By Lily "Homerstuck" palatinaMedea
The Iliad is a text that stands alone. As the oldest extant example of the oral tradition from which it emerged, almost all we know of its literary heritage comes from the textual archaeology of the Homeric epics themselves. The Odyssey may have arisen from the same tradition (although it may not have been constructed by the same ‘person’ at the same time), but it is not primarily a martial epic, and its perspective on death, heroism, and the value of poetry is complementary rather than identical to the Iliad’s. The Odyssey proposes that generational legacy is the ideal way for mortals to transcend death, rather than poetic fame gained by an early demise in battle. The idea of the poem itself as the embodiment of this immortality is therefore a less central feature of the text. Later ancient epics about war, such as the Pharsalia or the Thebaid, are the product of a very different literary culture, shaped by the development of writing and the fixed text and by the later literary canon.We are limited in our understanding of the Iliad (and indeed the Odyssey) by a lack of contemporary comparanda which engage with the same themes and values, and which predate the introduction of composition by writing. Scholars have therefore been forced to look beyond the confines of the ancient world for texts which can help us read these epics.
Milman Parry revolutionised Homeric scholarship by examining the form of the oral poem in other times and places.1 His work has provided scholars with a model on which to base an understanding of the ancient oral tradition, but not one which provides a means of reading the Iliad’s metatextual interest in its own process of storytelling. Parry’s work, which examined much shorter poems, focused mainly on the formulaic structure of the Iliad. But the poem also establishes a complex philosophy of narrative which is central to its themes and structure. By exploring the value of poetic memorialisation in heroic society, the Iliad consciously examines the structure and composition of narrative and the engagement of characters with their own textual existences. Such a self-awareness stems, perhaps, from the structure of Homeric heroism and the tensions between poet and tradition. The metatextualities of the Iliad are complex and intriguing, but it is difficult to talk about them without situating the poem in some contextualising frame. It is hard to say what the Iliad thinks it is doing with the idea of ‘literature’ if we do not have at least a theory about what storytelling means and how it functions within the text. Since no comparative text offers a perfect reconstruction of the Iliad’s context, any relevant comparandaare valuable to scholars if they can shed light on different aspects of the poem’s construction. There is a text yet to be recognised as comparable to the Iliad in its metatextual discourse as well as in its improvised, formulaic, and non-textual composition: but to find it, we will have to fast forward about 3000 years, to 2009 CE.
Homestuckis a multimedia webcomic created by Andrew Hussie, which ran from April 13th 2009 to April 13th 2016. Its plot is notoriously convoluted,2 but it essentially follows several groups of teenagers which each play a session of a multiplayer videogame which transports them physically into its world. The game’s purpose is to create a new universe, which proves to be far from straightforward. Time travel is the most important narrative device in the comic: various mechanisms exist by which objects can be sent through time, or people can be contacted in a non-linear fashion at any point on their timeline. This leads to an intricate web of prophecies, inevitabilities, and paradoxical circular causality which encompasses the entire plot. Many texts have an interest in fate, but few combine it with a representation of the kind of heroism embodied by Achilles in the Iliad. Vriska Serket, one of Homestuck’s central characters, is similarly obsessed with her own narrative importance and is willing, like Achilles, to ‘go too far’ in order to augment it. Both have an awareness of how the story will unfold: Achilles because of various prophecies, and Vriska because of time-travel devices, but each must work hard themselves to ensure that they are written into the story in precisely the manner they desire. It is intriguing that two texts which rely on structures of predetermination and which are interested in the value of fiction both produce characters whose construction of self and desire for fame rests on their awareness of their lives as existing within a story.
Homestuckis also comparable to Homeric epic in terms of form. It is largely formulaic, especially visually. The same visual templates or compositions are altered to fit different contexts (fig. 1), and characters are usually represented with repeated videogame-like ‘sprites’ (fig. 2). In the text itself, characters who have had no contact with one another will utter the same phrases, and very specific situations recur, building up the reader’s expectation of how the story will be told. The comic establishes sets of common ‘Platonic’ attributes out of which new characters are formed, creating a system of parallels and symbolisms.3 Homestuck is, at heart, a treatise on narrative and the influence of storytelling on people and society. It is relentlessly metatextual: Hussie inserts himself as a character, only to be killed by the main villain, and John, the protagonist, eventually gains the ability to retroactively change what has happened in the text. This literary self-awareness frames Homestuck as a story about young people growing up within the constraints and expectations of a narrative (a metaphor for society, according to Hussie).4 The characters struggle to live up to the role of the hero and with their own narrative importance or irrelevance, the gendered expectations of conventional storytelling, and the question of whether they have any true agency within a predetermined plot. Homestuck builds up an anatomy of storytelling within its themes and form: it provides the reader with a way of thinking about media (especially pop culture) through which other texts can be read.
Fig. 1. Homestuck, pages 1934,2079, and 2338.
