Playing with other people’s toys, filling in the blanks, writing between the lines, and Greek Mythology in general

(By chris the cynic)

This week has sort of been set aside for talking about the future of the board, but today is the day I was supposed to finally get the Deconstruction roundup started (once it’s started there shouldn’t be much work to keep it going, but getting it started is where I keep on failing) and since I don’t have bread and circuses to placate you, you get a hastily written article and the hope that next week I get it started.

Next week, by the way, we return to regular scheduling and on Monday you’ll get a real live, well thought out post.

Ok, so, once upon a time there were great empires that we don’t know a lot about.  They had writing but Linear A we don’t understand and Linear B was primarily used for lists of inventory and such.  Then, round about the traditional age of the Trojan War, everything went to hell.  Every civilization that was around was either entirely destroyed or extremely diminished.

What some call the dark age began.  Note that this is the modern meaning of dark age (age we cannot shed much light on) not the original meaning (the Roman Empire had awesome shining literature and we’re living in the dark ages now) not only because it predates the Roman Empire, but also because we just don’t know.

When writing returned to the Greek Language it was, for the first time we know of in Greece, used to write down literature.  Think Homer and Hesiod.  They both rise out of oral traditions that were presumably well known but are lost to us.  (Note that these were not authors, other people wrote the stuff down after the fact, these were speakers/singers/bards/vatic poets.)

Greece was swimming in a myth soup everyone already knew but which we, looking back, do not.  The job of a poet, a play-write  a writer, or whatever, was not to tell a new story, it was to tell the existing story in a new and different way.

This was, you must understand, a time before copyright.  It was also a time before the abolition of slavery, the viewing of women as full people, and (at least in the beginning) before sewer systems.  The Romans, at least, had sewers, Ancient Greece was covered in shit.  (Also, those beautiful white statues you see, they were painted.  Think mannequins and you’ll get an idea of how they looked.  Sometimes, by which I mean in at least one case, they had clothing put on them.)

And so, the stories changed.  Read the Odyssey and you’ll get a brief glimpse into the story of Oedipus.  It’s not the story you know.  His mother-wife did kill herself, but instead of eye-gouging and exile he stayed king.  Just a rather cursed one.

Me being me, I want to know the Homeric story of everything.  Not just Oedipus who stayed king but also Jason, because I feel that Jason gets a raw deal since we know him primarily through Euripides and Apollonius of Rhodes (and Ray Harryhausen, who is probably the best source of the three.)  Anyone who has their story primarily told by Euripides and Apollonius is naturally going to come off bad, but a Homeric era Epic of Jason might cast an entirely different light on things.

It is not, just, that stories don’t match up across eras though.  And it’s not just that they don’t match up between authors.  Sophocles has forever cemented the story of Oedipus in the popular imagination, but his version (three tragedies) doesn’t match up with itself.  The plays are internally consistent, as far as I can tell, but each one contradicts the other two.  Continuity of story wasn’t the point, it never had been.

To a certain extent the point was the point, but great authors new not to privilege that meaning over being and instead find a way to do both.

And so the stories all contradict one another, but also the stories can all be built on and moved forward by multiple authors in no time at all.  You could go to the theater, see something, and start rewriting it in your mind and have that play be put on next time there was reason to go to the theater.  Like I said, this predated copyright.

And if a character you liked was killed, no problem.  You just make up a handwave (she wasn’t sacrificed, she was replaced by a deer at the last minute and no one noticed because Jasper the gods.) so that you can have her alive and well somewhere else where she can team up with their brother: They Fight Crime.

But it wasn’t just about rewriting things, though I would like to have one more example of that before I go on.  As near as we can tell, and these things are hard to tell because most stuff from the ancient world does not survive, before Euripides Medea didn’t kill her children by Jason intentionally.  Either they lived (and there are stories with at least one of them as an adult), or someone else killed them, or their death was an accident.  Since Euripides, Medea murdered her children by Jason.  A single author can change the myth.  Perhaps not for all time, but it’s been 2443 years and his version remains the definitive one.

In addition to rewriting it was filling in the blanks, as Statius (Roman poet under Domitian*) did when he decided that Homer had already handled the end of Achilles’ life, so rather than try to outdo Homer there he was going to tell about the parts of Achilles life not yet told, or previously glossed over.  Like the time Achilles spent as a cross-dresser, no one went into much detail about that, that I know of, before Statius.  It was just this blank space.  It was mostly: Achilles was crossdressing and living as a woman to avoid being drawn into the war, Odysseus was able to trick him into revealing himself, moving on.  Statius decided to dwell.

A generation before Statius we could see people, consider Lucan’s Civil War for example (assuming I’m remembering the right work), trying to top previous authors by upping the special effects (more gore, bigger storms, bigger explosions… Ok, probably not the explosions, but you get the idea) and really reaching the point of absurdity.

