There’s a wonderful and terrifying play by Anne Washburn entitled Mr Burns: a Post-Electric Play, which envisions a world after the apocalypse. You know the one, The Apocalypse. The one that wipes out most, but not all of us, and allows for just enough of everything for the remainder of humanity to scrape on, somehow. A group of survivors huddle together in the cold, and, to starve off fear and cold and unhappiness, they retell an old Simpson‘s episode: Cape Feare. Without giving too much away (because, really, if you have the opportunity to see the show, you ought to), The Simpsons ends up a major force in the new world that emerges from the ashes, and by the end, the idea that it was once simply a cartoon for people to relax and laugh at the end of the week with would be blasphemous.
Lawrence Miles, author of numerous Doctor Who novels and creator of the Faction Paradox series, doesn’t remember a time when he wasn’t watching Who. One of his earliest memories was watching a Sontaran on screen, and his uncle making a joke, and thinking that he needed to correct his uncle, because that wasn’t Humpty Dumpty at all, it was a terrifying warrior going to kill the Doctor. It’s a memory he recognizes as ridiculous, because how could it have happened? And yet, it’s a formative one. I can’t remember a time when I hadn’t seen Star Wars, when I didn’t have a copy in the house, when I didn’t know all the characters and the story by heart. There must have been a first. My father, probably, showed it to me. He was a devotee of old Sci Fi, loved Star Trek and Doctor Who and all the others like them. We had a copy on Betamax, taped from television. I got a proper VHS set for my birthday one year. My “devotion” has waxed and waned, but I always come back to it, and I always find something new to appreciate.
The tale we call The Epic of Gilgamesh (or, He Who Saw The Darkness, or Surpassing All Kings; it has numerous titles), isn’t actually a single comprehensive story, in the mold of its most regular comparisons, The Iliad and The Odyssey. It’s a compilation of numerous fragments composed over more than two thousand years, and pieced together painstakingly by Assyriologists and others over the past hundred or so years. And even then, the version that comes down to us non-specialists is incomplete, full of lacunae, missing lines, paraphrases where we’ve guessed at roughly what ought to have gone there given the context. And this was not an unpopular story — rare among the writings of Babylon, this is one of the few tales committed to tablet. It was translated into numerous languages, and told and retold again and again, until it was lost for about two thousand and then rediscovered again. We mostly use the “standard” version from c.1200 BCE, written and edited by Sin-liqe-unninni, found in the Library of Ashurbanipal. And even now, we have numerous translations, each of which takes a different tack, from the utterly exhaustive and authoritative Andrew George two volume set, to the colloquial, reordered, and rather modernized version by Stephen Mitchell.
Which actually tells the story? George’s, which opens:
He who saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew … , was wise in all matters!
[Gilgamesh, who] saw the Deep, the country’s foundation,
[who] knew … , was wise in all matters!
Or Mitchell’s, which opens:
He had seen everything, had experienced all emotions,
from exaltation to despair, had been granted a vision
into the great mystery, the secret places,
the primeval days before the Flood.
George’s is, without a doubt, the most accurate of any Gilgamesh available. It is impossible to understate the degree of scholarship he has done on the story. He has literally examined and translated every existent fragment that has ever been found, ever. Ever. There is no greater authority on the story than he. But Stephen’s version has a poetry of its own, even if it is not “accurate” in the sense of fidelity to the text, and conveys the story beautifully. (For reading pleasure, I personally prefer the translation by John Gardner and John Maier, but that didn’t provide as stark a contrast.)
In the otherwise forgettable post-apocalyptic dragonfest Reign of Fire, Christian Bale and Gerard Butler reenact a scene from The Empire Strikes Back for the amusement of a group of children.
The broad strokes of the story are all there, even if the details are missing, and the context is lost. How much of the rest of the story do they know? do they perform other scenes? other movies? have bits from other stories been mixed in? Perhaps at the end, the starship Enterprise is blown up by the White Knight after his duel with the evil Emperor Feyd Harkonen, and saved from dying himself by the Doctor? Is that bad fanfiction, or simply syncretism, like when Herakles rescued Theseus from the underworld, or Jason assembled all the greatest heroes of the land to fetch the Golden Fleece?
We now remake movies all the time. New versions, homages, updated editions. We retell stories in different setting, with different details, different costumes and different characters. But this, too, is nothing new. Opera has a strong tradition of using classical plots — it is the music which is important. Faerie tales, too, change their details as quick as their location and our social mores, though the story itself lives on (Does Little Red Riding Hood get eaten by the Wolf after being ordered to strip off her clothes and toss them into the fire, regardless of the cat’s warnings? Does she recognize the Wolf for what he is and pray for deliverance? Does a heroic Woodsman save her, cut her Grandmother out of the Wolf’s belly, fill it with stones, and then drown the wolf? Does she instead shoot with Wolf with a gun hidden in her basket, because girls these days are wise to men like that? Or does she happily consent to lay with the Wolf, because, really, werewolves are her thing, and the two remain lovers happily ever after?)
What will our stories look like in a thousand years? Two thousand? Three? Which versions will make it through the wars, natural disasters, forgetfulness, censorship, religious confusion…? Which versions will be rediscovered, tucked away in some footlocket buried in a subbasement, or hidden in a library thought lost to time, or burned to a DVD that our descendants have only just now discovered how to decode?
And if they find it, what will Star Wars look like? How much will survive?