Originally Posted by shun
That's an interesting theory you got there. Personally, I haven't read a lot of epics, but the one I'm quite familiar with, which is Journey to the West (which I definitely recommend, especially if you want to understand some part of Eastern culture), isn't quite as idealistic as heroes from Odyssey. Sure, the four main characters have superpowers, but each of them has their own weaknesses. Son Goku is too impatient. Cho Hakkai is a hedonist. Sa Gojo is hideous. And Sanzo has no superpower at all.
It’s not just a theory, actually. Greek mythology shares with other cultures the idea of better ages that came before ours. They call them explicitly the Golden Age and the Silver Age, which is where those expressions come from, and refer to their own present as the Iron Age (supposedly, these materials describe what men were made of or made from according to the period). Homer’s epics are set in the Golden Age, and its characters behave accordingly. I can’t remember whether they occur that often in the Odyssey, but the Iliad is full of expressions like “and with one hand he lifted a rock so heavy that four men of our age could not have shifted it.”
When reading Homer, the ‘idealism’ that you mention is actually part of the appeal for me. Not because I think it makes for great storytelling, but because it is a highly primordial form of writing – the Odyssey and the Iliad are unsullied by the tides of literary history, a writing which came before there was an institution of writing, and which is thus extraneous to our usual experiences of reading. Interpretation of a modern text is a form of archaeology, but with Homer, this process is impossible: not (only) because there are no other texts that preceded it, but because the very notion of text did not exist back then, since his stories were transmitted through oral tradition. The forms of writing that we find in the Odyssey and Iliad are pure, almost transcendent (as are those we find in lyric poetry or Attic tragedy, to name a few other). Finding them, and seeing how they reoccur and form the foundations of so many other, later texts, how they remain the core even of the great melting pot of forms that is modern literature and culture, is a process I find highly rewarding. It is with this spirit that I read the Iliad and the Odyssey.
Regarding the question of whether these concepts hold across epics, I’m not surprised to hear that the epic you mention (which, I regret to say, I had never even heard about… btw, Son Goku??) does not conform to them. In truth, the problem here is how we want to classify an epic. The term is usually employed as jargon for either a long verse narrative, or, more generally, a story of great magnitude and import. But the fact is, this genre that we usually classify as the epic includes texts of staggering diversity. Lord Byron’s ‘Don Juan,’ for example, is a parodic, comic epic which actually subverts all the usual traditions of the genre. Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ falls out of any epic canon, already in the title (a comedy?), and in fact is so unique that it almost constitutes a genre of its own.
Actually, Homer’s work bears closer resemblance to Beowulf – another primordial, archaic text – than it does with, say, the Aeneid, its declared successor from the already much more heteroglossian society of Rome, a text which looks conformingly ‘epic’ on the surface, but which turns out to be an extraordinarily subtle, highly complex and ambivalent piece once it is examined at the level of language.
What fascinates me about the epic is precisely its relationship to the primordial level of language. And in this, I do hold that archaic epics share some common features, among which is the tendency to discuss the past in terms of a golden age that shall never come again. The drive behind this was the same drive that led to writing and saving texts in the first place: an embryonic society’s need to stabilise and organise itself over some common grounds. Original epic and religious texts provide the ethical, historical and often legislative bases to do that. Heroic narratives, like that of Odysseus but also like those of Gilgamesh and Soundjata (who are not even Western), necessarily portray humans better than we are, because the role of these characters was not that of ‘entertaining’ an audience, but of giving them role models to look up to and aspire to as something better than themselves.