A second feature of Homestuck which can help us better understand the structures of the Iliad is its use of multiple in-text ‘authorial’ voices and various characters who are presented as author figures. I will compare these figures to the Iliadic gods to show that they engage with narrative predetermination and with characters on lower metaleptic levels in a very similar way. I argue that the behaviour of both stems from their constraint by the predetermination of the narrative, which aligns them with the position of the poet or author. In both texts, these sub-authorial figures are in constant conflict with one another. Their conflicts of interest (over different outcomes, different ways of telling the story) generate the force of narrative as well as the obstacles it must overcome. The anthropomorphism of these forces, usually embodied silently by the storyteller and generally unacknowledged as a system of conflict, means that this fundamental mechanism of plot is overtly represented within the text.
Homestuck features physical ‘narrative prompts’, machines through which instructions are placed in characters heads (Fig. 4.). Homestuck began as a parody of a point-and-click adventure game, the style of which these instructions were supposed to replicate. John describes these commands as “some kind of voice that I can’t even really hear.”1 They can tell characters where to go and what to do,2 but may also affect thought and perspective. Dave, (another major character) musing on his own relationship to heroism, remarks that “maybe i am supposed to be a hero and rise to the occasion because there seems to be this little persistent voice in my head nagging me about it.”3 Rather than his own conscience, this voice is literally another character typing in a narrative prompt. Hussie observes that these instructions go unnoticed so long as they remain within the scope of what characters might or wish to do.4 When they are aggressive or highly out of character, the recipients are thrown into confusion.5 The gods in the Iliad put thoughts or feelings into people’s heads in a very similar manner. Sometimes they are subtle and unnoticed, as when Apollo grants courage to Agenor at 21.457; but otherwise the unlikeliness of the action makes characters notice the divine intervention, as Lycaon does when a god deflects his arrow from Diomedes.6 Agamemnon’s later supposition that the gods incited him to quarrel with Achilles7 shows that the characters know that the gods can influence their actions, but they cannot be sure when this is taking place.
Fig. 4. Homestuck, pages 705 and 439
By representing the gods as semi-authorial, the poet reveals the narrative forces of convention and innovation at work on a higher textual level. Their conflict reflects the process of working within both a narrow fatalistic story and an extremely old and broad textual tradition, through their implied awareness of other tales and variants. Poseidon rescues Aeneas at 20.325 because he knows of his fate to continue the Dardanian line;8 an acknowledgement of another body of stories which depend on the events of the war. Aeneas is in danger because Apollo has encouraged him to face Achilles.9 Apollo’s ‘innovation’ in pitting these two characters against one another is a dangerous one. It will lead either to a drastic change in the structure and focus of the Iliad with the death of Achilles before he has killed Hector, or to the obliteration of another mythic tradition dependant on the poem’s plot. The clearest parallelism between the gods and the oral bard is Zeus’ reluctance to let Sarpedon die. Crucial here is Hera’s rebuttal: if he saves his child, other gods will save theirs.10 This precedent works on two levels; it disrupts the plot of the Iliad and the other stories which depend on it, but it also disrupts the mytho-poetic tradition. If one poet manufactures a new variation of the tale to save a favourite hero, so might others.11 The occasional dissatisfaction of the gods at the paths they are compelled to take dramatizes the process of composing within a fixed tradition, even though as narrative devices they exist to ensure that events turn out as they should.
