Blog

Entering Carcosa Part 7 (Final): The Forgotten Epic

(Photo by Roland Neveu/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Hello, and welcome to what will be the final instalment in Entering Carcosa. It has been a fabulous and rewarding experience writing about these epics, and I hope that anyone reading these has found inspiration for their own work. I am going to post links to the six previous articles here for ease of navigation.

Part 1: The Epic Isn’t Dead
Part 2: Metal Gear Solid
Part 3: The Horus Heresy
Part 4: True Detective
Part 5: The Book of the New Sun
Part 6: Seven Deadly Sins

For this last episode, I intend to write about an epic novel. Yes, I said I wouldn’t do it, but this novel is an exception because it is such an anomaly. Not only has the novel been largely forgotten, but the author too remains fringe even though they continue to write intriguing books today. It is a novel of incredible paradox and contradiction: as poetic as it is pornographic, as profound as it is problematic. The novel in question is Eric Van Lustbader’s Black Heart. It’s no secret that I am a huge fan of Lustbader, but what I find startling is how little credit he is given for his lyrical style. Whilst he is most famous, perhaps, to modern audiences, for continuing the late Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series, I find his personal projects far more remarkable, not simply for the stories he tells, but the way he tells them. Why is this epic poet neglected, then? I think, there are a number of reasons.

Firstly, let me tell you how I came to read this novel, because the process itself was something on an epic journey. This is a long book: some 800 pages, and easily over 240,000 words. I had picked up a battered old copy from a local second-hand bookshop around two years ago. I enjoyed Lustbader’s first book The Ninja greatly and wanted to read a standalone by him. I got to roughly 50% the way through the novel, when my duties as a fiction reviewer got in the way. I told myself I would finish up reading some of the new books I had to review, and then return to Black Heart. The problem was, the book was so complex, with so many characters and intersecting plot-lines, I couldn’t get back into it. I eventually had to abandon the attempt. For two years, this book kind of haunted my imagination. I rarely give up on books, and especially not books I was enjoying. Odd scenes that I could remember from it went round and round in my head.

Eventually, I realised I had to finish it, so I decided to once again attempt it. This time, I was able to easily blast through it. The feeling of deja vu and synchronicity reading it for the (sort of) second time only added to the mythical weight of the some of the scenes. This was made even more weird by the fact that the 1984 re-print that I had a copy of was littered with copy-editing mistakes. I mean, tonnes of mistakes. And not small ones, but full word-replacements and repeated lines and missing sentences. Reading it became a kind of scholastic activity rather than merely a leisurely one, like filling in the blank spaces left in Anglo Saxon poetry manuscripts. How could there be so much here but also there be so much missing? I became obsessed and fascinated to the point where I considered reaching out to Lustbader to work with him producing a cleanly edited version of the novel. I felt angered he had been so deeply let down by the publisher, I would hate to suffer such negligence myself.

Why am I telling you all this? Well, because I think it tells us something interesting about Black Heart. For many reasons – it’s action, sex, intensely passionate writing style – this book is considered pulp. Yet, how easily do we forget that the great Homeric epics are practically bursting with vicious combat scenes, sensuous affairs and sexual encounters, and written in a style that defies traditional writing conventions. In other words, I think it shows we have confined what was once epic to the pulp shelf, and now praise – well, whatever stuffiness stepped into its place.

Written in 1983 and subsequently republished, Black Heart is about the Cambodian genocide of the 1960s and a group of inter-connected special-operatives at once haunted by the past and struggling against sinister forces behind the scenes in the present. It is a strangely prescient book, predicting a rigged American election with Russian influence and corporate backing. The presidential candidate depicted in Black Heart, Atherton Gottschalk, is even a kind of Trump parallel, with an obsession with protecting the borders of American from ‘foreign invasion’ and deploying the military to safeguard American ideals. Gottschalk’s paranoia about terrorism, with frequent monologues about the nature of Islamic terrorist attacks, becomes frighteningly foreshadowing, in some ways predicting the fall of the Twin Towers in 2001, an event which would occur eighteen years after the book was published.

Gottschalk is being put into power via the machinations of several parties. At their heart is Delmar Davis Macomber, an elite American operative stationed in Cambodia who now runs a weapons manufacturing corporation called Metronics Incorporated. However, this company is but a front for a secretive organisation founded in the blood and atrocity of Cambodia, one that is prepared to kill to exert its influence over Western politics. Whilst Macomber may seem a villain, and even sports a villain’s moustache, Lustbader is never so simplistic, and offers compelling motivations for Macomber’s behaviour. At one point, roughly halfway through the book, our impression of Macomber shifts dramatically as new information comes to light and he transforms almost into the truly wronged party and one of the heroic figures of the narrative.

The true protagonist of this novel, however, is Khieu Sok. Khieu is an assassin in Macomber’s employ who began life as the son of a wealthy Cambodian family and a devout Buddhist. During the communist genocide, he joined the Khmer Rouge and turned on his own family and ideals in order to survive, committing atrocities to maintain his life. He was taught the art of stealth and hand-to-hand combat by the Khmer’s ‘secret weapon’, a Japanese martial arts master called Murano Musashi (a nod to the real Miyamoto Musashi, widely regarded as the most legendary swordsman in history). Macomber ‘rescued’ Khieu from his violent life in the communist regime only to manipulate him into carrying out high-profile assassinations on American soil. If you are thinking that this sounds vaguely like the plot of a Tarantino movie, you would not be far wrong. Lustbader’s love of unarmed combat is unabashed and he sees no problem delivering some of the most memorable and ultra-violent fight sequences in fiction. However, to say Black Heart is all action would be a gross miss-sell; it is just as concerned with introspection as it is with high-octane adrenaline, just as intrigued by the sundries of life and what deeper meaning they may hold, as it is with vividly described anal-play. It is full of life and willingly embraces all facets of life, whether they are palatable or not.

Lustbader’s introduction, exploring the complexity of Cambodian history.

 

Khieu is the heart of this novel all about heart. He is dichotomy personified, at once viewing himself as a Buddhist and therefore pacifist and holy, and also as a weapon of mass destruction and cold-blooded killer. Khieu has compartmentalised his life, and slowly throughout the course of the book the strain of holding these contradictory identities in mind tears him apart. The counterpart to Khieu is the seemingly ‘heroic’ Tracy Richter, another American who fought in Cambodia as part of a secret operation connected with Macomber. Tracy appears to be the classic ‘good guy’, a match for Khieu, having also been trained by a Japanese martial arts master Jinsoku-san. However, we slowly realise throughout the book, as we learn more about Tracy’s past, that in fact he enjoys killing. Like Khieu, he is victim of double think. He sees himself as a loving partner to his true love, the ballet dancer Lauren. A loyal son to his father, Louise Richter, who also plays a key role in the novel. But he also loves the power of ending a life. It’s a dark and morally grey portrayal that catches us off guard. Who do we really root for? The warrior who is trying to be a Buddhist, or the warrior who embraces what they are?

Just as Khieu and Tracy embody the juxtaposition of conflicting identities, Black Heart is similarly a book of incredible dichotomy. Double-think is present throughout the entirety of the novel. On the one hand, the most intelligent character in the novel is probably Kathleen Christian, a woman whom we initially believe is being used by Atherton as a ‘bit on the side’ but slowly realise is actually the one manipulating the presidential candidate. Her intelligence and cunning are an intriguing and complex counterpoint to the more directive schemes of men like Macomber. However, on the other hand, she is sexualised at every possible turn, as are all the female characters. That is, until they are murdered. Black Heart revels in its violence and explicit sex; you can tell by the language and the verbosity with which it is described. Yet, it is also about transcending both of those things, which is Khieu’s ultimate character arc. It simultaneously exhibits both positions without shame or fear.

Lustbader does not fall into the Madonna-Whore trap that so many male writers do. He manages to portray women who have complex sexual identities but also moral dimensions and intelligence. Lauren, Tracy’s partner, proves to be a key player at the end of the novel, and it is her act of astonishing courage at the novel’s denouement that saves Tracy’s life and redeems him. At the same time, Lustbader never misses an opportunity to tell us just how great her breasts are. Given how explicit and graphic some of the sex scenes in this book are (sex that makes D. H. Lawrence and Byron look like rank amateurs) one can kind of see why he zeroes in on these physical endowments. He sexualises the men, too, after all. Does this make it okay? Perhaps not, but it shows that Black Heart has its own kind of weird internal logic and consistency, and it is these through lines that I believe make it great and worthy of the epic. Khieu, as a subversion of the epic hero, has a unique weapon, which is his magnetism. His martial ability is secondary to his ability to lure people, men and women alike in fact, to him. Like a Gorgon, he often transfixes them with his eyes before striking the killing blow.

Thematically, Black Heart is mind-meltingly rich. The direct derivation of the title is an alternative name for the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, who refer to themselves as a Chet Khmau. It also becomes a kind of pseudonym for one of Khieu’s bifurcated personalities as his violent side emerges more strongly. In Western language, the word ‘heart’ is directly derived from ‘courage’. Corazón in Spanish means both. Le cœur in French is similarly synonymous. In Japanese, kokoro literally means heart or ‘inner mind’. However, we are given two deeper definitions of kokoro by the two different Japanese masters in the novel. Murano Musashi, Khieu’s master, defines it: ‘The killing spirit is here. Believe that if you believe nothing else.’ This echoes Stephen King’s world-famous line from The Dark Tower: ‘I kill with my heart’.

Scenes from the Cambodian Genocide courtesy of https://discoverwithme.org/2016/08/24/the-cambodian-genocide/

The second definition we receive, however, is even more profound. Jinsoku, Tracy’s master, tells us that ‘To peer into this and survive is life’s only heroic act’. To look inwardly, to truly interrogate ourselves, in other words, is the only heroism. Interestingly, I think Black Heart itself asks for our heroism as readers, for us to look beneath the surface and work out what the real mystery is, and this book is full of mysteries right up until its final page. The deeper into the past it plunges, the more we hunger to learn and the more we realise we can never know. Tracy says ‘the past holds the key to everything’ (this becomes a segue-way for the first flashback in the book), and in the case of this story he is utterly right. All of the characters are connected by their traumatic past and are drawn back to it. As F. Scott Fitzgerald once said: ‘So we beat on, boats against the current, drawn ceaselessly back to the past.’

Each character in the novel, regardless of how major they are, is required to look inward, to ‘peer into kokoro’. Tracy refuses at first to look inward, unable to acknowledge the ‘vice of killing’. Lauren cannot admit how she really feels about Tracy. Her heart is literally in the wrong place. Khieu cannot order his binary identities. Macomber cannot interrogate his motivations and therefore transcend them and let them go. There is a kind of ironic touch in that one of the weapons Macomber’s company, Metronics Inc., is working on, is called the Vampire, a new type of AI-controlled fighter jet. Vampires, of course, can only be killed by putting a stake through the heart.

Atherton Gottschalk’s ‘black heart’ is semi-literal, a weak heart he is terrified will give out on him due to genetic defects running through his family. When Macomber stages an assassination attempt on his life to boost his popularity, he is shot in the heart. Even though he was wearing a bullet-proof vest, the experience unmans him. In the end, once Macomber’s plot and his artificially boosted bid to presidency is exposed, Atherton kills himself because he lacks the courage to face the press and shame.

