Narratology Part 1

Narratology is a growing field of literary study. It arose from the thought of  “Structuralist” thinkers of the early 20th century, in addition to a school of literary theory called the “Russian Formalists.” It is a relatively new area of study, and something that I find deeply intriguing.

Narratology is essentially a means of understanding one common phenomenon of human communication: narrative.

The underlying assumption behind this particular study is that all narrative is a form of representation, or mediation. In the same sense that a noun represents something else but is not the thing itself, narrative is also a form of representation.

Narratology also tends to embrace the idea that this form of representation is socially constructed, or that society is what gives a narrative its meaning.

One of the important distinctions within narratology is the separation of plot from story. The term “fabula” (a Latin word that gives us our word “fable”) refers merely to the raw material of a story, completely separate from any form of organization.
The current distinctions are these:

  1. Story/fabula – the raw material of a story, without organization or underlying theme.
  2. Plot – the underlying causality that binds certain events together, or the uniting factor behind any “story.” Which events are pertinent? Which aren’t? Why?
  3. Narrative – how story and plot are structured. Who narrates? Who is being narrated to? In what order are the events told?

This is the basic framework of narratology, upon which everything else is built.

Imagine that you have some funny story that you want to tell a friend. In your mind, you may have some series of events with a basic chronological order. That chronological order is probably crucial for the telling of your story. However, you may not be sure exactly how you want to tell your story. You may decide for the sake of brevity to leave out some part of it, so you decide which parts of the story are crucial in order for it to be a successful story. Finally, you decide how you are going to tell the story.

The three basic levels of narrative are at work in your mind as you decide how best to tell your story. You start out with a fabula, or the raw material. As you think about it, the plot begins to emerge; you understand the causal factors of the events and the underlying theme. You understand what details are essential and which are not.  Finally, you communicate it. You are the narrator and your friend is the receiver of the narrative. You may structure your narrative such that you go in chronological order, or you may decide to go in a different order for an entirely different reason.

These are the factors at work in the mind of a master storyteller. The master storyteller may not have an explicit understanding of these distinctions, but he does not need to. These distinctions are merely descriptive and not prescriptive. The storyteller naturally follows the distinctions, whether he knows he is or not.

Scholars have found many ways to complicate narratology, which makes a lot of their work useless to some poor neophyte (i.e. me) trying to learn about this theory. I’ve charged myself with the task of boiling it down to its component parts, since no one else seems to have done that in a way that makes any sense.

I’ll write more posts on the subject as I continue reading about it, hopefully arriving a more comprehensive view of the subject and its applications. But for now, I’ll be content with the most basic definitions.


Why the Epic Will Never Die

Some of the earliest literature we possess is in the form of epic stories.

The foundational literature of any ancient or primitive culture is the epic. Even today, in modern culture, Homer’s epics are a cornerstone. The Finnish Kalevala and the Icelandic/Norse sagas remain a foundational part of northern European history and culture. Melville’s Moby Dick and Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy have proved to be the “modern” epics of the past two centuries. Harry Potter is the modern epic of my generation. And there will be more to come.

All forms of literature have their various kinds of appeal but there is something about the epic that sets it apart from the rest of world literature.

Usually the epic centers around a journey or a quest, accompanied by various trials and dangers. The protagonist(s) must overcome these trials in order to attain the aim of their quest. (The Iliad is an epic, though it depicts a different kind of journey. In my mind, it is a special case).

There is something inherently important about the epic journey or quest. Odysseus’ quest to return home, or Frodo’s quest to destroy the One Ring and save Middle Earth, both of these contain an intrinsic symbolic significance. This symbolism appeals to the part of human nature that recognizes our own lives as quests.

Even in this age, contemporary readers enjoy high fantasy novels that depict some kind of quest. The persistent popularity of Tolkien’s Middle Earth books indicates that, as does the Harry Potter series, or the Inheritance Cycle. All are modern epics of some sort or another.

The epic quest in itself is a form of myth, in the way that I defined myth below. It has immediate relevance to our own lives.

Our trials are not usually of the same nature, but in ways, they are symbolic of our own. While we may not experience the same types of trials, our emotions are the same as the heroes. There is not a specific set of emotions for any heroic trial that does not occur in our own lives: fear, sadness, loss, courage, excitement, adrenaline…

While we may not relate in the actual details of any given trial, we can relate emotionally. For many of us, the epic offers a deeper and broader range of emotions which is perhaps more representative of real life than any other sort of literature.

The epic combines realism and idealism in a unique way. The heroes are us, but also “better” versions of us, in many ways. Odysseus may be stronger than we are, or more cunning, but we self-identify with his struggles and his journey.

The character of Frodo is not gifted with extraordinary strength, he is in every way “ordinary.” Yet, he is extraordinary for the journey he underwent and the incredible things that happened to him. We experience this alongside him, the more we self-identify with him.

We are characters in our own epic journey, and find an analogue to our own lives in the epic story even if the epic story is utterly fantastic. The point is not the story itself, but what the story symbolizes.

With that, I will end in a quotation from G.K. Chesterton:

“Fairy tales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten.”


A Moment of Reflection

The world of classical scholarship can be competitive. It takes an enormous amount of effort to keep up with your fellow students, and it takes even more effort to stay motivated.

However, it is very easy to lose sight of the precise reason why I spend so much time studying and working. Late nights writing papers, exams, competitions, grades…what does any of it even mean?

The purpose of this blog, born just over a year ago, is to keep me grounded in why I study classics.

First and foremost, I love the subject. Secondly, I enjoy sharing what I’ve learned. Thirdly, the subject is rewarding in and of itself, regardless of whether I “make it” in the world of scholarship or not. The final reason is because I would like to earn my PhD and teach someday.

Of course, I still have my lofty goals and am working towards them consistently, but the last few days have shown me that I need a reminder of why I am here and why I am doing what I do.

Here’s to many more (probably very boring) blog posts on classical topics.