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By David Morrell, Hank Wagner
Oceanview PublishingCopyright © 2010 International Thriller Writers
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THESEUS AND THE MINOTAUR (1500 B.C.)
This ancient Greek myth originated about 3,500 years ago. It has been told and retold many times, by Greek and Roman writers, including Ovid and Plutarch. All versions are slightly different, but all are valuable. The most accessible is found in Plutarch's Lives.
The story goes like this: Theseus, the son of the king of Athens, is a privileged but maverick warrior. At the start of the tale, he is away on the coast, attacking and burning enemy ships, in an action that is not fully authorized. He returns home to a crisis. Athens and Crete are in a state of uneasy truce, with Crete holding the upper hand. The price of peace is that Athens must periodically supply young men and women to be sacrificed to the Minotaur, a grotesque creature that lives in a labyrinth on the island of Crete. A demand for fresh victims has just arrived. Theseus insists that he be allowed to go, posing as one of the victims. He arrives on Crete and enlists — by seduction — the help of Ariadne, the daughter of the king of Crete. She supplies him with a ball of string, so that — if he survives the encounter with the Minotaur — he will be able to find his way out of the maze. Theseus descends, unwinding the string as he goes. He kills the Minotaur after an epic struggle. He retraces his steps with the help of the string. He emerges on the surface, ignores Ariadne, and returns home to a mixed welcome.
I first read this tale, in Latin, as a schoolboy. There was something about the story elements that nagged at me. I tried to reduce the specifics to generalities and arrived at a basic shape: Two superpowers in an uneasy standoff; a young man of rank acting alone and shouldering personal responsibility for a crucial outcome; a strategic alliance with a young woman from the other side; a major role for a gadget; an underground facility; an all-powerful opponent with a grotesque sidekick; a fight to the death; an escape; the cynical abandonment of the temporary female ally; the return home to a welcome that was partly grateful and partly scandalized.
I was reading Plutarch's Theseus in the classroom, but on the bus home I was reading Ian Fleming's Dr. No, and of course it eventually struck me that I was reading the same story. Theseus was a prince, and James Bond was a commander in the Royal Navy, about as close as Fleming could get to nobility within the confines of "realistic" fiction. For Athens and Crete, read West and East during the Cold War. Ariadne was Honey Rider; the ball of string was an ancient precursor of Q's oddball arsenal; the underground location for the climactic scene and the fight and the escape were all obviously self-explanatory. And so on and so forth.
Even Bond's basic character follows the myth fairly closely. His headstrong willfulness is always apparent — most of Fleming's books (and certainly all the movies) open with a scene of gratuitous violence or action not related to the main storyline. Those are all echoes of Theseus on the coast, burning the enemy ships. Above all, the various bipolar tightropes that Bond walks are prefigured: Is Bond truly valued by M, or merely tolerated? Is he bold, or hot-headed? Is the Secret Service proud of him, or embarrassed by him? And so on and so forth.
Am I accusing Fleming of plagiarism? No, not at all, although I have no doubt that he read Plutarch in school. He came from a much grander family than mine, but our educations would have been very similar. He would have realized — as I did — that the Minoan myth of Theseus from 3,500 years ago is almost certainly a rehash of a constant stream of earlier folktales, but tied to a particular time and place. The story of Robin Hood is similarly instructive: I had always instinctively assumed that the Robin Hood myth was part-fable, part-historical, about that period of English history defined by the regency of Prince John. But serious academic studies show that there were three completely separate Robin Hood myths in England alone, each separated by centuries, and that every culture with a written record of narrative has its own series of "Robin Hood" myths. Equally, a third strand of mythic character exists — the mysterious stranger who shows up in the nick of time to save the day, sequencing through early Scandinavian legends, medieval knight-errant stories, and, as variants on "savior" myths, even religious fables.
What does this tell us? It tells us that certain mythic paradigms — the young, take-charge nobleman, the renegade campaigner for a larger justice, the mysterious loner — are very deeply rooted in our emotional culture. We invented them thousands of years ago because we desperately wanted them to exist. We continue to reinvent them in flimsily disguised forms because we need them to be there, as a matter of catharsis and consolation. Above all, it tells us that the best contemporary thrillers — whenever they are written — will in some way tap into ancient mythic structures. Hollywood variously claims that there are only seven stories, or five, or two, but however many there are, they have all been already written or spoken millennia in the past, in our desperate, insecure infancy as a species. All we can do today is tell them again, and hope to derive the same comfort and excitement we used to, deep in the past.
