Archives for: January 2009, 29

01/29/09

Permalink 01:28:01 pm, by Chris Jones Email , 295 words, 2800 views   English (US)
Categories: Fun & Games, Roman Culture

The role of Destiny

Last night’s post about the Latin in the TV show Lost sparked an idea that has been knocking around my head for a while. As viewers of that show are no-doubt aware, time-travel plays a big part in the ongoing story; in fact, explicit time travel can be found in quite a few modern pop-culture artifacts, not to mention the general narrative trend toward non-chronological storytelling (think of films like “Pulp Fiction", or the now-ubiquitous practice of TV shows that present how the story will end prior to the opening credits, only to double back to the beginning after the first 8 or 10 minutes).

The Parcae or Fata play an important role in classical literature, most notably in Vergil’s Aeneid. The modern trope of time travel serves the same narrative purpose that concepts like Fatum did in the ancient world. In these older stories, supernatual characters would make oracular pronouncements like “It is your destiny” to move the plot along and alert an attentive reader to signposts in the narrative ahead. Today these same story functions are commonly handled by a character explaining in a purely scientific way how the physical laws of time travel should work: You either can’t “affect the timeline” (manent immota tuorum/fata tibi - Aen.I.257-8), or if you do the results are uniformly a disaster that “needs to be fixed” (think of how miserable Aeneas is until he understands and accepts his destiny).

IMO, while a modern writer may recognize the narrative utility of devices like fate and destiny, he/she knows a modern audience wouldn’t accept the usual supernatural explanation or its attendant religious/philosophical underpinnings. So fate is varnished with a pseudo-scientific verneer; the ideas of classical literature aren’t at all dead, just transformed for a more sophisticated audience.

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