Though ideas of hell and its theological structures or “models” existed before Dante, Dante was perhaps the first writer to construct an architecture of hell so vivid and specific, to the point where many of his readers believed he had actually been there. Dante’s hell differs from many glimpses of the underworld that we are afforded in the works of Homer or Virgil. His hell is a mappable place, charted with a cartographer’s eye.
One of the key architectural features of this hell, a feature that was perhaps surprising to his readers, and indeed is still surprising to new readers of Dante, is the fact that hell is arranged in “circles” that spiral downward into the pit. Nine circles, to be precise. Not seven (which would be the obvious choice given the Catholic concept of the seven deadly sins, and seven days of creation), but nine. Research has suggested that, in fact, there are nine key drivers of human behaviour or nine “motivators”, based on various sources, including the Enneagram and even Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. Could it be that Dante understood this psychological idea intuitively?
His choice of nine circles is even more intriguing when we consider western architecture, on the whole, is mostly angular or square, sometimes triangular, but almost never circular except in rare examples such as in the coliseums of Rome. In fact, it is more often Asian cultures that employ circles in their architecture, so Dante’s conception of a circular hell is culturally anomalous, against the grain of usual western thought, but of course psychologically genius. Circles represent cycles, endlessly repeating, and so Dante’s inhabitants of hell are trapped in their own warped logic, their own justifications for their actions, and the repetition of their own sins.
One of the greatest modern interpretations of this is in Junji Ito’s Uzumaki (which literally means “spiral”), originally published in 2010. Junji Ito is a Japanese horror manga artist and writer, who has created some of the most haunting horror imagery of the twentieth and twenty-first century. He is greatly influenced by the works of H. P. Lovecraft and “cosmic horror”, but an often overlooked aspect of his work is the Dantean. Uzumaki is the story of Kirie Goshima, a young girl living in a coastal town that is slowly falling into the grip of a “spiral curse”. The townsfolk, to varying degrees, become obsessed and subsequently infected by spirals. The story opens with Kirie finding her lover Shuichi’s father staring at a wall, inspecting a snail.
From this tiny beginning, everything spirals (forgive the pun) out of control. The “curse” of the spiral, though we are unsure if this is really what is going on, takes many different forms, including causing people to warp their own bodies into torturous offerings.
Ito-san’s spirals operate with similar symbolic significance to the circles of hell, namely, they are partly allegorical, as well as literal, of the spirals and endless cycles of human behaviour. Here, Shuichi’s father has become twisted, and so, as in Dante’s hell all things become literal, he is physically twisted to reflect his psychological reality. Each person in Uzumaki is trapped in their own sin.
Shuichi, Kirie’s boyfriend, is trapped in his paranoia and pessimism. He sees the spiral’s work in everything (even a bowl of noodles, or a river).
Shuichi is eternally depressed, his face warped in a kind of rictus. The sad thing is he’s often right, and is the first to see the spiral for what it really is, though his warnings fall on deaf ears. He is like Cassandra in Greek mythology, knowing the future, but cursed never to be believed.
Kirie, on the other hand, is trapped by her own virtue. Many times Shuichi offers to run away with Kirie, but she refuses, because she will not abandon her family. Her desire to help others becomes almost selfish rather than selfless as she drags Shuichi down with her into a labyrinth from which, eventually, they cannot escape.
Each person who falls victim to the spiral throughout this expansive epic is guilty of some kind of engrossing behaviour that ends up determining them. Shuichi’s father is a collector, and his obsession combined with the spiral leads to him collecting spiral objects, and ultimately, warping his own body into a spiral and putting himself in a box, like of one his cherished possessions.
Kirie’s own father is a ceramic-maker, and he refers to it as “the art of the spiral”, using the spinning disc to form his creations. He becomes so obsessed by his art, that it leads to him shaping spiral pottery out of the dead. He’ll literally defile the dead if it means he can achieve an artistic break.
A lazy young boy who never attends class on time is transformed into a snail, so he will forever be slower than the others.
Azami, a beautiful young girl at school whom our Kirie is jealous of, is obsessed with keeping young men in her circle, and eventually becomes a monster, whose head is hollowed out by a grotesque spiral eating into her brain. Men are drawn into this spiral, feeding her ego (located perhaps in the frontal cortex).
There are subtle nods to Dante throughout Uzumaki. For example, as the power of the spiral increases, vortexes sweep across the town, much like the hurricane winds that trap Paulo and Francesca in Dante’s second circle. And, perhaps an even more direct allusion, the story of Yoriko and Kazunori. Yoriko and Kazunori are two young lovers whose families hate each other and will not permit them to be together; so, the two end up betraying their families. Their relationship oversteps the boundary of true love and becomes a kind of co-dependence. The spiral finds them, and they become one twisted serpentine creature, each wrapped round the other, now inseparable and co-dependent forever.
Junji Ito understands, as Dante did, that even positive emotions like love have a place in hell when they are taken to extremes.
Like a spiral itself, the story circles whilst drawing ever closer to a central point. Geographically, Junji Ito locates this in the middle of his town: a lake from which many of the spiral-problems seem to stem. When we finally venture to this lake, we discover the truth of the spiral. Again, like Dante, Junji Ito doesn’t flinch from showing us the full expanse and architecture of the hell he has created, and we see the very “nadir” or low-point of the spiral, and what that represents.
Recently, I published an article on the Epoch Times about the story of Cain and Abel and how it tells us a great deal about human nature, evil, and spirituality. One of the principle things that inspired me to write this article is the frightening rise of murders and shootings (especially in America), combined with increasing secularism. Furthermore, a denial of hell, even among religious circles.
