The Conscience of the King
Can anyone reading this article name a science fiction character – one who is not Star Trek’s Spock or the X-Men’s Beast – who enjoys quoting great poets and philosophers? I am speaking of popular sci-fi heroes known to the general public here; I am acquainted with other characters in science fiction novels who make references to the classics. The sad fact is that very few of these are recognized by the general, movie-going public.
If you point out a few of the popular characters I missed herein, thank you for reminding me about them. For now, though, I will operate under the impression that the most recognized franchise whose characters regularly recite from classical literature is Star Trek. In the original series, Kirk and Scotty made allusions to Ancient myth, classic poetry, and the Bible fairly often, as did Dr. McCoy. Even Sulu was well-versed in the liberal arts, shown by his fascination with The Three Musketeers. In this and other Star Trek series, it wasn’t just humans who devoured Cervantes, Shakespeare, Aristotle, etc.; the Vulcans studied and admired our literature along with their own. We also saw in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country that the Klingons had examined and come to appreciate Shakespeare’s works.
Likewise, it wasn’t uncommon in the original Marvel comics for most of the heroes to reference classic literature or mention tidbits from ancient myth. Thor is the obvious example, since he comes straight from ancient Norse tradition, but in the first stories even Hawkeye knew enough of the liberal arts to give Captain America the unwelcome nickname of “Methuselah.” So Beast, while the most erudite hero in that fictional universe, was not the only one who had studied the literature of the past.
Now, readers and future writers, compare the expansive knowledge exhibited by these characters during these eras with a modern equivalent – Disney’s remake of their 2003 film A Wrinkle in Time. In the book by the same name, I am told, one of the three women who led the children on the adventure to rescue their father speaks to the other characters through quotes. In order to communicate, Mrs. Who recites items not only from the Bible, but from Shakespeare and other great human philosophers/writers. Although the children may need to have her remarks translated from time to time, the fact remains that she knows enough about classical literature for her to use it as a vehicle by which to convey ideas and information to them.
In the new film, however, Mrs. Who speaks by quoting Jay Z. This is how she relays ideas, warnings, and information to the children in the new movie. While I have no opinion on Jay Z whatsoever, the fact is that the decision of the film’s makers to have him be the sole source of wisdom by which Mrs. Who communicates is absolutely terrifying. Miss L’Engle’s decision to use classic literature as a mode of communiqué makes much more sense since it shows extensive knowledge, deep understanding, and creativity. Having Mrs. Who reference Jay Z in the new film, on the other hand, is like a man bringing a MacDonald’s meal to Buckingham Palace when he has been invited to dine with the Queen. It shows a lack of awareness, self-indulgence, and very little – if any – imagination.
This alteration to the personality of a primary character in A Wrinkle in Time points to a very disturbing lack in modern science fiction. Outside of the rebooted Star Trek film franchise and, perhaps, the X-Men and Avengers movies, few popular sci-fi protagonists today refer to the classics in their dialogue any more. Nor are they shown reading from or consulting it, which they did in The Wrath of Khan and The Undiscovered Country. And even in the new ST films, the timeless art of the past is given relatively little space. This was shown most blatantly in Star Trek Beyond; it is good ol’ rock and roll, after all, not the clashing cymbals and thundering drums of Flight of the Valkyries that discombobulates the aliens trying to destroy Yorktown.
Why is this important? Why should heroes (and villains) in sci-fi make allusions to the classics where/when appropriate? It is important because knowledge of the actual, real classic arts is vital to expanding one’s understanding of good and evil, allowing the characters to have a wide historical perspective, and developing their ability to think resourcefully, thus drawing the audience along.
Going backwards from the list above, scientists have proven that reading fiction improves one’s ability to think inventively. This is not truly surprising; we absorb a great deal from the tales on which our minds and hearts delight. More than a few of us can think back to stories we read, heard, or saw which gave us ideas on how to work through situations in our own lives. For writers the exposure to stories, old and new, is no less vital than breathing. If we cannot draw mental sustenance and strength from the lore of the past, our stories are more likely to become chaff in the winds of time than rocks which help to turn a mighty river.