Anyway, Statius, filling in the blanks, stuff.  The basic idea was that you look for a blank spot, or a barely covered spot, and you delve into that part.  The story gets filled out, you’re not rewriting an existing story in the manner of Euripides, Apollonius of Rhodes, and Ray Harryhausen, you’re filling in a gap that was left by those before you.  New unwritten territory.  Statius was by no means the only one to do that and certainly not the first, but I remember him best because a scene from Thetis getting Achilles to cross-dress sticks in my mind.

The last thing I mentioned in the title is writing between the lines, and the version of this I’m most familiar with is Ariadne.  The story goes that Theseus abandoned her on an island they stopped at on the way home because his dad told him not to marry a foreign bride and that was more important to him than their relationship or the fact that she saved him many times over.

It’s a quick thing, mention that and then get on with the whole forgetting to switch the sails and how the Aegean got it’s name story.  In one of his poems Catullus expands this scene, he writes it from Ariadne’s perspective and pours a lot of himself into her angry rant.  The genders are flipped, but the feeling of betrayal, the unfortunate tendency to generalize to the entire gender, and some very similar words all remain.

Enter Ovid.  Catullus had Ariadne get up in a couple of lines, if not fewer (I’d have to find the book to be sure, and as I said at the beginning: hasty) it’s not his primary concern so it’s just “she got up now let’s move to the part I’m interested in.”  Ovid expands the waking up scene, he has detail about how it happened, her motions, her thoughts, her actions.  Ovid also does some rewriting of his own, directly contradicting Catullus in places where the Ariadne he wants to tell about isn’t the same as the one Catullus told about.

We still do this today, consider the book Ransom by David Malouf, which expands on Priam ransoming Hector’s body from Achilles.  (And which manages to keep Homer’s ambiguity over whether or not Achilles and Patroclus were lovers, which isn’t easy to do given that you need to raise the question in the reader’s mind and yet never provide definitive evidence one way or the other.)  The Illiad by Homer is divided into 24 “books”, the ransom of Hector is but the last, Malouf expands it into a novel, changing it where he sees fit, but also adding to the space between the lines.  He tells you how it smelled, how it felt, he shows you the richness of life and emotion in a story full of death.

I’m going to close on another example of writing between the lines.  One that I’ll write just for you, except not really because I’m going to include it in my NaNo novel and thought of it before this post.  But typing this will be the first time it was committed to anything outside of my head.

In the Illiad, book 14, Hera gets Hypnos (sleep) to make Zeus fall asleep so that her ally Poseidon could get away with helping the Greeks when Zeus was against it.  Hyponos said, basically, “If it were anyone else, sure, but I remember the last time.”  Zeus was really pissed off, he was throwing gods left and right, looking for Hypnos in particular who would have been thrown into the sea never to be seen again

If Night, the Mistress, had not saved me.
I ran to her, and he relented, reluctant
To do anything to offend swift Night.
(Stanley Lombardo’s translation)

So that’s three lines, and I’m going to concentrate on two of them: “I ran to her, and he relented, reluctant / To do anything to offend swift Night.”  You can assume that Hypnos hid behind Nyx (Night) and she glared at Zeus, or you can assume that they talked it over.  Let’s go with the second and write between the lines:

Hypnos at last reached his destination and hid behind his mother, Nyx, quickly explaining what was going on.  Zeus was soon to follow and demanded Hypnos be turned over to him.

Nyx responded with one word, “No.”

Zeus, enraged, shouted, “Have you forgotten who you’re talking to?  I am Zeus, Aegis-Holder.”

Nyx, “I’ve not forgotten.  The answer is still no.”

Zeus shouted, “You’re in my domain, you have-“

“No,” Nyx said sharply.  Then she calmly explained, “You are in my domain.  I may take this form,” she gestured to her body,” for the ease of conversation and interaction, but make no mistake, Nyx isn’t just my name.  It is who I am.  It is what I am.  And right now” the next words reverberated on all sides of Zeus, “I’m all around you.”

Zeus had no response and Nyx returned to her ordinary mode of speech, “To get to my domain you had to pass through evening, the domain of seven of my daughters.  Before that you started in the domain of my eldest, Hemera (day).  The only time you’re not in the domain of myself or one of my daughters is during the dawn (Eos), she and I have been friends since before you were born, and lest we forget you did overthrow her parents.  

Do you really want to go to war with me?  There is nowhere you can plot that I won’t know about it.

“Setting that aside, whose sides do you think the various gods will fall on?”  She paused.  “Consider your own siblings.  Hera can’t go to war against someone for obeying her commands, no one would ever listen to her again.  Your wife will not be on your side.  Hades lives in misty Tartaros.  Tartaros, like me, came into being before birth, and owes you no more allegiance than I do, or Gaia for that matter.  My husband Erebos fills Tartaros, whenever Hades is at home he is surrounded on all sides by my husband. I’ve never heard them quarrel.  Kharon is my son.  My grandson tends Hades cattle.  My family is much closer to your brother than you are, whose side do you think he’ll take?

