Thursday, March 20, 2014

Why do we still like epics?

We live in an age where brevity is the soul of...well, it's basically our soul.  It's an age where there is a truncated manner of expressing that something is too long, and therefore that we didn't read it (TL:DR).  An age where an entire form of communication has been constructed around images/clips/animated GIFs to express our sentiments and feelings (Tumblr).  An age where a medium for exchanging information limits our responses to 140 characters or less (Twitter).

And yet, somehow we love sprawling, time-consuming, wordy epics.  For those who feel that they are TL, these epics are available in multiple media forms, such as the movie franchises of Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter [Ed. note: it would probably take less time to read The Hobbit than to watch all three movies].  However, I don't want to discount the fact that people are reading books, long books that one might assume are TL, but that, in fact, people do read (which, confusingly, is also DR).  In fact, we are almost inundated with epics in our culture, possibly to an unprecedented degree: in addition to the ones listed above, there is also Stephen King's Dark Tower, George R. R. Martin's Game of Thrones, and even epic-lite in those Twilight books (which also spawned Fifty Shades of Grey.  This is probably not epic, unless you are referring to epically bad writing). 

Why do we love epics so much?  Maybe the better question is, when have we not loved epics?  One of the oldest recorded works of literature is The Epic of Gilgamesh, of course.  Countless other examples have survived through the ages.  Even for those unfamiliar with the originals, the classical epic continues to exist in the cultural imagination in forms such as Troy.  But there is a significant difference here.  I suspect that your average person on the street would not be as familiar with the Iliad even when it did star Brad Pitt or the Chanson de Roland [Ed. note: this one kind of goes on, sometimes, in places, while fair Roland climbs a hill for what feels like forever, so maybe it is good that we are not so familiar with that one any more], but that this same person would be familiar with the modern versions listed above.  So perhaps the question is better framed as, why do we love these epics? 

You may be wondering why I haven't mentioned the most sprawlingest, time-consumingy epic of our age, which has to be Star Wars, especially when you consider the wealth of literature, film, commentary, and other cultural references that it has spurred [Ed. note: there is even a 70s variety show holiday special, which you would think would be hysterically funny because it has to be so bad, but then somehow transcends to an entirely new level of bad that you never even thought possible, even in your wildest dreams.  If that's not 70s enough for you, then how about the disco medley of themes from the original movie as featured on Dutch television?].  Indeed, this post was motivated by the fact that I have consumed an alarming quantity of Clone Wars episodes now that they have become available on Netflix Instant.  For the sake of my dignity, I will refrain from telling you where I am in terms of the whole series [Ed. note: Chewbacca has shown up].  Part of Star Wars' appeal, of course, is that it dabbles in many of the same kinds of themes that are so common in epics throughout the ages.  There is the hero on his quest, in the form of Luke (and, as we learn in the earlier movies, his father).  There is the conflict between father and son.  There are hints that a larger power binds us together, but can also be harnessed to pull us apart; in the Iliad, these were the gods, whereas in Star Wars, it's The Force.  There is the fear of death and questions about the afterlife, which is found all the way back with Gilgamesh.  There are a series of wandering characters that have either lost their actual homes (the Jedi in the later movies, Leia after the destruction of Alderaan) or their perceived ones (Anakin, which is one of the routes to his downfall).  Undoubtedly, these timeless conflicts are part of why Star Wars remains so appealing--in fact, there is a Jungian analysis of an episode of Clone Wars that seeks to uncover some of the age-old themes contained within this particular series.

However, I don't think that these themes are the only reasons that epics are so hip right now.  Instead, I think that it is the possibility unveiled in the epic world, and the ability to translate that 'world' into a form of reality--or at least a form of online reality--in a way that never existed before.  To fully get this idea, imagine if Wagner's Ring cycle came out now.  People would make a Wagnerpedia to trace characters and backgrounds.  There would be Wagner blogs, Wagner websites, and general Wagneriana as everyone tried to find even more hidden connections between each of the music dramas--this does exist, in a way, but it has been sanctioned instead as scholarly work and musicology instead of fandom.  I totally see a graphic novel.  In fact, I totally want to see a graphic novel and someone should get on this.  Fans did exist, in a way, even back when these works debuted.  They created 'listening guides' so that audiences could follow along with the themes (German musicology scholar Christian Thorau has discussed the importance of the leitmotiv as a concept in his book Semantisierte Sinnlichkeit, if you are interested in finding out more on this topic).  But an entire Wagner world was out of most people's reach, unless you happened to be King Ludwig of Bavaria, who re-created the grotto from Wagner's Tannhäuser at his Linderhof Palace:

Probably not the best use of taxpayer money

I would like to submit that part of the fascination with epics now is that we have an unparalleled way of visualizing the worlds that are contained within them.  These worlds can emerge in obvious ways, as in film adaptations, but there are even more ways in which these worlds are being brought to life:

1) New Zealand has actual Lord of the Rings tours so that you can immerse yourself in the landscape seen in the film--or, if you prefer, the vision of the landscape found in the books as imagined by Peter Jackson:

Actual epic-looking figure in foreground will likely not be part of your tour
2) There is Harry Potter Land (better known as The Wizarding World of Harry Potter).  It exists at Universal Studios in Orlando, FL.  Not only can you 'see' Harry Potter, you can also 'live' parts of the books by consuming such delicacies as butterbeer or candy treats from Honeydukes:

I selected this photo because I feel like no one would mistake these park-goers for Hogwarts students

3) To the best of my knowledge, there is no Star Wars Land, or if there is, it is wholly housed in some guy's basement (don't worry, Disney is already on this).  And there have been virtual Star Wars worlds, in the form of the MMORPG The Old Republic.  This expanded world also exists in digital form through the Wookieepedia, a website that (as you may have guessed) replicates Wikipedia, only for the universe of Star Wars.  It is a remarkably comprehensive chronicling of every possible character, planet, or other feature to do with the Star Wars universe.  In fact, it is so comprehensive, that if you need basic information about some character, you may sometimes find yourself reading the article introduction, obtaining the basic facts that you wanted, then realizing that there remains an entire article whose information is not even necessary.  Take, for instance, the Nightsisters, which has a four-paragraph introduction providing an outline of their history and purpose, then has eight more subsections in case you want to know more (it's okay to say TL:DR here.  Don't feel bad.  If you have no idea who the Nightsisters are, or why they are important to the plot of Star Wars, as I mentioned above, Clone Wars is on Instant Netflix).

[Ed. note: I have read the entire Nightsisters article]

It's worth taking a moment to consider the history of the encyclopedia, which originated in the Enlightenment as a means of discovering, classifying and documenting the world as interest in science overtook belief in religion.  We take encyclopedias for granted now, since we have such easy access to an unprecedented amount of information; even (the much reviled by those of us who teach) Wikipedia provides a wealth of knowledge about arcane topics that may not be found in any other resource.  Where else can you turn quickly when you forget the names of the Thundercats, for example?  Just as Wikipedia documents a more complete picture of our world than its print forebears like Encyclopedia Britannica--which does not have information about the Thundercats--a project like Wookieepedia gives the impression that it is documenting a world that is fully developed, coherent, cohesive, and operates as a unit.  Without modern technology, such documentation would be virtually impossible.  It is this epic world-building, I would argue, that keeps epic storytelling relevant in our post-modern world.

To finish up, enjoy the modified Clone Wars version of the Star Wars theme, which has been changed so that it is more militaristic and less heroically bombastic--this is, of course, a universe at war:

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