In Homestuck, certain actions are impermissible because their deviation from the circle of causality nullifies past events caused by future ones. These actions can take place in parallel timelines, but characters within them are doomed to die. In Terezi’s words, the timeline/narrative is “M3RC1L3SS TO THOS3 WHO 1NH4B1T TH3M [the ‘doomed’ parallel offshoots], 4ND 1N P4RT1CUL4R, THOS3 WHO C4US3 TH3M.”12 The poetic tradition puts a similar constraint on the Iliad because its network of causality is prior to the creation of the specific text,13 a constraint dramatized by these divine conflicts. The tradition does ‘punish’ characters who initiate drastic deviations from its script. Such changes would deviate from the familiar, conventional telling of the characters’ lives. They cannot live on through the fame traditionally accorded to them if the events of the poem do not follow these conventions. “Doomed timelines” in the Iliad entail not literal death, but the erasure of immortality. As well as the implication of the Sarpedon episode, Achilles’ choice between life and fame is made precisely along these lines. Drastic changes to the mythic tradition would disrupt the system in which the poet’s work is recognised as authoritative,14 just as Redfield notes that the intervention “Would also disrupt the relation between mortals and immortals - in itself a kind of social structure - on which that plot is based.”15 The relationship between gods and humans in the Iliad is a metaleptic one; aligned with the circular reciprocity between poet and characters. By adhering to the desires of heroes within the text to have their stories told, the poet situates their own work within a tradition of great repute.
The rules and limitations imposed by the mythic and oral tradition mean that the Iliad’s conception of ‘authorship’ is extremely distant from its modern definition. Homestuck’s example offers us a new way of understanding it: the poet and poet-figures within the text work more like the players of a narrative computer game. The comparison of the Iliad to a game is not new. Lowe built up a whole anatomy of plot along the lines of moves, board, and players in The Classical Plot (2000), but did not fully account for the traditional and pre-established nature of the narrative. Lowe sees all major characters as ‘players’,16 and the gods as a ‘control level’ designed to conceal the hand of the author17 and to justify the cosmic nature of the moral system of the poem.18 This final point is a valid one, but the others are far from definite. Looking at the Iliad through the lens of Homestuck suggests that the role of the player is a metaleptic level which instead describes the constrained creator and the game of composition. It is only characters with a certain level of knowledge who can be ‘players’ in terms of their conscious direction of the narrative within certain parameters: those who are not only aware of certain future outcomes, but who understand those outcomes as essential rather than inevitable. Apollo knows that Patroklos would have sacked Troy if he hadn’t stopped him,19 and Poseidon knows that letting Aeneas die will change the course of history.20 They act to make the most desirable option occur, to avoid a bad ending. In Homestuck, many characters have such a degree of knowledge, and some who direct others accordingly are author-analogous in no other respect.21 In both texts, these characters guide others like avatars in a game: sometimes to ensure that what must happen does,22 and sometimes purely in their own interest.23
Every direction which the Iliad can take is programmed into the oral tradition as a possibility inscribed by formulaic language and mythic convention. In a narrative videogame, you may have a choice of paths to take in order to get to a destination essential for your progression, but reaching the destination itself is mandatory. Action is limited, but it is still essential to act in order to guide your avatar character through the story. No two playthroughs of the same game will be identical, in terms of route taken, time taken, or order of minor actions, but their endings are set in stone. Is the player then a storyteller, a performer, or merely a reader? The roles of author and reader are especially blurred in Homestuck before act four, when Hussie accepted ‘instructions’ from readers which directed characters as a narrative voice.24 The reader ‘plays’ by guiding the characters within the system of their world, but so does is the author as he responds to these commands in a manner which lets the story progress. A similar dialogue, perhaps, existed between poet and tradition in the case of the Iliad. After he dropped the reader input, Hussie used the system of time travel to trap himself into narrative loops, just as his characters did; making them allude to future events which he had not yet fully planned.25 Both Hussie and the poet of the Iliad are playing the same game as their ‘player characters’. All must work through the events which are bound to occur, but what happens between them is made up along the way.