Black Heart, of course, also evokes the Chinese philosophy of ‘Thick Face, Black Heart’, first postulated by Li Zongwu and later developed by Chin-Ning Chu. It is a sociological technique of concealing one’s true motivations in order not to be victimised by the world. This philosophy is so nuanced that to restate or summarise here would be to grossly bastardize and do it injustice. However, conceptually it marries with a lot of what Lustbader thematically explores in Black Heart. No one is who they seem. People who seem altruistic prove selfish, and people who seem selfish prove devotionally selfless.

One of the most fascinating characters in this regard is Kim, a Vietnamese master-torturer. It would be easy to hate Kim, especially in the hands of another writer, but Lustbader shows remarkable empathy in his portrayal of a (literally) tortured person. Kim has watched the genocide of his people and the decimation of his entire culture. His story, which proves more relevant to the main plot than we could ever imagine at first, is in some ways a ‘last human on Earth’ narrative – a man out of time and place who has nothing in common with the rest of humanity, who feels utterly alienated by Europe and America, where he is forced to survive. Kim is consumed by the flames of the past and a desire for revenge. Yet, his motives are not selfish as they first appear. He acts on behalf of his family, all of whom save his brother were killed by Cambodians. Kim’s interactions with his brother are some of the most fascinating in the novel. His brother, Thu, has embraced Western culture, marrying a blonde American woman who seems the epitome of American beauty and 50s domesticity. Kim, however, cannot let go of the past and who he is. It is about how the West has trampled on cultures and subsumed them.

Throughout, Lustbader invests massive time and energy making his characters, particularly his Asian cast, feel real and three-dimensional. I couldn’t stop myself asking how many major books, films, and games of the last ten years have over 50% of the main cast made up by Asians, and not only that, but a diverse range that pays subtle attention to the colossal cultural differences between Japanese and Chinese ways of life, Vietnamese and Cambodian, and more. Is Lustbader culturally appropriating, or is his work a Shakespearean achievement of sympathy and recognition in the vein of The Merchant of Venice? It is not for me to say, of course. Others more qualified will be the judge. I can see that if this novel were to be released tomorrow, it would be extremely divisive in this regard.

In fact, I’m not sure this kind of novel could get a major publishing deal nowadays, not because I do not think it is up to standard, but because it is too radically what it is. It is lavishly stylistic, borderline psycho-tropically sensual, and doggedly true to itself. No overzealous editor has paired down Lustbader’s ferocious prose, and that is entirely a good thing. There are so many vast droves of sterile, boring books these days that have been edited into oblivion and unmeaning. Black Heart is not one of them. It does what its blurb says: ‘Explodes with supernova intensity’. Is it a little much at times? Maybe for some readers, but I personally found myself riveted from word go.

Lustbader isn’t afraid of an extended metaphor, nor a mixed one for that matter. Just look at how he describes Khieu feeling once again the loss of his sister, for whom he had an incestuous infatuation: ‘His right hand would ache and he’d look around wildly, feeling the heated breath of the unknown furnace closing on him, brushing past him just a heartbeat away.’ That final line is transcendental, not only connecting to the title of the book but also transporting us with an auditory stimuli rather than a visual. Sound, of course, has far more of a capacity to transport in time than any other medium. Just think of hearing an old song and the way it puts you into that exact location in time. Similarly the ‘heated breath’ of the furnace is psycho-sexual, as is the use of the word ‘brushing’.

Not all of Lustbader’s sex is perverse either. Sometimes, he surprises you with something wholesome, or else deflates or interrupts the sexual congress with some startling revelation or observation. Let’s examine again Khieu’s obsession with Malis, which is in part an act of semi-religious devotion in which he describes her as ‘apsara’, an interpreter of the gods. In one traumatic flashback, a young Khieu watches his sister Malis masturbate in bed, a voyeurism he succumbs to nightly, only to then have his fantasy destroyed as Malis’ real lover climbs through the window in the dead of night. It’s a shocking moment, for us and Khieu. Khieu becomes aware of himself as an observer, and sees the baseness of what he is doing. It is a startling moment where we as readers are also jerked out of the passionate frenzy and come to see ourselves as slightly perverse voyeurs.

In Black Heart, the ultimate katabasis, the ultimate hell, is the past itself. Just as we drawn back to it, so too we are haunted by it. All of the heroes are literally drawn back to China and Cambodia, and their respective pasts, where they discover numerous horrifying revelations. However, in the final sequence, we return to the past in a spiritual and symbolic sense as Khieu finally sheds his guilt and once more returns to the beauty of Buddha which he glimpsed as a child. It is a hair-raising scene that caused me to profusely weep, a moment of divine revelation in which the entire meaning of the cosmos hinges on one profound image: ‘… at last he saw the eternal face of his Amidha Buddha…’ Black Heart, for all its love of action, ends on a note of spiritual re-awakening.

All of the characters are called to free themselves from the past and let go of old grudges, to purify their black hearts. Tracy Richter is utterly defeated; he does not triumph over the villain in physical combat. However, he learns that there are more important things that settling the score. Khieu, similarly, stops fighting and becomes one with the Buddha whom he adored as a child. Kim, however, is another story, eaten up by the flames and cast down into oblivion, all because he cannot let go of the wrong done to him. Black Heart is strangely a tale of redemption that offers the surprising revelation that it really is never too late, provided we do not allow ourselves to be conquered by our desires and temptations. It has been said that the Western story is characterised by the straight line, the journey, and the Eastern story is characterised by the returning circle. Whether this is true or not, Lustbader reflects this tradition by having his novel circle fully back to the profound opening line: ‘From within the eye of the Buddha, all things could be seen.’

Black Heart is honestly unlike anything I have read in the world of fiction or am likely to read again. It changed the way I think about narrative and prose in startling ways, and offered me a glimpse into an astonishing time period and historical event that in the West we still know very little about. I could not help but feel a profound sadness as I put down the book. It was the sense that something truly great, for all its flaws, had been lost from the world, was no longer remembered as it should be. But then, that is very fitting, as the very message of Black Heart is to let go of the past.

X

This has been the final entry in the Entering Carcosa series. I hoped you have enjoyed investigating these modern epics with me. The only thing that remains is for you to write your own.

I will not be disappearing, however, far from it. I’m looking to transition these discussions about literature, films, movies, games, and more, to another medium, possibly a podcast, though I haven’t fully made my mind up yet! Keep your eye out, especially on my Twitter: @josephwordsmith. If you ever need help, advice, or simply someone to rage against the world with, feel free to message me there! Also, if you have any suggestions about the kind of content you would like me to produce, people get in touch via this website’s contact page or Twitter.

If you feel that you have benefited from today’s class, then please check out my KoFi page, where you can donate $3 to “buy me a coffee” to help me keep producing free resources like this. Do not feel pressure to do so, but small contributions can go a long way for creators like me.

Thank you, my friends!

Blog

Entering Carcosa Part 6: Seven Deadly Sins 七つの大罪

Welcome once again to Entering Carcosa! Today, in our sixth instalment, we will be talking about the epic in a very unusual medium, that of Japanese anime. Anime is very much a polarising art form; you either love it or hate it. I know many people who absolutely cannot stand to be in the same room as a TV with anime blasting from it. For others, it is one of the few art-forms that can truly strike a resonating emotional chord. I, personally, love anime and find it incredibly rewarding viewing, in part because the storytelling is often so detailed, convoluted, and rich. One of the greatest animes I have seen in recent years is Seven Deadly Sins, or, Nanatsu no Taizai. It is based on a manga of the same name and follows the adventures of an elite team of seven knights, each one a ‘sinner’, in the ancient kingdom of Britannia. The show reworks numerous Biblical and Arthurian myths into its own re-imagined mythic tapestry.

In terms of subject, Seven Deadly Sins has picked a fertile field, but also one that has already been well trodden. The Arthurian legends are a rich, rich tapestry for the epic, as many novelists and poets attest. Two of the most notable epics using the Arthurian legends include: La Morte D’Arthur by Sir Thomas Mallory (published in 1485) and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (published circa 1300s). Both of these, whilst written in more challenging phonetic Middle English, are worth reading for any enthusiast of Fantasy or writer attempting to pen their own epic. In addition, Edmund Spenser used many elements of the Arthurian mythos to create his epic The Faerie Queene in 1590 (Arthur is actually a recurring character in the six volumes). John Milton, when deciding on the subject for his epic, contemplated the Arthurian legends, but in the end settled on the Fall of Mankind as a more fitting topic. More recently, in the 20th century, Robert Holdstock penned several novels, including Mythago Wood and Merlin’s Wood, which re-imagined the Arthurian myths in darker ways. T. H. White’s The Once and Future King is a staggering re-imagining of the Arthurian epic for children (though the pathos of the end is far from easy reading). Now, we also have numerous television and film adaptations, including most recently Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017). This is merely scratching the surface of the canon.

There is a risk here of over-saturation, but the Seven Deadly Sins sidesteps this effortlessly by shifting the focus from Arthur himself onto the knights of a kingdom called Liones (a state that exists contemporaneously with Camelot). These knights, members of a Holy Order, are drafted to serve the king as penance for their sins. Each one is modelled on one of the deadly sins of Christian philosophy. The deadly sins themselves are also well-trodden ground, with plays like Dr Faustus from the 16th century right through to modern cinematic masterpieces like David Fincher’s Seven exploring them in detail. However, amazingly, the creators of Seven Deadly Sins have found new ground to tread with them, subverting our expectations of the sins. Ban, the ‘Fox Sin of Greed’, for example, already has the thing he so hungered for, which is the elixir of eternal life. However, he no longer wants this gift, as it has become a curse. He is known as ‘Undead Ban’ and can never die, which is his great tragedy, because it means he can never be re-united with the one he loves: Elaine. Diane is the ‘Snake Sin of Envy’: she is of the Giant race but wishes she could be human, because she is a constant outsider to society due to her height and power.

Ban, the Fox Sin of Greed

Gowther, the ‘Goat Sin of Lust’ is an even more dramatic subversion. Gowther ‘has no heart’ and in fact does not understand people or emotions in the slightest, behaving like a mechanical robot. Yet, his magical power is that he can influence other’s thoughts and feelings (making him a deadly loose canon). Gowther is virtually non-binary and a-sexual – frequently dressing in female clothes and sometimes changing his appearance. His lack of empathy and emotional intelligence (misreading social cues) can be considered a subtextual representation of autism in many regards. He is fully accepted in the group despite his struggle to interpret social settings. For example, he witnesses Meliodas drunkenly groping Elizabeth. Later, then repeats the action himself, believing it to be a form of social etiquette, groping Ban who explains, through embarrassment, that that is not how friends behave to one another or how anyone should behave for that matter. Gowther does not understand, but he wants so badly to learn. Gowther’s ‘lust’ is not sexual, it is a lust to obtain a heart and become a fully rounded person. It represents the desire of many autistic people to understand connect with others. After all, the belief autistic individuals are ‘anti-social’ is a harmful misconception, and in many ways it can often be the case that individuals desire more socialisation than neuro-typical individuals, they simply find it harder to achieve. Gowther’s ‘lust’ is so strong that he at one point he contemplates killing all of his friends in order to be granted his wish by a demon – that he be given a heart – so he can cry over their remains. He does not perceive the contradiction or irony in this, a moment of tragic comedy.

