Is Ancient Literature Unconcerned with the Interior Life?

Is Ancient Literature Unconcerned with the Interior Life? October 22, 2018

Sir Edward Burne-Jones, overall design and figures; William Morris, overall design and execution; John Henry Dearle, flowers and decorative details, The Attainment: The Vision of the Holy Grail to Sir Galahad, Sir Bors, and Sir Perceval (also known as The Achievement of the Grail or The Achievement of Sir Galahad, accompanied by Sir Bors, and Sir Perceval), 1895-96, PD-1923

Ordinary Time
St. John Paul II 2018
The Edge of Elfland
Concord, NH

Dearest Readers,

Recently I came across an article titled, “Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings?” The basic argument seems to boil down to two chief ideas. First, ancient (and by ancient they also mean medieval) literature is chiefly told in a “just-the-facts” manner with little or no explanation of what characters are thinking and feeling. The second, which is harder to ferret out precisely, is that the reason for this derives from a combination of social and biological characteristics which have evolved and changed over time. There’s only one problem, I think the article is quite wrong.

Several friends have pointed to the fact that both ancient and medieval literature contain clear examples of authors showing us something of the inner lives of their characters. One could point to Augustine, Boethius, Sophocles, Dante, Bernard, Theresa of Avila, and more as counter-examples. But even were we to bracket out some of these examples, their premise, or their understanding of ancient and medieval storytelling is simply wrong-headed. Let me attempt to explain what I mean by way of an example.

Beowulf, that standard of Anglo-Saxon poetry, is, on the face of it, a simple tale about a hero who is a monster-slayer. Beowulf is strong and good and thus kills monsters until he is ultimately killed by the dragon in the end (whom he also slays). Never once are we given any insight into what Beowulf is thinking at any given point. His mind is opaque to us. And yet, the story itself is so drenched with meaning that attentive readers are still sifting through it to see what all the story actually says. Tolkien, for instance, believed that there was an older, oral, fairy-tale at the back of Beowulf which was transformed into the story we now know by its first author, the anonymous Christian monk. Joseph Pearce has suggested the book is actually about the anti-pelagian debates. What’s more, from within the story there are all sorts of deeper meanings meant to convey certain ideas to the audience. Grendel is described both as being so large that he is able to put 30 men into his pouch and yet is small enough to fit inside Heorot and grapple with Beowulf. All of these things are not possible simultaneously, but the author isn’t trying to give us an accurate description of Grendel’s precise size, but he is trying to help us understand the stature of Grendel, the enormity of his evil, and, therefore, the enormity of Beowulf’s virtue and strength.

And this is just one example amongst many that I could make. Once we allow back in Augustine or Dante (or even the Scriptures where Christ frequently knows what people are thinking) the whole conversation shifts again as both authors frequently tell us what they or their characters were thinking and feeling. Equally, I think it rather clear that many ancient and medieval authors were worthy students of the school of show-don’t-tell. We needn’t be told what Achilles’ was thinking when he is told about Patroclus’ death. Rather we are shown by his entrance into battle and the rage with which he fights. Virgil never tells us about the inner workings of Turnus’ mind or Juno’s and yet who can deny that Turnus’ is being fueled by a rage-filled, perverted sense of patriotism, forgetting what is due to Jove who has proclaimed these events. Perhaps our language about feelings and thoughts has expanded, allowing for the Shakespearean soliloquy given to the audience, but even those are the characters telling us how they feel, not the author giving us insight into their emotions. And even more so do the plays require the lines be read with feeling in order to be understood.

The article also seems to lack a sense of understanding how language has developed. Barfield has argued, convincingly I find, that in the earliest days you could not separate out metaphor and the literal. The two coexisted, inextricably tied together and used to mean both simultaneously, only later do our languages begin to divide the literal and the metaphorical. And there appears, in this article, a progressivist assumption. Thus, even if you could get them to assent to Barfield’s point, they seem to be saying that this development is an obvious good. This is made most evident in their exploration of studies done showing that heavy readers of fiction are better at mentalizing and engaging with thoughts and emotions of others. By focusing on fiction (thus contrasting the evidently emotionless or interiorless fiction of the ancients and medievals with that of the moderns) the article misses out on the centrality of thought and emotion and will that was the subject of intensive philosophical and theological work. Augustine compares the Trinity to the mind in his De Trin.; Lady Philosophy tells Boethius to put away both hope and fear as both will mislead him at the beginning of The Consolation of Philosophy, Maximus the Confessor is concerned with how the mind and body of man images God, the Cosmos, and the Church, and let’s not forget the interior castles of Theresa.

I don’t have a contrary argument to make, though a friend did suggest that perhaps modern authors have to do the leg work for us by telling us what their characters are thinking. But I do want to suggest that maybe this rather snobbish view of ancient and medieval literature has rather missed the boat. Maybe with a little more attention on our parts we can better understand not just why they wrote they way they did, but how they understood the human person. Perhaps then we can find some practices of storytelling that we have abandoned and bring them to light again, alongside the real developments we have made. But we can only do this if we remain attentive readers with no metaphorical axes to grind.


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