How Culture makes one popular
[This is part of a series of entries considering GAR. The first one sets out what's happening.]
I had already felt GAR before I encountered the concept. After all, ‘unconquerable courage, the sheer will to accomplish the impossible, the willingness to sacrifice all for victory, and the ability to openly mourn the loss of something worth dying for’ have existed in storytelling generally long before anime. Indeed, for all that it’s compared to virtus, GAR’s history stretches back long before the Romans themselves. So indulge me – or ignore me – as I look back to an older meaning of ‘epic’.
Let me draw your attention to the Epic of Gilgamesh. This story, which dates in its earliest forms back to c. 2000 B.C., is the oldest tale I’ve read. And it contains the essences of GAR. Gilgamesh seeks to become immortal, which is certainly impossible. There are epic battles, one of which is against a the Bull of Heaven (‘with his first snort cracks opened in the earth and a hundred young men fell down to death’; now that’s a shounen opponent). And when his companion Enkidu dies, Gilgamesh mourns for him in a memorable passage:
O Enkidu, my brother,
You were the axe at my side,
My hand’s strength, the sword in my belt,
The shield before me,
A glorious robe, my fairest ornament;
An evil Fate has robbed me.
[I should note that both Gilgamesh and Enkidu are both extremely heterosexual.¹ But I shall consider the issue of sexual orientation in a later entry.]
‘Take your axe in your hand and attack.
He who leaves the fight unfinished is not at peace.’
In any case, moving forwards from Gilgamesh’s story four thousand years ago, we can now reassess our literary heritage, reading through the lens of GAR. The Iliad, for example, becomes the story of Achilles‘ re-GAR-ification. First he renounces his GAR status by sulking in his tent and refusing to even negotiate with Agamemnon; then he loses Patroclus, sheds MANLY TEARS and storms out into battle with Hector (who is also GAR – this is a story of GAR on both sides).
The Iliad contains thought-provoking moral complexities in its GAR, but it’s also packed with ‘the sheer will to accomplish the impossible’: Diomedes fights – and wins! – against Ares, who really is the God of War (sorry, Kira fans), and in book XXI Achilles fights a river.
And so the roll of honour stretches down, with varied types of GAR being expressed, even if we just track epic poetry. Aeneas? GAR. Beowulf?² GAR. Roland? GAR. Spenser’s Knights? GAR (mostly). Abdiel? GAR. I could continue, but there’s no need to labour the point.
Still, out of all of these, perhaps Hector offers us the best final thought:
My time has come!
At last the gods have called me down to death . . .
now I meet my doom. Well let me die -
but not without struggle, not without glory, no,
in some great clash of arms that even men to come
will hear of down the years!
1. Enkidu is involved in a sex scene which lasts for ‘six days and seven nights’. Gilgamesh’s main hobby seems to be deflowering the daughters of his subjects before their real boyfriends are allowed to get their hands on them. Yeah, it’s a GAR poem, but I’m not saying it’s a paragon of progressive thought. What do you expect from c. 2000 B.C.?
2. One of the interesting things about the most recent film adaption was that, judging by its treatment of the story, it’s no longer possible to simply kill monsters in the GAR way that the manuscript Beowulf does. We have to have complications, angst, and Oedipal subtexts. I found this much more irritating than deviation from the source material per se, which was to be expected (indeed, it was necessary).
[Before you ask, that's surely not me in the first image. The Animanchronism spends too much time indoors and would instantly combust on contact with the burning Mediterranean sun.]