Though I have many friends deep into manga and comic books, grapic novels have never been an art form that I’ve spent much time with. Still, enough people recommended Eric Shanower’s Age of Bronze
to me that I felt obligated to check it out. It’s about the Trojan War, one of the great western myth cycles and Shanower tells the story with energy, style and a lot of faces that look very much alike. While it can take some time to figure out which glowering warrior or moping woman is which, the characters themselves are quite distinct. Shanower’s versions of the Trojan and Achaean heroes rarely deviate from tradition, but his (at this count) four volumes come closest to mirroring my youthful impressions of these personalities when I first read the Iliad and the related myths.
Paris is an arrogant boy, too soon in love with his newly found princeliness. Hector is a calm and stern warrior, and probably the only person on either side that genuinely wants to avoid war. Priam and Agaememnon make the war inevitable through their own pride and ambition. Achilles is headstrong and in love with the sound of battle. Pandarus is all around terrible. Nestor drones on about historic glories and everywhere people speak of fate and destiny and do everything they can to bring the prophesied end to pass.
And, like many modern interpretations of the Trojan War, the gods are like our own modern God(s) – silent, distant, maybe not even there, but everyone behaves as if the divine is a real thing of concern. Rituals and temples and altars are special places, but there is (so far) no magic, and there are no gods jumping in to make announcements or do battle side by side with their favoured heroes.
We’ve seen this very mortal understanding of the Trojan War in Helen of Troy (2003) and Troy (2004), as well as David Gemmel’s Greek novels.
Keep in mind that Homer’s version is not the only telling of these tales and, as Shanower notes, any “accurate” telling of the Trojan War – even as mythic fiction – runs aground on contradictions, time loops, and impossibilities. But even with the Iliad as the foundation, it makes sense for adaptations to elide Apollo’s cheating or the visit that Thetis pays to Hephaestus.
The Trojan War is one of the few Greek mythic cycles that can be seen in almost entirely human terms. This is not a quest story like Jason, Perseus or Theseus. There are no monsters or cartoon villains ravaging the countryside like those Hercules and Theseus must fight. When the gods do show up on the field of Troy, they are weaker than we are used to; Athena turns no one into a spider. Only the Theban Cycle with the pitiful story of Oedipus, the death of Antigone and the eventual destruction of Thebes is as mortal in its motivation and as moving in its pathos. Fate is a real thing, but most people don’t simply surrender to it as much as they embrace it or resign themselves to it.
Homer’s successor tale, The Odyssey, is more modern than the Iliad in the sense that it has a better idea of plot, subplot and suspense but is also a very traditional Greek myth with a hero outwitting or evading a series of perils. You can’t tell the story of the Odyssey without talking about Cyclopes or travels to the underworld. But the Trojan War, with its roots deep in previous battles in Greek ‘history’ and circles of revenge, works with the gods off stage, maybe shouting cues to the actors that are about to die.
Shanower’s biggest concession to the supernatural is the power of the oracles; Calchas, Helenus and Cassandra all know what is going to happen and Cassandra gets the worst of it. Given the power of prophecy by the Sun God, she rejects his advances and is raped and cursed to never be believed – it’s honestly one of the most horrible of Greek myths and it gains power in Shanower’s telling. Age of Bronze casts poor raving Cassandra to a tower where she is all but neglected. Seeing her fate, her prophetic brother Helenus keeps his mouth shut – a very human response. This divine knowledge is, of course, mirrored by the mortal intelligence and foresight of Antenor, Odysseus and Palamedes, each of whom can anticipate what is going to happen in the near term without resorting to omens or visions. The Divine exists, probably. But it’s not necessarily very helpful.
The Trojan War is the first great war of Western history/literature and the Mediterranean of the Mycenaean Age seems like it would be as fertile a setting for a strategy game as it does for film and written adaptations. But we’ve seen few attempts to make the plains of Troy ring on our computers with any authenticity or power. To understand the challenges in turning classics of myth into games, and how the Divine makes this even more challenging, we’ll need to take a detour or two.
But we’ll get there.
In a couple of days, Part II of this entry with thoughts on the Bible, Age of Mythology and the Player as God.