Whilst I made many theological arguments for hell’s existence, there is a more ‘relate-able’, shall we say, argument that I did not fully cover. That is: whether we believe hell exists on some kind of metaphysical or spiritual plain is, in actual fact, largely irrelevant. Hell most certainly exists psychologically for millions of people.
I’ve spoken before on how the ancient Greeks depicted a hell that is wrought with psychological implications. Tantalus, for example, tortured by the inability to satisfy his thirst (which might well be a representation of addiction). Sisyphus, trapped in the meaningless, automatic behaviour of rolling the boulder up the hill (how many people do we know with their own “boulder” that they ceaselessly roll?). However, Dante also depicts a very psychological hell. The adulterers, Francesca and Paolo, are trapped in the whirlwind of their own emotions. A fitting image. Their murderer, however, the jealous husband Giancotto, lies deeper in Caina, the infernal plain whereon those who murder their own kin are sent (named after Cain, who is of course the first murderer).
This is what is called in Italian contrapasso, where the punishment fits the crime. But, to quote the great Buddha: “You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.” In other words, metaphysics aside, the very nature of our crimes wreaks havoc upon our mind, bodies, and soul. We are not punished by an external force as much as we are punished by our own psyches. And the power of our own psyches to destroy us should never be underestimated!
Dante constructed a cosmology of hell, where his cruel and unusual punishments are strikingly imaginative and harrowing to read about. But, in some ways, the nature of the crimes are not the product of imagination, so much as of empathy. He senses the turmoil that each crime or “sin” creates and raps into that to give us a window into what it feels like to be that person.
We might see this illustrated in an infinite number of stories, including Edgar Allan Poe’s paranoid tale The Telltale Heart, which strikingly portrays the psychological torment of covering up a murder. However, we also see it reflected in reality. Ted Bundy, one of the worst killers in history, escaped confinement twice. The first time, after a few days hiding out in the mountains, he willingly returned and effectively handed himself in to the police. This in itself is disturbing in the extreme. He had killed many women and was destined for a life sentence. Why hand himself over unless he knew, deep down, that he had done something unforgiveable? He was, in his own warped way, perhaps punishing himself.
He later escaped prison a second time (crawling through a narrow tunnel he had dug much in the vein of The Shawshank Redemption). Rather than disappear, never to be seen from again, he killed three more women, including a twelve year old girl. He had every chance to get away, but his decision to kill again meant that police were able to locate him. He finally received the electric chair in 1979.
Like Sisyphus, Bundy was compelled by his own terrifying behaviours. Given a second opportunity for freedom, one in which the authorities were very unlikely to catch him if he laid low, he decided instead to repeat his horrific crimes. If this isn’t hell, I don’t know what is. And just to be clear: I’m not, in any way, justifying or sympathising with Ted Bundy. There are very few human beings who deserved the unfiltered appellation of ‘evil’, but he is surely one of them. He suffered, and brought suffering to others.
The real problem with people in hell, is that they bring hell with them.
One interesting question is ‘why
specifically?’ I am currently writing an ‘epic’ called The
English Cantos, and I have
chosen to write my epic in terza rima. There are many forms of
storytelling in the modern world, so why write poetry, when in real
terms, it is such a niche interest? Surely a novel-series or a
screenplay might have broader appeal? My son, in fact, has written an
series on unusual epics
of the modern era, from anime to television. However, I think there
is still massive, in some ways untapped value in writing poetry, and
I would encourage anyone reading this to do it!
Let me outline this for you based on my personal experience.
is not merely for the sake of tradition. In fact, when all is said
and done, I am not a very traditional person. There is the added pull
that terza rima is Dante’s chosen form, my own epic being modelled
on his opus: The Divine Comedy.
Therefore, the English
Cantos might also be read as a
continuation of The Divine
Comedy, just as Virgil’s
a continuation of Homer’s Iliad
and Dante’s own work a
continuation of The Aeneid.
Each text engages with the one
prior to it, and in some places re-write their ideas. Virgil, for
example, portrays Odysseus (called Ulysses in the Latin) as a
deceiver and traitor, rather unlike the conflicted, intelligent, but
ultimately good hero of Homer’s duology. It should also be noted
that terza rima is an under-utilised poetic form in English poetry,
with very few attempts to write narrative using it. As I outline in
the introduction to my collection Divine
the most famous example and use of terza rima being Shelley’s Triumph
of Life, which interestingly is
unfinished. In particular, I realised that the form provided me with
the key to creating compelling narrative: blank verse is great for
narrative, but Milton’s done it. Second greatest epic in the English
language? Spenser’s Faerie
Queene, but the Spenserian
stanza for narrative purposes is clunky and slow, relatively
speaking, and lends itself to gorgeous picture-making (so Keats’
Eve of St Agnes
exploits the form superbly – it is a narrative but one of a richly,
static kind). But perhaps terza rima could supply the necessary form
to sustain the long poem.’
there is actually a deeper reason for my choice of poetry in general.
That is, beauty.
would say ‘everywhere’ in our modern world, but perhaps it is
fairer to say ‘almost everywhere’, we see the deconstruction of
beauty. Whether it be the dismissal of spiritual values, the
undermining of real art and culture in favour of what can turn
profits or sensationalise, or even just in the architecture around
us. Many people, arguably, live bleaker lives now than they did in
the Middle Ages, which is saying something. Depression and suicide
are at an all-time high, alongside addictions and compulsive
behaviours. Meanwhile, people cling to any current trend, opinion, or
voice shouting louder than the rest, in the hope that if they follow
it will give their lives meaning.
are in many ways a floundering species, and I believe it is primarily
because of the false prophets of secularism. We are told we don’t
need God, that we can create our own value-system, our own morality,
our own purpose. The classics had a word for this: ‘hubris’. We
all need external help and guidance from time to time, whether that
be from the people we love, an expert, or the contrivances of fate!
