sun; to Frazer they were all about dying gods who revive the Earth; to Jane Harrison they were all simply remnants of religious rituals; to the Jungians and Campbellites they were all about the same basic, stodgy “monomythic” journey again and again.[17] The theorisation of myth greedily over-explains until there are no myths left able to escape. There is merely the monology itself that eats everything. The problem with these theories is that they all try just a little bit too hard because, all said and done, no monology ever really manages to square the opaque mythic circle, to ever really be “good enough”.  No single one of these ever even managed to defeat all the other interpretations. Rather, if anything, all of them had pretty much died out by the end of the 20th c. quite simply because once one has monologically done this myth, then that, then the other – there is nothing really left to do.

Plato, one cannot help but think, has had and shall always have the last laugh on everyone in relation to the “myth”. From the myths of the architecture and fall of Atlantis that trails off into nothing to the Cave, Er and the Demiurge, Plato knew well that all argument is aporetic compared with a good story, but also that myth itself is a puzzle to make one think. Just like all Plato’s different ontological experiments – the circles of Same and Other in the Timaeus, the Five of Being, Same, Other, Motion, Rest in the Sophist, the Four of Limited, Illimitable, Mixed and Mind in the Philebus, the ontological dead-ends of the Parmenides in which even the Theory of the Forms is allowed to be beaten – it is all in the pursuit. Lots of people have funny ideas about the “Secret Teachings of Plato” – including and especially all that Straussian nonsense that behind closed doors he really agreed with Thrasymachus. No, my conservative friend – you may know how to do up a shirt with buttons on the front, but you do not know your Plato. Boofhead the Wrestler is all about aporia, or “being up shit creek” as my old teacher once (mis)translated that poor word and which I shall never be able to look at or hear ever again without thinking of that meaning first and foremost. Again, and again what he is saying is that language has its limits, that philosophy is even a kind of speculative game of games. That one must dynamically take one wrestling hold here, and then another there just to see what happens.

What might it mean today to take such a “wrestler’s” approach to thinking and storytelling? Maybe the only way to do this now is to take the plunge into the darkest and most desolate parts of the digital wood. Several years ago now there used to be a little Tumblr meme one would see floating around the place. Sadly, I can’t find a copy of it to show you in my dated meme library, but it went something like this. A young nerdy female student goes to see a grizzled old art professor. She tells him that she wants to write about art in pop culture fan communities as a Serious Thing. The old boy is revolted at the thought. Ah, but she says, Leonardo Da Vinci was just a Christianity fanboi. It’s all just fandoms. The old fellow is so stunned by this vulgarity that he has nothing to say for himself at all. Checkmate. And then everyone clapped. In a sense what is being said here is true. Human creative desire is forever drawn to certain “attractors” – to complexes of alluring symbols and exciting narratives inviting expansion and mutation. Nonetheless, it does not seem to have crossed the meme-maker’s mind that the professor might simply have responded that the reason Leonardo learned to draw and paint so well was because he tried to learn every style he could – he copied everything he could find. The problem with fan-fiction types is not (just) that they are into mindless consumer tat and should be ashamed of themselves. Nor is it that their produce has no function except the participatory production of idpol narcissism and servile brand loyalty in a world where just about all relevant “culture” is owned by a handful of monopolistic mega-corporations. No, it’s that they’re illiterates. They know absolutely nothing about the history of art or storytelling outside of their little bubble of Very Online styles and predilections. I’m with Rozhdestvensky on this one: new media should revitalise and uplift old ones. If they don’t it’s an act of cultural vandalism.

If you want to see what a reasonably sophisticated piece of “fan-fiction” looks like, have a look at this graphic novel “transformation” of the Alexander Romance tradition. The Greeks and Romans understandably liked telling all kinds of wild tales about Alexander the Great and the wondrous terata and apista he had apparently seen on his conquests. We mentioned all this back here not so long ago. It is this “wonder” tradition that underlies our good friend – the lost oldest “sci-fi” story, The Wonders Beyond Thule. Around the 3rd c. CE these legends about Alexander began to be codified into a Greek corpus, often wrongly attributed to the historian Callisthenes. During the Middle Ages parts of this were translated into just about every Eurasian language imaginable. Here’s a translation of the Syriac version for instance. Nonetheless, if there is one thing that everyone who is interested in this subject should read it is Francis W. Cleaves’ whopping great 100-page article from 1959 on how some of the Romance ended up in Mongolian. The most commonly and farthest disseminated portions got where they did because they’re basically just classic fairy tale fun: fonts of immortality, journeys to the bottom of the sea. Here, for example, is a synopsis of a Persian rendition from Uzbekistan in Cleaves (p. 20) that combines both of these stories:


