This is the second of two posts on epic storytelling. You can find the first here.
I have a theory about why we are attracted to epic storytelling. It’s all about the history. However, for many that past is not our past, but rather history created in the minds and imaginations of writers around the world.
For an example we should look no further than the incredible popularity of Game of Thrones. A medieval fantasy filled with political jockeying, power struggles, zombie like ice walkers, and dragons. A story nerds have been following long before it ever hit the small screen. Now others are discovering the show and going back to read the novels and get more out of this world that George R.R.Martin created.
Why? because the power, the love, the danger all speak to something within us. A subliminal ping that we recognize as familiar. A sense of history.
But history is not clear cut, and as good epic storytelling reveals, there are winners and losers, heroes and villains, and sometimes they are not what we expect. It is this world building that is natural to space opera, fantasy, and science fiction that pulls together the basic elements of history into a broader narrative. These back stories filled with tensions, family dynamics, tyrants, gods, and transfers of power all feed into these imagined worlds. A space that becomes the setting for individual histories, secret pasts, and unknown origin stories including the inherent human longing for something more. And couched within these histories are journeys. Places where individuals move along a path (and not just the Campbell version) to self discovery.
Let’s take a look at two such realms where fantasy, magic, honor, truth and history converge.
Accio Harry Potter!
A reoccurring conversation I have at work is about how important place is in the telling of history. It’s the same with epic storytelling. The world the story inhabits has to feel real, complete. I never had that illustrated to me more than when I went to Orlando in January and stepped onto the set of Harry Potter. It was, to say the least so. cool.
Embedded within two Universal Studios parks, The Wizarding World of Harry Potter consists of the Hogsmeade set and Diagon Alley set. Both sides are connected by the Hogwarts Express which takes you from Hogwarts to London in five minutes flat creating an immersive experience that was well worth it. There was a sense of wonder as I walked through Hogwarts, saw Dumbledore’s Office, and watched people “disappear” through platform 9 3/4. Of course I immediately came home (armed with a wand) and did a massive re-watch//re-read, and reminding myself of two things why Harry Potter works where so many other worlds fail.
It was never just Harry’s journey. True, defeating Voldemort was in the end a solitary task, one meant for Harry alone, but as Rowling impressed upon us over and over again he never accomplished anything without someone helping him along the way. Hermione helped most of the time, but also Ron, Neville, Luna, Ginny, Hagrid, Dumbledore, Tonks, Lupin, Sirus Black, and of course shocking most of us as we paged through the final book — Severus Snape. Take a moment and watch this 13 minute compilation of Severus Snape’s scenes from the movie told in chronological order. I’ll wait.
Snape was never anything less then what he appeared to be. But we are colored by what Harry knows, what Harry understands. And his journey underscores that even the most hated characters can also be the unlikeliest heroes. Epic storytelling allows that to happen by placing individuals in worlds where circumstances force their hand.
Secondly It’s all about the malleability of truth. So much of what I learn as a historian is that our past depends on a certain point of view. We try to present history based on documentation and facts, but have to account for primary source bias in the telling of our tale. Corroboration is necessary. In Harry Potter we are allowed to see those viewpoints. Rita Skeeter vs. Elphias Doge. Voldemort using his own past to choose Harry and not Neville as the chosen one. Dumbledore seeking pieces of Tom Riddle’s history to figure out how many times he split his soul (not to mention the existence of Horcruxes). And so much more. We see how Harry’s reactions are shaped by what he is told (and who tells him things) and how his own bias prevents him from seeing things clearly. His truth has many perspectives. And while regular fiction provides these opportunities (Ian McEwan’s Atonement comes to mind) epic storytelling makes these conversations bigger, and broader.
The Year of the Force
Of course I can’t have a conversation about epic storytelling and not bring up Star Wars. George Lucas was not a subtle filmmaker. When you look at the battle between good and evil it seems simplistic. The big corporate, monolithic Empire against the rag-tag multi-species Rebellion. But his story contained magic. In this world we saw honor and truth, good and evil, fear and determination. We saw individuals grow and change across the stars.
It goes back, once again, to the history. What’s drawn me to Star Wars over the years was the way in which the galaxy far, far, away had roots in our real “global” history. But even more than that — if you look at the six existing movies there are conversations to be had about memory, equality and personal identity. All of which are evident in the very individual stories of Anakin/Vader, Padme, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Luke, Han, and Leia.
As polarizing as the prequels were they gave us the political linkages to contemplate the insidious nature of power and corruption. To see how change does not occur overnight but rather in slow, slippery, steps. Epic storytelling allows for that weight. That sense of history where, to paraphrase another epic space story “All of this has happened before, and will happen again.”
Nothing is clearer than how I felt watching the trailer for Episode VII. In a minute-and-half Lucasfilm smashed together new with the familiar. They provided equal parts wonder and excitement with nostalgia. We may not know who Fin and Rey are but we understand the X-Wing and the Millennium Falcon. We remember the adventures and how these ships have personalities of their own. There is nothing in this trailer that gives any inkling as to what the movie is about. And yet….I felt at home. There are Sith to be fought, and heroes to be born — and we know that the lessons learned from generations before will impact what is to come.
What works with this style of epic storytelling is that you can see how events unfold beyond a single generation. Think Ken Follet’s Pillars of the Earth, Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay, or even the Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive that is just picking up steam. Each of these stories span generations and allow us to see journeys and complexity over time. Even Star Wars opened a door to hundreds of stories beyond the main characters from the former expanded universe to the cast of Rebels.
Ultimately epic storytelling of all kinds (dystopian, fantasy and everything in between and beyond) kick-starts our imagination. These stories present answers to the questions we ask of ourselves at different times in our lives. Questions about right and wrong, left and right, look or leap. Questions about the road not taken. Questions that start with a single, simple phrase–one that pushes the mind, touches the heart, and breaks through fear. Epic storytelling is the answer to the universal question belonging to all dreamers.