Fig. 2. Vriska on pages 2196, 2202, and 23615
Homestuck's preoccupation with circular structures and obscure or non-existent origin points allows us to identify and examine this as a feature of the Iliad as well. Its narrative is constrained by the time paradoxes it sets up just as the Iliad’s is constrained by the mytho-poetic tradition. The characters in both texts are aware of this inevitability, almost as if they have access to the telling of their own story. The structural and thematic similarities between the texts and Homestuck’s detailed analysis of the workings of predetermination present us with a new way in which to answer the most difficult questions that the fatalism of the Iliad poses; especially those surrounding the autonomy of the characters and the poet.
My approach in this thesis is neither that of reception nor direct comparison. Homestuck has some awareness of ancient literature,6 and Hussie seems to have noticed its similarity to epic about halfway through. The first in-text references to the comic as an epic coincide with the introduction of a character named Calliope.7 In a short interview given after the comic’s conclusion, Hussie asks “What is Homestuck? I’ve thought a lot about that, for a long time. It’s a shitpost8 epic.”9 Apart from this, its direct classical reception is limited10 to the naming of monsters (E.g. ‘Hephaestus,’ ‘Echidna’) and a character interested in ancient philosophy.11 Analysis of Homestuck’s formal and thematic features will nevertheless shed new light on the Iliad’s narrative techniques.
In my first chapter I explore the interface between predetermination and the heroic identities of Achilles and Vriska Serket. Homestuck introduces a concept in relation to Vriska which I would call “heroic luck”: it appears to represent the idea that certain characters are ‘lucky’ because their personalities and desires are designed to suit the narrative structure in which they exist. Through this lens, I propose that the autonomy of a hero who has an active investment in the memorialisation of their life in literature or their self-presentation as a character in a narrative is more complicated than that of other characters. Even when the events of the narrative and the fate of the hero are set in stone and known to them, the plot still relies on their will to act in order to bring those events to pass. In a circular motion, the desire of the hero for the text brings the text into being.
In chapter two, I turn to ideas about authorship and metalepsis. The Achillean hero is a figure who has an almost authorial investment in the narrative, but Homestuck has multiple characters whose power and actions make them deliberate analogues for the writer. These figures have different agendas for the story’s path or representation, however, and they frequently come into conflict. I propose that the gods in the Iliad follow a similar model, as enactors of narrative contrivance and representations of the poet’s competing desires. The representation of authorial figures in Homestuck forms a new lens through which to read the gods’ relation to and manipulation of mortal characters. The relationship between the fatalism of the tradition and the gods’ mantic awareness of counterfactual outcomes also proves an interesting analogue to the creative process of the oral poet. Both texts have a self-awareness of narrative structure and movement which allows them to show the workings of the plot from a higher metaleptic level which engages dynamically with that of the characters.
I am not alone in recognising the value of modern forms of media to classical literary scholarship. Lynn Kozak’s Experiencing Hector (2016) analyses the construction of character in the Iliad through the lens of serial television and television studies. With new technologies come new literary forms which break away from the heritage of the novel and return to less textual modes of storytelling. Homestuck is one such work. My aim is not simply to identify textual similarities. Like Kozak, I will use Homestuck as a methodological structure through which the Iliad can be read, to provide a fresh way of thinking systematically about the epic in both its immediate and wider context. In drawing together the narrative philosophies of Homestuck and the Iliad, my methodological approach is also grounded in the theories advanced by Peter Brooks in Reading for the Plot (1984). The connection between the motion of narrative and desire, conflict, and mortality is evident in both texts, and has been central to my readings. Brooks’ primary interest, however, is in the novel rather than in myth or epic, and he does not discuss the effects of traditional plot and predetermination on the structure of narrative. There are similar limitations in the comparison between Homer and Homestuck. Their plots are vastly different (Homestuck’s is closer to that of the Aeneid), and Homestuck’s is not directly based on any pre-established myth or story. But these incongruities can be productive as well as problematic, allowing us to see how two analogous narrative mechanisms work in very different contexts.
1 Parry, M. (1971). The making of Homeric verse: the collected papers of Milman Parry. Edited by Parry A. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
2 πολυτροπος , perhaps. (A famous word from the first line of the Odyssey. I would translate it as 'convoluted'.)
3 Hussie, Homestuck Book 4. 100.
4 Hussie, Homestuck Book 4. 297.
5 Vriska is not human. For information on her species and society not directly pertinent to this thesis, see here. Accessed 08.05.2020.
6 See pages 2101 and 2825 on rap as ancient oral poetry in an alien society.
7 Homestuck, 4962, 5108-9
8 On this term, see Greszes, S. (2018). Shitposting is an art, if history is any indication. Polygon.
9 "Andrew Hussie answers all of the questions. All of them". Accessed 04.05.2020.
10 Andrew Hussie did not reply when I emailed him to ask if he had read any ancient epic.
11 Homestuck, 4468.