Luke completed his Master's Thesis in Comparative Literature, entitled The Epic Lineage of the Aeneid, Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, and Star Trek: First Contact, in the summer of 2008. Here is the abstract, with an excerpt of the Introduction.
The full thesis is available here. All text copyright Luke Arnott 2008.
The full thesis is available here. All text copyright Luke Arnott 2008.
This thesis proposes a definition of the epic genre that might transcend particular media and cultures without contradicting traditional, more limited, definitions of epic, and that would therefore remain useful as a classificatory tool. It compares three disparate works: Virgil’s Aeneid, the mediaeval Icelandic Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, and the 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact. Begining with a synthesis drawn from literary theory from antiquity to the present, the thesis demonstrates that these three works may be considered representative of a specific kind of epic of cultural foundation. Their generic similarity stems from a comparable societal function performed by each work; it also has repercussions for the epic founder-heroes’ relationship to past and future society and to the epic narrative itself. The study concludes that the theme of the epic lineage, the interrelationship of the mytho-historical past, present, and future, is central to an understanding of the epic genre.
Keywords: Aeneis, Aeneas, Virgil, Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, Grettir Ásmundarson, Star Trek: First Contact, Jean-Luc Picard, Zefram Cochrane, foundation myth, mythos, epic, genre theory, popular culture
This thesis is an attempt to outline a definition of the epic genre that might transcend particular cultural circumstances and media, but that, at the same time, might not exclude from its framework the more limited, traditional definitions of epic that have come before, and therefore might remain useful as a classificatory tool. To narrow the scope of this study, I have chosen to look at a selection of epic works that centre on foundation myths, narratives presenting crucial societal “turning points.” The epic of cultural foundation, I shall argue throughout this thesis, has a specific relationship to the culture of which it is a part, a relationship that is ultimately determined more by the nature of the genre and its subject matter than by the peculiarities of any one epic’s cultural milieu.
To demonstrate this, I will compare Virgil’s Aeneid, the mediaeval Icelandic Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar, and the 1996 film Star Trek: First Contact – a combination of works with which few may be entirely familiar. The Aeneid, the most famous of the three, is a heroic poem in twelve books, written by Publius Vergilius Maro in the late first century BCE. It tells the story of Aeneas, a Trojan prince and mythical founder of Rome, beginning just before the fall of Troy. Aeneas flees his devastated home, journeying throughout the Mediterranean world; he encounters many of the same perils as Odysseus, tarries at Carthage with Queen Dido, and, after a sojourn through the underworld with the Cumaean Sibyl, fights a war with Turnus and his Italian allies so that he may marry Lavinia, daughter of king Latinus.
Grettis saga Ásmundarsonar is one of the most famous Icelandic sagas. Compiled by an unknown redactor around 1300 CE, it recounts the semi-historical life of Grettir Ásmundarson, a famous outlaw who lived in the eleventh century, during the conversion of Iceland to Christianity. The prose saga begins with the story of Grettir’s great-grandfather, Onundr tréfótr, an early Viking settler of Iceland, before sketching the lives of Grettir’s grandfather and father, as well as Grettir’s own cantankerous childhood. Once Grettir reaches adulthood, he has a series of adventures, earning as much fame for his unmatched strength as for his bad luck. He is eventually sentenced to “greater outlawry,” a legal state in which any Icelander may hunt him down with impunity, and none may give him aid. Nevertheless, in his long years of outlawry, Grettir continues to perform great feats, such as ridding the land of ghouls and monsters; Grettir is treacherously slain while living on the formidable Drang Isle, off the coast of Iceland, and becomes a cultural hero. Grettis saga concludes with the adventures of Thorsteinn drómundr, Grettir’s half-brother, who avenges Grettir’s death in Constantinople and goes on to marry a woman called Spes.
Star Trek: First Contact, released in 1996, is the eighth feature film in the Star Trek franchise, and the first exclusively featuring the crew of the successful television series Star Trek: The Next Generation. The film begins as the Borg, a cybernetic race bent on forcibly assimilating others into their malevolent collective consciousness, are attacking twenty-fourth century Earth. When Captain Picard and the crew of the starship Enterprise stop them, the Borg travel back in time to assimilate Earth in 2063, on the eve of “First Contact.” This event, centred on the first flight at warp speed made by inventor Zefram Cochrane, is what will allow humanity to peacefully join the interstellar community. Picard and company must follow the Borg back in time and defeat them, while ensuring that Cochrane’s flight continues as planned, or else they and the world of Star Trek itself will never be. After the Borg are destroyed and the flight is a success, Cochrane meets the Vulcans (the race of Star Trek’s iconic Mr. Spock), and history unfolds as it should.
It would seem, at first, almost too easy to justify the Aeneid in a study of epic; Grettis saga and First Contact, on the other hand, likely too problematic. However, a parallel analysis of three works such as these, selected precisely because they are so disparate from one another in time, place, and form, and yet are linked by common cultural themes, is necessary to test a theory of genre that is not tied to a specific culture. Each of these three works has unique and contrasting challenges for study: the Aeneid, to start, so overshadows its predecessors and successors that it is difficult to critically separate other elements of classical Roman culture from it; Grettis saga, on the contrary, is a work more often studied in isolation, a somewhat anomalous part of saga literature that is itself peripheral in Western culture; while, finally, the evidence for Star Trek: First Contact’s cultural context is all around us, even as Star Trek as a whole has received comparatively scant, and sometimes slipshod, critical attention. It is my hope that the individual strengths and advantages of these three subjects, taken together, will compensate for the difficulties of each on its own.
I intend here to draw upon genre theory to show that all three can be representative of epic, and then, having demonstrated that each is a similar kind of epic, show how this generic similarity stems from a comparable societal function performed by each work. I shall begin, in the first chapter, by outlining some trends in epic genre theory, from antiquity to the present; I group these generic theories into two basic categories, the inclusive and exclusive approach to epic. Following this brief survey, I synthesize a working definition of the epic, based on the shared criteria of otherwise opposing approaches, that might reconcile epic as it is traditionally seen with current generic definitions that seek to include non-Western, and even non-literary, cultural productions. In chapter two, I shall apply this generic synthesis to the Aeneid, Grettis saga, and First Contact. The relationship of each with past productions within its own cultural community, both rarefied and genuinely popular, I will argue, is central to understanding it as a work that may be classified as an epic. I will further demonstrate how each becomes in turn a definitive part of that cultural past in which it is so immersed. Having thus generically situated the Aeneid, Grettis saga, and First Contact, I will then focus on the role of the founder-heroes in each work. In chapter three, through an analysis of what I will call the “bifurcated present” of the foundation myth as treated within the epic, I will show how the founder-hero is necessarily more transitional than foundational, especially from an ethical perspective. This is a dynamic with which the foundational epic, structured on an assumption of cultural unity, must contend. Finally, in chapter four, I will examine the role of the future, made known in all three works from prophecies and revelations, upon the founder-hero’s sphere of action and thus upon the epic itself. The tension found in this relationship reveals a common shortfall between the epic ideal and what the epic, especially a foundational epic, can practically achieve within its narrative constraints. Implicit in all these arguments will be the theme of the epic lineage, and I believe, as I shall argue in the conclusion, that an understanding of the interrelationship of the mytho-historical past, present, and future, is central to an understanding of epic genre theory.