Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Predictive dreams, or why many historical novels are science fiction really

This is the first of a couple of planned blog posts that fall out of the Asterisks and Obelisks conference I went to earlier this month, and that got me all enthused for writing blog posts again (and maybe even, God help you all, fiction).

Anyway, one of the invited speakers at the conference was Caroline Lawrence, author of the Roman Mysteries series (I confess to being not too familiar with her books, though I've seen a couple of the tv adaptations). In her talk, she mentioned that in one of the later novels, a character dreams of his future. This got the interest of Juliette Harrisson*, as she's interested in dreams (I think it's her thesis topic, though I'm sure she'll put me straight on that). Which in turn led to a conversation about how prophetic dreams and other sorts of accurate prophecy still occur in historical novels set in the ancient world.

Dreams are, of course, an important feature in ancient literature. Zeus sends a lying dream to Agamemnon in Book 2 of the Iliad. In Aeschylus' Persians, Atossa, Queen of Persia, has a symbolic dream demonstrating that Asia and Greece can never be joined together in one empire. And, of course, Cassandra is the ultimate prophetess, always right, but never believed (I always wondered about that - you'd have thought that someone might notice her 100% accuracy rate ...). There are dreams to be found in Ovid's Metamorphoses.

Accurate predictive dreams are also found in historiography. Herodotus has them (note the symbolic dreams in Book 1 predicting Cyrus the Great's conquest of Asia). This continues into Roman and Romano-Christian writings; in particular, Lactantius' account of a dream that instructs Constantine to fight under the sign of Jesus Christ (presumably promising victory, though Lactantius is not explicit). The Old and New Testaments also have prophetic and symbolic dreams (e.g. the vision of Jacob's ladder in Genesis, or Peter's dream encouraging him to preach to the Gentiles in Acts).

This, however, is not the place for a study of dreams in Graeco-Roman literature, of which there is at least one book-length study, and no doubt more. What I'm interested in here is the persistence of the prophetic dream, and other forms of accurate prophecy, in modern historical novels.

On one level, it seems slightly odd. Post-Enlightenment, 'realism' has become the dominant mode of the novel, and accurate prophetic dreams fall very much into the mode of the fantastic. Yet they are still to be found. Robert Graves' I, Claudius, for instance, begins with a sybilline prophecy, which not only predicts the length of the reign of Claudius, but also in which century his autobiography shall be rediscovered and published. This is picked up in the television version, where, in the final episode, Claudius has a turn in the Senate and allusively names both Graves and Jack Pullman, the adapter of the novel for the screen. A similarly prophetic Sybil is to be found in Sophia McDougall's alternate history novel Romanitas.

Why is this? It's one thing to have characters in a novel who, because of the religious and cultural background, believe in the power of prophecy and dreams. It would be perfectly within the parameters of a realist novel for Claudius to report a prophecy of events from a perspective of writing after the prophesied events have taken place (Claudius is, after all, not necessarily a wholly reliable narrator). It's quite another for the reported prophecy to relate to events that the novel's readership know, because they have happened, but which happen millennia after Claudius' death.

I wonder if it is because the notion of prophecy is hardwired into the ancient-set novel right from its origins in the Roman imperial period. Of course, the best-known of the Greek and Latin novels, Apuleius' Metamorphoses (also known as The Golden Ass), is very much in the fantastic mode. But prophecy is also found elsewhere in the ancient novel. The troubles ahead for the lead characters in the Ephesiaka of Xenophon are accurately predicted by a soothsayer, and predictive dreams feature in Achilles Tatius.

A special case for the modern ancient historical novel are those works dealing with the Trojan War. As has been observed by many, modern retellings of the matter of Troy tend to eliminate most elements of the fantastic, removing the gods from the field of play, and turning the mythological narrative of Homer into a historical novel. But one element of the fantastic often still survives; Cassandra's predictions of the fall of Troy, either through dreams or another method of prophecy. This is the case for David Gemmell's Troy trilogy. It is also the case for Eric Shanower's Age of Bronze, and also for the Doctor Who story The Myth Makers, where otherwise the only fantastic element is the TARDIS crew.