To appoint ourselves as the gods of our own universe is to say we
need nobody but
ourselves. Ironically, that is in the first instance to go backwards
and re-live the Tower of Babel myth and all its resulting confusion
(and isn’t confusion a good word for the state of the contemporary
world?); and secondly, it is to expose our own inadequacies as we
experience the fragmentation that results from everyone being their
own ‘god’. Never before has there been so much transmission, and
so little communication, as solipsistically we are all talking to
ourselves, while no-one listens.
are told, too, that technology is going to solve all of our problems,
and yet after 100 years or so of technological revolution, it has
only brought us closer to extinction, distanced us from the natural
world, and deprived many people of meaning and fulfilment. I’m not
a Luddite. I like technology
and use it. But, it is the idolatrous worship of technology that I
find worrying and the blind sense that we are endlessly ‘progressing’
to some utopia, somewhere. Again, the ancients (Greeks, Egyptians,
Indians, to mention three venerable cultures) thought exactly the
opposite: the world had fallen away from a Golden Age and was in or
about to enter the Iron Age. Regression, therefore, not progression.
Whether they are right in their predictions, I leave to you.
secularism, and the utilitarianism that is so often associated with
that, is a kind of ugliness. I mentioned the architecture of modern
buildings: that is a start. But it is also in the books we read; we
find poetry bereft of any form or beauty, but then praised as being
‘stark’, ‘clear’, ‘unflinching’, ‘bold’, ‘honest’
and such like – as if the mere act of regurgitating negativity is
in itself laudable. Ugliness and horror have their place in
literature and art, but they must be assimilated as part of a greater
whole. To use a word Clive Barker loved: they must be reconciled.
The same story is true in so
many realms. In popular ‘music’ we find a single bar of
electronic beats looped for a song’s duration, where once there
would have been artfully crafted percussion.
should add that I do not wish to sound like an old man grumbling.
There are of course exceptions to these observations; in music, for
example, young bands or musicians who are branching out. I listened
to Mumford & Sons’ recent
album Delta, and
there is a track on it called ‘Darkness Visible’ which
extensively quotes John Milton’s Paradise Lost (the title itself
being part of it). It is blissfully inventive music.In the realm of independent
read a story by David Hartley (published in a short story collection
Creek) written in iambic pentameter!
It depicts a disturbed lighthouse keeper talking via radio to a
person he believes to be William Shakespeare; gloriously creative,
and beautifully written. Like I said, there are exceptions, but one
has to notice the overwhelming trends, the tendencies, and what
people in authority are, more and more, advocating and supporting.
And when we say, advocating and supporting, we mean where the money
and the ‘reputation’ goes.
poetry is a counter to all of this, particularly poetry which has
shape, form, metre, rhyme, and rhythm. Poetry is about beauty,
creating it even from tremendous pain. Perhaps one of the best
examples one could give of this is Wilfred Owen. Despite the horrors
of war he faced, his lyricism is beautiful. Tolkien might also be
cited as an example of this. He fought in the Somme, one of the worst
battles in human history, and yet he emerged from it with profound
spirituality, courage, optimism, and beauty in his work. We must
remember Tolkien was as much a poet as a prose-author. Intriguingly
the ‘modernists’ who have defined so much of modern writing: the
T. S. Eliots, the Virginia Wolfes, the Ezra Pounds, did not have any
frontline experience of the war! Instead, they had a lot of opinions.
To put this at its strongest: Owen and Tolkien faced the profoundest
horrors of this life and produced literature for the soul and deep
beauty; Eliot, Woolf and Pound were all armchair critics who simply
faced domestic ‘terrors’ and most of their work is – in varying
degrees here – highly negative.
of the arguments against traditional or ‘formal’ poetry is that
it is too restrictive, but as is always the case, the greatest
creativity and best inventions come from restriction. In America, the
short story is highly valued specifically for this reason, and in
some ways the ability to write a good 2000 – 3000 word short story
is considered a higher art form than a novel! The sonnet is a case in
point, too. In the British tradition, the sonnet was once considered
the sine qua non of a good poet. Could you write a 14 liner that
would move the soul? Poetry is one of the most profound ways to
create beauty, precisely because of the restrictions it places on the
writer. Like music, there are only so many chords, and only so many
chords that work in combination, and only so many rhythms, but how
can we then generate something new within these frameworks? One might
even stretch the point to make a commentary on society here. We want
unrestricted lives: to see as many people as we like, travel as far
as we want, eat as much as we like, watch as much TV as we like,
binge, binge, binge. None of this is truly healthy, or, indeed,
beautiful. Invariably, the greatest beauty derives from restraint,
and the deepest emotion comes from holding back.
should abandon our modern impulse to operate ‘freely (which is not
‘free’ at all but actually chaos), and instead focus on making
beauty with disciplined control. By harnessing true poetic techniques
and the deep spirituality, we might yet create wonders.
It is very human indeed that we spend so
much time thinking about Hell when we could be thinking about Heaven,
but in the words of Agent Smith from The
Matrix: “I believe that, as a
species, human beings define their reality through suffering and
misery. The perfect world was a dream that your primitive cerebrum
kept trying to wake up from.” We are fascinated by the concept of
eternal suffering because, in some way, it is more within the grasp
of our imagination than bliss is.
But there is more to it even than that. Hell
has deep psychological roots. Carl Jung, the eminent disciple of
Freud, and who largely contradicted much of his research, is a bridge
between Dante and Atheists in the modern world. From a Jungian
perspective, the tripartite division of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven
represent psychological states on our journey to self-actualisation.
So, to be in Hell is to be in a state of
complete denial about reality.