As a direct example consider Kirk’s homemade cannon in the original Star Trek episode “Arena.” Here he must face and defeat the Gorn captain in order to save his crew and the Federation – without the aid of the advanced weaponry of Starfleet. Because the reptillian Gorn is physically stronger than Kirk, he cannot hope to win the fight against the alien with mere fisticuffs. So the Starfleet captain goes off in search of something – anything – that will allow him to defeat his mortal foe.
In the process, he comes upon several scattered, valuable substances: sulfur, diamonds, and various other items. Sprinkled across the landscapre, these things are useless to him. But once he puts them together, Kirk is able to build an effective weapon which gives him the upper hand in the battle.
While it is plausible that his training in science allowed Kirk to recognize and use these things effectively, it is just as likely that his classical arts training helped as much, if not more, in this situation. A man who studied chemicals alone would recognize the value of the sulfur, certainly, but he probably would not have been able to use it in the way that Kirk did. The reason for this is that Kirk did not solely study chemicals or even science. He studied those in association with the classics and history.
This means that Kirk knew enough about primitive cannons that he could cobble one together without using schematics. He also recognized that the diamonds could be turned into primitive projectiles; they were sharp and, flung with the proper force, would do a great deal of damage even to the strong, scaled Gorn captain. If he had studied chemistry and the other sciences alone, however, Kirk would have lacked the inventive capacity which allowed him to escape this quandary and others throughout the series.
The second area in which reading the classics can and often does strengthen its students is by giving them a proper historical perspective. Recently, a literary award named for Laura Ingalls Wilder had its name changed due to complaints that her books showed bias against minority groups. I do not know if Ms. Wilder shared the predispositions of her time, but the fact is that that is a moot point. The inclusion of these prejudices in her novels is precisely why they should still be read and studied; those who do not learn from the past are, as Santayana said, doomed to repeat it. If one does not learn about what came before, how can he avoid repeating the mistakes made by his forebears?
Finally and most importantly, reading classics such as Ms. Wilder’s books proves to those who study them the fact that intolerance is a two-way street. Each and every race on the planet, whether they were the Ancient Egyptians and Greeks or the modern hegemony, has been influenced by or possessed of some form of bigotry. This shows a reader that evil is universal; it has been with us since the Fall of our first parents and it will be with us until the end of time. It also demonstrates that many people have tried to breed or beat wickedness out of humanity only to fail, magnificently or minutely.
People – and characters – who study history through novels as well as textbooks understand this. Reading historical works such as The Iliad, The Legends of King Arthur, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, and Ms. Wilder’s novels bring the truth about evil home to the student(s) in a poignant manner that ensures the reader(s) will not forget it. Such works sensitize the minds and hearts of those who read them, since they can come to see that evil is a general problem for mankind. The individual does not struggle with iniquity alone; he is one of many who have grappled with this proclivity which, while it cannot be entirely overcome in this life, can be defeated or at least checked herein.
To try and erase such classic lessons from public consciousness through having characters quote “approved” modern artists or texts is a crime. It denies the next generation one of their best means of defending against natural human weakness. It also robs them of their ability to understand and appreciate their ancestors. This is demonstrated well in Avengers: Age of Ultron, where the unlettered Maximoff twins blindly accept Ultron’s claim that he wants to destroy the Avengers alone. The robot even quotes the Bible, for heaven’s sake; when was the last time anyone in the MCU heard Tony Stark do that in public?
The Maximoffs are taken in by Ultron in part because their instruction has been neglected since the death of their parents. This is not entirely their fault, of course, and we cannot blame them completely for making such a mistake. More educated people (cough *Stark* cough) have committed worse errors under better impetus than these kids have. The fact is, however, that Ultron’s continual citing of the Bible to justify his actions is proof for the better educated Avengers of what Shakespeare said in The Merchant of Venice: “Mark you this, Bassanio!/The devil can cite scripture for his purpose…Oh, what a goodly outside falsehood hath!”
This is what a combination of historical perspective and recognition of evil does – or should do – for the student of the classics. It is rare for life to be clear-cut in the way that the Maximoffs believe it is. While those living in the past had to contend with some circumstances, human-generated or natural, which no longer concern the present generations, through reading about their difficulties and sufferings we learn empathy for our ancestors.