What I don't know about is prophetic dreams in other historical novels. I don't remember anything, for instance, in the mediaeval novels of Jean Plaidy, which I read a lot of in my youth. Are there, indeed, prophetic dreams in mediaeval historiography? Or what about the novels of Dickens, a man certainly open to the possibilities of the fantastic (e.g. A Christmas Carol)? Are there dreams in any of the other novels.

Please leave any further examples you can think of in comments, and I will add them in edits.

* Yes, that is how she spells her name. I've been misspelling more traditional Harrisons for the past couple of weeks.


Juliette said...

Yep, my thesis is on dreams - focussing on dreams in Greco-Roman literature and attitudes to dreams in the second century AD. Harris' book is the most important recent English-language work - there are also a couple of very large studies of dreams in literature published in German.

My mind has gone blank and I can't think of any more non-fantasy examples at the moment, though I'm sure there must be some. Will come back if I think of any...

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I can't think of any at the moment, but am fairly sure there are. But my gut feeling is that they are of the same sort of prophetic dream you are talking about, and may have to do with the sorts of re-writing of dynastic history that exists in the Aeneid. That is, they are dreams/prophecies that were invented in the time, but included in the historical novel. Oh -- lots in Shakespeare, I think.

Sharon E. Dreyer said...

Over the years, I've learned that many people don't remember their dreams; don't dream in color; or take little notice of their dreams. I dream in brilliant color and I remember the details when I wake. In addition, I dream of my close family and friends who have passed away. For years I kept a Dream Diary and found it to be very interesting to read the dreams years later. Everyone should try this at least once in their lifetime. Most of my dreams involving tornadoes have come to pass a day or so after I've had the dream. Go figure!

Check out my first and recently released novel, Long Journey to Rneadal. This exciting tale is a romantic action adventure in space and is more about the characters than the technology.

Gatchamandave said...

Clarence’s dream in Richard III – “ Oh, I have passed a miserable night…” is, I think, the most powerful piece in the play. Would that count ? It falls into the Cassandra class and perhaps accounts for no-one noticing her hit-rate – Clarence doesn’t even believe his own power of prophecy.

Then there’s Frankenstein’s dream in chapter 5 after he has first created his creature, a Fulci-esque nightmare if ever there was one,

I thought I saw Elizabeth, in the bloom of health, walking in the streets of Ingolstadt. Delighted and surprised, I embraced her; but as I imprinted the first kiss on her lips, they became livid with the hue of death; her features appeared to change, and I thought that I held the corpse of my dead mother in my arms; a shroud enveloped her form, and I saw the graveworms crawling in the folds of the flannel.

Pierre Bezhukov has two important dream predictions in War and Peace - one where he flashback’s to his duel then encounters his dead patron, and another after the death of Platon Karataev – which he sees as prophetic and which affect the choices he then makes. Andreii Bolkonski, like Clarence, foresees his death before the Battle of Borodino but his reaction is not to disbelieve it, contrary to the usual response, but to become accustomed to the idea of his own mortality and to see a pattern to his life, achieving a degree of the peace he has been searching for throughout the novel.

You mentioned Dr Who’s The Myth Makers but there’s also Kinda, wherein Tegan wanders through a dream-state encountering avatars of her fellow TARDIS crew-members, a fascinating and never repeated on-screen depiction of a character’s subconscious. Most impressive for a supposedly “bland” period of the show’s production.

Anonymous said...

Oh, lots of medieval dreaming! Especially in the Carolingian era: the Visio karoli, visio wettini and so on, though these all tend to be of the pattern "I saw the king in Hell atoning for his current wrong-doing" I have to admit. There's one obvious book to recommend: Paul Dutton's The Politics of Dreaming in the Carolingian Empire (London 1994), which has the advantage of being by an engagingly readable author though I must admit that I haven't tested that with this particular example.

By the way, good to see you return to the blogosphere.