The Seven Deadly Sins find themselves pitted against many outrageous and powerful foes. First, demonically possessed traitors to the Holy Order. Later, footsoldiers of the demon realm. Finally, against the Ten Commandments, the elite warriors of the Demon King himself. The Ten Commandments are a brilliant re-imagining of the Biblical Commandments. Each demon is bound by their own cosmic law. For example, Galand of the Truth cannot utter a lie, and any who utter a lie in his presence (including himself) are instantly turned to stone. Estarossa of Benevolence is bound by good-will, therefore no one can lift a weapon against him if they have hate or anger in their hearts. The way these Commandments combat and interact with the Deadly Sins is a stroke of storytelling genius, especially as we move toward a cataclysmic conflict between two of the most powerful individuals in the story.

But, each of the Deadly Sins is an epic hero in their own right. Though arguably Meliodas, the ‘Dragon Sin of Wrath’ is the protagonist of this story, and the one on whom we spend the most time, all of the heroes have their own rich and detailed backstory that is revealed as we progress through the narrative. We discover why Gowther has no empathy. We discover why Ban cannot trust anyone when we dive into his traumatising past and the dark story of how he became immortal. We discover why Meliodas is so powerful (and why he has to hold back his ‘wrath’) and why Diane left her own people, the Giants, in order to become a Deadly Sin. The relationships between the Deadly Sins are similarly complex. Diane clearly has feelings for Meliodas, as he was the first person to accept her as she was. Yet King, the ‘Grizzly Sin of Sloth’, has feelings for Diane, and transpired that he nurtured her when she first fled from her people (though she has forgotten this due to other circumstances). Meliodas himself is missing memories, and we later discover one of the other deadly sins, Merlin the ‘Boar Sin of Gluttony’, is the one responsible for removing them. This is part of the tremendous scope of the epic, which demands rich casts of characters and fleshed out stories behind the story itself. One of the greatest epics, that of Jason and the Argonauts (which sadly does not exist in an entirely cogent form as the original was possibly lost) depicts a team of elite epic heroes on a quest to recover the Golden Fleece in a similar vein, giving us characters that individually have their own rich history, such as Herakles and Orpheus, as well as belonging to a whole. Similarly, the interplay of seven heroes specifically invokes something of a grand tradition in East and West, such as the Seven Against Thebes – a Greek epic of seven warriors who fought an entire city – Seven Samurai, and of course the American remake: The Magnificent Seven.

Each one of the Deadly Sins is from an unusual place or land, particularly Diane who hails from the realm of Giants, Megadoza. They each have an unusual power, such as Meliodas’ ability to ‘counter’ enemy attacks, reflecting their own strength back at them. They are united by their sense of justice. Each has a sacred artefact (magical equipment) which increases their power, such a Escanor, the Lion Sin of Pride, who possess Rhitta, an axe forged from the power of the sun. They are all royal, or dispossessed of something that belongs to them – especially King who is, as his name suggests, the exiled King of the Fairy Kingdom. All of them are orphaned or not raised by their true parents, particularly Ban, who is raised by a Beast-Man and thief, Zhivago. In a heart-rending and cathartic scene, he re-unites with his foster father, who is now an old man (whereas Ban has not aged a day). The tragic circumstances of their parting are resolved and they share a powerful reunion before Zhivago succumbs to old age. It is one of the most breath-taking scenes in the series so far. Lastly, each hero possesses a tragic flaw, a weakness. In some ways, this is their sin itself, which is a psychological flaw they must battle against, but many also possess physical weaknesses. Escanor, for example, draws his power from the sun. At midday, he is practically invincible, a god, but at night he is diminutive and cowardly, having less strength than even an ordinary human being. Escanor’s fluctuating power is, however, more than a simple plot device. Escanor’s shifts between two linked yet dispirit personalities as the day changes seem, like Gowther’s autism, to be a subtle sub-textual commentary on mental health issues. From the manic, over-confident sun-self, at night he regresses into an overly polite, submissive depressive. It is a kind of bi-polarism. Instead of Jekyll and Hyde, however, where one self is a true monster, Escanor’s selves relate to one another. They share a love of poetry, of Merlin, of life and friendship, but one cripplingly doubts themselves, one thinks himself a god. Both are truly Escanor. He simply has to live with these two selves.

Seven Deadly Sins plays with this concept of a tragic flaw, however, delivering some of the most emotive scenes I’ve seen in modern television. One of the most striking scenes to me occurs in the season 2 mini-series (which is only 4 episodes long). In this series, Gowther bumps into a small boy who mistakes Gowther momentarily for his mother (who died some years ago). Once again Gowther’s gender neutrality, or his trans-genderism, is called to the fore. In his attempts to understand human emotion, Gowther asks the young boy, Pelio, about his mother. Pelio recounts to Gowther how his mother used to ask him to come inside for dinner. He describes to Gowther her beautiful blonde hair, her soft voice, her smile. When Pelio turns around, standing before him is his mother. Gowther has magically altered his appearance to exactly resemble her. In a soft, gentle voice, he repeats to Pelio his mother’s words: ‘Come in, Pelio, your dinner is ready.’ Pelio bursts into tears, overcome with emotion. His father arrives and asks his son why he is crying, but Gowther has already disappeared. He thought that imitating the boy’s mother would bring him joy, he doesn’t understand what he has done wrong. It is one of the most affecting scenes in the whole series.

Gowther, the Goat Sin of Lust

Anime is epic in style, though often in a self-aware and parodic way. It is over-the-top, with fight sequences spanning multiple episodes, lengthy speeches that expound the ideology of the characters, and intense overwrought music scoring. However, the best animes, such as Attack on Titan and Seven Deadly Sins itself, play with the audience’s expectations of those ‘epic’ conventions. They set heroes up as epic warriors, only to casually hack them down and throw them aside (in a similar vein to Game of Thrones). They break real tension and horror with a bathetic moment of humour and light-heartedness. And, when they are firing on all cylinders, they deliver true and genuine epic, which is often a moment of understated deliverance or where fate truly does seem to intervene. No moment in Seven Deadly Sins is a better example of this than the confrontation between the Ten Commandments’ Estarossa and Escanor of the Deadly Sins. Estarossa, with his power of ‘benevolence’, easily cuts a swathe through the heroes and even seems to kill a member of the Deadly Sins. We see some of the best and brightest helpless before him, unable to even raise their weapons let alone put up a struggle. They are powerless against his Commandment. Suddenly, we see a golden armoured figure walking through the ranks of helpless heroes. The figure is Escanor, the Lion. He raises his axe. Estarossa is flabbergasted. ‘How?’ he asks. ‘Why isn’t my power working on you?’ Escanor smiles and simply says: ‘How could I hate someone who is so much weaker than I am?’ It is then we remember Escanor’s sin is Pride. In this genius moment the entire meaning of the show is laid bare; his sin becomes the ultimate salvation of the human race. Escanor bears no hatred within him because he is so arrogant that he deems no one to be worthy.

It is a stunning moment of eucatastrophe: eucatastrophe being the ‘sudden delivery’ where the heroes are saved at the very last minute. Perhaps the most obvious example of this is in The Lord of the Rings, where Pippin suddenly cries: ‘The eagles are coming!’ The arrival of the eagles, the unexpected reprieve, is a heart-singing revelation. Similarly, the arrival of the Riders of Rohan at the Battle of the Pelenor Fields is another eucatastrophe moment. Tolkien was a master at it. Here, Seven Deadly Sins uses it to turn the myths on their heads. Escanor’s fault and weakness becomes the only way that evil can be triumphed against.

Escanor, the Lion Sin of Pride

All epic heroes need a guide. Whilst there are several oracles within Seven Deadly Sins who provide wisdom, Merlin, the Sin of Gluttony, is undoubtedly the most knowledgeable and useful. She elucidates many parts of the plot, including Gowther’s real nature, Meliodas’ past, Escanor’s power, and the nature of demons themselves. Merlin is also, simultaneously, a kind of Muse. All epics require an invocation to the Muse and it is intriguing that Escanor directly refers to Merlin as a Muse for his poetry. Each of the heroes seems to have one. Ban has Elaine, the sacred ‘sleeping beauty’ he has dedicated his life to pursuing a cure for. Meliodas has Elizabeth, the escaped princess of Liones who reunites the Deadly Sins. All are integral to the narrative. However, Merlin seems to stand at the pinnacle of Muse-hood, wisdom, and woman-hood for that matter, with even Meliodas, Ban and many other characters (including women) forced to admit to her supreme beauty and power. Merlin is, of course, one of the most important characters from Arthurian myth and therefore directly ties Seven Deadly Sins to the literature of the past. She is, however, also a radical re-imagining of that past.

Heroes are defined most often by their descent into hell, and while there are many hellish descents in Seven Deadly Sins, none are more Dante-esque or emotionally powerful than the scene in which Meliodas undergoes the Druid trial. The context is that Meliodas has had a portion of his power locked away by Merlin as a safeguarding measure. Meliodas, after the death of his first love Liz, went berserk and destroyed an entire city, completely losing control of his powers. This is also why some of his memories have been tampered with. However, with the threat of the Ten Commandments and their vast power, Merlin recognises that Meliodas’ strength must be restored. The Druids who have locked away Meliodas’ power agree that he can be allowed to have it, but they must ascertain whether he has learned the self control to keep himself in check. So, they propose a trial. Meliodas enters a mystical tree and is put into a trance. In this trance he experiences visions, visions in which he loses Liz, and many other loved ones, over and over again. Each time, he tries to control his anger, and each time he fails and obliterates the city, killing thousands in the collateral damage. The harder Meliodas tries to hold in his emotions, the worse it gets. His very soul is being torn apart at the seams. It is a trial that is beyond any he has previously undergone because it challenges him at a spiritual rather than physical level. The longer he remains in the trance, the more damaging each repetition is.

It is a truly heart-rending scene, one that ties into Milton’s ideology that hell is as much a psychological place as a physical one, one in which we are tormented by our minds and emotions more than any demon. Yuki Kaji, the Japanese voice-actor behind Meliodas, is to be praised for his immense performance, allowing the audience to sense the wealth of terrible emotion beneath his attempts to control it. This is the moment that we truly understand why Meliodas has earned the title of Wrath. It goes to show how hard it is for someone to re-define themselves and separate their new, better self from their past. Must we always be held to our sins, or can we move beyond them? These are some of the most pertinent and searching questions Seven Deadly Sins asks, and it asks them at a near perfect point in history. With the internet and advent of digital technology, never has it been easier to resurrect past mistakes.

Meliodas, the Dragon Sin of Wrath

The manga has reached, as of writing this article, 35 volumes, and the show seems to be increasing exponentially in popularity, so I’m sure we will certainly be getting more Seven Deadly Sins in the future. As of now, there are three seasons for consumption, and I can hardly recommend them enough.

X

It has been a pleasure to bring you a sixth part of this series. I am always looking for more examples of modern epics, and while I have some thoughts myself, I quite enjoy taking your suggestions, as it introduces me to new material! Please, feel free to leave a comment with your suggestions for further epics or thoughts about Seven Deadly Sins.

Also, feel free to message me on Twitter!

If you feel that you have benefited from today’s class, then please check out my KoFi page, where you can donate $3 to “buy me a coffee” to help me keep producing free resources like this. Do not feel pressure to do so, but small contributions can go a long way for creators like me.

Until next time, my friends!

