Monday, June 11, 2007

A Last Word on 300

In his critique of 300, Dr. Nasab makes the bold statement that the film could not have been released at a worse time in history, but one wonders if this isn’t simply because of the film’s hyperbolic polemic of a mythic east and west, given Roberta Frank’s observation that “Heroic literature is temporarily out of fashion, at least in the West. We no longer assume that fighting is glorious or fun, or that hero and warrior are synonymous terms” (268). I would readily admit that the release of 300 was ill-timed given the situation of global conflict. However, according to Joshua David Bellin, the ostensibly Orientalist Sinbad trilogy, The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958), The Golden Voyage of Sinbad (1974) and Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger (1977) were all ill-timed in each of their releases, acting as “discourses of the Arab world as a monstrous, mysterious threat to the West” (73)[1] which he conflates at length with contemporary political tensions between East and West despite the obvious Arab identity of all the heroes in the films as well. Even J.R.R. Tolkien gets drawn into this sort of debate; the release The Two Towers, the second film adaptation of the trilogy came only months after 9/11. As a result, there was debate over whether the film’s title should be changed, and many critics read it as a commentary on Bush’s “War on Terror” (Worley 269). Given these examples, it would seem that Fredericks was right when he claimed that “heroic fantasists are too easy a target” for a “polemical animus” against the genre, and regards these critics’ action as “misplaced zealotry” (120). It begins to look like there's never a good time to release a film that illustrates an East-West struggle, even if it features animated clay (or CGI) monsters.

Perhaps this marker, more than any previously discussed proves my point. If 300 belongs to the genre of heroic fantasy, then while it may act, at best as “a subtle and thought-provoking tonic for a late twentieth-century world already overburdened by intellectual depression and consciousness of individual powerlessness” (120), it is also all too possible that, at its worst, the film is “only harmless fun” (120). Heroic fantasy, whatever else it might aspire to be in the hands of academics, was written “primarily to entertain” (Carter xi). Joseph Grixti concludes that the high-tech packaging of films such as 300 will “predispose their audiences to consume them as ultimately inconsequential entertainments”, consequently neither admiring nor emulating the heroes represented in them, but rather indulging in a form of voyeurism.

W.R. Irwin’s The Game of the Impossible continually refers to fantasy narratives in the language of a game, that they “operate according to the principles of play” (183), and suggests that, while the genre may not result in actual revolution, that “nothing of conceptual validity is destroyed or overturned by it” (183), this should not lead us to believe that fantasy is merely frivolous, but as a “subversive intellectual construct” (183) encourages the viewer/reader of fantasy to grant this “narrative of the impossible” their credence “in a spirit of intellectual play” (89), accepting the narrative’s invitation of “a peculiar participation” whereby both author and audience know that “this is a game” and join it “without illusions” (184). To enter into the world of fantasy looking for a political agenda or historical realism are attempts at “logical plausibility and systematic presentational realism” (89) and destroy any possibility that the “story will have some lasting effect of modifying the way in which [the] readers accept the norm that [the author] has playfully violated” (183). Even suggesting that representing ancient Persians as monsters is merely a ‘playful’ violation will still chafe for many of 300’s detractors. I would suggest this is because they have made the same mistake Fredericks accuses Alpers of, namely that they have confused the fictive universe which serves as “an anti-system to prevalent cultural beliefs and codes, thus questioning their validity and rigidity” (99) with a “literal-minded nonfictional construct” (104), which it was never intended to be:

“The anti-system known as the Heroic Age is as much emotional as intellectual, representing a powerful desire that is known to be unachievable and unrealistic. The complex and paradoxical feeling that results from this conflict between the desirable and the impossible is usually given the undignified name “escapism.” It isn’t my intention to deny that most S&S stories are light reading, entertaining narratives strong in story value. If one does not enter into S&S in the spirit of fun, one cannot hope to do justice to what merits are actually present” (105).

