War Stories

One of the most powerful war books I’ve ever read is Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried, a collection of semi-autobiographical stories based on the author’s Vietnam experiences. The collection is notable for boundary crossing. The stories are not fiction, exactly, but they’re not essays either. Rather than deferring to the usual categories, O’Brien differentiates between story-truth (emotional truth, the ability to make others feel a “real” emotion) and fact-truth (what “really happened”). His terms are always present in my mind when I’m asked to differentiate between fact and fiction, truth and lies.

I can’t read Homeric epic without thinking about O’Brien’s permeable boundaries. The Homeric texts that have come down to us were fixed at some (unknown) point, from poems that (most likely) circulated orally, (possibly) in different forms. The identity of the poet(s) who composed them is (are) unknown, so might as well call them Homer. Maybe these epics had, far back in time, some basis in fact-truth—a war (that part seems believable), a warrior trying to return home (could happen). The stories presumably had some purpose, what we might call a “story-truth. Maybe it was to entertain Greek speakers, to educate them, perhaps about hero cult worship, and/or their proper place and function in the mortal world, and/or what to value and why.

These questions we ask of and about Homeric epic have answers, only we’ll probably never know them. If we can’t know them, should we stop looking for them? Is it okay to make the epics mean whatever we want them to mean? Do they belong to us now (finders keepers) or do we have any responsibility to them as products of another culture and time?

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