Blog

Entering Carcosa Part 4: True Detective

Television can be trivial, populist, unadventurous and mind-rotting – but it can also be brilliant. At its best, television can certainly be an epic form. Its long-running series structure allows for incredible scope and ambition, beyond that of a movie, whilst also maintaining cohesion and intensity. One only has to look at examples of recent television extravaganzas, such as HBO’s Game of Thrones, to see the epic potential of television. Game of Thrones is overtly epic, with its high-fantasy setting, dragons, wars, and tremendous cast, drawing on the historical events of the War of the Roses and Fall of the Caesars, as well as on Tolkien’s corpus for inspiration. However, in this series, Entering Carcosa, we are looking for the less obvious epics, the ones that ask us to re-evaluate epic values or styles in intriguing ways. A story doesn’t need to be told over eight seasons to be epic. In fact, one of my favourite television series of all time is True Detective, told in a mere eight episodes. For the purposes of this article I will be focusing only on the first season, which I believe stands alone as an epic.

On the surface of things, HBO’s True Detective seems insufficient in scope to be called ‘epic’. Compared to the complex, world-spanning military drama of Metal Gear Solid, or the intergalactic wars of the Horus Heresy, a series of killings on the Louisiana bayou seem relatively small-scale. However, True Detective uses symbolic significance to elevate the narrative to a timeless story about good and evil. In essence, the entire series is an extended metaphor for something deeper. Director Cary Fukunaga’s awesome cinematography  draws out the concurrent themes and moods of Nic Pizzolatto’s writing. Again, a collaborative epic effort.

‘It’s all just one story, man… Light versus dark’. These lines are uttered minutes from the series’ close, yet True Detective never strays into hackneyed simplicity. Its characters are grey, complex, and at times downright repugnant. In the first episode, Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) asks Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey): ‘Do you ever wonder if you’re a bad man?’, to which Cohle responds: ‘The world needs bad men, Marty.’ The oldest epics challenged the idea of good and evil as clear-cut definitions. Odysseus is a heroic leader who is trying to do what is right. But he is not perfect. Unlike his wife, Penelope, who remains faithful to him throughout his 20 year voyage home, Odysseus strays, betraying Penelope with both the sorceress Circe and Kalypso. True Detective pushes the envelope even further, showing us two despicable anti-heroes and asking the question of whether their ultimate good deeds outweigh their sins.

The Odyssey is certainly one of the three key models for True Detective. The show spans a twenty year period, paralleling the time-frame for Odysseus’ voyage home. In particular, it focuses on three periods: 1992, 2002 and 2012. It begins in media res in 2012, as Marty Hart and Rust Cohle are called into their old office to be interviewed about a recent killing in the same ritualistic style as the ones they dealt with in 1992. Marty Hart very much typifies an Odysseus character. He is quick-witted, personable, and naturally looked-to for leadership, earning promotions fast. He is also unfaithful to his wife Maggie (Michelle Monaghan), unable to resist the lure of younger women. Rust, on the other hand, is very unlike Odysseys. Though he is a thinker, he is alienating to those around him. His atheistic, nihilistic worldview and self-punishing asceticism trouble those he comes into contact with. He experiences visions, which he dismisses as the result of his years infiltrating a drug cartel, though he admits at times they feel like: ‘A mainline to the secret truth of the universe’. These issues stem from the death of his daughter, a death which psychologically scars him and destroyed his marriage.

If Rust is based on anyone, it is in fact, ironically, Jesus, the Bible crucifixion story being the second key influence on True Detective. The more I watch the series, the more obvious it becomes. Like Jesus, Rust is a radical social reformer un-intimidated by social opinion. Rust speaks in imperative language, a trait of Jesus’ speech patterns. In addition, Rust uses religion (even though he claims not to believe in it) to extract confessions, breaking down his subjects until they ask him for forgiveness. His monk-like existence (in a minimalist room with no furnishings) echoes Jesus’ humble origins and nature. Rust’s only notable decoration in his room is a crucifix. He claims he doesn’t ‘believe’ in it, but likes to meditate on ‘the garden’ (aka, of Gethesmane) and how Christ was willingly able to give up his life for others. Rust Cohle’s name is almost an echo of the meaning of Adam’s name in Hebrew, which means ‘red’ or ‘earth’ – Jesus was thought to be ‘Adam come again’, a kind of new beginning for mankind. I could go on and on about the many parallels, but it has already been written about at length by other writers.

In this image, Rust most resembles Christ, with the long hair and blackened eye, having offered himself up as a sacrifice to defeat the killer. He receives a wound in his side (much like the Spear of Destiny pierced Jesus). Rust returns from his death-coma, again echoing Christ.

 

Suffice to say, we have here a story about two modern interpretations of mythological/theological heroes. Rust, in particular, certainly qualifies for the epic description. He is from an unusual place, Alaska, where the ‘stars are brighter’, a far-out world to the deep, warm South of Louisiana. However, he moved to Texas, away from his home and father, in a way self-orphaning. He has a magical power, which are his visions – visions which often help him on his case – and his synaesthesia, a condition which confuses the translation of senses by the brain, meaning he can taste ‘psycho-spheres’ and smells. Rust has an obvious sense of justice – he is a homicide detective, after all, and a good one. He possesses a special red toolbox of equipment which is hidden away under the boards of his house containing AK-47s, grenades and other tools, such as a liquid concoction and syringe for simulating drug-use (which he uses to re-infiltrate a biker gang). Rust has a tragic flaw, which is his nihilism and lack of belief, which is healed in a moment of true catharsis at the end of the story.

Marty and Rust must hunt down a serial killer who has secretly, in the shadows, been haunting Louisiana for some time. Like the epic Beowulf, a ‘monster’ resides at the heart of the story as the central obstacle to be overcome. Or perhaps more aptly, like Theseus and the Minotaur, which I believe is the third significant narrative influence for True Detective. At the end of the tale, when the killer is finally tracked down, Rust and Marty enter a literal labyrinth filled with the bones of decades of raped and murdered children. They must, like Theseus, navigate this maze in order to find the monster at its heart. In Rust’s own words: ‘To realize that all your life – you know, all your love, all your hate, all your memories, all your pain – it was all the same thing. It was all the same dream, a dream that you had inside a locked room, a dream about being a person. And like a lot of dreams, there’s a monster at the end of it.’ This profound philosophy and soliloquy, reflections on the nature of existence itself, is another reason True Detective can be considered epic.

Scope is one thing, but we already know style maketh the epic. True Detective has style in abundance. The script is labyrinthine in itself, full of nuances and complexities that reward subsequent viewings. It shifts from black comedy to poetry to sordidness effortlessly. In the second episode, Rust looks around at the desolate town and says: ‘This place is like somebody’s memory of a town, and the memory’s fading…’ A beautiful poetic image (and extended metaphor) that perfectly encapsulates both their bleak surroundings but also Rust’s more spiritual, artistic character. Marty’s put-down is hilariously delivered and salt-of-the-Earth: ‘Stop saying shit like that.’ Whilst some people have said they found the series difficult to get into because of the way the characters talk (and I can’t disagree the thick Southern American accents and phrases are hard to decipher, particularly for non-US audiences), it is this very thing which elevates it. There is a rhythm and metre to even the most banal exchange of insults, the most libidinous comment, the most corporate excuse. Like Shakespeare, you have to tune your ear, but once you break in, your mind picks up the meanings.

Both men act as guides for each other at different points in the story. Throughout the investigation, the relationship between Marty and Rust and which of them is most dominant swings. Rust drives many of the investigative breakthroughs, but it is Marty who is able to buy them more time with his superiors, who are ever more eager to hand it over to the task force and be rid of it. Marty smooths things over with Rust and the others, guiding him through the social malaise and securing his position (until their falling out in 2002). Rust encourages Marty to love his wife and be a better man. This alternation subverts the idea of a guide in the traditional epic sense. Neither one is the ultimate guide, both in turn have their strengths and weaknesses.

In addition, True Detective frequently plays with our expectations for their characters. For example, Marty claims: ‘I was steady and Rust was smart’. At first, we believe him. Rust seems a genius, Marty seems a great ‘family man’. But later, the series challenges this. Marty ultimately cracks the case. His comment about Rust, that he has a ‘tendency for myopia’ proves correct. However, Marty is inconstant in that he is unfaithful to his wife and friends, and suffers from wild mood swings. His hypocrisy, as well, when dealing with the two teenage boys who slept with his daughter is palpable, the very definition of unsteady.

Rust, on the other hand, though seemingly an intellectual giant, is ultimately not the one to make the final case breakthrough, as his thinking and worldview is mono. But, he is the one who never gives up on solving the case and understands its true, wider implications. Even when it seems that he and Marty’s relationship will be irreparably destroyed by Rust’s liaison with Maggie, he does not fight Marty with his full strength, suffering significant injury through holding back, remaining bizarrely loyal to him. Similarly, in the early days of their relationship, he never gave away to Maggie that Marty was betraying her – whilst also never directly lying to Maggie (this kind of masterful ‘treading of the line’ is also another reason he is comparable to Jesus, who was legendary for his ability to circumnavigate very ensnaring questions and accusations). Rust, in fact, is so remarkable not because of his speeches or philosophy, but because of the sheer depth of his integrity. He is the ‘true’ detective of the title, who remains unshakeably loyal to his purpose no matter what.

Arguably, the two interviewing officers Maynard Gillbough (Michael Potts) and Thomas Papania (Tory Kittles) are also guides as they force Rust and Marty to go back through their past and details of the investigation. This is an intriguing play again on the trope, as Maynard and Thomas are actually really trying to wrong-foot Rust, Marty and also Maggie – whom they interview towards the end. Though they do end up doing the right thing at the close of the investigation, trusting Marty and providing backup when he makes the call, they are antagonists for the majority of the series, as well as guides for the audience and their interviewees.

I’ve said there are three key story influences on True Detective: The Odyssey, Theseus and the Minotaur, and the Bible, but there is also a fourth key influence on the setting, which is the mythos of the Yellow King, particularly the collection by Robert W. Chambers: The King in Yellow. Now, we finally come to the title of this series. Entering Carcosa. Carcosa is a mystical land ruled by the King in Yellow in Robert W. Chambers’ stories. The King In Yellow is not only a personage in this world, however, but also the name of a play in the ‘real’ world. Reading this play drives you insane and brings the phantasmagorical to life.

Carcosa itself is only hazily described in Robert W. Chambers’ tales. We get the sense of a kind of fantastical realm warped by ancient ruins, colossal lakes, sprawling beneath a sky full of ‘black stars’. Carcosa is mentioned several times in True Detective as the place to which Rust is ultimately being drawn for his final confrontation with the killer, who may be the King in Yellow, or an incarnation of him. Carcosa seems both a spiritual dimension beyond the veil of reality and a physical space (the labyrinth at the end). In a brilliant scene in the final episode, Rust experiences a vision where the firmament opens up and a swirling vortex of stars pours down into the darkness. The gate to Carcosa itself, or just another hallucination resulting from neural damage? Rust’s visions seem to become more frequent the closer he gets to the killer. Could he have glimpsed something beyond the real? Or does it mean, as Rust is told by the killer that: ‘You’re in Carcosa now’ – he has already crossed over.

Carcosa, needless to say, is a metaphor for hell. By using cosmic, Lovecraftian horror (Robert W. Chambers was a tremendous influence on Lovecraft), True Detective neatly sidesteps the well-worn path of so many horror movies, instead giving us something more sinister, evasive and mysterious. Carcosa is a place, a state of mind, but also – most importantly of all – a feeling. It is not-quite-rightness embodied. It is Rust’s skin-crawling sensation that the town is not real, just a ‘memory of a town’. It is Marty’s feeling that his life is ‘slipping through [his] fingers’. Carcosa is the hell that creeps up on us in unexpected moments, the constant threat that the universe is not quite right. Rust feeds his interviewers cosmic theology, claiming that ‘Time is a flat circle’, that we live the same life over and over again and can never escape it. This morbid nihilism is thought, by some, to be merely a smokescreen to wrong-foot the investigators, but I think at some deep level Rust believes it. He believes there is something wrong with the world. That more than anything else is Carcosa. True Detective brilliantly subverts the epic by bringing Hell to Earth, but not in an obvious way. It brings it to us in the insidious doubts of our lives.

