Why do some lives appear more epic than others, more romantic, triumphant or tragic than the rest? Because audiences always play favorites, the great heroes, lovers and villains of literature cast long shadows over history, rising and falling again and again in different disguises.
Anyone writing his own life story is likely to cast himself as the protagonist; those around us on the journey of life become mere supporting characters, foils and catalysts on the road to the hero’s personal development. The central drama in any story is always a matter of perspective. Unless you are incurably codependent, during those last flickers of existence, it should be your life flashing before your eyes, rather than someone else’s.
A classic tale of revenge, “Moby Dick,” pits Captain Ahab against the Great White Whale in a match that ends with the sinking of the ship Pequod and the death of all but Ishmael, who is rescued to tell the story. But must it always end this way, with Ahab being dragged by the neck on a harpoon line into the briny deep?
I found some fan fiction on the worldly wide web, written by “A Mild-Looking Sky” that recasts the tale as one of revelation, wherein first mate Starbuck sees during his last moments that he could have saved the ship and crew, had he followed his better judgement.
“Ahab had driven them here in his lusty quest, a man possessed with such a terrible obsession. They were to suffer at his hand. It was the price of their loyalty. He had known it since the beginning. He could have saved him. He could have saved them all. …” wrote A Mild-Looking Sky.
Ahab, in this version, is last seen standing in a dinghy, perhaps rowing off into the sunset.
The Internet is alive with the phenomenon of fan fiction such as this. It fills in the thoughts and actions of lesser characters in literature, elements that have perhaps been sacrificed since time immemorial to the anxious demands of plot-making, and the attention spans of audiences.
My favorite piece of fan fiction, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” was written in 1966 by the playwright Tom Stoppard. It turns two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet into accidental geniuses as they walk haplessly in the wings of a much larger drama of violence and intrigues. During an extended idyll of cluelessness, the two men discover Newtonian laws of physics, and the Theory of Relativity, all while toddling inexorably toward their deaths at the hands of Hamlet’s court.
Is it presumptuous to re-jig the plot lines of our civilization, or inevitable? Lately I have been wondering about St. John the Baptist, a kind of wild man of the forest and probable mentor to Christ. He is mentioned in both the Gospels and the Koran. In the Book of Mormon he is said to have appeared resurrected on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, where he spoke to Joseph Smith Jr. about his mission.
In any case, the idea of resurrecting godlike beings dates from long before the birth of Jesus, from at least about 2,400 B.C. when the Egyptian god of the underworld, Osiris, was brought back to life and became symbolic of the returning floods and bounty of the River Nile.
The more you poke around in history, the more it seems to repeat itself. Thanks to the Internet, and Wikipedia (which helped make this column possible), history may one day become the Endless Conversation it was meant to be.
Tony Evans: firstname.lastname@example.org