The detachment of the gods from the human sphere which places them on the metaleptic level of the player also allows the poet to reveal and explicate the contrivances of literature through their actions. They both embody and point out the generic structures and licences which the Iliad utilises, frequently accounting for ‘unlikely’ happenings or coincidences. Just as gods often personify natural forces in religion, they stand for narrative contrivance in literature. When Poseidon rescues Aeneas, he picks him up and throws him over the battlefield. He flies over "“πολλὰς δὲ στίχας ἡρώων, πολλὰς δὲ καὶ ἵππων,"26 ("many rows of heroes, and many rows of horses too") the repetition highlighting the awe-inspiring nature of his supernatural ability. Similarly, when Aphrodite rescues Paris she magically transports him to his bedroom, “ῥεῖα μάλ᾽ ὥς τε θεός."27 ("as is very easy for a god (to do)") In both cases, the extreme contrivance required to avert deaths which would alter the traditional plotline is emphasised by these fantastical actions of the gods. The hand of the poet, however, is revealed in pure literary contrivance rather than supernatural device. Athena orchestrates Achilles’ duel with Hector by returning Achilles’ spear after he has thrown it and missed.28 Later, Achilles wounds Hector in the throat in such a manner as enables him still to speak.29 The poet’s contrivance is displayed,30 just like the gods’: their methods of operation are, for a moment, revealed as equivalent. But the poet acts to heighten the emotional drama of the scene, not for the sake of causal necessity.
A multiplicity of author figures dramatizes the contradictions and tensions of the process of textual creation. It seems a fitting feature for texts in which the autonomy of both characters and creator is muddied by predetermination or tradition, blurring the lines between them. But as chapter one argued, ‘authorship’ is no neutral ground. Redfield notes how “erratic” the actions of the gods appear to humans, representing the horror of a world controlled by powers “less serious and less moral than our own.”31 As well as mediating narrative contrivance, the gods in both literature and cult personify the whims of fate. They account for both consistency and incomprehensibility in the moral workings of the universe. The gods reflect the antagonistic role of the storyteller who must put characters through hardship and suffering incomprehensible to them in order to tell a story. Lowe claims that "As an attempt explicitly to rationalise the unabashedly irrational, there is little if anything in later fiction to match this,"(that is, the Iliadic gods).32 But it is matched in Homestuck. Lord English, Homestuck’s villain whose existence and desire for destruction is the substance of the comic’s narrative spacetime, is a cruel and irrational being. His life story structures its convoluted temporality, since the circular and non-linear nature of his coming into being means that the timeline is beholden to whatever sequence of events leads to his existence. English is an absurd god for an absurd world. He is a fusion of several characters, one of them a particularly cruel clown. This leads (in a circular fashion) to a profusion of clown-imagery across the narrative which despite its obvious absurdity, is often crucial to the plot.33 The normal order of weight and frivolity is inverted in a narrative world driven by a cruel, sarcastic irony. The workings and demeanour of any higher narrative level reflect on the operation of fate and causality on the lower ones. Indeed, the carefree and amoral attitude of the gods may allude the fact that the poet of the Iliad tells a tale of pain for the sake of entertainment.
Conflicts between different authorial figures are crucial to the progression of Homestuck’s plot, complicating the idea of conflict as the primary building block of narrative. It can play out within the author’s own contradictory agenda as well as between the characters. The antipathy of Andrew Hussie’s self-insert character towards his primary villain leads to his own death at English’ hands;34 but the sequence that follows, (known as “Death of the Author)35 introduces an object (a ring which resurrects ghosts) which eventually enables one of the most pivotal events in the story. After Hussie’s death, the narrative is more overtly controlled (or authored) by Lord English. Later in the story, Hussie (presumably a ghost) gets into an argument with Caliborn, English’s younger self. He discusses the principles of storytelling: “You don't just make some omniscient narrator inside a computer tell you everything all at once. There's like this whole process to it. You reveal certain things at the right time, depending on whether the hero has met certain requirements and is ready to learn those things.”36 Caliborn’s impatience highlights his role as the force which drives relentlessly towards the ending, and these conversations with the author develop his own character as a storyteller. The effects of this interaction are shown when Caliborn takes over the telling (and the art) of much of the story.37 Homestuck’s metalepses are not merely a fun postmodern trick but are both causally and thematically central to its workings.
