Homer / Hilton

Reading The Iliad lately has put me in mind of an interesting question: Can you discern a society’s evolutionary progress in the kinds of stories it tells? Or perhaps a better, more generalized version of the question would be this: What can you tell about a society (if anything) by the kinds of stories it tells? I’m sure a ton of thinking has been done on this, but since I’m not about to round it all up, consume it, and digest it this afternoon, this blog post will have to do.

I’d say we’re actually in a unique position in narrative history, given three things:

  • (a) our unprecedented access to stories that have gone before (Homer wrought his poems maybe two or three thousand years ago, after all)
  • (b) the unprecedented production of new stories that takes place in our own time, and
  • (c) our unprecedented ability to distribute those stories to massive audiences in the widest variety of media that’s ever existed

But do the kinds of stories we choose to tell these days say much about who we are as a society at large? It wasn’t Homer who sparked these thoughts so much as it was George Lucas, actually…

The fact that Lucas managed to create an epic of such significant impact is remarkable, especially given the jaded nature of modern society as we often like to think of it. While there have been examples of epic storytelling throughout modern history, Star Wars opened the door to a kind of contemporary epic that hadn’t been as popular or widespread before. Now, it seems, every children’s book author is churning out a dozen volumes of fantasy adventure without even thinking about it. There’s a loose genre of games that’s gone the same way: half the time I fire up my Xbox, I find the task before me is nothing less than saving the world.

For the ancient Greeks, tales like The Iliad and The Odyssey were as much historical as archetypal. The stories were understood less as fictions involving symbolic characters and situations, and more as narrations of past events. While the twists of tale and the lessons contained were much the same then as now, it’s reasonable to assume that stories ostensibly about real men, women and gods had a deeper impact on their audiences than the cookie cutter characters we are offered these days. Epic fiction is for the most part little more than a diversion now; kids burn through Harry Potter books as fast as they appear. Joseph Campbell’s hero seems to have a million faces by now. “Epic” has become a commodity.

That said, we have plenty of stories about real men and women these days — they just take the form of reality television and celebrity gossip shows. Does that make Perez Hilton the Homer of the modern age?

I don’t mean to give the impression that we should all get out our fiddles and watch Rome burn. I’m just curious as to whether there are some “meta” lessons to be drawn here, based on what the kind of narratives we’re producing and consuming in recent years. Any ideas?