“Iskender descends in the glass box to the bottom of the sea. The descent lasts a hundred days. Anew, Surus appears and shows to him the wonders of the sea: sharks, tortoises, sea people, who have red faces, big beards, but they have no hair on the head. They reproach Iskender for his greediness and desire to disturb their peace. Thereupon, Iskender sees immense monsters. One was so big that he went past his box fourteen days. Out of fear at the sight of this monster Iskender falls ill. Surus forewarns him that his life has come to an end and helps [him] to ascend to the surface of the sea. He promises to the voyagers that they shall make the whole return voyage in one night. The poet communicates that eternal life was promised to Iskender. But he renounced [it], inasmuch as life without friends would be a charge upon him under any circumstances. The return, actually, is accomplished in a twinkling.

Curiously, Reimena Yee, the author-artist of the “21st c. Alexander” project, distances herself from the term “fan-fiction” in favour of “transformative fiction.” The simple reason for this is that she is not a “fan” of the historical Alexander. One doesn’t have to be a “fan” of him of course to tell stories about him. Just about everyone who was enjoying and passing on his stories in the Middle Ages would not have had a dashed clue about Alexander of Macedon. He was just that king with horns (or ass ears) who killed all his hairdressers so they wouldn’t reveal his embarrassing ailment; the fellow who so loved his buds that he rejected immortality if it meant living without them. Nevertheless, Yee is very much correct that the question of “fan/transformative fiction” is part of a much larger issue of intellectual property, translation, official versions and pseudepigrapha that is very different from contemporary conceptions of intellectual ownership, “canon” versions of stories and simple adoration for characters in a particular (usually commerical) work. Even the Greek work that the Alexander Romance tales stem from is, as noted, pseudepigraphic – Callisthenes never wrote it.

Nonetheless, the reader might not be entirely eager for Yee’s images of Alexander. Yes, there’s certainly a bit of barely submerged Disneytripe in there – too much Mulan in those horses, too much Hercules in her hellenising. As “transformative” as it is all supposed to be one cannot help but remain unconvinced that this is not fan-fiction, at least in the sense that what really speaks is the “fandoms” – the fact that the author-artist is clearly a product of years spent marinating in Tumblr and webcomic communities. Amusingly, of all the historical personages whom she would like to meet over and above Alexander, Public Universal Friend is mentioned. Although this sounds an awful lot like some sort of Twitter account, it is in fact the name of a well-known American non-binary Quaker mystic from the 18th c. The American(ised) leftist is a Nonconformist to the last.

Nonetheless, I do think that one can look past all that in the hope that there is something very interesting, even lovely, going on here. I think I can even look past Yee’s habit of referring to artists as “creatives.” Perhaps no other word quite so gives away the level of cloying fungibility art has sunk to except the now-omnipresent metaphysical substance known as “content.” I’m willing to give the “21st century Alexander” a go. In all good faith, good on Yee for her interest in the subject. However, what I would recommend to anyone keen to get the best out of any project like this would be a good couple of months spent doing nothing but reading different versions of the Alexander Romance stories and looking at all the different artistic “transformations” of them, from France to India, and trying one’s hand at mastering the style and energy behind them. There is perhaps no greater intercultural jewel in the history of humanity than the Alexander Romance. Everywhere it has outraced the iron hand of stultifying allegoresis in favour of simple, hearty enjoyment. The Romance is the greatest “open source” vehicle for storytelling ever devised. Of all works created prior to the printing press, perhaps only the Bible and certain Buddhist scriptures have spread and been translated further, but the whole point of those of course is that one is not supposed to transform them – even if intercultural transformation is as inevitable as it is often necessary. Exhibit A: the Eskimo lamb seal pup of God.