The references to The King in Yellow also serve as a kind of subversion of the invocation to the Muse. The King in Yellow is worshipped by many people in the story secretly, and the pervasiveness of his worship is only truly known at the end of the series. As the story unfolds, the king becomes an increasingly sinister presence, felt in every scene but never quite seen. There is a feeling that the Yellow King is the one controlling events, leading the story where it needs to go. The muse has become a frightening demonic force in the narrative.

On a side note, there is much debate about who, truly, the Yellow King is. Is it Errol Childress, the Killer? That would be perhaps the most obvious solution, but the killer does not identify himself as the king. In fact, he refers frequently to higher powers which he hopes to ‘ascend to’. Is it Rust, then? The killer refers to Rust as ‘My little prince…’ (incidentally, ticking another box for epic heroes: royalty). Does this suggest he has a place in Carcosa too, a lineage? Or, most weirdly of all, is it mundane Marty? Marty’s second name, Hart, weirdly chimes with the antlers the killer attaches to many of his victims’ heads. The antlers are described by Rust as a ‘crown’. There is also a moment when Marty steps into a club in search of one of the drug dealers who might be supplying the killer with his LSD cocktail, a concoction he uses to presumably make his victims more compliant. A ray of yellow light falls across Marty, illuminating him. Coincidence or deeper meaning? It is, after all, Marty who finally closes the case. Never has the Muse been imbued with such a sense of mystery.

Ultimately, the epic can be expressed in so many different ways, but all epics tap into something deep within us. A craving for a higher narrative of existence. A sense of cosmology – aka, an order to the universe, an explanation why things are the way they are, whether that be visualising mountains as the result of a tap-dancing god, the rivers as the seed of a giant bull, or an understanding the disharmony of life as the result of a deeper struggle against cosmic darkness. Metal Gear Solid, The Horus Heresy and True Detective are vastly different works, and all of them have had many hands in their creation, but they are unified in the way they help us to define who we are and what heroism is. In an era of increasing deceit and cowardice, where no good deed goes unpunished and no crime goes swept under the carpet, we need epic narrative, and definitions of heroism, more than ever before.

X

We’ve now come to the end of this series. I do hope you enjoyed it, it was an absolute pleasure to write. I would love to have your suggestions for other modern epics so that I can write more of these articles in the future. A few of you already have recommended some stuff, so I’m going to spend some time checking it out. Who knows, part 5 might be coming sooner than you think! Thanks for being there.

If you want to find out more, or ask me any questions, feel free to leave a comment on my website, or to message me on Twitter!

If you feel that you have benefited from today’s class, then please check out my KoFi page, where you can donate $3 to “buy me a coffee” to help me keep producing free resources like this. Do not feel pressure to do so, but small contributions can go a long way for creators like me.

Until next time, my friends!

Blog

Entering Carcosa Part 3: The Horus Heresy

Welcome back to Carcosa, mortal! In this series, I’m discussing the modern epic, deep-diving some unusual examples of the form that speak to our times. If you’ve missed parts 1 and 2 of this series, never fear, you can find them at the links below:

PART 1: THE EPIC ISN’T DEAD (INTRODUCTION)

PART 2: METAL GEAR SOLID

If you’re up to date, then let’s jump right in to part 3!

Before the existence of copyright, storytelling was more communal. It was not only okay to borrow one writer’s ideas and expand upon them, but encouraged. Just be sure you did it better than the original lest you lose face. In Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic of circa 900 AD, we are treated to an abridged version of the German legend of Sigmund. Within the tale of Beowulf itself is reference to another legend, one that influences the titular hero. Homer’s stories, too, refer to other Greek legends, probably penned/told by contemporaries or predecessors of Homer. There is even a common misconception that The Iliad tells the story of the destruction of Troy, including the Trojan Horse. In fact, The Iliad ends with the moving funeral of Hector. The story of the Trojan Horse is filled out in another incomplete poem and briefly alluded to in The Odyssey. The escape of the Trojan people and their journey to the promised land of Latium, which would be founded as Italy and Rome, is a tale told by Virgil hundreds of years later in his epic The Aeneid, a story that casts new light on Troy and re-moulds Odysseus (not entirely convincingly, I must say) as a villain as opposed to the clever hero we knew.

What is clear is that this story was so vast, so inspirational and intriguing, that it was like lucrative ore, loaded with rich minerals and gold. Much like Lovecraft’s mythos, it has been mined and mined for generations. Shakespeare re-imagined Troy again in the 17th Century with Troilus & Cressida, focusing on overlooked characters and giving a shocking twist to the Achilles myth. 2750 years after the original Iliad, David Gemmell would write his own novel trilogy, Troy, offering yet another re-imagining of the city’s fall from a soldiers-on-the-ground perspective, effortlessly modernising a mythic narrative about gods and monstrous warriors. All these authors have offered their own contribution to this grand, mythic tale, making it into the rich tapestry we know today.

The creation of the Horus Heresy series by Black Library, Games Workshop’s publishing wing, harks back to this ancient mode of storytelling. The tale of the Heresy is set in the future, using sci-fi technology such as gene-seeding, biological enhancement, and bionics to re-imagine the heroes and magic of older narratives, although later in the story real gods do also play a part; the negative emotions of mankind have birthed four atrocious horrors in the warp, the iconic Chaos Gods: Khorne, God of Bloodshed and War, Nurgle, Lord of Decay and Death, Slaanesh, Master of Excess, Pleasure and Pain, and Tzeentch, The Fate-Weaver, God of Knowledge and Changer of Ways. Just as the Greek and Roman authors had their pantheon of deities which were integral to the narrative, the Horus Heresy creates its own pantheon of dark gods and also demi-god heroes in the form of the all-important super-enhanced Space Marines of the Adeptus Astartes and their leaders: The Primarchs. Milton evolved the Christian framework by creating his own ‘orders’ out of Satan’s legions and the nine hierarchies of angels, but the Horus Heresy goes one step further in creating something entirely new, using old cabalistic gods (Khorne/Kharneth) and Sumerian deities (Nurgle), among other influences, as inspiration.

The story takes place some 10,000 years prior the events of the grimdark Warhammer 40,000 game but thousands of years after The Great Crusade, which was the Emperor of Mankind’s attempt to colonise the known galaxy with his legions of Space Marines (thus locating the story in media res, a middle-point in a much larger story). The narrative spans hundreds of worlds, with a myriad of characters from different races, religions, military chapters and hidden cults (so many characters in fact that all the books have a dramatis personae at the front to ensure we know who everyone is – literal epic catalog). The depth of lore is such that this is not a story that can be written by one person. Like the Fall of Troy, many writers have contributed to the task. Currently, there have been 52 books in the series (plus accompanying audiobooks), with stories by well over 20 authors. In 2019, the series will end with a book entitled The Buried Dagger.

The Horus Heresy unashamedly borrows elements of Christian theology (The Emperor of Mankind a kind of god-figure betrayed by his favoured Luciferic son Horus Lupercal), as well as Egyptian, Norse and Indian legends and myths. It is, for lack of a more elegant phrase, a melting pot of mythological ideas, taking the best of everything and forming it into an epic Science Fiction extravaganza that tackles themes of brotherhood, betrayal, sacrifice, redemption and faith. The Primarchs, commanders of the vast Space Marine chapters each gifted with one facet of the Emperor’s personality (much like the Egyptian gods are each a facet of Ra’s personality), are also like Christ’s apostles, except there are 18 of them (originally there were 20, but 2 were lost in the warp never to be recovered).

In a similar vein, though Horus and his relationship to his literal creator, The Emperor, parallels the Christian dynamic of Satan and God, the Horus Heresy feels like a Greek tragic play more than Milton’s rebel-narrative of Paradise Lost. Horus is a tragically conflicted figure. He stands against his father’s hypocrisy and lies, seeking to reveal the truth to his loyal battle-brothers. The Emperor has created the Primarchs, and his Space Marine legions, using Chaos itself, the very thing the Emperor decries as heresy. The Emperor punishes all those who come into contact with Chaos, including his own gene-son, the Primarch Magnus the Red, whom the Emperor imbued with his psychic attunement (and therefore natural affinity and ability to communicate with Chaos). Is it Magnus’ fault he is drawn to the warp when the very trait he has been bestowed by the Emperor is his psychic power?

In the process of trying to overthrow his father, Horus becomes corrupted by Chaos himself, a dramatic irony of epic proportions. Ultimately, in his quest to defeat the Emperor, he loses everything, even the very things which first positively separated him from his monomaniacal father-figure. Horus was once the ‘most loved’ of the Primarchs, a charismatic leader who unified the legions despite their differences. He achieved this through his understanding of human psychology, able to relate and listen to his brothers as well as ordinary ‘un-enhanced’ human beings, the ‘lesser mortals’ of the Warhammer universe. The Emperor, on the other hand, is aloof and often fails to understand human thinking. For example, he names Horus ‘The Warmaster’, placing him ‘First Among Equals’, thus setting him above his Primarch brethren, a mistake anyone with any understanding of the human heart can immediately see will lead to dire consequences. In one scene of hilarious meta-commentary, Malcador, the Emperor’s loyal regent, remarks that many of the problems with the Primarchs could have been averted had they been created as women. Again, a severe oversight on the Emperor’s part.

During the course of the heresy, Horus becomes embittered, ruthless and uncaring, unwilling to listen to the tactical advice of his brothers, and throwing away allies on a whim. He loses his ability to connect with people and understand the human heart, in a bizarre way, turning into a mirror of the xenophobic, egocentric, patriarchal godhead of the Emperor, the very thing he wanted to oppose. There is a wonderful moment of clarity in the audiobook Warmaster (John French) that illustrates the influences of Greek tragedy on the story, when Horus reflects that the nine Primarchs who have turned upon the Emperor to aid him are the ones he holds in least regard. As he cradles the skull of his former friend, the Loyalist Primarch Ferrus Manus (a scene which directly parallels Hamlet), Horus laments that he has only ‘broken things’, monsters, and psychopaths, at his side, not real men of strategy and conviction like Ferrus. All the people he admires are fighting on the Emperor’s side. He wishes he could make them see reason, and already cannot see that the very thing he admires in them is the thing which means they will never side with him.

