Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings?

Not a day goes by without The Girl reminding us that everyone else her age has a phone — but she also compares her desire for a phone to Gollum’s desire for The Ring. Many adults have told her she’s lucky not to carry around the burden of social media updates, though part of her is convinced she could resist the temptation, and that she would only use her phone for good. (“One does not simply resist social media.”)

Over the last few months, she has been slowly reading through The Lord of the Rings, and over the weekend she finished The Return of the King. We celebrated by letting her watch the 2003 movie — something that she admitted was much more meaningful because she had read the books first.

After taking a few months to read LOTR in between lessons (my wife didn’t let her count it for her homeschooling, since I had already read the books to her when she was about seven), she powered through Murder on the Orient Express in three days. After Tolkien, Agatha Christie was easy.

In an era where detailed plot summaries and study guides are just a click away, it’s challenging to get students to read complex texts. Rather than struggle with a complex passage, it’s very tempting to go online and read what someone tells you the passage is supposed to mean. (And those cats-playing-a-theramin videos won’t watch themselves.)

I tell my Shakespeare students that if the seamstresses and stable boys of Elizabethan London could get something out of Shakespeare’s plays (and they did!), then so can a 21st century college student.

Of course, Shakespeare’s audiences grew up in an oral culture, and because they understood the figures of speech and the cultural references, they probably gained more on a first casual hearing than the average 21stC American. Shakespeare’s audiences were already familiar with the kind of storytelling Shakespeare practiced, but it is his facility with language — and his uncanny ability to give supporting characters and villains backstories — that make his plays interesting to scholars who find his works worth reading and re-reading.

I was happy to find this article, which examines how the the rise of print and the development of a literate public changed the way people interacted with stories. (For example, modern novels feature a lot of introspection and interior cognition, of which we find little in Beowulf or Arthurian legend.)

While epic poems were designed to be recited before crowds, the novel — so named because it was a “novel” (new) genre — was designed for private reading (and re-reading). As people spent more time individually contemplating texts, they developed the cognitive skill to think about and interpret subtext, which in turn changed the way writers wrote.

Elizabeth Hart, a specialist in early literature, writes that in medieval or classical texts, “people are constantly planning, remembering, loving, fearing, but they somehow manage to do this without the author drawing attention to these mental states.” This changed dramatically between 1500 and 1700, when it became common for characters to pause in the middle of the action, launching into monologues as they struggled with conflicting desires, contemplated the motives of others, or lost themselves in fantasy—as is familiar to anyone who’s studied the psychologically rich soliloquies of Shakespeare’s plays. Hart suggests that these innovations were spurred by the advent of print, and with it, an explosion in literacy across classes and genders. People could now read in private and at their own pace, re-reading and thinking about reading, deepening a new set of cognitive skills and an appetite for more complex and ambiguous texts.

Source: Why You Should Read Fiction

3 thoughts on “Why Doesn’t Ancient Fiction Talk About Feelings?

  1. This is interesting, because I just made a similar observation myself. After reading Lord of the Rings and moving on to War and Peace, the novels are of equal length and scope, but the ability to engage with emotion, introspection and vacillation of ideas in War and Peace makes it feel like a lighter read than LOTR, which was (I am assuming) consciously constructed in the mode of Tolkien’s beloved ancient epics and eddas.

    • I just finished rereading The Two Towers, and was struck with how almost apologetic Tolkien was for carefully narrating the slow thought processes of Sam as he puzzles out — often aloud — what to do after the encounter with Shelob.

    • I noticed that as the series went on, Tolkien became seemingly more and more interested in the pastiche elements of what he is writing- it’s only in late Two Towers and most of Return of the King in particular that his versifying becomes blatantly “in the style of” things like the Green Knight for the warrior poetry. And when the eagles sing their big song after the climax, it’s so blatantly Old Testament prose-poetry that you can almost pinpoint the moment Tolkien decided he was going to translate the Bible for his next project.

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