“Poseidon makes his home in the depths.  Pontos (one of three personifications of the sea), is of your grandfather’s generation, he owes you no allegiance, Okeanos (second of the three) is of your father’s generation, he might have taken your side in the war against your father, but he’s had plenty of time to reconsider betraying his siblings, and Thalassa (third of three) is my granddaughter.  What makes you think Poseidon can command any of them to go to war with me?  Besides the sea his greatest weapon is a trident forged by my great grandchildren, whom, as I recall, you cast into the depths never to see the light of day again.

“As for your sisters, the seasons still turn which means Demeter still, annually, remembers that she has good reason for hating you, and Hestia… Well Hestia as goddess of the hearth may hold the fate of all mankind in her hands, but if don’t think I’d watch the world burn to save my child then your interactions with Demeter have taught you nothing.”

“Now wait just a-“

“As for the other Olympians, Athena you can count on, I suppose… but then again you did eat her mother.  Apollo and Artemis, I suppose, but I think I hold some sway with their mother Leto.  Ares would be forced to choose between mother and father, I wonder which way he would go.  I wonder if even he knows.  Hephaestus is Hera’s son, not yours.  I’ll give you Hermes and Aphrodite, you did adopt her after all.  As for Dionysus, I seem to remember you incinerating his mother.”

“I said I was sorry.”

“Yes, and I know that whenever I’m incinerated all it takes is someone saying they’re sorry and I drop the grudge immediately.”

“This doesn’t have to be a war.”

“Oh, but what a war it would be, it would over shadow your battle with your father and be remembered for all time.  And remember, the gods of battle, all the gods of battle, are my grandchildren.  But, you’re right, it doesn’t have to be a war.

“We can settle it right here.  You’re younger and weaker, I’ll let you use the lightning bolts your uncles gave you.  For myself I’ll use no weapons at all.”

Zeus stared at Nyx for a long time, he felt the weight of night around him, he looked into her eyes and saw nothing but determination.  Then he turned away.  “Keep him.  But keep him away from me.”

And thus, Zeus relented.

And that’s how you write between the lines, at least it is when you’re in a hurry.

* An emperor who appears to have been both evil and insane.  Truth be told I’m not sure whether that’s better or worse than being evil and sane.  An argument, I suppose, can be made either way.

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6 thoughts on “Playing with other people’s toys, filling in the blanks, writing between the lines, and Greek Mythology in general

  1. cjmr November 16, 2012 at 1:18 pm

    ‘lightning bolts’

    ‘lightening’ bolts would lighten something

  2. Firedrake November 16, 2012 at 2:47 pm

    One of my maggots is the evolution of story to the point where it was possible to say “I made this up” – Malory claimed that he’d got things from an “old french boke”, the revolution in writing of the 18th century got its start in epistolary fiction and claimed accounts of other people’s adventures, and it’s really only by the end of that period that people are willing to abandon the frame story and just admit that they’ve invented stuff.

  3. christhecynic November 16, 2012 at 3:22 pm

    ‘lightening’ bolts would lighten something

    Well, lightning bolts do tend to light things up. More seriously, thanks for the catch.

  4. cjmr November 16, 2012 at 3:55 pm

    My middle child is currently doing homophones/homographs in language arts. That pair isn’t one of the ones that are in her book, but given the number of times I’ve seen them confused, it should be.

    Although technically, those are only homophones for some people.

    Don’t get me started on ‘loose’ and ‘lose’. Or ‘reins’ and ‘reigns’.

  5. storiteller November 16, 2012 at 4:41 pm

    Very cool post. That’s one reason I love Greek mythology – it’s all contradictory and it doesn’t care a wit. In fact, the contradictions and different interpretations make it far more interesting.

    This is super dorky, but it reminds me of Doctor Who. The showrunners of Doctor Who have made it incredibly clear that they don’t have a canon. They don’t care if there’s perfect continuity or if some mysteries are never solved or if that reference ever gets filled in not. But they certainly don’t mind their fans filling them in if they want to. Doctor Who is probably one of the most fan-production friendly properties out there and has its own line of books and audio adventures doing so around the TV show. Its willingness to act like the old myths, even though it’s modern, is one of the things I love about it so very much. Because just like the Greek and earlier myths, everyone’s interpretation is valid.

  6. Catherine November 17, 2012 at 7:32 am

    Oh, I do love your take on that story! Especially all the reasons why all the Gods have reason to be pissed off with Zeus…

    (I always liked what Offenbach did with the story of Orpheus, myself, but then I have a taste for low comedy. And opera.)


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