Lee Child was born in 1954 in Coventry, England, and spent his formative years in nearby Birmingham. He went to law school in Sheffield, England, and after part-time work in the theater, he joined Granada Television in Manchester as a presentation director during British TV's "golden age." During his tenure, his company made Brideshead Revisited, The Jewel in the Crown, Prime Suspect, and Cracker. But after being laid off in 1995 at the age of forty, he decided to see an opportunity where others might have seen a crisis and bought six dollars' worth of paper and pencils and sat down to write a book, Killing Floor (1997), the first in the Jack Reacher series. Killing Floor was an immediate success and launched the series, which has grown in sales and impact with each new installment.CHAPTER 2
THE ILIAD and THE ODYSSEY (7th Century B.C.)
Both The Iliad and The Odyssey are attributed to Homer, about whom we have little information, none of it trustworthy. Scholars dispute exactly when Homer wrote these epic poems, but they are approximately 2,700 years old. The ancient historians Herodotus and Aristarchus of Alexandria both wrote about Homer, but their accounts differ on most details. Some ancient sources say he was from Chios, others from Smyrna. Most believed that Homer was blind, that he composed the poems himself, and that he sang them in live performances. Some modern scholars, however, have suggested that the poems may be the work of many poets, while Geoffrey Kirk and others have argued that the consistent brilliance of the writing mandates a single author. Although Homer worked in the centuries-old tradition of oral Greek poetry, some scholars, such as Bernard Knox, now believe that the author wrote the poems out first, probably on papyrus rolls, revising and refining his work, as one might expect from a gifted, professional writer crafting a masterpiece.
Since the dawn of humanity, people have loved thrillers. Long before the written word, men and women told tales that inspired and entertained, that passed information from one generation to the next, that gave their audiences the courage to face the great darkness. The earliest known works of art, among them the cave drawings in Lascaux, France, approximately 17,000 years old, tell stories. The Great Hall of the Bulls contains a painted narrative. Like a Paleolithic comic book, the drawings dramatize the chase and capture of a bison herd. All of the oldest surviving literary works, such as Gilgamesh, The Aeneid, and Beowulf, are ancient heroic thrillers.
Perhaps the greatest examples of these seminal thrillers, and certainly the ones most frequently read today, are The Iliad and The Odyssey. Both works are written in hexameter verse. The Iliad focuses on the character of Achilles, whose wrath — its origin, its execution, and its devastating consequences — have a dramatic impact on the tenth and final year of the Achaean conflict known as the Trojan War. Achilles is enraged when Agamemnon, the commander of the Greek forces at Troy, takes a slave woman given to Achilles as a spoil of war. In protest, Achilles stops fighting. As a result, the Greeks suffer a crippling loss to the Trojans. Achilles refuses the challenge of the Trojan hero, Hector, but his friend Patroclus fights in his place and is killed. In revenge, Achilles slaughters numerous Trojans, kills Hector, and defiles his body. In a moving scene, the repentant Achilles agrees to relinquish Hector's body to his father. The story ends with Hector's funeral.
The Odyssey follows a more traditional story structure: the quest narrative. The hero, Odysseus, a minor player in The Iliad, is the star of the sequel. After the ten-year war is finally over, he spends ten more years journeying home to the island of Ithaca to be reunited with his faithful wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus. The god Poseidon is angry with Odysseus and constantly throws storms, squalls, and other obstacles in his path. Odysseus encounters the one-eyed Cyclops, Polyphemus, the lazy lotus-eaters, the enchantress Circe, the nymph Calypso, and passes between Scylla and Charybdis. He eventually makes his way back to Ithaca where his wife is besieged by greedy suitors who are draining the family resources and plotting to kill Telemachus. After employing disguises, deception, and other tricks worthy of a modern-day thriller hero, Odysseus crushes the suitors and is reunited with his family.
Although these two poems are classical literature, I have no problem labeling them as thrillers, not only because they do indeed thrill, but because that was quite evidently the author's intent. The Iliad is filled with what today we call "action scenes," including blow-by-blow descriptions of the combat of Achilles, Hector, and others, some of which are extremely vivid and gruesome. Both poems are replete with ruses, plotting, crosses, double-crosses, and plot twists. There is also plenty of sex. The Trojan War, the setting of The Iliad, begins when Paris abducts another man's wife, Helen, and takes her for his own. In The Odyssey, we learn of Odysseus's sexual encounters with Calypso and Circe. The suitors sleep with housemaids (and are later hanged for it). Interestingly, Penelope only accepts that this stranger who has slain the suitors is her long-lost husband when he accurately describes their marital bed.