“Denial… this is our
most understandable, most primitive defence, which, if continued
indefinitely, proves to be the only truly pathological state of
being” – James Hollis
In Hell, no meaningful communication is
possible; the damned merely talk to themselves or to each other,
repeating the same cyclical stories of pain (in the same way that the
Ancient Mariner from Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem repeats his
woe-begotten tale) but despite their re-iterations, these hell-bound
souls never to develop in any meaningful way. This is very
psychologically true of many people in the real world, trapped in
cycles of addiction, trapped in cycles of behaviour, unable to
progress because they lack the ability to to accept reality and to
accept their own fault. Many souls in Hell waste much of their breath
justifying their decisions and actions to Dante rather than actually
accepting their own fault. Auden puts it startlingly:
would rather be ruined than changed.
would rather die in our dread
climb the cross of the present
let our illusions die”
W. H. Auden, The Age of Anxiety
Notice the metaphor of ‘climbing the
cross’, or in other words, accepting punishment for our sins.
Whether you believe in the concept of ‘sin’ in the spiritual,
metaphysical sense, it applies psychologically too. We all, at times,
make mistakes, or bad decisions, and we can either change or be
‘ruined’ by them. Most, unfortunately, would rather be ruined, as
Auden harrowingly observes, than admit they’re wrong.
The classic symptom of this state is
repetition of pointless activities. Sisyphus rolls the boulder up the
hill. Tantalus reaches for water he can never access. Again, we can
observe these traits in real life: people who perform the same
self-sabotaging tasks, who stick to the same debasing jobs, trapped
in psychological compulsions.
Purgatory is where self-awareness begins to
occur, and repentance for what one has done awry or failed to do.
Work still needs to occur in order to progress further:
“It has kept them stuck
in the meaninglessness of purgatory and so they finally let go of the
idea that someone else is to blame and look inside” – Dr Alan
In therapy, they say that the first step is
self-awareness before healing can occur. We have to recognise that we
have a problem in order to get rid of it. Returning to the ‘hell
mindset’, so often people in hell-states deny that there is a
problem, which is part of their denial of reality. They are the kind
of people who might say: ‘I can quit smoking any time I want’,
when in fact the opposite is exactly true.
When we reach Purgatory, however, we begin
to see self-awareness. Therefore, we suffer, but in a different way.
In, perhaps, a therapeutic way. Carl Jung observed:
inhibits fullness of life and is therefore equivalent to illness.
Meaning makes a great many things endurable – perhaps everything”
– Carl Jung
Meaning, and discovering meaning, is only
possible when we confront reality. However, it empowers us to do so
and make the pain ‘endurable’.
“Yet each of us is
obliged to find out personal path through the dark wood. In the
mediaeval Grail legend the knights, having seen the Grail, and
intuiting that it symbolised their search for meaning, undertook the
challenge and began their descent into the dark wood. But the text
tells us that each one chose a separate place of entry ‘where there
was no path, for it is a shameful thing to take the path that someone
has trod before.’ Your journey is your journey, not someone else’s.
It is never too late to begin it anew” –James
This chimes beautifully with Dante, whose
journey also begins in the ‘dark wood / wherein the straight road
no longer lay’ (Peter Dale translation).
But what is meaning? James Hollis remarked
that: “The gods want us to grow up, to step up to that high calling
that each soul carries as its destiny”. Yet, destiny is a slippery
thing, something we have wrestled with as a species for millennia. Do
we have free-will? Can we choose? If we can
choose, then how can we also have a
pre-determined destiny? How can we know our own destiny? These
philosophical debates tend to go round and round, in themselves like
hellish cycles. The reality of our weird, wonderful world is that
both are likely true simultaneously.
But the important lesson is that we are all
on a journey, and that there is an ‘end point’ to that journey.
That, perhaps, can be what we call ‘destiny’. And what is the end
point of any psychological journey? Catharsis.
“When we have accepted
this journey, truly accepted it, we will be flooded with a strong,
supportive energy the carries us through all the dark places. For
this energy we have an appropriate word. It is called ‘love’. It
is love not only of the other, but love of this life, this journey,
and love of this task of soul” – James Hollis
So, through suffering and self-awareness,
Hell and Purgatory, we might finally arrive at Heaven. Heaven is
where the shadow side of our selves or our soul is fully integrated
into our personalities. This means not that we purify ourselves and
shed the ‘bad’, purging it, but actually that it becomes an
accepted part of who we are. Rather than self-condemning, we use the
negatives of our personality as strengths and to feed other
strengths. Writers commonly say that they use their negative
emotions: anger, shame, lust, to fuel their work. They don’t deny
the emotions exist, that would be a Hell-state, but rather embrace
them and harness them. The same is true, I’m sure, of top athletes,
musicians, dancers, actors, you-name-it.
Dante’s journey can be understood not just as a spiritual one, but
as a psychological one too towards self-actualisation and wholeness.
Ten years ago, I met a fascinating guy at a networking event – let’s call him Q to retain anonymity. We started talking and I said, “Your accent – I can’t quite place it.”
“Rhodesian,” he said.
“Right,” I replied. “That’s not a word I’ve heard in a long time. How long have you been here?”
“About two years.” And then I asked why he had come to the UK. The answer was because he had been “plundered” twice. I asked what he meant.
It turned out he had owned a farm near Harari, and that had been confiscated with the advent of President Mugabe. This had been a major trauma; losing your family inheritance is never going to be pleasant whatever the wider political and historical rights and wrongs are.
So, he said, he’d gone away and reinvented himself: got into telecommunications with a major international company and from that created what became a very successful business. Then, at the point of its success, that was confiscated to.
During this period, he said, he had developed a serious health problem, namely, high blood pressure. This seemed to be getting higher and higher despite the best medication that he could access. As I observed: well, that was hardly surprising, given the stress and uncertainty he was under. Also, the injustice that he felt was being perpetrated against him and his family. He agreed.