Though the current zeitgeist insists that one side of history was oppressive and the other was continually victimized, a reading of true history shows this is not correct. History, like “modern” life, is not black and white in that sense. Much as we might wish it were true, evil cannot be contained in a single race/country/political system. Evil can live in both sides of a conflict; though one “side” may lean more toward good than evil, this does not mean everyone on that side is a righteous individual.
Similarly, not all those who live or work within the “side” which leans toward evil have hearts and souls as black as Hell. This is why Our Lord gave us the parable of the wheat and the thorns; both grow up together and, until harvest time, it is impossible to uproot the thorns without doing harm to the wheat. That is why, generation to generation, both are allowed to grow simultaneously. Every harvest separates the weeds from the crop, allowing the “good” side/individuals to enter into the rest they have earned, while those who willfully subsumed themselves to evil receive the reward they chose.
All of this makes it hard to blame the untrained Pietro and Wanda, who were ten year old children when they lost their parents, for holding Stark accountable for their deaths. But it is easy to guess that if their education had progressed, they might have learned that Stark was not (entirely) responsible for their loss and the sufferings of their people. By vicariously living through the experiences of others while reading classic literature, they would have gained the ability to understand that, although both Stark and the rebels/insurgents/terrorists had some part in their suffering, they could disapprove of both without seeking retribution or revenge against either.
Just so, these combined perspectives are precisely what allow writers from every generation to tell good stories. What has been will be again; what is old now will be new in a short while. Good and evil exist; they battle for the minds, hearts, and – most importantly – the immortal souls of men and women everywhere. The wheat and the thorns must reach maturity together before the harvest can be carried out, which is why the wheat must continue to grow and mature despite the pressing pain of the thorns. This was true from the beginning of time, and it will be true until its end.
Classic literature is the link, the bridge, which allows those living today to realize that the world and all those in it are truly broken in an inexpressible sense. From The Aeneid to Star Wars a reader can see the thread of discord and sin which makes this life so hard for everyone, good and bad. He can see “the tears of things” – tears which were shed by those older and wiser than he is. Through this reading he becomes aware, no matter how slightly, that the injustices, prejudices, and wrongs confronting him today were met many times over by others in the past.
It is also through this study that he learns the proper response to the “Dark Side” which works so desperately to take control of our world. If Aeneas can face repeated loss and failure with head unbowed, then so can the modern writer and reader. If Cyrano can sacrifice his love for Roxann in order to secure her happiness, so can the student of the classics. And if it is possible for Antonio to spare Shylock rather than succumb to a justifiable anger and hatred, then so can the one reading The Merchant of Venice.
“Modern” readers should be exposed to characters that make reference to the lessons from the classics. Part of the original Star Trek’s appeal was that the lead characters demonstrated the three traits above after obtaining a thorough knowledge of the classic arts. This learning showed in their ability to recognize theirs and their enemies’ tendency to evil, their knowledge of history and proper perspective on the past, and their creative thinking. Here the fruit of a rich education in the arts was on display for all to see, admire, and aspire to attain.
This was also true of the original Marvel stories, which were meant to help whet young readers’ appetites for stronger, meatier reading fare. If Beast quoted Shakespeare while fighting villains or if Captain America made reference to Greek mythology during a battle, those reading the comics were apt to at least ask their elders about these subjects. Whether or not such questions led to further study was not the point; a respect for the knowledge which goes deeper than mathematical formulae and physics equations was planted in the minds of these young readers. They were less likely to be prejudiced against learning these things because they had seen their heroes reveal the benefits of a true study of the real liberal arts.
Not all sci-fi heroes will be able to quote the classics, of course. If Obi-Wan Kenobi had rattled off a speech from Hamlet, he would have jarred viewers straight out of the film, since his story is supposed to take place in a galaxy far, far away. But if your heroes are still within the Milky Way or have some contact with it, unless it is a particularly thin tie, you might want to try allowing them to mention snippets from classics like A Tale of Two Cities or Plato’s Republic. It will add depth to your characters and your world while giving your readers – and you – a chance to show and view the wisdom of the ages in action.
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