The World's First Online Collaborative Commentary to an Ancient Text

The Cyropaedia and later prose fictions

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Question: If Cyropaedia is a long prose fiction (a novel), what types of novel does it resemble?

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 The literary specialists here seem to agree that Cyropaedia has no exact parallels in surviving ancient literature. There has been some discussion of what genre Xenophon, or an ancient reader, might have assigned the text too. I have noticed a certain reluctance to see Cyropaedia as a novel because of its dense philosophical content, and because it is quite different from the ancient novels which happen to have survived. I haven’t read the right things to address the question of what ancient genre Cyropaedia fits into, but I can comment on some parallels in more recent fiction.

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Fiction often has a didactic purpose. Not only does this help to justify the huge amount of work in composing a long work of fiction, but fiction gives the author freedom to design his work to raise certain points or themes. Sometimes the fiction is just a way to make teaching more attractive and memorable. Other fiction tries to give the pleasures of learning without the necessary work: here one thinks of Dan Brown novels with their half-baked lectures on various topics, or techno-thrillers filled with trivia about equipment and tactics. Both seem designed to make the reader feel like they are learning while placing less demands on both the writer and the reader. Ancients often read the Iliad and Odyssey as didactic works; moderns might class Socratic dialogues, some speeches in histories, the fables of Aesop or Plato, or the parables of the New Testament as didactic fictions.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Some technical problems in writing fiction are also common. Presenting setting, portraying character, and blending didactic and narrative are all difficult arts. Other fiction can remind us of approaches which Xenophon did not take, inspiring questions about why he chose a particular technique.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Here are four works which Cyropaedia reminds me of.  Not all are “novels” in the ancient or modern sense, but all use fiction to teach political or military lessons.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 – Ernest D. Swinton The Defence of Duffer’s Drift (1904). This military fiction has a young lieutenant dream of his first assignment. His mission is simple, to defend a ford against possible Boer attack, but somehow everything goes wrong. He wakes up, but next night falls asleep and and finds himself being given the same task again. There are a total of six dreams, in the last of which the narrator finally manages to defend a static position. This has an explicitly didactic purpose- it was published in the United Service Magazine based on the author’s service in South Africa and includes a list of 22 lessons- but is not based on any one incident and is written as a story. The narrator is a Lt. Backsight Forethought. Why is this a parallel? Its a didactic military treatise with a framing story. Its not my area of expertise, but one might also compare many works from the Italian Renaissance written in the form of a dialogue, such as Machiavelli Art of War or Giovanni Dall’Agocchie Dell’Arte di Scrimia.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 – Robert A. Heinlein For Us, the Living (written 1938, published 2003). Heinlein’s first fiction was a utopian novel explaining how free love and social credit could save the world. Like most novels arguing for a new political system, it had many flaws, including a 500 word footnote, characters remarkably incurious about how a 20th century man has appeared in their 21st century future, and long stretches of lecturing where the protagonist is inevitably convinced. (For the classicists among us, it also has a scene where the hero watches Lysistrata with his girlfriend). It includes a fairly detailed future setting, with some explanation of how they got there from here. The reader is urged in a footnote to play an economic game described in the text to see why social credit is necessary. It also includes many ideas which Heinlein worked over for the next 50 years. He chose not to publish it and to destroy all copies, but a typescript turned up in a friend’s garage after his death. Why is this a parallel? Its a complicated fiction meant as a ‘spoonful of sugar’ for a philosophical message.

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 – H. Beam Piper Space Viking (1962-1963). Despite its hyperbolic title, this “philosophical space opera” reflects long and serious thought about political organization and patterns in history. Piper was a heir to the early “scientific world history” of Toynbee and Spengler who had thought uncomfortably hard about the implications of nuclear weapons. At one level the novel is a straightforward adventure story: a noble in the distant future suffers a disaster, leaves home to raid and trade amongst distant peoples, finds a new cause to dedicate himself to, and is compelled to face an old enemy in defence of that cause. But embedded in this are dense observations of, and theories about, politics and the development of societies. We see a dozen imaginary societies, often with their strengths and weaknesses highlighted for the reader; techniques for manipulating a meeting, including priming someone else to suggest an idea which the chair doesn’t want to raise himself; a hero who applies Hitler’s “big lie” technique; and long discussions of the problem of nuclear weapons and of creating a lasting political order. Why is this a parallel? Its a work of entertaining fiction which pays significant attention to teaching and speculating about politics. Its also a modern attempt to portray various good and bad leaders in difficulties. Piper always wanted to write historical fiction, but he killed himself before selling any. Interested readers may be interested in John T. Major’s review at http://members.iglou.com/jtmajor/Viking.htm; the text is available through Project Gutenburg, although the Ace edition with introduction is very handy.

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 – Jerry Pournelle Lord Falkenberg stories. Pournelle is a curious character, who was born poor in the rural southern US, fought in Korea, and ended up a Doctor of Political Science who gave advice to the Reagan Administration. His Falkenberg stories are set about the year 2100 in a world where the US and USSR decided it was better to divide the world between them then fight and possibly lose. They extended this arrangement when a faster-than-light drive was invented. Unfortunately, tensions are brewing, and its clear to any intelligent observer that there will be a nuclear war soon. Enter John Christian Falkenberg, a professional soldier turned mercenary and part of a conspiracy devoted to delaying that war and ensuring that some sort of technological civilization survives it. Pournelle uses some interesting techniques to portray his brilliant soldier, including keeping him offstage as much as possible and using different viewpoint characters who notice different sides of him; he also uses such devices as a Socratic dialogue between two indentured servants, a government designed by political scientists who have read their Polybius and Aristotle, and a scene drawn from Justinian’s suppression of the Nike riots. Unfortunately, he isn’t as effective at masking his views about contemporary politics as Xenophon is in Cyropaedia. Why is this a parallel? It shows a recent solution to the problem of portraying a brilliant military leader, and of embedding political philosophy in fiction.

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 Can anyone else suggest other works of fiction which seem to be trying to do similar things to Cyropaedia? I could multiply examples amongst 20th century American science fiction indefinitely (Gordon Dickson, Poul Anderson, etc.) but I’m interested in what parallels Cyropaedia invokes in other readers. Xenophon lived in a very different world than the 20th century US, but some of the things which an author can try to do with a long fiction are common across cultures, and so are many of the challenges which an author must overcome.