In coming to the UK he had expected his blood pressure to ease and go down. But he found it was still getting worse. So he went to his local GP. The GP referred him to a hospital for tests. In very short order he discovered he had a tumour, which if left unchecked would be fatal.
He had the tumour removed via the NHS and he said he now felt fantastic. His life had been saved. If he had stayed in Rhodesia/Zimbabwe he would have died without anyone realising the actual cause of his blood pressure.
So we are faced with the most bizarre situation: his life was saved because he was “plundered” twice and he couldn’t take living in his home land anymore. The net result for him was one of sheer gratitude: all the pain he had endured in the ‘plunder’ now was converted to joy for what it had led him to.
The story is wonderful because it is very easy for people to say everything works together for good, but when you are in the alligator swamp, up to your neck in sticky mud, it’s difficult to see how any good can come from it. Q’s story, because it is true, is a model of hope for all of us: no matter how bad things may be, there is a purpose and meaning in this which is for our good. And we need to find the good in all things if we are to stay psychologically and spiritually healthy.
We can look at this another way: we must all experience a journey through hell, nadir, a low point in our lives of supreme suffering, in order to emerge reborn. These odysseys define and shape us. Without them, we cannot learn anything about ourselves or arrive at the place where we need to be. We must descend, like Dante, into the darkest depths, in order to reach Purgatory and then Heaven itself. Dante is similarly harried into Hell, not by choice, but by the dark terror of a She Wolf living in the ‘lonesome wood’. This external circumstance chases Dante into the mouth of Hell, where he must descend before he may rise.
you feel like you are being pushed towards Hell and suffering, or
that you are already there in the nadir, remember that the journey is
not over yet, and that there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Today, I want to share a post originally published on themindflayer.com and written by my son, Joseph Sale. In this article, Joseph goes some way to defining the epic, what it is, where it came from, and the difficulties of writing one in the modern day. The English Cantos is undoubtedly my attempt at writing an epic, and so I thought it appropriate to share as many of the points raised here resonated with me. It may even help you pen your own epic!
In this series, I’ll be discussing what defines an epic, how they’re changing in the modern world, and I’ll explore ways in which you can shape your own epic narrative. My aim with this series is to inspire people to engage with more epics, to widen the discussion of epics to include other mediums such as video-games and serializations, and to lastly, perhaps most importantly, aid people wanting to write one themselves. So, let us begin.
Throughout time and culture, one artistic pursuit has, by and large, been held in regard above all others. This is the creation of an ‘epic’. Narrative is central to human ideology, identity, and our relationship with the world around us, it helps us make sense of things, processing both our external and internal worlds. At its deepest level, it is healing. The act of writing is therapy, catharsis, liberation. And core to the literary heart of so many cultures, peoples, tribes, religions and countries throughout the ages is the concept of an epic. A story that is greater than other stories. A story that operates on an entirely other scale. These are some of the most powerful and healing stories of all time. To write one is one of the highest forms of artistic achievement. But rarely is one written purely for praise and honour and bragging rights. They are written from a deep place. They can only be written from that deep place, which is why so many of them begin with an invocation to gods, or the Muses, or even human sources of inspiration. To write an epic is to shake the soul of a person.
Now, I can’t teach you how to write an epic. I’m not sure that’s even possible. I maintain I can teach anyone to write and that everyone has one story in them, but I’m not sure I believe everyone has an epic in them. An epic is a one in a million. An epic is lightning bottled. However, having studied epics for a long time, I think I can give you some steering on what they involve, how they work, and give you examples of recent modern and accessible works that use epic tropes. These will act like Muses in themselves, guiding your path. From there on, it’s all you. But if you really feel you have an epic in you and you’re reading this, I’m telling you: You have to write it. We need epics, like we need food, water, air. Yes, that’s not melodrama. Without them, we wither. Culture withers, human relationships wither, our sense of who we are and what life means withers. Stephen King said that art is a support system for life. Never were truer words spoken. Science helps us to live. Art gives us a reason to.
So, let’s start with an overview and go from there. Are you excited? I’m excited. I hope you have a pen and notepad ready.
Traditionally, the epic is relayed in poetic form. Some were performed by the poet, or upon a theatrical stage. Some were set down. Either way, the epics of the past are unified in poetry, although the poetic form they might be expressed in differs drastically. In recent years, it seems there has been a tailing off of epic poems, although they are certainly still being written in our time. One such example being my own father’s astoundingwork The English Cantos: a modern journey into hell recounting his experience in Bournemouth Hospital battling cancer. It is penned in fluid terza rima, homaging Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first three Cantos of this amazing poem have been published by the Society of Classical Poets, and are available to read for free. He continues to write it, aiming to publish 33 cantos in total. This work in progress is what I would call a poem penned in the ‘true epic style’. It tackles the issues of modernism, the disintegration of moral values and the meaninglessness of a modern world driven by profit and gratification. It uses many of the epic tropes: the invocation of the muse (calling on Calliope, the Muse of epic poetry specifically), the wise guide (in my father’s case, Dante himself, the poet who perhaps best explored hell before him), and the katabasis, the descent into hell itself.
My father is not the only one to attempt an epic poem. In the last decade, many ‘new’ epic attempts have emerged, including Tim Miller’s To the House of the Sunand Apocalypseby Frederick Turner. But, it’s safe to say that these are obscure works, not popularly known as the epics of Homer, Dante, and Milton would have been in their day, confined to study by poetry-nerds (such as my father and I) concerned with this ‘niche’. In fairness, my father’s epic is being fairly widely read, partly due to its accessibility in terms of theme (we all feel the dearth of this era), style (it is beautifully written in form that propels the narrative on, as opposed to many other modern poems written in formless free-verse), and its publication online which allows anyone to read it. However, poetry in general is not the pick of the day. How many people can truly say they regularly read poetry? It has become a niche of a niche, a subset of writing itself, whereas once it was the entire aim of it.
