The OF Blog: Borges and Bioy Casares on the Epic form

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Borges and Bioy Casares on the Epic form

I have been reading the edited version of the diary of the late Argentine author Adolfo Bioy Casares, Borges, where his entries on his friend and fellow writer Jorge Luis Borges are collected into a mammoth 1663 page one-volume work. The entry for Monday, June 1, 1959 contains an interesting bit on the epic form that struck me. Here is a rough translation that I have done of part of that recorded conversation (if any want the Spanish original, let me know and I’ll transcribe it in an edit to this post):

Borges: “Ortega y Gasset says that the epic is the genre that is about other times and which is completely distant from our lives. To its own, one will want to say. What a lack of imagination. How does he not see that the epic is there continually in life; how he doesn’t describe it in the Spanish Civil War. He says that of Achilles and Ulysses we do not know if they were men or gods. Why does he say this? Because he doesn’t reflect over that which he is going to write and think about? Like Valéry, he doesn’t document himself. A critic called Dallas characterizes so the genres: “The lyric corresponds to the first person and to the future; drama to the second person and to the present; the epic to the third person and to the past.” Very neat, but without feeling.”

Bioy: “All these people sees in the epic the theme of the origins of villages and not the impulse and the magnamity of courage.”
Considering that every now and then that there is some argument somewhere on the blogosphere about what constitutes "epic" or "heroic" fantasy, I found their brief talk about this to be interesting, since I never really considered how traditionally the narrative voice and temporal tense can play such an important role in separating the Epic form from other narrative stories. Anyone want to add their 2¢ on this?

Edit: Hal Duncan has written a post riffing on this translation of mine that I think raises some very important issues for us to consider. I'll comment over there later, but for the most part, I agree with what he is saying.


Unknown said...

I define 'epic' fantasy the same way the US Government defines pornography. I can't really put down a standard definition for it, but I know it when I see it.

Larry Nolen said...

I prefer Umberto Eco's definition of pornography - if it takes almost as long to travel from Point A to Point B in a movie as it does in real life and everything is shown in-between, chances are you're watching a porn flick.

Unknown said...

That is fantastic. I think you can tie it back in to epic fantasy, too.

At least, I know I felt like I'd fought a cross continent epic battle with evil in real time before finally giving up on the later Robert Jordan books.

"If it takes as long to read about walking from Point A to Point B as it does to walk from the Two Rivers to the Wastes, then you're reading a Robert Jordan book." Something like that?

Larry Nolen said...

Pretty much, except in the case of WoT, you're just reading bowdlerized porn that has had the humping excised ;)

J.Cormier said...

If you think about it pragmatically, I think the most defining aspect of so-called "epic" fantasy, to date, has been a certain amount of reliance on formula. You can be cynical and regard this as something negative, a general lack of originality. But more accurately, I think, is to say that the recognizable formula of so much epic fantasy -- the farmboy who becomes king, the presence of an elder, wiser race, the importance of some form of magic, a clear bad guy, etc. -- is really just reliance on archetype. Good authors take these ideas and manage to craft engaging, original stories from familiar material. Bad authors attempt this and fail, producing meager copies. The worst approach blatant plagiarism -- I'm looking at you, Goodkind.

I think the genre is growing, though: look at GRRM's books. Before ASoIaF, it was almost unheard of to kill off major characters in epic fantasy -- that is, unless they happened to be the Wise Mentor who buys it in Act One.

Moreover, there will always be examples of books that are undeniably epic and yet are wildly unique: The Book of the New Sun comes to mind.

I think an interesting follow-up question is whether epic fantasy has to involve "world-building" to come across as epic.

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