Parry provided scholarship with a reconstruction of the Homeric mode of production, and Kozak has shown that modern forms of media can aid our understanding of this form. I have attempted to widen the scope of Homeric comparanda by introducing a text which elucidates the relation between the Iliad’s form and its metaliterary discourse. Reading the Iliad against the narrative philosophy of Homestuck provides a systematic way of thinking about the interrelation between fate, autonomy, and authorship in the poem. Comparing the two texts in terms of their fatalism necessitates a full consideration of the Iliad’s story as an established myth, which scholarship on Iliadic narrative structure frequently bypasses in favour of examining the precise construction of the text. It is, however, a major factor in both Iliadic structure and meaning. Homestuck thinks about life in terms of literature, exploring the complications which this raises. Reading the Iliad through its lens means reading its features and mechanisms in literary terms: the gods as narrative device and author figures, or Achilles’ construction of his life as a story. These themes can be read along sociological, historical, or psychological terms instead, but it is undeniable that the Iliad centres the importance of poetry within its generic world. Analysing what ‘literature’ means and does within the Iliad is almost the only way we have of understanding what the poem ‘thinks’ about its own nature as a work of fiction.
The model of plot as structured by desire, conflict, and mortality is also fitting for two texts which examine the interface between fiction and reality. Both Homestuck and the Iliad propose that the construction of narrative and of the self are tightly interlinked, especially in the figure of the Achillean hero. Literature is one of the most effective embodiments of collective social memory: by creating something which entertains and holds up a mirror to humanity, literature attempts to ensure its own existence by making itself desirable. People transmit and rework stories because they enjoy them. Memorialising the self in literature is a way of transcending not only death but also change: the cultural landscape in which the Iliad was originally understood may have vanished, but our investment in the text spurs us to uncover it and to read its characters on their own terms.
But literature also propagates memory through generation of derivative texts. A favourite joke amongst young classics students on the internet is that the Aeneid is a work of ‘Homer fanfiction’ - almost an insightful claim. One might more seriously argue that fanfiction aligns with the structure of derivation around which all storytelling is constructed. The Iliad stands at the head of the ‘western literary canon’ and is embedded deeply within it. Derivation from the poem lent prestige to later literature, but in the ancient world, this process was not far removed from the Iliad’s own traditional nature. Ancient thought was shaped and expressed around a free, common set of mythic characters and stories which could be retold ad infinitum, engaging with earlier literature or innovating in ways which reflected the changing times. There was no detailed, singular, and authoritative version of what happened in myth, only a mutable outline. This method of production is not exclusively relegated to fanfiction nowadays, but the value placed on copyright and originality means that derivative work of anything but a myth or a ‘classic’ is almost never granted the same prestige and attention as the ‘original’.
Homestuck, however, challenges this. There is a whole website dedicated to webcomics which utilise its visual language, systemic structures, and/or universe:2 Homestuck has become a literary form. Its subsequent apocrypha, including The Homestuck Epilogues (2019) and its ongoing sequel, ‘Homestuck^2,’ (2019-) acknowledge its multiverse as one which encompasses fan production within alternative possibilities and represent themselves as derivative responses to Homestuck. This opens the space for fanworks to be thought worthy of the same level of prestige and interest as the ‘original’ text. Homestuck’s development of something akin to a formulaic tradition could not have occurred anywhere but the internet. Its features and communities create a platform for ‘non-literary’ forms of fiction, making the processes of borrowing, copying, and systematic creation more intuitive than they otherwise are nowadays. There is something of folk art in online production. Publication does not depend on the appraisal of official channels, so experimental creative forms specific to niche communities may be developed. With no need to sell work for it to be seen by vast numbers of people, copyright restrictions and the parameters of mainstream taste are far less binding. It is a useful modern context for scholars wishing to better understand ancient modes of literary production alien to our contemporary mainstream.
If we, as scholars, think that there is anything ‘universal’ in the themes and narrative structure of the Iliad, we should not ignore any text of a similar nature, however far removed it may seem from Homeric context. Homestuck has its limitations as Iliadic comparanda: it is not based on a specific traditional story or long-standing formal tradition, and its plot is far more convoluted than the Iliad’s. Any simple reading of Homestuck is like the drawing of a line through an inscrutable mesh, whereas the Iliad’s story is framed far more simply around Achilles’ actions. My reading of the poem is naturally one amongst many, examining only a small portion of its themes. It aims to complement and augment other perspectives, not replace them. I have sought to demonstrate that analysing the Iliad through a close reading of Homestuck shows how a new and evolving cultural form can enhance our understanding of what sort of a text the Iliad is, as an analogue for its own perspective on literature. Weird and distant as Homestuck may be from an old tale sung in the palaces of Ancient Greece, its structural and thematic similarities to ancient epic mean that it should not be overlooked by Classicists who have any interest in the future of literature as well as its past.
1 The most thematically apt of Homestuck’s formulaic verbal gags. See pages 872, 2491, 6430.
2 MS Paint Fan Adventures. Accessed 08.05.2020.