The long and short is, unless you are a poet of considerable experience reading this, I think it’s highly unlike you’d want to attempt an epic poem. I’m not saying you shouldn’t, of course. If you’re that way inclined, go for it. Poetry will never die. There will always be poets, and poetry, and it will always have validity. You see, epics are a bridge between past and present. Often, they refer back to a past time, but use modern language to describe it. Similarly, most epics are written when the language is young or even unformed.
To get specific, it’s thought that when Homer penned The Iliad, the first of his two major known works, around 750 BC, that the Greek language had not formally been set down prior to his writing of that book. In a way, writing The Iliad, was a way to document the rules, vocabulary and possibility of the language. In short, The Iliad may have served a dual function as an extremely beautiful grammar book. It covered the full spectrum of linguistic potential, and concretised much of the spelling and punctuation. Similarly, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales after the invasion of the Normans and the influx of French words into the language which broadened the ‘primitive’ vernacular tongue of Anglo Saxon into what scholars refer to as ‘Middle English’. Before then, the language was limited to predominantly Germanic-influenced words. Chaucer introduced Latinate and French words (and some others too) in penning his epic, vastly increasingly the potential of the language. Whilst Anglo Saxon had been around for a while, it went through an evolution when he wrote The Canterbury Tales.
This would happen again and again, particularly in English, perhaps because the language was just so darn pliable. Edmund Spenser would pen his beautiful epic fantasy romance The Faerie Queene after the language had leapt forward again in the 16th Century, eschewing many of its clunky qualifiers and taking on board many Italian poetic techniques. Shakespeare would then advance the language much, much further – only forty or so years later. In fact, we can track a distinct evolution of language through Shakespeare’s work from his early, quite archaic plays such as The Comedy of Errors, which is written in a more medieval style, right up to Hamlet, which opens with the line: ‘Who’s there?’ – practically modern English. By the time Shakespeare was done with the language, adding a plethora of words, expressions and neologisms to the dictionary, the language was unrecognisable and infinitely closer to the language we speak today. In the 17thCentury, Milton was able to pen his epic Paradise Lost using an ‘argumentative’ style in keeping with the cultural changes brought on by the Protestant Reformation (which in turn coincided with the boom of literacy and printing presses). This included the idea of religious debate in vernacular language. It opened up many wide possibilities for Milton to make political and theological points within his work in a way never hitherto attempted. For example, this from the first book:
‘What in me is dark / Illumin, what is low raise and support; / That to the highth of this great Argument / I may assert Eternal Providence, /And justifie the wayes of God to men.
Just pick out the words: ‘argument’, ‘assert’, ‘justify’ – the language of a legal associate going through her case opening. But this, married and juxtaposed with the stunning, heart-breaking imagery, and the depth of incredible feeling, is what makes Paradise Lost work. So, you see, when the language evolves, it often provides new, fertile ground for writers to pen an epic. Once the ground has been well-trodden, it’s very difficult indeed to write one. And whilst our modern language is certainly changing and evolving, I’m not sure it’s changing in such a way that facilitates the writing of an epic. Normally, it is when a language expands that new possibilities for another level of storytelling emerge. However, I’d argue that many changes to our language now are merely to increase its basic functionality and efficiency. Text-speak, abbreviations, emojis. There’s nothing wrong with these (and many epics contain phrases and conflations which would have been known to people of the time), but too many of them makes writing at a feeling level difficult, because they are ultimately mechanical, designed to conserve space and time.
But does this mean the epic is dead? No, I believe it is far from it. Over the course of this series, I want to talk about what a modern epic looks like, specifically focusing in depth on three ‘epics in spirit’ that take on the tropes of the epic but express them in modern forms. These are perhaps genres or mediums you would not immediately think of when considering the ‘epic’. I hope analysing them will inspire and steer you on your course to attempting your own. There is a certain mythos, a Holy Grail allure to writing an epic, that is tantalising to almost all writers. So why not? After all, the Grail Quest is as much about the journey as the end result. Attempting it is, itself, an achievement. What the hell have we got to lose?
To conclude part 1, I’m going to run you through what I deem to be the six key tropes of the epic. There are many more than six tropes, of course. Some of the ones I will not be covering today include the ‘extended argument’ (characters, or even one character internally, debating an important or weighty theme in great detail), nationalism (many epics purport to detail the genesis of a people, even Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings) or macrologia (playing with scale and size). Sadly, we do not have time to cover everything, and I’ve chosen to focus on the six ones I believe are most important to defining what an epic is and more importantly how it feels.
In parts 2 – 4, I’m going to talk about my three modern examples, and how they play with and use these tropes. Note, whilst the novel undoubtedly facilitates epic writing and epic stories, I actually don’t want to focus on the novelin its basic form too much (save in overview), because I want to get on to some more unusual examples. I think sometimes it’s easier to find inspiration from genres outside our own, and I know many of you reading this will be writing novels and avid novel-readers. Similarly, I think film is again a too obvious example, so I’ll be avoiding discussing movies, except in terms of references, stylings and allusions. So, without more ado, let us begin…
(1) DEFINING EPICS – SCOPE & SUBJECT MATTER
Part of the epic is this idea of scope. Vast, complex stories with huge casts of characters. Novels, needless to say, facilitate this rather well, as they are not restricted by factors such as audience attention-span or memory (readers can put down the book and then pick it up again – they don’t have to sit through a four-hour movie). Many obvious examples of epic novels spring to mind (I’m sure you have some too). For me, Stephen King’s The Stand has to be one, with its length, breadth of characters, and theme (subject) – the timeless battle of good and evil. Another, I would argue, is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In fact, Tolkien intentionally set out to write the ‘unwritten epic’ of the modern English language. After all, the English people had adopted the Greek and Italian epics (with Homer, Virgil & Dante), or alternatively Christian frameworks (Milton & Spenser). Tolkien wanted to create something that uniquely belonged to us, and I think it’s fairly safe to say he achieved it. In terms of recent entries, I recommend you check out Anna Smith Spark’s incredible Empires of Dust series, which is written in a fresh yet epic style that has a flavour of The Iliad’s blood-drenched intensity.