These authorial conflicts in Homestuck embody two opposing perspectives on narrative which every storyteller must bear in tandem. The need to push towards the end in the relentless death drive of plot, and the desire to delay the inevitable end and develop the characters and themes. The same is true of the Iliad. In both texts, different characters embody these forces at different times, portraying the dynamism of their polarity. Contrary to my reading, Wilson argues that Zeus is an exact and consistent analogue to the poet in his desires and approach to the text.38 Instead of a multifaceted tension between different author-figures, he proposes a singular unified correspondence. What Wilson does not consider is that stories comprise not only of a sequence of events, but also of their order and selection. In a mythic tradition, choosing how to focus a story is the most powerful tool of innovation and agenda that the poet has.In Homestuck, ‘discourse’ is a crucial part of narrative control. Vriska yanks back the narrative focus from Hussie,39 and Caliborn eventually relegates the main “acts” of the comic to his bastardised retelling of it,40 banishing the actual tale to the “intermissions” between them. The power of the author is not only to decide what happens, but also what to show. Hussie chooses to focus on the relationships and emotional development of the characters41 rather than dramatic battles and the fulfilment of quests as climactic points of the story.42 The game which the characters play is a fantasy world in which such things are both generically and literally expected, and Hussie pushes back against these tropes by refusing to give them narrative importance. Other author-figures in the text believe differently. The parts of the Iliad in which inevitable events are delayed or almost derailed are frequently those in which we see the most development of the characters themselves. The embassy in book nine is an attempt to persuade Achilles to return to battle before the death of Patroclus. It is therefore futile, but it gives us the most detailed exploration of his character and relationships and discusses concepts crucial to the poem, like heroism and φιλια ("friendship or love: a reciprocal bond"). The second half of book six also portrays a fruitless embassy to Athena. It represents the domestic side of the war, heightening the emotional impact of the battle and duel scenes by showing what is at stake for the Trojans. Again, this is achieved by the examination of the relationships between the characters. Other smaller moments in the text function similarly: the inconclusive duel between Menelaus and Paris in book three instigates the teikhoskopeia ("watching from the walls"), which develops Helen as a character. Some of these moments contain events crucial to the narrative, but they are all drawn out and elaborated far beyond this. Whether or not the force of the traditional narrative is aligned with the 'διος βουλη'43 ("plan of Zeus") or that of any other singular character, a dialogue is being had between its limitations and the poet’s interests. “The journey itself is more important than the destination. The struggle is what builds character and teaches us about ourselves and about life,” says Hussie to Caliborn. “BULLSHIT.” he replies.44
The competing desires of different forces within the Iliad - gods, heroes, poets - make the story move. Even a predetermined narrative is rendered static without characters who want a different ending, and the Iliad is animated by delay and the will to defend against the march of fate. Although no singular character deliberately directs the Iliad’s narrative, there are two conflicting forces of ‘plot and delay’ through which the structure of the text can be read. For Brooks, the desire for an ending is what propels narrative, but it must be the ‘correct’ ending.45 Diversion created by forces which oppose the subject’s desires is what leads to that ‘correct’ ending, because otherwise fulfilment would come too soon and too easily.46 There would be no story. “space falls back. it yields”47 says Calliope,48 Caliborn’s sister and an opposing authorial force which he vehemently seeks to subjugate. Space is the most fundamental barrier between desire and its fulfilment. If what you want (E.g. Helen) is over there, you must move to get it. Space creates the texture, the diversion, the obstacles through which the subject moves (in time) in order to reach the end of the story. Space is a creative principle in Homestuck, part of its formal system of ‘aspects’ which embody the different elements of storytelling. Time is the motive force which drives through Space, to which its obstacles must yield for the story to move. The events which the poet and the gods of the Iliad are bound to will not come to pass without a struggle against them. If Hector was not so strong a hero, Achilles’ victory would hardly be a subject worthy of song. He knows well that without the Trojan war itself, he would have no story at all.49 Achillean heroes operate on a more authorial level because they understand that achieving heroic identity requires an opponent. Vriska’s ambition to both create and destroy Bec Noir is not dissimilar to Hussie’s self-insertion into Homestuck in order to confront the villains he wrote. She is writing her own story, or perhaps her obituary.
