Epic, In Media Res, Life, and Star Wars.
The word “epic” comes from the Greek epikos or epos, which means “word” or “song”. Epics are long narrative poems that recount heroic deeds. When I think of epics I think of Iliad and Odyssey. Aeneid comes to mind, as does Chansons de Roland. Milton’s Paradise Lost and even Wordsworth’s The Prelude qualify, in my opinion, as epics. Epics have certain qualities that qualify them, such as invocations to the gods (Homer asks for inspiration from the gods; Milton asks the “Heav’nly Muse” to “sing” and “[i]nvoke thy aide to my adventurous song”), the embarkation of a hero’s journey or, my favorite, a beginning in media res.
In Media Res, your high school Humanities teacher taught, is Latin for “in the midst of things”, meaning that the story starts in the middle of a wider narrative. Iliad famously begins with a disagreement between Achilles and Agamemnon. (It also begins with Apollo leaping down from Olympus to sit on the shoreline where he mournfully and woefully launches arrows—I always saw them arch high up into a dark sky cast by the orange haze of warfare fire—into the Greek ships and army.) In Odyssey, the story begins with Odysseus gone 10 years. In modern epics like Star Wars, the Republic has fallen, Darth Vader is in hot pursuit of Princess Leia’s ship, and the Death Star has been built. So too are Vader’s an overly-alliterative vernacular spiced with phrases like “technological terror”.
Why the obsession with in media res? I haven’t done scholarly research on the topic, so I draw here from my own well of classical and other literary knowledge. You’ll have to bear with me and allow leeway. Epicism is driven by character. Life, too, is driven by character. Literary works, at their best, practice what Aristotle called mimesis (mirror), or representation; Erich Auerbach targeted this concept and wrote his famous exegetic Mimesis about representation of the real in classical literature. (Auerbach fled Nazi Germany for Turkey, where he holed up and studied the classics—his works are now considered a certain type of canon which led to Historicism and even New Historicism). How does beginning “in the midst of things” transfer to a representation of the real—mimetic—in literature?
I present the idea that we—you and I—also begin in media res. The world as I know, stuffed with a history of humanity both awful and real and sublime, has persisted long before my flicker in time sparked. Leonidas held the pass at Thermopylae 2,500 years before I arrived. The lives of my parents had gone on at least 30 years before I interrupted them. I and you embody in media res.
Luke Skywalker is a space Telemachus. (Telemachus is Odysseus’s son.) In Odyssey, Telemachus has no one but suitors to teach him how to live rightly because his father is away. (Contemporaneity has new interpretations of Odyssey which address its patriarchy and masculinity. For an interesting perspective, read Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, which imagines the narrative from Penelope’s perspective as she drifts through the asphodel.) To learn, he embarks on the hero’s journey to his father, the sacker of cities.
During his search, it is Telemachus’s father’s friends who teach him how to live well. So goes Telemachus, so goes Luke. His father, too, is gone. And we all saw the snot-nosed attitude Luke rattles off to his uncle about chores. He, like Telemachus, must learn from his father’s friends how to live rightly. Enter Obi-wan Kenobi. Together they take the hero’s journey, where Luke learns how spiritual principles overcome technology. (“Use the Force, Luke” allows him to picklebarrel those torpedos into a poorly-designed exhaust shaft.)
You and I are on a hero’s journey in the midst of things. How many times have you heard “it’s not the destination, but the journey”? Far too often, I’m sure. What’s fantastic about this phrase isn’t what it says but what it assume: It assumes you and I are already on the journey. And while not everyone has the option of this path, some do: As they leave home, they learn from their parents’ friends how to live in the real and harsh world. Maybe your parents reached out to their networks after you graduated college to establish informational interviews.
Joseph Campbell writes of the hero journey that “a hero ventures from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man”. Campbell lists 17 stages of the hero journey.
I’m unsure I can relate each of Campbell’s stages of the hero’s journey to you and me, but I will say our lives are epics. We come to a world already in motion. Your parents and mine have lives, had lives. They shared quiet little intimacies betwixt each other of which only they know. My grandparents shared letters with each other during World War II; and when my grandfather returned, they burned their love letters together. Whatever they said they said to and for each other. And wrath and joy and peace and war spun around before our parents and during their lives and upon this setting you and I entire, defenseless. It is in the midst of things that we arrive, and you and I leap out into the world to encounter “fabulous forces” and to achieve “decisive victories”. From these mysteries comes a knowledge and a power from which we draw to live and make and create in a world forever changed by your and my presence.
Or another interpretation might have it that you and I, the heroes of our journey, leave home into the professional world, and it is this world which stands as the supernatural wonder stuffed with fantastical forces, and we gather superhero knowledge and return it to our communities and families and friends.
Regardless, we are epic. We enter, journey, and depart in the midst of things.