By Victor D. Infante
It seems, these days, we are awash in the heroic fantasy adventures of the late 19th and early 20th centuries; the iconic heroes and monsters born in the turbulence of the dawn of the modern era recasting themselves in a new mythology, or an old mythology told and retold so often that it begins to take new forms. Take Sherlock Holmes. The great Victorian detective, created by novelist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle in 1887, is running around these days in multiple guises – the excellent BBC series Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch, the fun steampunk-inspired Sherlock Holmes movies starring Robert Downey Jr., the recasting of the character into a medical drama setting on House, and soon in yet another contemporary televised version, Elementary, which will be set in the United States and feature Lucy Liu as Watson. That’s a lot of mileage for an old story, and it doesn’t even take into account numerous comic book adaptations, including one by Boom! Studios which recast the stories with Muppets (including Gonzo as Holmes and Fozzie Bear as Watson) and appearances in contemporary fiction, perhaps most notably Michael Chabon’s excellent novel, The Final Solution.
Holmes is hardly alone, though, in having a busy dance card after all these years. The vampire Dracula, for instance, never seems to have left. Recently, he’s been a regular presence in numerous comic books, including Dark Horse’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Marvel’s X-Men, and there’s a Dracula 3-D film headed our way from director Dario Argento, starring Rutger Hauer as vampire hunter Professor Abraham van Helsing, a character who, increasingly, is cast less as an academic (as he was in Bram Stoker’s original novel, although there was some physicality to that character) and more as an action hero, such as in Hugh Jackman’s tedious 2004 movie, Van Helsing.
Never mind that both Dracula and Holmes, as well as numerous elements from their respective stories, play roles in Alan Moore’s pastiche comic book commentary on evolving heroic fiction, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Warren Ellis’ excavation of many of the same tropes in the comic book Planetary.
The list goes on. Recently, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ John Carter of Mars made reappearances in both cinema and comic book forms, and if the film hasn’t burned up the box office, it’s at least stoked a cultural conversation about the story’s relevance today. And that’s the question, isn’t it? Old stories are there for the plucking, waiting to be reintroduced to contemporary audiences, but the method and manner of those retellings becomes key. The classic Green Hornet can reappear as both a comic book by Kevin Smith and a comedic movie starring Seth Rogen, but at what point is the retelling simply a pale reflection of what’s come before, with nothing to add save imitation and parody? At what point does media become merely an echo chamber? And does that echo chamber itself serve a literary purpose?
The venerable DC Comics recently took the bold step of rebooting its entire franchise — launching 52 titles as “The New 52” — with lighter, younger iterations of Depression and World War II-era classics such as Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. That some of these stories are more successful than others is beside the point. Eventually, there comes a point where two seemingly contradictory literary impulses collide: The need to keep old stories alive, and the need to create new stories for a contemporary audience. The latter seems more natural, in a lot of ways: An artist wants to tell a story which is fundamentally his or her own, and a new generation of adventure heroes can, in theory, speak to a contemporary audience without the baggage of decades (or longer). Buffy Summers, Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen have seized their perches among the first iconic heroes of the 21st century (with the understanding that, for the purposes of literary discussion, the 21st century probably began in the early 1990s. These things never work on a calendar schedule, and art often precludes mainstream cultural discussions.)
But what does it mean to be an iconic hero? Leaving aside the question of what constitutes a hero or a villain (or a monster, for that matter, or a trickster), even characters such as Buffy, Harry and Katniss have a resonance with what’s come before them, stretching back across the 20th century, through Superman and Wonder Woman, to John Carter and Doc Savage, to Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, and back further than that, to King Arthur and Hercules, to Gilgamesh and Beowulf. In a sense, our contemporary heroes are iconic because they constitute a break in the echo, a new point of cultural reference. And in a sense, they are merely Gilgamesh dreaming, Joseph Campbell’s singular hero with a thousand faces.
It’s in this connection to the great stories that we see a common root between contemporary heroic fiction and contemporary poetry. The stories of Gilgamesh, Beowulf and others were preserved as classic poems, and indeed, it becomes difficult to discuss them in a contemporary context without holding them aside as an “other.” We recognize them as poems, and great contemporary poets do new translations of them, but it would seem problematic to publish a new story today in that format. Would Hunger Games have become what it has if it were the epic poem of Katniss Everdeen? Which begs the question: Is The Hunger Games the epic poem of Katniss Everdeen? It’s not as ridiculous as it might sound. The language in Suzanne Collins’ novels is straightforward and workmanlike, more prosaic than poetic, but still she uses the conceits and metaphors that we’ve become so accustomed to in speculative literature that we almost forget they are conceits and metaphors. These elements of the fantastic, where the rules of physics and nature need only apply so long as they suit the conceit, are a feature both contemporary poetry and speculative fiction share, a hallmark of their shared ancestry. Moreover, Collins builds a structure that allows a narrative to move, differing little from the epic poem of distant memory, a form which emerged in order for a story to be preserved in the absence of the written word. And her hero, Katniss, takes on both a classic action heroic role and the mantle of what a contemporary audience might see as the best in themselves — perhaps not what they are, but what they aspire to be. In that, it is difficult to separate Katniss Everdeen from her classical forebears.
We look at fiction and poetry as though they were different animals, but at a certain point, that distinction becomes irrelevant. The Epic of Gilgamesh is a classic poem, but that poem is echoing through every hero of the contemporary age. Gilgamesh, Katniss, Sherlock Holmes, King Arthur, Dracula, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Beowulf and a thousand others, all part of a grand monomyth, the edges of which our literature constantly skirt. Writers — particularly poets — talk ourselves into circles to both acknowledge this history and simultaneously build some separation between the concept’s current iteration. We use derogatory descriptors such as “commercial” and “pulp” to cast doubt on speculative fiction, while poets as prominent as Seamus Heaney work new translations of Beowulf.
There comes a point where it seems counterproductive to deny a connection between poetry and speculative fiction, to overly concern one’s self with questions of genre and market niche, when — at least to my mind — the questions of connection are far more interesting propositions, the question of this hero that skirts our collective unconscious, which we continue to create new artistic tools — and indeed, new artistic forms — in order to sketch.
Editor’s Note: This essay is an extension of a series on heroes began in Victor D. Infante’s personal blog, which will be continuing here with different authors.