Or click on the SFF/Classics Conference 2013 tag.
This is the twelfth part of a multi-part conference write-up.
This is Monday afternoon and my notes are shaky things.
At lunch, I succeeded in dumping my helping of chicken satay over my foot, to general hilarity. Including my own, since by this point in the conference I think I was a bit punch drunk. Had some interesting conversations, including about videogames (although possibly this was not at lunch) with people including someone who’s name I’m not sure I got. I think it was Emily Kesh? (She was reading a Penguin Paradise Lost, I think.) Anyway, all things very convenable.
After lunch, we all filed upstairs to the Gallery, for the plenary address of Edith Hall (King’s College London), on “The Sea! The Interplanetary Sea! Xenophon’s Anabasis in Outer Space.” Hall is a very entertaining, engaged speaker, not shy of taking advantage of a comic moment: when Tony Keen introduced her as “a powerhouse of Classical scholarship,” Hall performed a series of dance-y “muscled arms” gestures.
Hall took the stage to disclaim deep knowledge of science fiction. She accepted the invitation to speak, she said, because Tony is a “good egg” and she likes him.
Xenophon, she said, is a major figure in the Western prose tradition. Many genres have their roots or influences in the Anabasis. She gave a précis of the Anabasis, and particularly its opening and movements to the death of Cyrus and then to the Black Sea, and stressed that although this is the climax of the narrative it is not its conclusion, as Xenophon and the Ten Thousand continue fighting around Thrace, and Xenophon (being exiled from Athens) wants to found a new city himself.
The Anabasis is the archetypal account of a military expedition. It provides military information, but the emphasis is on escape. There are previous escape texts in Greek literature, like the Odyssey, but the Odyssey is centred on home, centripetal, featuring travel around the periphery of the world. Xenophon’s text is profoundly centrifugal, caught between Greek and Persian worlds.
Other escape texts include Iphigenia in Tauris, which sees two men and one woman at a primitive barbarian community at Tauris, who must bring back an ancient wood statue of Artemis. (And the lads need to rescue the woman.) Comparandum with Return of the Jedi.
Although Hall said the influence is not direct, but probably mediated through the history of cinema, like the 1920s Trader Horn which influenced Tarzan and various iterations of “two guys and a girl escaping” films. Xenophon himself knew of Iphigenia in Tauris and was later to set up a temple to Artemis.
Hall remarked on the fact that despite being a socialist she’s attracted to right-wing men: “I would have married Xenophon and lived on his farm.”
Moment of humour over. Writers using the Anabasis, she said, have to deal with the geopolitics. How seriously have the authors thought about the Anabasis itself? How do you use Xenophon’s conflicted attitude towards home? Colonising the Black Sea? Socratic political theory? Xenophon’s Anabasis has an extremely pragmatic attitude towards home. The soldiers are mercenaries, some criminals, poor men coming from rural poverty, the principal players all – in a sense – refugees from a war-torn Greece and the end of a thirty-year war. The soldiers are selling their swords and labour to the real power in the region, Persia.
The Ten Thousand were a marching republic of sorts, a city on the move. The Anabasis is full of political theory, and Xenophon shows us different types of city/society life – feudal empire, tribes, new city, Athens and Sparta.
The Anabasis is like a “rite of passage novel.”
Hall looked at the idea of the Anabasis in three works. Paul Kearney’s Ten Thousand, which she called “Tolkien light with Greek proper names,” David Weber and John Ringo’s March Upcountry/March to the Sea (“macho puerile junk – just junk“), and Andre Norton’s Starguard – “The shortests! And it’s by a woman! Which I didn’t know when I read it!” which she said was the best of the lot, and which of them all she would recommend to other people.
Here my notes get sketchy and fuzzy, as Hall gave the room the low-down on how each of these novels engages with the Anabasis. Since I can’t make sense of what I have written down, I leave the details as an exercise to the reader.
It was an excellent and engaging paper. Even if it didn’t delve too deep into why the Anabasis and why these novels… or maybe that’s my mid-afternoon punch-drunkenness talking.
At the very end of the paper, Andy Sawyer stood up to present (with a long run-up, during which Hall’s face grew more worried) Edith Hall with her plenary-speaker gift.
Sawyer: “Your very own super lambanana!”
Hall: “Oh my God, what is that?”
“Look at it, that’s beautiful!”
Whereupon Edith Hall insisted on having pictures taken with the lambanana, Tony Keen, and Andy Sawyer, amid much giggling from the audience and calls of, “Hold it in profile!”