Stylistically, the writing in the series varies in tone. It has to, given there are so many hands on deck. However, all of the Heresy stories are unified by the faux-Latin of the Imperium and the archaic technology; remember, epics bridge the past and future. The arcane technology of the Warhammer universe is more like Fantasy than true Science Fiction, a re-creation of the Triremes of ancient Greece, save they battle in the cold gulf of space rather than the sea. But deeper even than that, the formality of military discourse is used as a clever way to write dialogue in an elevated, regal style that doesn’t slip into parody, or sound like the many hackneyed Fantasy novels that imitate epic speech in clumsy ways. They tread the line between modern and fable, and it works. Whilst the prose is more of a ‘hard-boiled’ affair, it nonetheless uses the presence of the warp, and the grandeur of the battles and characters, to make way for sublime imagery that transcends simple action sci-fi or space opera. Particularly when it is in the hands of writers such as Dan Abnett and Aaron Demski-Bowden, who craft their novels with the loving, painstaking artistry of poets. These writers use thematic riffs and motifs, bringing lines of resonant dialogue back in compelling and surprising ways, much as Homer uses repeated images ‘Dawn showed her rosy fingers’, for emotive effect. In one of the most dramatic examples of this, Dan Abnett takes the iconic battle-cry of the Space Marines: ‘For the Emperor!’, and twists it on its head at the end of his novel Legion, making it into a chilling declaration of a sunken costs fallacy. The line is delivered by the character you least expect to say it, and in a manner that is a perfect juxtaposition of ideal versus reality. For the Emperor is a battlecry of an old era, the Great Crusades, not of this time now when things are much more complicated. As such, there is a kind of ‘call and response’ effect in many of these novels, authors giving us new spins on characters first created and explored by other writers.

But what of our epic hero? Well, there are many heroes and villains in this vast saga, but Horus must be the central character. The heresy is, after all, named after him. Like Milton’s depiction of Satan, Horus is an anti-hero, someone we route for but who we know is ultimately wrong and must fail. He hails from Cthonia, a planet of gang-lords and industrial conflict (unusual place and orphaned) where he swiftly rose to power. He is one of the 20 Primarchs, super-enhanced with incredible speed, strength, reactions and healing abilities (unusual power and royal heritage). Horus, however, seems more powerful than even his super-powered brothers, being the ‘first son’ to be found by the Emperor and therefore benefiting from direct one-to-one tutelage from him. Only one of the other Primarchs was thought to be a match for Horus, and that was Sanguinius of the Blood Angels. Even then, Horus is purported to have slain Sanguinius in the final battle of the Heresy aboard the ship: Vengeful Spirit. Horus has a sense of justice, which is why he opposes his father in the first place, though this is corroded and warped over time by the malignant influence of the Dark Gods. He wields the Talon of Horus, a master-crafted Lightning Claw forged in the depths of Mars, as well as a mace called World Breaker, which was forged by the Emperor himself. He is armoured in a suit called the Serpent’s Scales which is surrounded by a force-field (special equipment). His tragic flaw is his ambition, paralleling Shakespeare’s Macbeth. This ambition ultimately blinds him, sending him going down the wrong path. Ironically, it is also the trait he has inherited from his gene-father. Horus was encouraged to be ambitious, because the Emperor saw it as a strength and saw himself in Horus above all the others. Sadly, the Emperor should have instead tempered Horus’ ambition. Horus himself thought that Sanguinius (whom he admired above all other Primarchs, and which makes his murder of Sanguinius all the more tragic), should have been the Warmaster, for he truly embodied the Emperor’s spirit. If Horus had instead been the right hand man and aid to Sanguinius, the galaxy might have been all the better for it.

Horus has many guides, all of which seem to mislead him and take him down the wrong path, such as the Word Bearers Erebus and Kor Phaeron. In later books, Maloghurst, a dark sorcerer, takes over the role, nursing Horus as he lies wounded by the Spear of the Emperor and entering his dreams. All of these prophets, priests and guides are really extensions, however, of the Dark Gods themselves, whose true aim is to neutralise the Emperor, who is too powerful a threat to them. Unfortunately, all this at the expense of Horus. The Horus Heresy really subverts the idea of the ‘epic guide’ altogether by showing us that sometimes common sense and intuition – which is what guides most of the heroic loyalists in the narrative – is a better compass than false philosophy or ideals. Horus is corrupted by over-thinking and scheming. If he had listened to his heart, he might have thrown off the influences of his heretical brethren.

Lastly, hell. Hell is ever-present in the Warhammer universe in the form of The Eye. No, not the Eye of Sauron, though clearly there is an allusion there to a previous epic, but the Eye of the Warp, a great vortex-portal in space that leads to the kingdom of the Dark Gods. There are many instances where, either through dreams or literal tears in reality, Horus and his servants (and even some of the Loyalist Space Marines) must go to the Eye, and chance an encounter with the Dark Gods and their servants. In one particularly memorable scene in Vengeful Spirit (Graham McNeill) Horus enters a portal on the planet Molech (Molech perhaps a corruption of moloch, the plant that Odysseus must consume in order to resist the magic of Circe). This portal was once used by the Emperor to reach the stronghold of the Dark Gods. With the powers the Emperor found therein, he created the Primarchs and the Adeptus Astartes. We do not follow Horus through the portal. He returns moments later. Millennia have passed for him, more than millennia in fact; Horus has visibly aged, which is impossible, given that the Primarchs supposedly live forever. Horus led demonic armies and brought thousands of worlds to his heel in this time. He effectively conquered hell itself. He returned to use his newfound knowledge to destroy the Emperor once and for all.

This is really secondary to the true hellish descent of the narrative, however, which is the descent of Horus’ mind. While the Warp is ever-present and literal, it is nothing compared to the horrors of Horus’ corrupted morality, and his continual descent through the many entries in the series. Horus commits many atrocities, including chemical bombing his own brethren from orbit after they make planetfall. The ‘drop-site massacre’, as it later comes to be known, is one of the most visceral, heart-rending, awful moments in the entire series, where many characters we love are obliterated without a chance to fight and die honourably: the true desire of any Space Marine. He robs them of dignity in his betrayal. The real hell is Horus’ and his corrupted followers’ minds, not the Eye itself, which is merely a mirror image of all the hatred, fear and negative emotion of human and alien kind. This powerful subversion is what makes the Horus Heresy work, and what has made it so successful and enduringly popular with fans. Without this psychological depth, it would merely be Myths in Space.

X

We’ve now come to the end of part 3 of this series. I do hope you enjoyed it. In part 4, the final part, we’ll look at our third example of a ‘modern epic’, a hit TV series… If you want to find out more, or ask me any questions, feel free to leave a comment on my website, or to message me on Twitter!

If you feel that you have benefited from today’s class, then please check out my KoFi page, where you can donate $3 to “buy me a coffee” to help me keep producing free resources like this. Do not feel pressure to do so, but small contributions can go a long way for creators like me.

Until next time, my friends!

Blog

Entering Carcosa Part 2: Metal Gear Solid

Welcome back to Carcosa, mortal! In this continuation of my series on the modern epic, we’ll be discussing one of my favourite stories of all time. I hope that in reading this analysis, you will see places where you can draw from this rich well for your own work, and find ways to expand your narrative from ordinary to epic. So, let us begin.

It’s no secret to those who know me that I love Hideo Kojima’s legendary Metal Gear Solid series. But one of the reasons I love it so much is that I consider it a modern epic. Video-games have delivered some of the most iconic stories and characters of the last thirty years. They stand on their own as valid artistic works. Not only that, but they culturally connect with a vast, vast number of people in a way that films and poetry increasingly don’t. Statistics have shown more young people play games than watch films. In some ways, films have become a cinephile niche, save for the one or two major blockbusters that draw colossal numbers. Whilst games are anchored with technology (therefore it becomes more difficult to play older titles as technology advances), this is no different from how epics are anchored to language. Who now speaks Ancient Greek? Very few among us, except perhaps within Greece itself, where it is compulsory and they are aided by the affinity of their modern language with the ancient one. Yet, The Odyssey can be read and enjoyed in translation around the world. So, too, can Metal Gear Solid be enjoyed in English (translated from the original Japanese) and by those with older consoles, emulators or even by those willing to purchase premium ‘remasters’ of the game that overhaul graphical fidelity and allow games to be played on later consoles. Of course, there is irony in this, as Metal Gear Solid is itself an exploration of technology and its relentless advance; the eponymous ‘Metal Gear’ represents a threat to the world, a mobile robotic walker capable of launching a nuke from anywhere.

I believe Metal Gear Solid has surpassed pretty much all other video-games in terms of its storytelling. This is because it reaches for that lofty trophy of the epic. Kojima-san is someone who clearly, intuitively, understands what constitutes an epic, and how to execute it. Tackling tremendous themes such as nuclear proliferation and the horrors of modern warfare alongside subtle emotional complexities such as the sins of parenthood (especially fatherhood), friendship and love, the epic scope cannot be questioned. He has learned from Western and Eastern masters alike, and synthesised the best of both to create something truly unique. Despite his cinematic leanings, Kojima-san uses a 5 Act structure in most of his stories (overtly dividing Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots with five title screens). This undoubtedly takes its precedence from Greek tragedy and the work of Shakespeare, themselves epic influences.

In creating Solid Snake, Kojima-san has created an iconic epic hero, rivalling the greats of cinema such as Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name or Kurt Russell’s Snake Plissken (off whom Solid Snake was certainly based). But how does Snake fit the epic archetype? Well, he’s a clone for a start (his unusual origin, royal genealogy and unusual power in one), inheriting the inferior genes of Big Boss, a legendary special operative gone rogue. Even though he has inherited the ‘inferior’ genes, Snake is not to be dismissed: his abilities are super-human, with lightning-fast reflexes and above-average toughness and strength. He inherently has a sense of right and wrong, of justice, even though he has been trained to kill from an early age. In a cold yet heartbreaking moment of self awareness, he says: ‘Unfortunately, killing is one of those things that gets easier the more you do it.’

Left: Snake Plissken from John Carpenter’s “Escape From New York”, played by Kurt Russel / Right: Venom Snake from Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

Snake uses specialist kit – including stealth camouflage, nano-machines, and high-tech weaponry – employed by only the most elite military units (magical equipment). His clone origin means he was not raised by his true parents (orphaned), but instead trained from birth to be part of FOXHOUND. Jokingly, Snake believes his smoking addiction to be his major flaw, but this is superseded by his real physical weakness which is a form of Werner’s disease, a byproduct of his artificial creation, leading to extremely accelerated ageing. In an emotional sense, Snake’s tragic flaw is his inability to form true human relationships, his lack of trust, meaning that even those closest to him feel they don’t know him. It is only by overcoming this weakness, trusting his friends, that he can defeat his nemesis Liquid Snake, his clone brother, at the close of Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots. It should be noted that the fourth instalment in the game’s series is actually the last one chronologically. Like a true epic, Metal Gear Solid’s story is told out of order. In terms of narrative chronology, the ‘first’ game is Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, followed by V, followed by 1, then 2, then 4.

Kojima-san’s invocation to the Muse is not a one time thing, but an ever-present trope through the series, in that he auteuristically homages movies and television that have informed his work. The style and characters of Metal Gear Solid are heavily influenced by John Carpenter’s Escape From New York, and many scenes reference and recall this iconic cult-classic, including one scene in Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty in which Snake, asked to reveal his identity, gives the codename: Iroquois Plissken. In Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots, there are many uses of the ‘split-screen’, showing multiple threads of action at once, which is almost certainly a direct homage to the American TV series 24 which aired its first series 7 years prior to MGS4. 24 has many obvious thematic and plot similarities with Kojima-san’s work (spies, espionage, terrorism, how war breaks down human relationships). Later, Kiefer Sutherland, who plays 24’s legendary agent Jack Bauer, would voice Venom Snake in Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain, and go on to collect an award (Game of the Year) on behalf of Hideo Kojima when Konami, the developer Kojima-san previously worked for, refused to allow him to attend the ceremony. Here, the Muse is not only invoked but becomes part of the story. There is direct interplay between inspiration and output.