If we accept “spirit of fun” as synonymous with Irwin’s “sense of intellectual play” and introduce Religion scholar Sam D. Gill’s definition of play[2], then we can view fantasy as a type of neorealism after the fashion of Russian writer Yevegeny Zamyatin. Zamyatin explained his concept of Neorealism with the example of “clouds around the summit of a high mountain”.

“The Realist writers accepted the clouds as they saw them, rosy and golden, or black and heavy with storm. The Symbolists had the courage to climb to the summit and discover that there was nothing pink or golden there, nothing but slush and fog. The Neorealists were on the mountaintop together with the Symbolists and saw that clouds are fog. But having come down from the mountain, they had the courage to say: “It may be fog, but its good fun all the same”” (40).

In the context of heroic fantasy, the Realist would say that Leonidas is exactly what a real hero looks like. The Symbolist states that no such person could actually exist. And the neorealist says, “but of course he exists! He’s right up there on the screen!” Neorealism, or play, holds in tension “the paradoxical duality of twentieth-century man’s attitude: his need for heroes and the meaning and structure heroes provide to human experience; and the fatalistic recognition that heroes don’t exist anymore, and that they are, properly, fantastic and impossible” (Fredericks 95).

And so one hopes with a childlike (not childish) hope that heroes, though fantastic and impossible, remain the unreachable goal that is reached for all the same, an ideal that, while unrealizable, might realize great things in the process of remaining unattained. It is unlikely that the end result of such striving will be political revolution, but rather a changing of individual identities seeking to act as a hero in the banalities of everyday life.

[1] In reference to DreamWorks’ film Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas (2003) Alex Worley notes the “unsurprising” absence of any reference to Sinbad’s literary homeland, given “recent events involving the Middle East” (190). While the translation of the Arabian Nights into the French is cited as Western literature, the tales’ origin is in Persia, Arabia, India, and Asia. Yet, in the name of political correctness, Sinbad becomes a gypsy, a character without a home.

[2] Gill defines Play as “a type of structural dynamics, a being at once of two minds or a holding at once of mutually exclusive positions” (451) He utilizes Baudrillard’s Moebius strip to exemplify the “peculiar contiguity of near and far, inside and outside, subject and object in the same spiral” (455).


Bellin, Joshua David. Framing Monsters: Fantasy Film and Social Alienation. Carbondale: Souther Illinois University Press, 2005.

Carter, Lin: Introduction: Neomythology. Literary Swordsmen and Sorcerers: The Makers of Heroic Fantasy. Wisconsin: Arkham House, 1976. xi-xxix.

Frank, Roberta. “Old English Poetry” The Columbia History of British Poetry. Carl Woodring and James Shapiro, eds. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 1-21.

Fredericks, Casey. The Future of Eternity: Mythologies of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1982.

Gill, Sam D. “Play,” in W. Braun and R. T. McCutcheon(eds.), Guide to the Study of Religion London: Cassell, 2000, 451-62.

Grixti, Joseph. “Consumed Identities: Heroic Fantasies and the Trivialization of Selfhood” Journal of Popular Culture 28. (1994): 207-228.

Irwin, W.R. The Game of the Impossible: A Rhetoric of Fantasy. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976.

Nasab, Hamed Vahdati. “Bad History, worse timing”, April 2007.

Zamyatin, Yevegeny. A Soviet Heretic: Essays by Yevgeny Zamyatin. Trans., Ed. Mirra Ginsburg Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Worley, Alec. Empires of the Imagination: A Critical Survey of Fantasy Cinema from Georges Melies to The Lord of the Rings Jefferson: McFarlan & Company, Inc., 2005.


  1. Thank you for writing this. It conveys more fluently and more completely what I've been trying to express recently: idealism, while possibly naive, is necessary if we ever hope to become ideal.

  2. Anonymous10:33 AM

    I like the swords. :D :D death is good (on the screen only!)