Homer and the Lost Art of Storytelling
THEY SIT ON MY BOOKCASE and taunt me, the old masterworks of epic poetry. Whenever I reach the end of my nightly reading material, and begin to consider what to read next, I walk over to the shelves and stare longingly at these revered works: The Odyssey, The Aeneid, Metamorphoses, Beowulf, Paradise Lost . . . all of which I did enjoy reading, you understand, for one English course or another at some point in the distant past.
Yet now, although my interest in reading them again has been simmering for some years, I invariably find myself thinking that I’d prefer a book about a contemporary protagonist with whom I can truly identify, from an author who can wrap me in intimate descriptions of the hero’s thoughts and feelings as he or she goes about the business of navigating the world.
I want to read about a character who has a pulse.
A docile reader might simply give up on epic poetry, as many seem to have done. However, the number of influential thinkers and leaders who have sworn by the value of these great works—century after century and still to this day—compels me to take another look.
THE TALES ARE IMPRESSIVE. Of that, my past encounters with the great epics have removed all doubt. Their style is the product of a classical artistry, to be sure—which is why their apparent inaccessibility may induce such puzzlement in the contemporary reader who, after finishing The Hobbit, decides to crack open a copy of Beowulf. This inaccessibility is not of language so much as of style. In epic poems such as those I listed earlier, the actions and choices of the characters give us a profound insight into human nature but are cushioned hardly at all with the descriptive or narrative content that seems to knit together so many contemporary novels. Today’s reader arrives expecting a stew but finds only the dry meat and potatoes.
Why? Consider how in last week’s article (The Vivaldi Concerto: Raw and Refined, JAN 2010) the “raw” harmonic and rhythmic structure of Antonio Vivaldi’s music sounded beautiful no matter which instruments were performing it—like the script to a fine play. As it turns out, the style of Beowulf or The Odyssey represents something of a script, too: these works are not plays, of course, but they are indeed performance pieces which arise from the domain of poets and storytellers.
Like a Vivaldi concerto, most epic poems are the products of an EVENT CULTURE in which the manuscript is simply a blueprint to be fully realized only in moments of live performance. To slog silently through an epic poem as if reading a novel could understandably become a chore, but to hear the same verses spoken aloud by a master storyteller in a crowded room will ignite the classicized energy of the narrative style like never before.
The epic that is first in line for my attention also happens to be quite literally first in the Western canon: THE ILIAD, which I have not read even once. And there it sits, forever bound up with The Odyssey, an old favorite from Miss St Pierre’s first-year English course at Andover. If we follow some basic assumptions about Homer’s artistry—of which there has been more than a little controversy over the centuries—we can identify several external constraints that likely shaped the classical style that the written text now displays.
Homer himself was said to have been blind, and many scholars suspect that The Iliad and The Odyssey were both well-formed long before someone committed them to writing. As a bard, or rhapsode, performing by the fireside in ancient Greece, Homer likely operated within a constraint of periodicity—the “holy grail” of periodicity, in fact, due to the possibility that he recited successive portions of his epics not weekly or monthly but nightly. He also faced a constraint of materials, weaving a tale delivered by the voice and gesticulations of one person alone, unlike in a play or a movie. Lastly, as was already discussed, Homer honored the constraint of function, providing lively entertainment with his episodic, partly-improvised tales—the poetic nature of which was meant from the start to be heard aloud.
The noted Shakespearean actor Eldon Quick provides a brilliant encapsulation of this idea: “When Homer set out to create The Iliad,” Quick argues, “he did not have in mind creating Great Western Literature; he had in mind creating great entertainment.” I think you will find his demonstration of this fact to be quite inspirational:
IF YOU ARE an artist who works in a temporal medium, creating arts which unfold over time, such as music, drama, and storytelling, then attention to function can be an excellent way to begin classicizing your style. Today, drama is the area of literature in which the functional constraints of an event culture are most likely to appear (other forms of functional constraint govern the writing of biographies, for instance). But in our era of television and video games, the practice of live storytelling may be just the thing for people seeking a cosy, social alternative. Give it a shot:
- Put those props away. All you need is your voice, your face, and your hands. Let the artist in you do the rest.
- Find an audience. Cajole at least one friend into listening to you on a regular basis: once a night, or every other night. Snacks are a good incentive! Your storytelling sessions should all be of a consistent duration.
- Take it easy. Don’t feel obligated to sound brilliant or profound. As your craftsmanship grows, the simple plot with which you started will grow more complex of its own accord.
Experienced writers may be surprised to find that their storytelling style differs dramatically in pacing or in tone from the style of their usual writing. You can find out about constraints of function in other arts by reading “Shall We Dance?” Art and Function (NOV 2010), my earlier article on the subject.
I have personally witnessed the proper telling of an epic tale—in a crowded hall before a roaring fire—on just a handful of occasions, but I suspect that is more than most people can say. Have you ever sat in the presence of a master storyteller? Please do share your experiences in the comments; I’d love to discover that this wonderful art hasn’t been “lost” after all.