The split-screen action culminates in Metal Gear Solid 4 in one of the most iconic gaming scenes of all time, a scene in which the player must force Solid Snake through a microwave emitting corridor in order to disarm Liquid’s all-pervading digital control system, a system which will give him absolute control over warfare across the globe. On one screen, we see Snake literally coming apart at the seams, the microwaves frying musculature and braincells. On the other, we see his friends, Otacon, Raiden, Meryl, Johnny, Dreben, Mei Ling, fighting for their very lives against impossible odds. This scene is brilliant because it forces us to watch beloved characters fall, their last resistance against Liquid’s superior armies crumbling before our eyes, giving us all the incentive we need to force Snake on, even though he himself, a character we have known and loved for 20 years, is falling apart. Through its framing, it becomes a culmination of seemingly every war ever fought, the entirety of human suffering, condensed into a 5 minute sequence. The further we push Snake down that corridor, the worse it gets. In the background, a piece of music aptly entitled ‘Love Theme’ plays with sorrowful, funereal strength. Snake’s love is what sets him apart from his clone brothers Liquid and Solidus, and his corrupted father Big Boss. Although he is not perfect, he is more human than all of them. Broken, aged, he gives everything, redefining heroism for our era.

Kojima-san’s games subvert the tropes of video-games, that of killing to win, by forcing the player to focus on stealth and espionage. Avoidance of conflict is the solution, and this is reflected in the gameplay as well as in the cinematic storytelling; at the end of the series, it’s about passively enduring something un-endurable. He takes his influence from the Japanese writer Kobo Abe, who wrote: ‘The rope and the stick are two of humankind’s oldest tools. The stick to keep evil at a bay, the rope to bring that which is good closer, both were the first friends conceived by humankind. The rope and stick were wherever humankind was to be found’ (The Rope). The idea is that we use the stick to destroy things, and this is the predominant narrative focus of most games, movies and books, but there is an alternative path – that of the rope. Kojima-san discussed this philosophy at length an article for Rolling Stone. This not only subverts video-game tropes, but epic ones. In The Odyssey and The Iliad, killing is at the heart of the narrative, and is the method by which the heroes overcome most of their problems. Whilst the violence is not always justified or portrayed in a positive light (in a tragic scene in The Odyssey, Odysseus ‘weeps’ to hear Achilles described like a ‘human being’), it nonetheless proves the ultimate solution. Kojima-san creates an epic in which violence is a tragic reality, but not the ultimate resort of the true hero. Snake rises above violence in entering the corridor. He can’t fight the corridor, he simply must survive it, crawling on his belly (like a snake) to reach the end.

Stylistically, the use of the split-screen and music to generate such emotion is certainly epic. It has grandeur, ambition, and homages other epic tales that have gone before it. Like Orpheus, who was told never to look back as he walked from hell with the soul of his wife behind him, Snake cannot look back down the corridor. If he does, he will weaken and turn back. He must keep going forward through hell itself and trust his friends can hold just long enough. Similarly, epic catalog is employed frequently through the Metal Gear Solid series. Endless names, ranks, numbers, data, historical events, political treaties, technology and more are described and referenced, and you can call your allies on your Codec to get more information at any time. Military acronyms, tech-jargon, cutting edge science, are spliced with rich philosophy and poetic sentiment: ‘I’m a shadow that no light will shine upon,’ Snake says, ‘As long as you follow me, you will never see the day.’ Not only do the characters speak in weighty monologues rich with extended metaphor and double-meaning, but the names of the characters themselves are a kind of extended metaphor. Snake is told to ‘crawl on his belly’ by Vulcan Raven in Metal Gear Solid 1, an insult referring to his codename and the fact he spends a lot of time, well, crawling around like the sneaky agent he is. But later we are told that ‘A name means nothing on the battlefield’. Snake is not really a snake, he is a human being.

Snake finds himself frequently descending into hell. In Metal Gear Solid 1 this is perhaps best expressed. Snake must infiltrate a secret base in the depths of freezing Alaska called Shadow Moses. Cut off from help, struggling to survive in hypothermia-inducing temperatures, the stark landscape, concealing layers and layers of military facility which he must literally descend into, becomes a kind of hell. It is even cold, much like Dante’s Inferno is at its absolute abyssal inverse-apex on the Ninth Circle. Hell literally freezes over. In Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater we follow Big Boss (Solid and Liquid Snake’s forbearer) as a young, naive soldier (not the jaded villain we know from later parts of the narrative) as he journeys into a kind of Heart of Darkness, a 1960s Soviet jungle. ‘Hell is murky’, Lady Macbeth claims in one of Shakespeare’s iconic monologues. This is eminently true of the jungle we explore in the game. But in a breathtaking scene where Big Boss must throw himself down a sheer cliff into a river to escape Soviet prison, we enter a more literal hell. Big Boss seems to die, and begins wading down a river in the dark. Suddenly, he meets the deceased member of the elite Cobra Unit, The Sorrow. The Sorrow summons the dead against Big Boss, forcing him to experience the suffering he has inflicted on others. In a brilliant twist, Kojima engineers the game so that every person you have killed confronts the player, in exactly the state you killed them. There are soldiers burning forever, clutching at slit throats, riddled with bullet-holes. It’s harrowing and punishing. The more people you’ve killed, the longer the sequence goes on for. This is true katabasis.

In terms of a guide, I’ve already mentioned a few who help Snake throughout his missions. The most significant is Snake’s friend Otacon, who takes his name from the Japanese word ‘Otaku’, which means ‘geek’. He’s an anime fan, a kind of sly wink-nod to the audience playing the game, who will most likely be fans of Japanese culture and anime themselves. He’s a cowardly scientist (pissing himself with fear the first time we meet him), but extremely intelligent, loyal, and kind. Although arguably he displays a different kind of bravery to Snake’s, trying to help undo the terrible wrongs of helping to create Metal Gear, even though he knows he will face consequences for betraying his former masters.

Metal Gear Solid is an incredible tale, told over twenty years. It’s a miracle that Kojima-san got a chance to tell it. And while his last efforts were partially scuppered by Konami at the very end (MGSV: The Phantom Pain is unfortunately unfinished – Kojima’s original plans for it would have brought the series full circle with a beautiful closing arc, but sadly this was not to be), the series still holds up without any major gaps in the tale. Epics, after all, are notorious for being left unfinished anyway. It’s part of the risk in undertaking such a vast story. Virgil’s Aeneid was half finished. On his deathbed, the Roman poet commanded it to be burned because he was disappointed with it, but the Emperor decreed that it be saved. Strangely, though Virgil had another 12 books (chapters) planned, the poem ends at a perfect, spine tingling point: ‘Turner’s soul fled murmuring, and with him fled the shades of night’ – the soul of the antagonist finally going down to hell, defeated. Similarly, Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen was purportedly half completed when he died, and yet it ends at a moment that to me perfectly encapsulates the transition from the era of the heroic and epic into the modern day, when the Blatant Beast, a creature that destroys art and sincerity, escapes from captivity to roam the world again.

But of course, the Blatant Beast cannot truly destroy beauty in the world, because there will always be epic poets, and epic stories worth telling, we simply have to look for them. Whilst epics always bridge the gap between past and present, they do not have to be backward looking, or rehashes. They can be bold, different and unique – and they can be modern. We like to think the Ancient Greeks could never have conceived of the idea of a giant walking robot with nuclear capability, but what then is Talos, the gigantic iron guardian who attempts to halt Jason and the Argonauts? Resonant imagery is eternal, echoing down through time, through generations, finding new ways of expression that are concurrent with the era we live in. At the same time, epics cause us to reconsider the world around us and our culture. Metal Gear Solid, while undoubtedly a story of war, is also its sincerest critic. It tells us that the epic is still alive and well, and that heroism exists, but not in the way we think.

X

We’ve now come to the end of part 2 of this series. I do hope you enjoyed it. In part 3, we’ll look at our second example of a ‘modern epic’, an ambitious collaborate narrative work… If you want to find out more, or ask me any questions, feel free to leave a comment on my website, or to message me on Twitter!

If you feel that you have benefited from today’s class, then please check out my KoFi page, where you can donate $3 to “buy me a coffee” to help me keep producing free resources like this. Do not feel pressure to do so, but small contributions can go a long way for creators like me.

Until next time, my friends!

Blog

Entering Carcosa Part 1: The Epic Isn’t Dead

Hello and welcome to a new four-part series, Entering Carcosa, by your friendly neighbourhood Mindflayer! In this series, I’ll be discussing what defines an epic, how they’re changing in the modern world, and I’ll explore ways in which you can shape your own epic narrative. My aim with this series is to inspire people to engage with more epics, to widen the discussion of epics to include other mediums such as video-games and serializations, and to lastly, perhaps most importantly, aid people wanting to write one themselves. So, let us begin.

Throughout time and culture, one artistic pursuit has, by and large, been held in regard above all others. This is the creation of an ‘epic’. Narrative is central to human ideology, identity, and our relationship with the world around us, it helps us make sense of things, processing both our external and internal worlds. At its deepest level, it is healing. The act of writing is therapy, catharsis, liberation. And core to the literary heart of so many cultures, peoples, tribes, religions and countries throughout the ages is the concept of an epic. A story that is greater than other stories. A story that operates on an entirely other scale. These are some of the most powerful and healing stories of all time. To write one is one of the highest forms of artistic achievement. But rarely is one written purely for praise and honour and bragging rights. They are written from a deep place. They can only be written from that deep place, which is why so many of them begin with an invocation to gods, or the Muses, or even human sources of inspiration. To write an epic is to shake the soul of a person.

Now, I can’t teach you how to write an epic. I’m not sure that’s even possible. I maintain I can teach anyone to write and that everyone has one story in them, but I’m not sure I believe everyone has an epic in them. An epic is a one in a million. An epic is lightning bottled. However, having studied epics for a long time, I think I can give you some steering on what they involve, how they work, and give you examples of recent modern and accessible works that use epic tropes. These will act like Muses in themselves, guiding your path. From there on, it’s all you. But if you really feel you have an epic in you and you’re reading this, I’m telling you: You have to write it. We need epics, like we need food, water, air. Yes, that’s not melodrama. Without them, we wither. Culture withers, human relationships wither, our sense of who we are and what life means withers. Stephen King said that art is a support system for life. Never were truer words spoken. Science helps us to live. Art gives us a reason to.

So, let’s start with an overview and go from there. Are you excited? I’m excited. I hope you have a pen and notepad ready.

OVERVIEW

Traditionally, the epic is relayed in poetic form. Some were performed by the poet, or upon a theatrical stage. Some were set down. Either way, the epics of the past are unified in poetry, although the poetic form they might be expressed in differs drastically. In recent years, it seems there has been a tailing off of epic poems, although they are certainly still being written in our time. One such example being my own father’s astounding work The English Cantos: a modern journey into hell recounting his experience in Bournemouth Hospital battling cancer. It is penned in fluid terza rima, homaging Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first three Cantos of this amazing poem have been published by the Society of Classical Poets, and are available to read for free. He continues to write it, aiming to publish 33 cantos in total. This work in progress is what I would call a poem penned in the ‘true epic style’. It tackles the issues of modernism, the disintegration of moral values and the meaninglessness of a modern world driven by profit and gratification. It uses many of the epic tropes: the invocation of the muse (calling on Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry specifically), the wise guide (in my father’s case, Dante himself, the poet who perhaps best explored hell before him), and the katabasis, the descent into hell itself.

