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Reflections: Toward a Theory of Story II: There is One Story and One Story Only
by Robert Silverberg


There is one story and one story only," said Robert Graves in his lovely poem, "To Juan at the Winter Solstice," and perhaps in a certain sense that is true, though I have taken Graves’ line out of context and what he meant by it is something quite different from the meaning I want to attach to it. For I want to use it as corroboration of the theory of fiction I began to develop in last month’s column, that all imaginative narrative is based on a single plot skeleton that goes back into astonishing reaches of antiquity.

The Graves line seems to contradict Robert A. Heinlein’s famous advice that actually there are three stories, which he called Boy Meets Girl, The Little Tailor, and The Man Who Learned Better. But in fact all three of Heinlein’s fundamental plot structures, though they do very cleverly summarize the essential story themes that underlie nearly all fiction, can themselves be subsumed into the one I identified in our last issue as the basis of all the successful and lasting narrative of the past five thousand years:

A sympathetic and engaging character (or an unsympathetic one who is engaging nevertheless), faced with some immensely difficult problem that it is necessary for him to solve, makes a series of attempts to overcome that problem, frequently encountering challenging sub-problems and undergoing considerable hardship and anguish, and eventually, at the darkest moment of all, calls on some insight that was not accessible to him at the beginning of the story and either succeeds in his efforts or fails in a dramatically interesting and revelatory way, thereby arriving at new knowledge of some significant kind.

Taken on those terms, there is indeed one story only: the story of a conflict–perhaps with some external force, perhaps entirely within the soul of the protagonist–that leads to a clear resolution and illumination. Why has that formulation been so enduring and, apparently, universal? Is it simply that readers everywhere expect it, and so it has become a self-fulfilling requirement? Why do they expect it? When did the need for such a formulation get built into human cultural expectations?

A clue to our answer can be found in the history of Greek tragic drama. We know–because ancient Greek writers like Aristotle have told us so–that Greek drama evolved out of rituals in honor of the god Dion-ysus, who is most familiar to us as the god of wine, but who was to the Greeks a fertility god, the embodiment of all the forces of nature, manifest in the springtime rebirth of vegetation and the rising of the mating urge in animals.

There’s hardly anything about Dionysus in the Homeric poems, which date from the eighth or ninth century b.c., but that doesn’t mean that the worship of Dionysus was unknown then, only that his cult was of little importance to the kings and heroes who are the protagonists of the Iliad and the Odyssey. Dionysus was, so we think, the god of the poor and downtrodden, who in his name gave vent to their resentments from time to time in sacred revelry of a wildly turbulent kind. There are many different Dionysus myths–each Greek city apparently had its own version of the story–but all employ the same concept, a god who is slain and restored to life. Dionysus is the favorite child of Zeus; while still young he is killed and dismembered by jealous older gods, but at Zeus’s command he is reassembled and revivified. The annual events held in honor of Dionysus reenacted his sufferings, death, and resurrection through the violent and bloody slaughter of bulls–or even, in some places, of human victims.

Eventually the leaders of Athens and other Greek city-states, fearing that these frenzied and unfettered rites in honor of Dionysus might overflow someday into revolution, co-opted them by establishing such public festivals as Athens’ Great Dionysia, where poets, dancers, and choral groups performed sacred hymns retelling the legends of the god’s life. All strata of the populace attended these festivals; they listened to the stirring recitations of the story of Dionysus and the orgies of his uninhibited followers, they experienced vicarious thrills instead of tearing up the town themselves, and they went home at the end of the evening in a benign mood, having been purged of potentially dangerous emotions by the impassioned singing and dancing of the performers.

In time the recitations and choral hymns that made up the Great Dionysia underwent various mutations. One of the new forms that emerged was that of the tragic play. Earlier, a poet had improvised verses in praise of Dionysus before a chorus that would reply with a traditional song; now the tales of the god were dramatized by interchanges between two semichoruses, and then by two speakers engaging in dialogue, and then, a generation or two later, three actors. Thus something very much like what we think of as a play evolved. The thematic range of the recitations widened, too, so that the dramas dealt not just with the death and rebirth of Dionysus but also with the ordeals of other great figures of Greek myth: Prometheus, Medea, Agamemnon, Theseus, Oedipus, Orestes, and many more.

One essential aspect of the festival-plays remained consistent throughout these evolutions. The purpose of the performance was not simply the amusement of the audience but its emotional cleansing, what Aristotle called its ca-tharsis, its purgation.