It is not my prerogative here at all to criticise someone clearly very different from myself for fun or out of spite. Yee is a successful Malay-Australian graphic novelist who grew up online. Good for her. I am but a humble bush hippy who has simply read too many silly books. What I have to say here, if anything, is gifted in the hope that the “creatives” might begin to learn to see beyond their own petty fandoms and become just a little bit less parochial. Dear friends, you have the internet, and as much of a panopticonal shithouse it is when reduced to the limits of the Platforms and their miserable productive “communities”, it also means that for the first time ever you may read and see things that no one but the most well-travelled polymath with friends in all the right places would have ever had access to in the past. Perhaps now the only cure for the increasing irrelevancy of the Work compared with mere “engagement” and digital courage to be as a part is to learn its value all over again. There is no good reason why a “21st century Alexander” or anything else must look and taste like any of the currently prescribed (or proscribed) styles, mores or mediums at all. There it is – the blow, the horrid whip, the terrifying nakedness of freedom.

Alexander enjoys a trip in a glass submarine, Old French prose Alexander Romance, Rouen, 1445.
French once again – from Le Livre et La Vraye Hystoire du Bon Roy Alexandre, c. 1420-5. In this one Alexander is accompamied by a rooster and cat while his evil wife tries to set him adrift.
From a 17th c. Serbian rendition of the same episode.
A Mughal rendition attributed to Mukunda. India, c. 1597-8. Interesting article on it here.
Another French one. Roman d’Alexandre, c. 1486. Very interesting article on the tradition here.
This one’s from Burgundy Library in Brussels, 13th c. Interesting write up and several more interesting renditions here.

[1] Torquato Tasso, The Liberation of Jerusalem, trans. Max Wickert, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford, 2009, p. 13. As Wickert p. 406 n. 52 says Tasso is likely paying homage here to Petrarch, who in his Triumph of Love, Chap. III line 79 refers to the Arthurian heroes captured by rash and violent Love as “those who fill books with dreams.”

[2] A good overview of this work, though perhaps now getting on a bit, is to be found in: David L. Pike, “Bernard Silvestris’ Descent into the Classics: the Commentum super sex libros Aeneidos,” International Journal of the Classical Tradition 4.3, 1998, pp. 343-363.

[3] Trans. Justin A. Haynes, The Medieval Classic, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2021, p. 28. This book is very much worth a read.

[4] Ibid.

[5] See: Roger Sworder, Science and Religion in Ancient Greece: Homer on Immortality, Parmenides at Delphi, Sophia Perennis, San Rafael CA, 2008.

[6] On the Alexandrian- Stoic debate on the geography of the Odyssey see: James S. Romm, The Edges of the Earth In Ancient Thought, Princeton University Press, Princeton NJ, 1992, pp. 183-96.

[7] Roger Sworder, Science and Religion in Ancient Greece.

[8] For a highly enjoyable translation and adaptation of this immense epic try C. Rajagopalachari, Mahabharata, Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Bombay, 1988.

[9] On the history of such criticisms of the Aeneid over the last century or so see: Zdenko Zlatar, The Epic Circle, Sydney Studies in Society and Culture 10, University of Sydney, Sydney Australia, 1993, pp. 74-90.

[10] This short biography was appended to one of the ancient manuscripts of the Argonautica and is given in W. F. Jackson Knight, “Introduction”, in Apollonius of Rhodes, The Voyage of the Argo, Penguin Classics, Penguin Books, Melbourne, 1985, pp. 9-10. It may of course be far from true, especially concerning the detail that Apollonius was a student of the poet Callimachus when more likely they were of similar age. 

[11] See: Johann Gottfried Herder, “‘Homer And Ossian,’ 1795, translated and annotated by John Bealle,” The Folklore Historian 20, 2003.

[12] On this see: A. A. Bennigsen, “The crisis of the Turkic National Epics 1951–2: Local Nationalism or Internationalism?” Canadian Slavonic Papers 17, 1975, pp. 463–74.

[13] Zdenko Zlatar, The Epic Circle contains an excellent first chapter on Gundulic and the influence of Tasso on Osman.

[14] Margaret W. Ferguson, Trials of Desire: Renaissance Defences of Poetry, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1983, p. 54. See also: Zdenko Zlatar, The Epic Circle.

[15] Zdenko Zlatar, The Epic Circle, p. 128.

[16] Ibid, pp. 88-90.

[17] For a good introduction to these methods of understanding myth and others see: Erich Csapo, Theories of Mythology, Blackwell Publishing, Carlton Australia, 2003.

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