My father is not the only one to attempt an epic poem. In the last decade, many ‘new’ epic attempts have emerged, including Tim Miller’s To the House of the Sun and Apocalypse by Frederick Turner. But, it’s safe to say that these are obscure works, not popularly known as the epics of Homer, Dante, and Milton would have been in their day, confined to study by poetry-nerds (such as my father and I) concerned with this ‘niche’. In fairness, my father’s epic is being fairly widely read, partly due to its accessibility in terms of theme (we all feel the dearth of this era), style (it is beautifully written in form that propels the narrative on, as opposed to many other modern poems written in formless free-verse), and its publication online which allows anyone to read it. However, poetry in general is not the pick of the day. How many people can truly say they regularly read poetry? It has become a niche of a niche, a subset of writing itself, whereas once it was the entire aim of it.

The long and short is, unless you are a poet of considerable experience reading this, I think it’s highly unlike you’d want to attempt an epic poem. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, of course. If you’re that way inclined, go for it. Poetry will never die. There will always be poets, and poetry, and it will always have validity. You see, epics are a bridge between past and present. Often, they refer back to a past time, but use modern language to describe it. Similarly, most epics are written when the language is young or even unformed.

To get specific, it’s thought that when Homer penned The Iliad, the first of his two major known works, around 750 BC, that the Greek language had not formally been set down prior to his writing of that book. In a way, writing The Iliad, was a way to document the rules, vocabulary and possibility of the language. In short, The Iliad may have served a dual function as an extremely beautiful grammar book. It covered the full spectrum of linguistic potential, and concretised much of the spelling and punctuation. Similarly, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales after the invasion of the Normans and the influx of French words into the language which broadened the ‘primitive’ vernacular tongue of Anglo Saxon into what scholars refer to as ‘Middle English’. Before then, the language was limited to predominantly Germanic-influenced words. Chaucer introduced Latinate and French words (and some others too) in penning his epic, vastly increasingly the potential of the language. Whilst Anglo Saxon had been around for a while, it went through an evolution when he wrote The Canterbury Tales.

This would happen again and again, particularly in English, perhaps because the language was just so darn pliable. Edmund Spenser would pen his beautiful epic fantasy romance The Faerie Queene after the language had leapt forward again in the 16th Century, eschewing many of its clunky qualifiers and taking on board many Italian poetic techniques. Shakespeare would then advance the language much, much further – only forty or so years later. In fact, we can track a distinct evolution of language through Shakespeare’s work from his early, quite archaic plays such as The Comedy of Errors, which is written in a more medieval style, right up to Hamlet, which opens with the line: ‘Who’s there?’ – practically modern English. By the time Shakespeare was done with the language, adding a plethora of words, expressions and neologisms to the dictionary, the language was unrecognisable and infinitely closer to the language we speak today. In the 17th Century, Milton was able to pen his epic Paradise Lost using an ‘argumentative’ stylein keeping with the cultural changes brought on by the Protestant Reformation (which in turn coincided with the boom of literacy and printing presses). This included the idea of religious debate in vernacular language. It opened up many wide possibilities for Milton make political and theological points within his work in a way never hitherto attempted. For example, this from the first book:

‘What in me is dark / Illumin, what is low raise and support; / That to the highth of this great Argument / I may assert Eternal Providence, /And justifie the wayes of God to men.

Just pick out the words: ‘argument’, ‘assert’, ‘justify’ – the language of a legal associate going through her case opening. But this, married and juxtaposed with the stunning, heart-breaking imagery, and the depth of incredible feeling, is what makes Paradise Lost work. So, you see, when the language evolves, it often provides new, fertile ground for writers to pen an epic. Once the ground has been well-trodden, it’s very difficult indeed to write one. And whilst our modern language is certainly changing and evolving, I’m not sure it’s changing in such a way that facilitates the writing of an epic. Normally, it is when a language expands that new possibilities for another level of storytelling emerge. However, I’d argue that many changes to our language now are merely to increase its basic functionality and efficiency. Text-speak, abbreviations, emojis. There’s nothing wrong with these (and many epics contain phrases and conflations which would have been known to people of the time), but too many of them makes writing at a feeling level difficult, because they are ultimately mechanical, designed to conserve space and time.

But does this mean the epic is dead? No, I believe it is far from it. Over the course of this series, I want to talk about what a modern epic looks like, specifically focusing in depth on three ‘epics in spirit’ that take on the tropes of the epic but express them in modern forms. These are perhaps genres or mediums you would not immediately think of when considering the ‘epic’. I hope analysing them will inspire and steer you on your course to attempting your own. There is a certain mythos, a Holy Grail allure to writing an epic, that is tantalising to almost all writers. So why not? After all, the Grail Quest is as much about the journey as the end result. Attempting it is, itself, an achievement. What the hell have we got to lose?

To conclude part 1, I’m going to run you through what I deem to be the six key tropes of the epic. There are many more than six tropes, of course. Some of the ones I will not be covering today include the ‘extended argument’ (characters, or even one character internally, debating an important or weighty theme in great detail), nationalism (many epics purport to detail the genesis of a people, even Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) or macrologia (playing with scale and size). Sadly, we do not have time to cover everything, and I’ve chosen to focus on the six ones I believe are most important to defining what an epic is and more importantly how it feels.

In parts 2 – 4, I’m going to talk about my three modern examples, and how they play with and use these tropes. Note, whilst the novel undoubtedly facilitates epic writing and epic stories, I actually don’t want to focus on the novelin its basic form too much (save in overview), because I want to get on to some more unusual examples. I think sometimes it’s easier to find inspiration from genres outside our own, and I know many of you reading this will be writing novels and avid novel-readers. Similarly, I think film is again a too obvious example, so I’ll be avoiding discussing movies, except in terms of references, stylings and allusions. So, without more ado, let us begin…

(1) DEFINING EPICS – SCOPE & SUBJECT MATTER

Part of the epic is this idea of scope. Vast, complex stories with huge casts of characters. Novels, needless to say, facilitate this rather well, as they are not restricted by factors such as audience attention-span or memory (readers can put down the book and then pick it up again – they don’t have to sit through a four-hour movie). Many obvious examples of epic novels spring to mind (I’m sure you have some too). For me, Stephen King’s The Stand has to be one, with its length, breadth of characters, and theme (subject) – the timeless battle of good and evil. Another, I would argue, is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In fact, Tolkien intentionally set out to write the ‘unwritten epic’ of the modern English language. After all, the English people had adopted the Greek and Italian epics (with Homer, Virgil & Dante), or alternatively Christian frameworks (Milton & Spenser). Tolkien wanted to create something that uniquely belonged to us, and I think it’s fairly safe to say he achieved it. In terms of recent entries, I recommend you check out Anna Smith Spark’s incredible Empires of Dust series, which is written in a fresh yet epic style that has a flavour of The Iliad’s blood-drenched intensity.

Scope and subject matter go hand in hand. Milton spent a long time thinking about what the subject of his epic would be, because he knew it would determine all the possibilities of his story. One theme he contemplated writing about was the Arthurian myths, though this had already been partly done by Edmund Spenser and Chaucer, the former of which was one of his inspirations. Eventually, Milton settled on the Christian Fall of Mankind. It should be noted that epic subjects do not always have to be original. Milton’s poem drew heavily from, of course, the Bible, but also from Anglo Saxon/Old English poetry that re-told the story of Adam and Eve to align the Christian stories with Pagan values (Genesis A & B). The Anglo Saxon poems of Genesis A & B make Eve into a complex character, seduced by knowledge, tricked by Lucifer’s superior powers, and ultimately sympathetic, as opposed to many earlier Christian narratives that blamed her for mankind’s misstep. Milton hugely incorporated this in his own re-telling. Shakespeare drew most of his stories from Roman or Greek plays, or history, and reworked the narratives to suit his ends. The long and short is that with the epic, it is as much the telling of the tale as anything else. But, you need a tale that is going to provide you with enough scope to reach epic heights.

(2) DEFINING EPICS – STYLE

Epics have a certain style about them. It is often called the ‘elevated’ style. It conveys grandeur and scale and significance. Pulling this off without sounding pompous is very difficult and something every epic writer has struggled with for millennia.

Epics are often told out of order, with a device called in media res, a Latin phrase meaning quite literally: ‘in the middle of the thing’. The stories start mid-action and work backwards and then forwards, allowing for incredible resonances and webworks of emotional complexity to be developed in a way that is more sophisticated than standard narratives.

Another part of epic style is what is called ‘epic catalog’, what I affectionately term the ‘roll call’, the listings of endless ranks, positions, people, places, events, times, dates, and items. Epics have scope, remember, and they can increase their scope by listing minutiae to give the reader a sense that this is a detailed and real world. In The Iliad, we don’t just know who the main actors are, we also know who practically every damn soldier in the Greek armada is. Many fantasy novels use this trope poorly, resulting in podgy prose that is laborious to wade through. When done well, it creates a sense of excitement and scale and three-dimensionality.

Finally, a key part of this style is the ‘extended metaphor’. Elaborate metaphors and similes, as well as comparisons, that are more developed and in-depth than standard imagery. Epics are beautiful, and should evoke beauty even in their most horrifying moments. Part of the way they can do this is with extended metaphor and beautiful imagery. They elevate an image to something else entirely.

(3) DEFINING EPICS – INVOCATION TO THE MUSE

Epics must invoke the Muse, because they are not simply stories written from the brains of writers, but divinely inspired. Epics often open, or at some point feature, a calling upon a divine entity to aid in the recital of the poem.

(4) DEFINING EPICS – THE HERO / HEROINE

The hero or heroine of an epic is often defined in very specific ways. They are:

  • often from an unusual place or land
  • they have an unusual power
  • they usually have a sense of justice (even if it is a warped one, such as Satan in Paradise Lost)
  • they possess magical weapons or equipment
  • in some way royal, or dispossessed of something that belongs to them
  • often orphaned or not raised by their true parents
  • lastly, they possess a tragic flaw, a weakness

(5) DEFINING EPICS – THE GUIDE

The hero is often guided by either another hero that has gone before them or a sage guide or counsellor. Odysseus, in Homer’s The Odyssey, is guided by the goddess of wisdom Athena. Dante is guided by Virgil in hell (and in turn my father is guided by Dante in his version of hell)! Adam is (mis)guided by Satan in Paradise Lost. Satan himself is guided by Chaos. The list goes on and on.

(6) DEFINING EPICS – KATABASIS

All heroes must descend into hell. Hence, the title of this series: Entering Carcosa. This is arguably the most important aspect of the epic, in my humble view. The hero proves himself/herself above all normal heroes or normal stories by surviving hell itself, whether literally or figuratively, is up to the writer to decide.

So, these are the six key tropes of epic literature. You have now had a potted history of predominantly Western poetic literature (as much as I would love to discuss the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, or the Chinese epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, there is simply not time – nor am I sufficiently qualified to speak on these). This should, however, give us a background to launch into discussing our first ‘modern epic’ next week, which in fact hails from Japan. Until then, adieu!

X

We’ve now come to the end of part 1 of this series. I do hope you enjoyed it. In part 2, we’ll look at our first example of a ‘modern epic’, a famous video-game series… If you want to find out more, or ask me any questions, feel free to leave a comment on my website, or to message me on Twitter!

If you feel that you have benefited from today’s class, then please check out my KoFi page, where you can donate $3 to “buy me a coffee” to help me keep producing free resources like this. Do not feel pressure to do so, but small contributions can go a long way for creators like me.

Until next time, my friends!