The narrative strength of these two epics captivated ancient Greek audiences. They may be challenging for some readers today, but they were the oral bestsellers of the ancient Greek era. Homer's poetry, despite — or perhaps because of — having been written in an artificial, poetic language never spoken by the ancient Greeks or anyone else, was well known in Greece and elsewhere for centuries. Much of the continuing interest in these tales can be attributed to the author's employment of exciting, larger-than-life plots, and heroic yet human characters, devices familiar to fans of the modern thriller.
The influence of these epic poems on all literature, including thrillers, is enormous. The plot of The Iliad has been borrowed by such diverse artists as Shakespeare (for Troilus and Cressida), John Latouche (for the Broadway musical The Golden Apple), the Led Zeppelin song "Achilles's Last Stand," and the recent action-adventure film Troy. The Odyssey inspired, obviously, James Joyce's Ulysses and Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, just to name a few. But the more obvious descendant of Achilles and Odysseus is the action hero, the protagonist of the modern-day thriller, as represented by Indiana Jones, James Bond, and Rambo.
I first read The Odyssey in the sixth grade, as part of a special humanities program offered to youngsters by a local community college. Reading Homer at the age of eleven may seem a daunting assignment, but our teacher, a very young woman named Marcia who dressed in the miniskirts and hip boots iconic of the era, inspired her students (particularly, I suspect, the male ones). We read Homer, Milton, Shakespeare, and anything else she wanted us to read. I devoured The Odyssey, this fantastic, comic-book-style story brought to life by characters who were not the perfect superheroes I knew from Saturday morning cartoons. These characters were deeply flawed, but even in Achilles's greatest rage, or Odysseus's most bloodthirsty encounter, I never lost sight of their essential nobility, their honor, their desire to do good. These heroic templates were lodged firmly in my subconscious when I created my series character, lawyer Ben Kincaid. Ben battles in the courtroom and the Senate rather than in the fields of war, but despite his many character flaws and foibles, he is essentially a hero who will not quit and always tries to do the right thing. In this sense, he is squarely in the Homeric tradition and could easily, at least in my mind, sail the seas of ancient Greece with these mythic heroes. After all, once Odysseus slaughtered all those suitors, surely someone had to represent him in court.
Library Journal called William Bernhardt the "master of the courtroom thriller." His twenty-eight books, many of them featuring attorney Ben Kincaid, have sold more than ten million copies worldwide. Bernhardt's novels, which include Capital Conspiracy and Nemesis: The Final Case of Eliot Ness, are known for their unexpected twists, legal realism, breathless pace, humor, and insightful consideration of issues confronting contemporary American society. He has twice won the Oklahoma Book Award for Best Fiction as well as the Southern Writers Guild's Gold Medal Award. In 2000, he was honored with the H. Louise Cobb Distinguished Author Award, which is given "in recognition of an outstanding body of work that has profoundly influenced the way in which we understand ourselves and American society at large." In addition to his law degree, Bernhardt also holds a master's degree in English literature. He founded HAWK Publishing Group as well as the HAWK Writing Workshops and Seminars, and is a highly sought writing instructor.CHAPTER 3
BEOWULF (between 700 and 1000 A.D.)
Beowulf is the earliest epic poem in English and one of the greatest. Its Anglo-Saxon author is unknown. It may have been composed as early as 700 A.D., but the oldest copy was made by two scribes somewhere around 1000 A.D., the only Beowulf manuscript to survive Henry VIII's destruction of monastery libraries. Ironically, though the poem has a hallowed place in the history of English literature, it tells a tale of sixth-century Scandinavia, and is largely drawn from Scandinavian history and mythology. It was, of course, from the language of Anglo-Saxon and Scandinavian invaders that English evolved. These invaders were pagans originally, and Beowulf probably began its life as a pagan story. But by the time of its writing, the Anglo-Saxons had become Christians, and the interweaving of Christian morality with a tale of warrior courage is both fascinating and profound. In 1999, the Nobel Prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney translated the epic, winning critical praise as well as the prestigious Whitbread prize. I personally found it a bit too restrained and scholarly and much prefer the more heroic 1963 version by Burton Raffel from which the spellings and quotations below are taken.
Great works of literature often peel away the mask of our piety to expose the raw life underneath. So it is with Beowulf, a brooding, blood-soaked celebration of warrior manhood.
Excerpted from Thrillers by David Morrell, Hank Wagner. Copyright © 2010 International Thriller Writers. Excerpted by permission of Oceanview Publishing.
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