Friday, February 11, 2011

Crafting a National Epic


America has no national epic. Nor mythology. Nor even a novel of particular distinction (hence the reason every author can aspire to write the Great American Novel). J. R. R. Tolkien was concerned that Britain had a similar lack of national mythology, so to rectify the problem he created Middle Earth, cobbling together pieces of Anglo-Saxon mythology, adding bits of English history and dashes from Roman, Celtic and other mythologies, and then giving the whole thing the original touch of a single author. If one were to undertake such a project for the United States, where would you begin?

In a previous thought experiment, involving the boys of St. Boniface College, I asked if America has a canon. The result included Homer, the Bible, and the works of Shakespeare, among other things. But none of those were written by Americans, you might say. Right you are. The curious thing about the United States is that it is overwhelmingly a nation of immigrants. So we should expect that our deep cultural roots run beyond our own shores. Indeed, even the Roman epic, the Aeneid, locates Roman origins in the Greek world, though it also draws upon elements of more local Italic history. It seems to me an American epic should draw on our indigenous pre-Columbian history, the history of the colonies and United States themselves, and the literary heritage of our primary parent cultures in Europe.

In addition to the works named above, where might an author of a great American mythological epic look? Virgil looked to Homer, so why don't we take a look at some other national epics? I turned to the Wikipedia page on the matter.

First there are the ancient roots: Homer, Virgil and Scripture. All these are fairly well known to most educated folks.

But then I started looked at more modern works. The great works of England are not so obscure: Beowulf, the Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost and Shakespeare. Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain) is not nearly so widespread, though known to students of early English history.

But the national epics (or contenders for that title) of the other British nations are lesser-known. For Scotland, John Barbour's The Brus - about Robert the Bruce and Scotland's fight for independence throughout the Middle Ages - and James Macpherson's Ossian cycle - a retelling/translation of Scottish mythology (pictured above left) - are the leading contenders. I'd never heard of either, but both look like fun (at least if I can get through the old Scottish of The Brus). Ireland's Táin Bó Cúailnge - the story of an ancient raid to steal a magic bull (pictured below right) - I have never read, but I remember shelving it at the city library; does that count? Of course some would argue that James Joyce' stream-of-consciousness Ulysses is the real national epic of Ireland these days. The mythical Mabinogion of Wales I am familiar with, but only because of some poking into Lloyd Alexander's Prydain Chronicles.

And what of the Germans, that largest ancestral group in America. I started to read the Nibelungenlied - the story of the hero Siegfried, his murder and subsequent avenging by his wife - one break, but did not finish. I have never picked up Goethe's The Sorrows of Young Werther, nor am I sure I want to; Romantic though I be, I'm not sure I want to read about the the sturm und drang of an angst-ridden young man.

Or what of the Norse, the bold folk who were the first Europeans to come to the New World? I think I own a copy of the Eddas somewhere, but I have never read it.

I was as lost among the various works that have tried to be or have been held up as some sort of American national work: Joel Barlow's Columbiad? Never heard of it. It doesn't even have its own Wikipedia page! Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass? It may be a collection of poems, but could make great source material for an epic writer. Alas, I confess I've never read it. Several works I read in part or whole in high school: The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn I enjoyed; To Kill a Mockingbird was all right (though hardly epic, but perhaps I need to read it again) and I hated The Grapes of Wrath. I never made it through Moby-Dick (a second attempt may be in order) and I have never even picked up The Great Gatsby or Longfellow's Song of Hiawatha. But at least we've all heard of these.

So what does all this mean? Let me suggest several possibilities:
  1. The epic, or at least the national epic, is dead. If people cared more we would have at least heard of these. In fact, if people cared, we'd already have one, right? But although England has several great contenders for the title, I think Tolkien was right that none of them quite synthesized England and its habits in the way that the Aeneid did for Rome. Work remained to be done, as evidenced by the run-away success of Middle Earth.
  2. I have a lot of reading to do when I retire. Some day if I find myself independently wealthy and feeling inspired, perhaps I'll start writing that American epic. In fact, I might start sooner.
  3. Perhaps we all have a lot of reading to do. This may have been an imperfect catalog of our roots as Americans, but was something of the sort. If we are so cut off from our own heritage we are culturally adrift, a dangerous thing.
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