The conflict between Time and Space divides the storyteller as well as the story. Both Hussie and whoever constructed the Iliad understand the paradoxical fact that the teller of any tale must embody both hero and adversary. Anne Carson notes that the readers and writer of a story must hold two desires in tandem. Both want the story to end so that the characters may achieve what they wish for; but simultaneously, they enjoy the space of unfulfilled desire that is the story itself. A satisfying conclusion would end this pleasurable process, but its persistence requires that the characters remain unsatisfied and unhappy.50 Narrative is intrinsically contradictory and duplicitous, and texts which are interested in exploring its structure may do so by embodying its opposing forces in the characters themselves. But tales with structures of predetermination have a special relationship to this polarity. Requisite events and endings mean that the space between them and the focus and discourse of the text is the main site for the storyteller’s creativity and innovation. This gives their creators space to pause and reflect: on whether endings do convey meaning, on what makes a story enjoyable, on why characters want certain endings and why only one can prevail. The stories they produce are introspecitve, interested in picking at their own seams in order to reveal the fault-lines of literature, society, and the human condition.
1 Homestuck, 268.
2 Homestuck, 255-9.
3 Homestuck, 3703.
4 Hussie, Homestuck Book 3. 95
5 Homestuck, 458.
6 Iliad, 5.185-6.
7 Iliad, 19.87.
8 Iliad, 20.307-8.
9 Iliad, 20.84-5
10 Iliad, 16.446-7
11 Wilson, J. (2007). Homer and the Will of Zeus. College Literature, 34 (2), 150-173. 167.
12 Homestuck, 3095.
13 Redfield, J. (1975). Nature and Culture in the Iliad. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 59.
15 Redfield, 135.
16 Lowe, N.J. (2000). The Classical Plot and the Invention of Western Narrative. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 46.
17 Lowe, 125.
18 Lowe, 56.
19 Iliad, 16.699-700, 16.708-9.
20 Iliad, 20.307-8
21 This is a deliberate confounding of the roles of author and character. Sometimes characters use their superior knowledge to influence authorial figures – see pages 2256-2267.
22 E.g. Athena helps Achilles kill Hector at 22.276-7
23 E.g. Apollo sets Aeneas on Achilles, 20.84-5. Cf. Vriska and Terezi’s rival guidance of John and Dave, 2782, 3712
24 Hussie, Homestuck Book 3. 135.
25 Hussie, Homestuck Book 3. 401.
26 Iliad, 20.326.
27 Iliad, 3.381.
28 Iliad, 22.276-7.
29 Iliad, 22.328.
30 De Jong, 144. (I know that this refers to Irene De Jong's work on metalepsis in ancient Greek literature, but I apparently forgot to include the work in my bibliography and cannot at present find my notes on it either. I am trying to work out which precise work it refers to, but for a variety of reasons, my search has been futile so far.)
31 Redfield, 131.
32 Lowe, 57.
33 E.g. 2818-2822. This sequence leads eventually to a murderous rampage.
34 Homestuck, 4811.
35 Homestuck, 4815.
36 Homestuck, 4596.
37 Homestuck, 6244.
38 Wilson, 153.
39 Homestuck, 6080-82.
40 Homestuck, 6244.
41 Hussie, Homestuck Book 4. 297.
42 Hussie, Homestuck Book 4. 463.
43 Wilson, 154.
44 Homestuck, 5781.
45 Brooks, P. (1984). Reading for the Plot. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 103-4.
46 Brooks, 109.
47 Homestuck, 7889.
48 Homestuck ends with an invocation to a muse.
49 Iliad, 9.413.
50 Carson, A. (1988). Eros the Bittersweet. Princeton, N.J.: Dalkey Archive. 81.