Friday, April 8, 2011

Euripides and Vance

One thing I've noticed about the fiction of Jack Vance. Whether or not he intended or realized it, his stories are framed and developed from a mindset that's almost identical to that of the Athenian ancient Greeks during the explosion of culture that waxed and waned during the very short period of time when Athens rose to an empire before sinking into relative obscurity. Vance particularly fits into the cultural views at the twilight of the Athenian empire. Indeed, if Vance had been a historian lacking a sense of humor, he would have been Thucydides (author of the Peloponnesian War, which I highly recommend to anyone who hasn't read it). In fact, he has a very close analogy in the tragedian Euripides (the Bacchae and others), although Euripides is considerably darker. Aristophanes' Lysistrata, too, could have been written by Vance.

The traditional, middle school teaching on Greek tragedy is the progression of the hero from kouros (rightful pride and virtue) to hubris (overweening pride) to ate. Ate can be translated variously as the ending of a cycle of fate, or as retribution (often divine retribution).

For Vance, it is extraordinarily obvious that overweening pride is the source of downfall. It shows up in many, many, of his secondary characters and even in some of his protagonists (Cugel being perhaps the most awesome of these). Usually it's comedic, but sometimes not -- the ambitions of Casimir of Lyonesse are expansive, but seriously and brutally executed. Casimir's downfall originates in more subtle crimes and undertakings that would certainly have the ancient Greeks sitting at the edge of their seats knowing that the tragedic cycle has begun (and so do modern readers) but the LINK between Casimir and Cugel, which would be fairly clear in terms of how the ancient Greeks thought, isn't all that clear to a modern reader. To us, Casimir is brutal and Cugel is merely venal. To the ancient Greek audience, Cugel's reliance on his ability to deceive and Casimir's attempt to break the natural order (conquest of kings, violence against family, and dabbling in magic beyond his ken) are essentially the same thing. There are twists: the ancient world might not see Casimir's treatment of his daughter as out of line, whereas a modern audience does. On the other hand, they might -- it would depend on how it was portrayed (imprisonment of a female daughter was no sin, but driving a family member to suicide would probably fall into that category).

In any case, look at the signal for a Jack Vance character who is doomed to encounter fate. It's the flowery language. The more flowery the language of a Vance character, the more likely that something embarrassing, fatal, or both is going to befall that character. Again, Casimir is the exception. Interesting.

On the other hand, of course, are Vance's characters who pursue justice, protect their families, and don't make decisions based on the assumption that they are inherently superior to others based on their gifts. These characters don't tend to use the flowery language, and although they encounter grief and challenges they usually win in the end. They either visit retribution on the villain -- usually a retribution that fits the crime with considerable irony and appropriateness -- or they benefit when the villain encounters fate (fate often visiting an even more ironic resolution upon the bad guy).

Vance's heroes are conservatives in terms of where they see their role in society. They maintain, they do not undertake to make radical changes. Even in Lyonesse, where the protagonist seeks to unite and even control other kingdoms on behalf of his son, his son is indeed the rightful eventual ruler based on being Casimir's grandson.

Anyway, that's a long post, so I'll stop with that.


  1. Matt,

    This is the first thing I've read about Vance's writing that inclines me to consider reading him.

    Thank you.

  2. When I first read the title I saw "Eurypterids and Vance" i got to stay away from paleo for a while.

  3. Interesting thoughts about Casimir... I've never thought of comparing Casimir and Cugel.

    Many of Vance's most foolish characters are the most poetically eloquent. Casimir seems like an exception, but then again he wasn't really a fool, he was a horrible man. There was nothing comedic about Casimir's failure. Cugel was comedic - a fool who's selfish behavior was paid back again and again.

    Perhaps Vance used the dialog style to signify a divide between evil and foolishness. If I recall correctly, this may also apply to Tamurello and Carfilhiot, the former of which spoke in a less flowery manner, yet was more evil, the latter being more of the eloquent and selfish fool. I don't know how far you can take this, but it's fun to think about...! :)

  4. Fantastic and fascinating post, Matt! Thanks for this.