Scope and subject matter go hand in hand. Milton spent a long time thinking about what the subject of his epic would be, because he knew it would determine all the possibilities of his story. One theme he contemplated writing about was the Arthurian myths, though this had already been partly done by Edmund Spenser and Chaucer, the former of which was one of his inspirations. Eventually, Milton settled on the Christian Fall of Mankind. It should be noted that epic subjects do not always have to be original. Milton’s poem drew heavily from, of course, the Bible, but also from Anglo Saxon/Old English poetry that re-told the story of Adam and Eve to align the Christian stories with Pagan values (Genesis A & B). The Anglo Saxon poems of Genesis A & B make Eve into a complex character, seduced by knowledge, tricked by Lucifer’s superior powers, and ultimately sympathetic, as opposed to many earlier Christian narratives that blamed her for mankind’s misstep. Milton hugely incorporated this in his own re-telling. Shakespeare drew most of his stories from Roman or Greek plays, or history, and reworked the narratives to suit his ends. The long and short is that with the epic, it is as much the telling of the tale as anything else. But, you need a tale that is going to provide you with enough scope to reach epic heights.
(2) DEFINING EPICS – STYLE
Epics have a certain style about them. It is often called the ‘elevated’ style. It conveys grandeur and scale and significance. Pulling this off without sounding pompous is very difficult and something every epic writer has struggled with for millennia.
Epics are often told out of order, with a device called in media res, a Latin phrase meaning quite literally:‘in the middle of the thing’. The stories start mid-action and work backwards and then forwards, allowing for incredible resonances and webworks of emotional complexity to be developed in a way that is more sophisticated than standard narratives.
Another part of epic style is what is called ‘epic catalog’, what I affectionately term the ‘roll call’, the listings of endless ranks, positions, people, places, events, times, dates, and items. Epics have scope, remember, and they can increase their scope by listing minutiae to give the reader a sense that this is a detailed and real world. In The Iliad, we don’t just know who the main actors are, we also know who practically every damn soldier in the Greek armada is. Many fantasy novels use this trope poorly, resulting in podgy prose that is laborious to wade through. When done well, it creates a sense of excitement and scale and three-dimensionality.
Finally, a key part of this style is the ‘extended metaphor’. Elaborate metaphors and similes, as well as comparisons, that are more developed and in-depth than standard imagery. Epics are beautiful, and should evoke beauty even in their most horrifying moments. Part of the way they can do this is with extended metaphor and beautiful imagery. They elevate an image to something else entirely.
(3) DEFINING EPICS – INVOCATION TO THE MUSE
Epics must invoke the Muse, because they are not simply stories written from the brains of writers, but divinely inspired. Epics often open, or at some point feature, a calling upon a divine entity to aid in the recital of the poem.
(4) DEFINING EPICS – THE HERO / HEROINE
The hero or heroine of an epic is often defined in very specific ways. They are:
often from an unusual place or land
they have an unusual power
they usually have a sense of justice (even if it is a warped one, such as Satan in Paradise Lost)
they possess magical weapons or equipment
in some way royal, or dispossessed of something that belongs to them
often orphaned or not raised by their true parents
lastly, they possess a tragic flaw, a weakness
(5) DEFINING EPICS – THE GUIDE
The hero is often guided by either another hero that has gone before them or a sage guide or counsellor. Odysseus, in Homer’s The Odyssey, is guided by the goddess of wisdom Athena. Dante is guided by Virgil in hell (and in turn my father is guided by Dante in his version of hell)! Adam is (mis)guided by Satan in Paradise Lost. Satan himself is guided by Chaos. The list goes on and on.
(6) DEFINING EPICS – KATABASIS
All heroes must descend into hell. Hence, the title of this series: Entering Carcosa. This is arguably the most important aspect of the epic, in my humble view. The hero proves himself/herself above all normal heroes or normal stories by surviving hell itself, whether literally or figuratively, is up to the writer to decide.
So, these are the six key tropes of epic literature. You have now had a potted history of predominantly Western poetic literature (as much as I would love to discuss the Sumerian epic of Gilgamesh, or the Chinese epic The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, there is simply not time – nor am I sufficiently qualified to speak on these). This should, however, give us a background to launch into discussing our first ‘modern epic’ next week, which in fact hails from Japan. Until then, adieu!
If you are interested, you can find part 2 of Entering Carcosa here.
When I first went into hospital I was in for six days. For the first four of those I didn’t eat, and for the first five I couldn’t sleep. Then, on the fifth night, exhausted, I fell into a profound sleep, and received a vision – I believe from God – about my illness, showing its causes and what was about to confront me.
In the final part of this vision, an ugly midget, dressed in a black suit, informed me that he wanted to ‘acquire my power of flying’, and as I tried to escape him by flying through an open window, I found myself caught by the leg and unable, physically, to free myself from his grasp. Further, as I tried one last feint to free myself, it was as if the window pane itself shut down on me, and I woke with a start – a pain across my midriff, as if I had been divided in two.
