Traditional folktales never were. There are some good guys. There are some bad guys. The good guys win. The good guys are usually scrappy amateurs; the bad guys usually well-organized professionals with typical fascist precision. The good guys usually demonstrate a respect for human life and the bonds of friendship; the bad guys betray their citizens and their underlings with equal abandon.
They gain their good guy or bad guy status by either following the universal law, or breaking it. Neither the Greeks nor Trojans are especially good nor villainous. The Trojans lose some points for kidnapping a woman, but the Greeks lose some points for killing and enslaving an entire city.
Neither side is scrappier or more professional than the other. Neither seems to treat civilians better or demonstrate more loyalty. Nor was it on the mind of the authors of Mahabharata, the Norse sagas, Jack and the Beanstalk, et cetera. The article concludes this is because of nationalism.
Nation-states wanted their soldiers to imagine themselves as fighting on the side of good, against innately-evil cartoon-villain enemies. This was so compelling a vision that it shaped culture from then on: A Global History of Concentration Camps , about the rise of the idea that people on opposite sides of conflicts have different moral qualities, she told me: In short, we are rehearsing the idea that moral qualities belong to categories of people rather than individuals. What are we to think of this?
Robin Hood started stealing from the rich to give to the poor as early as the edition of his tale. The Mayan Hero Twins? Are there any differences between the way ancients and moderns looked at this?
Maybe modern stories seem more likely to have two clear sides eg made up of multiple different people separated by moral character. Villains as opposed to monsters, or beings that are evil by their very nature seem more modern.
So does the idea of heroes as necessarily scrappy, and villains as necessarily well-organized. And just eyeballing it, modern stories seem to use this plot a lot more, and to have less deviation from the formula. The past stories seem much more conducive to blind nationalism than our own. The amorality of the warriors in the Iliad manifested as total loyalty: Hector fought for Troy not because Troy was in the right, but because he was a Trojan.
Achilles fought for Greece not because he believed in the Greek cause, but because that was his side and he was sticking to it. What more could a nationalist want? In contrast, the whole point of modern good-vs-evil is that you should choose sides based on principle rather than loyalty.
The article gets this exactly right in pointing out the literary motif of virtuous betrayal. We are expected to celebrate Darth Vader or Severus Snape virtuously betraying their dark overlords to help the good guys. In Avatar, the main character decides his entire species is wrong and joins weird aliens to try to kill them, and this is good. Compare to ancient myths, where Hector defecting to Greece because the abduction of Helen was morally wrong is just totally unthinkable.
This is a super-anti-nationalist way of thinking. I suppose nationalists could make the very dangerous bargain of telling their soldiers to always fight for the good guys, then get really good propaganda to make sure they look like the good guys.
And maybe this would make them fight harder than if they were just doing the old fight-for-your-own-side thing? But honestly, Achilles seems to have been fighting really hard. Is this whole convoluted process really easier than just telling people from the start to fight for their own side and not betray it?
Also do we really want to claim that concentration camps worked because the Nazis believed you should take principled positions based on moral values, instead of unquestioningly supporting your in-group?
Old stories celebrated warrior virtues — strength, loyalty, bravery. The new stories celebrate populist virtue — compassion, altruism, protecting Democracy. Pres, people were still at the point where slavery seemed like an okay idea.
Once we got that, through whatever process of moral progress we got it from , having heroes who shared it started seeming more compelling. But once you invent it, it spreads everywhere, and people throw out whatever they were doing before. Missionaries would come to the tribe of Hrothvalg The Bloody, they would politely ask him to ditch the War God and the Death God and so on in favor of Jesus and meekness, and as often as not he would just say yes.
This is pretty astonishing even if you use colonialism as an excuse to dismiss the Christianization of the Americas, half of Africa, and a good bit of East Asia. Faced with the idea of a God who was actually good, and could promise them eternity in Heaven, and who was against bad things, and never raped anybody and turned them into animals, everyone just agreed this was a better deal.
And there seems to be a deep connection between Greek paganism and the narrative structure of the Iliad, and a deep connection between Christianity and the narrative structure of eg Harry Potter. But Harry Potter fights for Dumbledore and against Voldemort because the one is good and the other evil, and the Christian worships God and resists the Devil because the one is good and the other evil. Achilles and Hector wear their impressiveness on their sleeves, much like Zeus.
Maybe this was more of an innovation than it seemed. Maybe they actually did the same thing that St. Paul or whoever did and created a totally new memetic species capable of overwhelming everything that came before.