Reflections on “A True Story” by Lucian of Samosata

Link to “A True Story” by Lucian of Samosata

It would be only too easy for a contemporary citizen to idly pick up “A True Story” and judge it a trivial fantasy of no consequence. Lucian’s mock epic style invites criticism from a reader honed by YouTube, iTunes, and Facebook. Yet, Lucian warns us at the very beginning of his work that he wants to provide more than just “pure amusement based on wit and humour”, and that his work also “boasts a little food for thought that the Muses would not altogether spurn (p. 249).” As all truly great literature does, “A True Story” delves into the mysteries of the human condition, and forces us, as readers, to think about who we are as human beings, to test theories, to alter our own perspectives about our lives, society, and culture. Should “we just resign ourselves to an exterior will and give up our personal responsibility entirely?”

Is there a lesson to be learned in “the juxtaposition of hope and danger” in the charming wilderlands of Lucian’s fable? In this respect, “A True Story” is an excellent example of proto-science fiction, as it goes beyond the mere outlines of a space fantasy.

Perhaps, controversially, my answer to the first question is, “Yes, we should allow ourselves to follow the will of a greater being than ourselves, although I do not believe this would entirely remove us from personal responsibility. “A-voyaging”, as Lucian writes, “lay in [his] intellectual activity and desire for adventure, and in [his] wish to find out what the end of the ocean was, and who the people were that lived on the other side (p. 253)”. Admittedly, he gives himself up to Fortune or the Spirit of Adventure as he does not know where he is going to land at the end of his voyage. Responsibility, however, is also present in this decision to go where the wind blows him. Before setting sail, he “put aboard a good store of provisions, stowed water enough, enlisted in the venture fifty of my acquaintances who were like-minded with myself, got together also a great quantity of arms, shipped the best sailing-master to be had at a big inducement, and put my boat–she was a pinnace–in trim for a long and difficult voyage (p. 253)”. In truth, Lucian of Samosata hedges his bets before trusting himself to the hands of the gods.

“Committing to the gale (p. 253)” or the breath of Fortune is as much an act of Will as it is an act of submission. For Lucian, it is not an act of resignation, even though at times the journey may result in a certain amount of misery. However, without a willing suspension of disbelief, the adventurer would never leave the shipyard, and thus would forgo the opportunity to grow as an individual. By juxtaposing wonder and horror, beauty and danger, desire and regret Lucian demonstrates with his first example about the grapevine women the depth of this lesson. Welcoming and greeting the adventurers in a variety of languages, the women kiss the adventurers on the lips causing them to become “reeling drunk (p. 257)”, then further tantalize the men into embracing them. Unfortunately, the poor souls who are seduced by their wiles are trapped then transformed into grapevine creatures themselves. Unable to rescue them, Lucian abandons them to their fates and returns his remaining crew to the ship unharmed.

What lessons do we learn from this event? First and foremost, we understand that the men who taste the wine then embrace the creatures do so without adequate preparation or forethought. Adventurers they are, but they abdicate responsibility and thus invite Ill Fortune into their lives and suffer the consequences. Acting with emotion rather than logic, proves to be their undoing; an astute survivalist or adventurer would test the grapes before eating them, and would hesitate to embrace an unknown creature encountered in a foreign land without further study.  Lucian and his remaining crewmembers survive because they recognize the futility of trying to save the transformed men. For the reader of that time period, this decision would make perfect sense.

I, certainly, understand the allure of the grapevine women. When I was four years old and in the care of my father I learned the lesson of following a vision greater than myself without thinking of the potential dangers. While my mother lay in a hospital recuperating from a particularly bad asthma attack, and my father struggled to maintain order in a house with five other children I set forth on an adventure of my own. Like Lucian, I chose comrades to accompany me – two neighbour girls. Unlike him, however, I did not prepare myself for my long journey nor did I inform anyone of my plans. Instead, blithely certain that I knew what I was about, I followed like a homing pigeon, the lure of the Park.

Not just an ordinary park, Bellevue Park was a couple of acres of rolling hills, and river views with the added attraction of an antique steam engine, two playgrounds, and a small zoo.  I had been to see the bear cubs a few days earlier, and visions of their tumbling antics drew me across town as surely as the Holy Grail drew the knights of the Round Table. Faithful friends at that age, Leslie and Caroline tagged behind me, silent witnesses to my fearless navigation skills. Arriving at the Park, barely noticing the weariness in our legs or the sweat on our lips, we threw ourselves on the merry-go-round, rolled giggling down the grassy hills, peered incredulously at the black bear cubs balancing precariously on their log, and swung until our toe tips touched the china blue sky. Only when our stomachs growled, reminding us of the fleeting nature of time, did we break from our reverie to stand forlorn on the edge of pavement and car exhaust.

I am told, by my oldest sister, that I did not find my own way home that day. Rather, a police car deposited me into my father’s anxious arms shortly after supper time. Memory, fickle partner that she is, returns and reminds me of the resounding spanking I received, however, my biggest regret that day was that I was sent to bed without the hotdog I so desperately wanted. It wasn’t until a few years later, as the story grew into family myth, that I understood how truly dangerous my adventure had been. Even at the age of seventeen, when I first chanced to retrace my childish steps, it took me an hour at a brisk walk to get to Bellevue Park crossing 2 major thoroughfares on the way.

As I delve into the mystery of my own human condition, and consider who I am as human being, daughter, wife and friend I am continually reminded of how important our earliest actions are. I wish that I could say that the Park was my only misadventure but would be a liar if I did.  Is there a lesson to be learned in this juxtaposition of hope and danger? Perhaps only that, “Yes, we should allow ourselves to follow the will of a greater force than ourselves, but we should also be careful in choosing Who or What we submit to.”


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