This proved very prophetic, for following 2 major operations, the final problem I was struggling to resolve was getting my stomach to work in conjunction with my small intestines – there seems to be a rift, a divide between them, exactly as in the vision.
As a great believer in the power of our self-beliefs and the images and stories we create for ourselves, I spent time in the hospital trying to re-engineer the vision – re-visualize it with a different ending. I was, in a way, trying to will myself better. I imagined new endings, but for all that, none of the images had the vivacity and intensity of the original dream, so it didn’t work.
The great fear became not that I would die, though I was terrified of that, but that this illness would cause me to lose ‘my powers of flying’! When I heard the midget say that in the vision, I instinctively understood that this was a metaphor for my creativity and the very poetry of my soul. Poetry allowed me to fly.
I had been waiting and praying, therefore, for a healing dream to counteract the power of the original nightmare.
One day, I got up and went to the hospital chapel. Alone there, I prayed and meditated deeply for a short while. When I got back to my bed, I suddenly had an idea. I grabbed my notebook and in a wonderful moment of no more than 25 minutes in total I downloaded a poem called ‘Healing Dreams’.
I didn’t ‘work’ at the poem, I hardly had to correct it; I simply had to be inspired. It didn’t require sociological or political knowledge – it just required that I be open to the One Spirit that moves everything.
And as I wrote the final line – a line I didn’t really write – I cried. For the poem was as good technically and artistically as anything I had ever written. I realized that post the operations, post the attack of the small dark figure in my dream, I could still fly – and, therefore, I was already whole and healing.
I would like to share with you this poem, which has meant so much to me, and was and still is a breakthrough. I believe in my healing because it has come from the Spirit.
When I was a child I was fascinated by myths, and especially those concerning the underworld, what we sometimes call journeys into hell. It is difficult to account for why these sort of stories appealed to me, although now – at the later end of my life – it’s all very clear. Having been to hell – my 3 months hospitalization and battle with cancer, the source of inspiration for The English Cantos themselves – then obviously my fascination was a sort of premonition of my own descent.
All cultures have stories of heroes who descend into hell; it seems to be one of the most universal stories. I am fascinated by all of these versions, but some of the most intriguing to me are the myths of the Ancient Greeks, not in the least for the psychological realities they reveal. Many of their heroes stormed hell – Heracles, Theseus, Odysseus to mention only three, three who returned. Of course, some – like Pirithous – failed to make it back.
But of all the heroes who explored hell, the greatest – the one who descended furthest – was ironically not a great warrior at all: the poet and musician Orpheus went deeper into the Underworld than even Heracles, and did it through his music and poetry alone. What is the significance, then, of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth?
First, the desire to enter hell arose not from a compulsion for heroics but because his beloved wife, Eurydice, had died as a result of a snake bite. Thus Orpheus resolved to enter hell in order to bring his wife back to life.
In facing all the dangers and perils of hell, Orpheus’ solution was the same: to play his music and sing his song. So Charon, the ferryman, rowed him across the Styx without the obligatory payment; so Cerberus, the three headed dog that was virtually impossible to subdue, except by Heracles, was charmed into sleeping by the music; so all perils and obstacles yielded to the music. Till at last, Orpheus stood in the very throne room of Hades, lord of death and hell, himself.
There, before Hades and his queen, Persephone, Orpheus reached the climax of his song and struck the notes. It is said for the first and only time Hades wept – tears of molten tar. But more remarkable still, being in the throne room itself meant that the sound within its box vibrated throughout the whole domain of hell itself. All in hell heard the song of Orpheus.
Thus it was that the damned, Ixion at his wheel, Tantalus striving for his water, and Sisyphus fruitlessly and endlessly pushing his boulder up the hill only to find it roll back down each time, suddenly froze. They heard the music and their pain lifted. Their dull animal instincts to repeat and repeat their pointless activities – like rats in a maze – gave way to the return of human cognition.
For a moment they experienced relief and were enthralled by beauty – the beauty of Orpheus’ singing.
And then it ended – and the damned returned to their endless damnation. Hades was grateful for the entertainment and said he would grant whatever Orpheus wished for; Orpheus requested the return of the life of Eurydice. This was granted but with one tiny condition: that she follow him some twenty paces behind and that he must not turn to look at her before reaching sunlight again. Orpheus eagerly agreed.
So Orpheus retraced his happy steps, knowing Eurydice was right behind him, following him back to life. But then tragedy struck – within sight of daylight at the end of the tunnel leading up to the world, Orpheus needed to check she was still there. He turned, looked, and even as he did so her form, which had gained substantiality on the way up, now began to de-compose; she waved one last despairing wave, and was gone, forever. His journey had achieved nothing, and he returned alone to the world of sunshine above ground.
But had he achieved nothing? It seems to me two important lessons emerge from the tale. The first is by asking the question, why did he fail? The answer is clear: he failed because of his unbelief – his lack of faith – he did not take the god at his word. The god, who was delighted with the song and the singer, had no reason to lie, and yet Orpheus in turning refused to believe him.
And this is our problem: we do not believe the god who speaks within us – what Jung called the Self – the deeper part of us that incorporates the unconscious and the archetypes. We rationalise and we think our egos know all the truth – and then as we disbelieve the god we are struck down with our own specific tragedies.
The second lesson, however, is far more optimistic. It is to contemplate how hell itself began to turn into heaven as the song was sung; and that reminds us that the universe – the uni (one) – verse (song or poem) is precisely that. All life, all joy is in the music, the pattern, the structure that underpins all that is. And so, even hell is transformed if we can sing our own song.
Are you Orpheus? Are you singing your song – being your own poem? Or are you someone who will die with their music still unsung and inside them? The message is clear: get singing – who knows – you may well rescue your own Eurydice from the depths.