Epic of sorts

In recent days I have been engaged in discussions regarding the culture of founding myths. The idea behind such a myth has for the most part inspired great nationalism. The most dominant example we’ve discussed is that of the Aeneid by Virgil. Shortly after Rome becomes an Empire, one which has decimated Carthage and enslaved Greece, the Aeneid is produced as proof of the godly heritage from which the Empire has formed. When looking at it through this national lens we can start to make sense of the treatment of Dido, the founder of Carthage, who from the Roman vantage point must be defeated by Aeneas, after all Rome defeats Carthage thrice.

We except these myths as art today and yes many do look at the nationalistic aspects of such epics, but what interests me more is to find the examples today of such writing. One obvious example is that of Fawzi Mellah’s Elissa (Dido) which romanticizes the founding of Carthage for a post-colonial Tunisia.

In both cases Elissa and the Aeneid the intent is to create a national epic. But one approaches the story from an imperialistic point of view (that is Rome who has defeated/conquered/ and ultimately destroyed Carthage) and the other is from a truly national, post imperialism point of view (that is Tunisia redefining its founding myth). Said had it right when he described how nationalism follows imperialism and perhaps Elissa is the best example of that relationship.

But enough of the other side of the Atlantic.  Sure we have our revolution but where are our founding myth. Why try and stay close to the facts? why not expand the Revolution into some large blown up lie that can unite us around what America once meant? Well I don’t mean to get political but the divisions today are just absurd and I’m starting to believe that our salvation is not in debate or politics or journalism but in art, in literature and in the founding of a national epic that can bring America behind what we were founded for.


3 responses to “Epic of sorts

  1. Someone may correct me on this, but I believe that J. R. R. Tolkien’s intention with _Lord of the Rings_ was to create a national epic for England.

    I can’t think of a similar example for the U.S., but I think that’s simply because the entire history of the U.S. as a culturally European entity, with the exception of a few particular mysteries like what happened at Roanoake, is documented. There is no time immemorial for the U.S., and thus no imperative to mythologize origins. We do have a mythology, but it tends to focus more on personal achievement than on historical consequence, and while our cultural tendency towards individualism partially explains this, I think the main reason we lack a national epic is the simple fact that we don’t have a big enough gap to fill in our history.

    There’s also our time to blame. Our present period, extending back past the earliest European colonies in America, is simply not conducive to epics. Perhaps this will change soon – just about every theory of cyclical history I’ve read calls the first part of a cycle the ‘epic’ or ‘heroic’ age, and, of course, theories of cyclical history always tend to place us at the end of a cycle. But it’s been almost a hundred years since Yeats thought he saw the Sphinx waking from his sleep, and I wouldn’t hold my breath.

  2. I am somewhat surprised at your take on the way Americans think of themselves. It seems to me we are fairly drunk on a national mythology that while not neatly contained within an epic poem certainly is pervasively believed. It begins with the Puritans, those somewhat fussy but ultimately hardy colonists in search of religios freedom. Their temperment in combination with the creative capitalism of the heroes of Jamestown create the Yin and the Yan g of the American myth. Each moves forward to establish first our Manifest Desitiny and then American Exceptionalism that spin a yarn about first the power of the frontier and then the greatest generation who gave their lives to win WWII. In between there are brief moments where we see slavery, think about the “Indians” and watch the immigrants toil. Maybe there is no single work but D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and John Ford’s How the West was Won certainly come close. If I was more of pop culture expert I am sure I could pick out other examples starting with Gone with the Wind. It well might be that as a nation we are more comfortable with a multi-media myth presentation, but no matter there is atill a great deal of myth.


  3. I suppose what I meant was not so much that we had no national mythology, but that the mythology we have doesn’t come together into a single epic. It seems to me to consist more of various anecdotes and stories that fit into a semi-factual (if often distorted) narrative. The narrative itself is not the myth. The situation with the mythology of ancient Rome and Greece is similar, but the narrative that all the little myths fit into was mythical itself – the idea of empirical history was not yet pervasive, so the history of a nation was myth and vice versa. In that situation, an epic could have more claim to authority than it would now, when we draw the lines between fiction and non-fiction clearly. There have certainly been attempts at a national epic for the U.S., but we don’t really believe in them as epics, even if we do buy into the myths of the wild west and the founding fathers.

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