Sunday, March 6, 2011

Fiction: How Long Has It Really Been Around?

I've been on a bit of a sit-around-listening-to-lectures-while-knitting kick lately and it's been most enjoyable. But then the other day I heard a quick comment to the effect that “fiction hasn't been around very long” --just since the 1700s, in fact. Well, how could I resist a thing like that?
It's true that novels have only been around for the last 300-400 years. The works of Daniel Defoe such as Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders are among the first, novels ever written; Wikipedia calls Robinson Crusoe “the beginning of realistic fiction as a literary genre.” Defoe's novels were soon followed by many more and by Jane Austen's time the novel was a well-established literary tradition.
The Victorians had a low view of novels. They also had a low view of the Puritans. Coincidentally, the two are related: Daniel Defoe was a Calvinist in the Puritan tradition, although men of his stamp had ceased to be called Puritans by then; and The Pilgrim's Progress, still one of the greatest Calvinist works of fiction ever written, was the father of the modern novel. It was also perhaps the last epic, and thus straddles both genres. As a brief explanation, let me point out that before the novel, dialogue was not usually included in stories; rather, it could be found in plays. John Bunyan's addition of dialogue to his epic, and his sophisticated use thereof, formed the basis for the modern novel.
Novels have proliferated since English Calvinists first invented them. The last 100 years have seen the publication of more novels than in the previous 200 years put together. They are no longer the province of Puritans--a crying shame.
A novel is a work of prose fiction, usually concerned with developing realistic characters within the confines of a plot; it usually contains much dialogue. One of the, ahem, novelties of the novel was the emphasis on realistic characters. I can definitely see this as the influence of a Christian worldview, which emphasises love of the unlovable, service of other people, and a relational faith over cheap thrills.
However, fiction, defined as an invented story, imaginative to some degree or another, has been around since the beginning. Christians, of course, know that we are all characters in a divine work of fiction, and soon after creation other religions began making up fictions to explain themselves. Fiction used for entertainment and instruction soon followed, with Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, the plays of Aeschylus and Sophocles, and Virgil's Aeneid.
Myth was one of the first forms of fiction to emerge—religious stories, believed to be true, which sought to explain the meaning of the world. Some were terrible; some petty; One was True.
Folktales or what JRR Tolkien called fairy stories are known in most cultures, including Ancient Egypt. These are fictional stories that mainly exist to edify and entertain. They are informal, usually existing in an oral tradition and are not primarily religious.
Theatre was a more sophisticated form of fiction. Here actors tell a story using pre-determined words written by a single author. Aeschylus and Sophocles were among the first playwrights, and plays have been performed throughout history, some of them more and some of them less edifying.
Epic is perhaps the most important form of fiction, because for 5,700 years of the world's history until it was eclipsed by the novel, epic was the highest and best form of fiction. The most important epics of Western History are also well-known: the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Aeneid, the Saga of the Volsungs, Beowulf, the Song of Roland, the Canterbury Tales, Le Morte D'Arthur, the Divine Comedy, the Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, and perhaps last of all, the Pilgrim's Progress.
Note that the final eight were written by Christians, and the final three by English Puritans.
Epics had a few hallmarks. They were formal, stylised, and long. They were also written in poetry, which was considered a 'higher' art than prose, as it was closest to music, the 'highest' of all. They generally took a famous, important, or mythological theme, developed characters to a high level, but depended mainly upon a strong and exciting plot. As they usually focused on great military events in the poet's nation's past, epics often also became tied to national identity.
Thousands of epics have been written. Some more obscure epics include the Italian Orlando Furioso, the Finnish Kalevala, the Spanish El Cantar de Mio Cid, and the Byzantine Digenes Akrites. While these days writers dream of becoming famous novelists, in the age of the epic they dreamed of writing an epic that would live forever.
One epic I'd like to mention specifically is the Icelandic Saga of Burnt Njall. When you think of sagas you might imagine something like the Saga of the Volsungs, with burning houses and dragons, shieldmaidens and magic rings and the god Odinn walking the earth as a mantled old man. As a matter of fact, the sagas were usually non-fantasy, having more to do with the dealings of common folk, and rather similar to our modern-day novels. Burnt Njall is a typical saga. Set in Iceland before and during the conversion of that country to Christianity, it tells the story of a dispute between two women which leads to bloody feud which eventually results in the burning of the main character Njall in his house. The story is packed full of interesting details about the law and lives of early medieval Icelanders.
Even after the invention of the novel, people kept on writing epics. Sir Walter Scott wrote a few—The Lay of the Last Minstrel, Marmion, and The Lady of the Lake were all big hits before he began writing novels. Just a hundred years ago, GK Chesterton wrote The Ballad of the White Horse in praise of King Alfred, and JRR Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings may be a unique fusion of epic and novel.
Fiction has been around for just as long as non-fiction. If you've never read an epic before, I highly recommend it. Beowulf is an excellent choice—the translation by Seamus Heaney leaves little else to be said—or try the Odyssey for some epic adventure.
Epics are usually gripping adventure stories full of fascinating details about the culture of the people who read and loved them. But there's a far more important reason to read epics than that. For most of earth's history—and the ancients loved fiction as much as we do today—fiction was epic, and if we stick to novels, we are limited to just the last four hundred years, entirely ignorant of the fictional imagination of the rest of history--including much of the history of the church.


Anonymous said...

Did a dozen or so paragraphs drop off the end of this?

-- Radagast

Suzannah said...

Sorry about that! All fixed now.


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