The Sincerest Form of Flattery

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I’ve talked quite a lot this week about the importance (or not) of an original idea. Today I’m going to show that this isn’t just me making stuff up, and look back at the writing of old. Ancient Greece is popularly attributed with being the foundations upon which Western culture is built (whether that’s fair is an argument for another time) but if you read closely their stories are riddled with plagiarism.

I’ve looked at this most in the Iliad, so that’s where I’m going to focus on. For those who don’t know the poem, here’s a very brief summary:

Ten years ago the Greeks sailed to Troy and laid siege in order to regain the captured Spartan queen, Helen. The best Greek fighter, Achilles, has lost his temper with the commander and now refuses to fight. His best friend, Patroclus, tries to talk him round then fights in his place and gets killed by the Trojan prince Hektor. Achilles goes mental and kills Hektor. (Please note – no wooden horse, no death of Achilles, no sacking of Troy. These were all later additions in a poem called the Little Iliad.)

So, the key elements are:

1)      A walled city under siege from an army that arrived by ship – this is a massively popular theme in much earlier wall art and pottery found around Mesopotamia, the Aegean islands and even as far south as Egypt. Not original.

2)      A hero who loses his temper and has to go on a quest to revenge his dead friend and/or save an abducted woman – compare this with Rama and Sita in the Indian Ramayana, Gilgamesh and Enkidu in the Mesopotamian Epic of Gilamesh, and Keret and Hariya in the  Ugaritic Legend of Keret. I don’t know enough about Egyptian epics to be able to draw comparisons there, but I bet they exist.

I’m not trying to prove that Homer ripped off older stories (although I’m pretty sure he did – the burial customs in the Iliad are all Persian, not Greek, for example), just that there are certain themes and stories that are retold again and again. But the lack of originality does not appear to bother us.

It’s the same with character archetypes. Plato started talking about them as ‘ideas that were imprinted in the soul before it was born into the world’ – patterns that embody the fundamental characteristics of a thing, such as a hero or mother figure. There will always be an underlying similarity and it is the details that make an individual.

Is this because all humans and all societies are, at base, the same with the same problems? Or is it because, through trade and invasion, the same stories have become ubiquitous across most of the world? For the purposes of this discussion, to be honest, it doesn’t really matter. This is really a very long-winded way of saying that originality is only important in the details.

I think that went a little more lectury than I’d intended, for which I apologise. Have a lizard wizard to make up for it:

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One response »

  1. I’m really interested in originality because I’m always being told ‘everything has been done’ but yet ‘you have to find a new way of doing xyz’… one can’t win.

    I like the Plato comments. I wonder if we really are all the same at base, and the devil’s in the detail. Fun idea.

    Hurrah for lizard wizards. 🙂

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