How we love things larger than life! We insist upon them! I don't know why that should be but, after all, we each of us started life as infants, and that may contribute part of the explanation Our baby universe was filled with mother and father, who were far, far stronger than we were and possessed powers of such vague magnitude that they were effectively infinite. It was to them we turned for satisfaction and protection and it may be that our first great disillusionment in life was the realization that they were no larger than life at all. As we get larger, and stronger, and perhaps, wiser, we cannot avoid reaching that conclusion, however reluctantly.
No matter how we close our eyes to the truth, our parents will grow old and feeble and come to depend on us, and then, in the ultimate betrayal, they will die, even if they avoid accident, and no matter how well we care for them.
We cannot replace them. Nothing else is quite like the mother and father we knew in our childhood. But we cannot make do without them, either, so we fall back on our imagination.
I wonder to what extent the myriad of gods that humanity has invented owe their existence to the necessity of possessing fathers and mothers who are forever larger than life and who will never betray their role by falling into impotence and death as human fathers and mothers do.
Deities grow too perfect, though, and distance themselves from humanity to the point where they become etherealized into insubstantiality. For literary purposes, the demigod is more satisfactory.
He is larger than life, yes, but not so much so that he cannot suffer pain and occasional defeat. He is larger than life but remains one of us.
(At that, even gods were most popular when they were human enough to suffer death, at least temporarily- Baldur, Tammuz, Adonis, and so on. To be sure they symbolized the winter-death of vegetation, but the touch of humanity implicit in their death endeared then to their worshippers, and their eventual resurrection gave hope that death might after all be defeated and that separation by death might not be permanent.)
The first great fantasy epic that we know of is over 5000 years old and is of Sumerian origin. It is the tale of Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, who is mightier and more daring than a human can be and with whom we can vicariously share greater-than-human deeds, run greater-than-human risks, and suffer greater-than-human torment. Each culture creates its own superhero. The Greeks had heracles, the hebrews had Samson, the Persians had Rutsem, the Irish had Cuchulain. Each carved his way through a hostile world by means of his mighty thews which more than made up for his usually less than subtle mind.
Oh, occasionally a superhero vanquished because of the subtlety of his mind; witness Odysseus. Generally, though, if wisdom that was larger than life was required, it made itself manifest through the knowledge of magic, such as was the case with the Welsh Merlin or the Finnish Vainamoinen.
And no matter how accomplished the tales might be of wizards and tricksters, nothing moved readers like the men with mighty muscles. It was the immediacy of the hewing sword that counted, or it was the ordinary reader could more easily identify with a strong muscle and a subtle mind – he could perhaps develop something like the first, but he gave up on the second.
Middle Ages, we had King Arthur and his knights, with the ever-victorious Lancelot as the acme of an artificial chivalry that never existed in real life. And there was King Charlemagne and his paladins, with Roland as exemplar.
(The subtle trickster who was shrewder than life also existed, as in Reynard the fox, Till Eulenspiegel, and so on, but, again, never held quite the same appeal.)
Then came the sad day when gunpowder ruled the world and muscles and armour we no longer of use; when a cowardly, weak muscled, low-born wretch, by taking aim, could clang Sir Lancelot to earth with a neat little hole drilled in his breastplate.
Alas for heroic fantasy. Had it not died?
Modern literature makes up for that death by giving us other varieties of magnification. We still retain the shrewder-than-life protagonists of mystery novels – the Sherlock Holmes and the Hercule Proirots. We have the more-beautiful-than-life heroines and heroes of romances, and the more dreadful-than-life menaces of the Gothics and the Horror tales, and so on, indefinitely. We even make the use of gunpowder for the purpose by inventing the faster-than-life Western hero, who punctures the villain even after allowing him to draw first.
But nothing substitutes for the more direct form of violence. In every form of literature we end up with fistfights – a form of combat that is met with surprisingly seldom in real life. Detectives fight, Western heroes flail away, romantic lovers indulge in pugilistic displays. This is especially true in movies and television where they leave no bruises and mess no hair, though the sound of bone on bone is deafening.
But even that is not enough, We still want the old pre-gunpowder days, when the mighty biceps were needed to raise mighty swords and when the hero had to find a way of defeating sorcery with nothing but brute muscle at his disposal.
So why not write the story? It doesn't have to be in the present world, does it? It can be in the past. In fact, it doesn't have to be in the real past where it will be bound (however faintly) by known historical facts. Create a world of medieval civilisation immersed in a sea of barbarism, and bring forth Heracles anew. You have “sword” and “sorcery”. You have “heroic fantasy”. You have all the dreams back.
Or you can add a little spice and variety in the mix. You can add a touch of advance science, a soupçon of deliberate anachronism, a sprinkle of wry humour. The variations are endless and the opportunities for the free-wheeling imagination are infinite.
Here we have a collection of books whose authors have invented intricate societies in which to display larger-than-life heroes and heroines, facing larger-than-life evils and cruelties, suffering larger than life defeats and winning larger than life triumphs.
You, caught amid it all, will live it with them, and enjoy larger than life pleasures.
Remember its the oldest form of literature in the world, as old as Gilgamesh; and older, too, for heroes and heroines were probably celebrated by bards about camp-fires through the thousands of years before writing was invented and probably ever since Homo sapiens has existed.
A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.
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