So.. I haven’t forgotten that I promised you Warhammer
I chose to head to this topic not as a gamer but as the friend and relation of gamers. As such I started from a position of understanding some of the structure, a little of the specific world-building practices and very little of the details.
It was fabulous. [Don’t get me wrong I’m not about to set up a 40k game but…] The first speaker, Alexander McAuley treated us to a paper on the notion of a Virgilian Divus Imperator in the 40k universe. His premise revolved around the methods of presentation of a God-Emperor in both Virgil and Warhammer – specifically an (Augustan) Emperor’s role as a figurehead that creates order amongst chaos. The Warhammer Emperor rules enigmatically over a system of provinces and cultic practice that mimics an image of an Augustus who is defined by his major battle and transformation into supreme leader. McAuley suggested that just as the eventual leadership of Augustus is understood to underpin the whole of the progression of the Aeneid even where it is not explicit so the Emperor’s rule is a ‘necessary’ implicit in all the other actions of the 40k story. He also pointed out similarities in the deification process and somewhat pre-empted the subsequent paper by suggesting parallels between the Horus Heresy (prequels) and the Octavian-Antony Civil War.
[This reading of Virgil managed (for me) to reiterate the points made by Rea about our discomfort with the violence and anger shown by Aeneas at the end of the poem and what we give up for ‘divine’ order- although I’m still not sure whether conclusions can be drawn from that]
The second paper was by a brilliantly passionate Luke Pitcher who took several of these ideas and developed them further in a paper entitled “The Promise of Progress? The Problem of the Roman Past in Warhammer 40k“.
Pitcher was particularly interested in the way that the figures of Julius and Augustus Caesar appear to have been blended together in order to give a more fitting legend to the figure of Roboute Guilliman (son of the God-Emperor and Primarch of the Ultramarines – in themselves an interestingly Romanised fighting force). Guilliman’s backstory relies on both some of the Divus Imperator imagery discussed in McAuley’s paper and a story of avenging his foster father during a civil war….
One of the interesting facets of Pitcher’s talk was his use of the fact that in the Warhammer canon much of the material about the activities of the God-Emperor and his children was created after the initial world-building despite the fact they happen earlier in the temporal scope of the universe and as such the development of the mythos are appropriate metaphors for reception generally. Including the tension surrounding the idea that looking too much to the past can lead to a kind of stasis… He also touched on the issues relating to multi-authoring within the corpus (before less formalised fanfic is even considered) and the constraints that are potentially placed on interpretations of actions by other writers and notions of canon. He suggested that classical elements in the stories allowed writers to draw on their own existing experiences of interpreting a real shared past as they handled the stories as well as ensuring that they were using a common pot of material.
Although this was a slightly shorter panel than some of the others it provoked some quite lively discussion at the end and over coffee. Particularly of note was the role of fanfic and the way that understanding and corpus is developed through this process of multiple authoring but that because the Warhammer universe uses historical background rather than mythological the approaches of the writers varies somewhat from that discussed by Amanda Potter with relation to Dr. Who earlier in the conference.
The panel was followed by the final plenary of the conference- Edith Hall talking about Xenophon’s Anabasis in Space.
It is worth confessing up front that I have never read the Anabasis (in English let alone Greek) and as such my knowledge of it goes no deeper than the brief precis that Dr Hall offered by way of introduction. Fortunately, Dr Hall confidently took the audience through the imagery, structural nuances and tonal subtleties of Xenophon’s work that the writers of SF she picked out were interested in.
Hall highlighted how through translations of Verne’s Journey to the Centre of the Earth the imagery of soldiers/explorers reaching a somehow recognisable sea (Thalatta! Thalatta!) despite the ‘alien’ nature of the landscape they have been struggling through became a staple feature of Science Fiction and she chose to discuss 3 of the more extensive reworkings which cover a variety of styles: Andre Norton’s Star Guard, Weber and Ringo’s March Up Country & Kearney’s Ten Thousand.
The militaristic and ethnographic features of Xenophon’s work allow it to to be reworked in multiple modern genres and the strongly moral overtones appeal to a lot of writers. In Xenophon, not only are there conflicting political ideologies between warring states but there are also competing approaches amongst the ten thousand and this makes it possible to use the story to emphasise different aspects of any journey. More importantly, Hall also talked about the importance of the idea that Xenophon’s return is, despite having elements of both, not just an Odyssean journey home nor does it follow the Iphegenia in Tauris story arc (she digressed slightly to show how Iph in Taur influenced Trader Horn, Road to… and ultimately Star Wars stories). What in many respects makes Xenophon’s narrative more potentially interesting for writers are the aspects of failure and loss around the initial endeavour and perhaps more importantly his own internal conflict about the notion of returning home. If returning home is not easy or perhaps not desirable then one’s attitude to new territory is subtly shifted towards its potentials for a new start…
Hall was very clear in her preference for Norton’s version of the tale over the others that she had selected. Although (and I am surmising without having read any of them) Norton’s is almost certainly the most political and literary of the three I could not help but feel that in making such a personal aesthetic choice Hall didn’t offer her audience quite the depth of comparative analysis she is capable of. On the other hand she made a lovely plea for more authors to attempt engagement with the ancient text, a very good case for using Xenophon as an inspiration and appeared to have been able to use the modern texts to help her find new interpretations of the Anabasis.
The paper was pleasingly thought-provoking for me, in that it engaged with a series of texts that stylistically I know very little about and brought them more into my world-view but it was not quite the end of the conference….