As Aristotle explains in his Poetics, our souls are clogged by "affections," which for the sake of our mental health must be allowed periodically to discharge themselves in some harmless way. So boys often play violent games in which they pretend to be pirates or gangsters or soldiers. Girls in traditional societies act out the roles of nurses or mothers and see their imperiled charges through dire illnesses and crises. In primitive cultures dances and festivals much like the early Dionysiac revels bring about the release of the pent-up repressions. And in the highly civilized Greece of Aristotle’s time the same sort of catharsis was had from the plays of such masters as Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides that were performed at the annual festivals of Dionysus.

In these plays the audience witnessed the tragic downfall of a great king like Agamemnon, the Greek commander-in-chief of the war against Troy, who overreached himself in a prideful way during the course of that campaign and was slain after his return from the war by his own wife. It looked on as the god Prometheus, determined to bring the knowledge of fire to mankind in defiance of the orders of Zeus, met with a terrible punishment but sustained his courage nevertheless. It watched the tribulations of Oedipus, King of Thebes, who by the casual decree of the indifferent gods found himself unknowingly murdering his father and marrying his own mother, and then launching into an investigation of the old king’s death, eventually unmasked himself, to his amazement, as the criminal he was seeking.

In each of these tales–and in that of Pentheus, another king of Thebes who tried to block the spread of the orgiastic rites of Dionysus and who was torn apart by a group of drunken worshippers of the god that included his own mother; or that of Hippolytus, son of Theseus, unjustly accused of rape by his own stepmother, which led the deluded Theseus to ask the gods for his death; or that of Orestes, commanded by the gods to avenge his father Agamemnon’s murder by committing the forbidden crime of slaying his mother–the Greek audience watched the torment of some larger-than-life figure caught in the grip of implacable destiny, and felt not only pity for that tragic hero’s dire plight but also fear that some whim of the unpredictable gods would bring suffering upon themselves. And then–when the play reached its end, inevitably bringing some sort of reconciliation and insight into the tragic nature of life–there would come the sought-for moment of catharsis, the release, the "purging of pity and fear," as Aristotle’s famous phrase has it, that is the primary purpose of tragic drama. The reconciliation of an Oedipus or an Orestes with the dictates of destiny provided the same cathartic effect as the rebirth of the slain Dionysus did in the original Greek theatrical events.

So, then: what originated as the uproarious commotion of a crowd of riotous, drunken plebeians has been domesticated first into a solemn festival of choral singing and poetic chanting and then into a series of dramatic masterpieces so effective in their storytelling that we still enjoy performances of many of the plays, twenty-five hundred years later. And in the course of that evolution a basic narrative scheme–a protagonist faced with a difficult problem, an intense struggle to cope with that problem, a climactic event that leads to new insight and a dramatically satisfying resolution–was developed, a narrative scheme that still can be traced in all modern drama and fiction.

Am I, then, tracing a direct line of evolution from the frantic ancient festivals of Dionysus to the Foundation series of Isaac Asimov and Frank Herbert’s Dune?

Yes, I am. But I’m by no means through with this theme.

Let’s continue to look at Aristotle’s "purging of pity and fear," and its deeper connections with the festivals of Dionysus. Those were communal festivals, after all. From the earliest drunken feasts down through the sophisticated theatrical entertainments of a playwright like Euripides, they offered something more than individual therapy. The protagonists of the tragic dramas were figures chosen to exemplify the sins of the community; they were singled out to suffer on behalf of the community, and put through terrible torment that set them apart from the people around them. They became outcasts who took with them the communal sins. They were, if you will, scapegoats for the sins of others. (Scapegoats were, in Biblical times, actual goats, laden with the sins of the ancient Hebrew community and set free in the wilderness to carry those sins away from the tribe.) So it’s the audience as a group, not just the individual theatergoer, that undergoes a ritual cleansing while the tales of Oedipus or Orestes or Aga-memnon are being retold. And not only is the audience purged of pity and fear, as Aristotle would have it, but it comes away transformed by the awe it has felt and the understanding it has gained. Vestiges of this therapeutic function survive to this day, I maintain, in the underlying structure of the stories we read and the films and plays we see for "entertainment."

But there’s more, much more, to my notions of the origins of fiction. Dionysus, remember, was a fertility god. I’m going to need one more column to show you how truly ancient the basic plot skeleton of fiction really is.

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"Reflections: Toward a Theoryof Story II" by Robert Silverberg , copyright © 2004 Agberg, with permission of the author.

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