What’s in The Name of the Rose?

It’s probably been 15 years since I’ve read anything substantial by Umberto Eco. I’m pretty sure I was maybe a sophomore or junior in college the first time I read The Name of the Rose. Now, I find myself in the position of needing to reread it for a work-related event. In the intervening decade and a half, I’ve gotten a lot better at Latin, and I’ve also been exposed to a lot more primary source material concerning theology, philosophy, science, literature, and history of the European Middle Ages, as well as 20th century literary theory. I’ve read medieval sermons and sermon manuals, disputations, summae including parts of Aquinas’ Summa Theologica and Abelard’s Sic et Non, Aristotle’s Poetics, Roger Bacon, William of Ockham, some basic semiotics and structuralism including Ferdinand de Saussure and Claude Levi-Strauss, as well as a lot of secondary history of politics, religious orders and faith trends, literary trends and theories, and language use and theory of the western European Middle Ages. And I’ve read most of the primary literature in the original language.

What do my academic qualifications have to do with this book? I remember reading it the first time and thinking something along the lines of ‘I guess that’s that classic off my list’ but I don’t remember any other impression. Coming back to it, I wonder how I could have understood much of anything at all. I’m still pretty sure I only caught/understood half of what’s going on beneath the surface story. I’ve studied enough of the original material to appreciate things like the debate over Aristotle’s Poetics and the missing analysis of humor, the history of scientific thought and practice, some of the distinctions between the Benedictine and Franciscan orders (among others), manuscript production and the role of monastery scriptoria, and I’ve read some original Sherlock Holmes stories. This is more learning in the medieval (and literary) world than most people have, and if even this isn’t enough to fully understand The Name of the Rose, then nearly every reader of this book who appreciates it and enjoys it must probably do so with the understanding that they’re missing something, and accepting that.

This novel is incredibly dense. There’s massive chunks of medieval theological discussion and debate, lots of references to real people and events, but it’s all mixed in with a murder mystery and Eco’s fictional additions which almost fit into the historical. I’m not sure anyone who reads this can really understand it without either one of the “how to read this” books that now exist or multiple PhDs and facility in several languages. As much as I enjoy smart books that include a lot of allusions, Terry Pratchett is a favorite of mine after all, The Name of the Rose is too much. The novel, or perhaps more accurately its author, almost seems to be trying too hard to show off, or at least deliberately daring the reader to try and understand even a fraction of what’s being suggested beneath the surface.

The basic story is simple enough: elderly monk Adso recalls the series of unfortunate events that occurred when he as a young novice monk travels with his master William of Baskerville to an abbey in Italy where William is to serve as a representative and mediator at a historic meeting between two sides of the religious controversy between secular and Church leaders. William’s name should be a give-away as to his general role and method of playing it in the murder mystery, and also by extension Adso’s, but in addition William at various points expresses admiration for William of Ockham and Roger Bacon (both controversial in their days for their scientific ideas). Upon arriving at the abbey which houses a library equivalent to the ancient one of Alexandria, not that I’m foreshadowing or anything, William is informed by the abbot of a mysterious death which must be solved before the various delegations arrive in a few days. A variety of problems of course ensue including multiple suspicious people, more murders, a mysterious manuscript several of the dead have a connection to, a labyrinth, prohibitions about the top floor of the library, etc.

None of this is really the point though; it’s not even the full frame, which gets into treating Adso’s story as itself a lost manuscript. There are pages and pages of descriptions of places, spiritual and some not so spiritual visions, theological disputation on among other things, did Christ ever laugh and why that even matters, and deciphering the signs of the End of Days; there are quite a few allusions and some direct references to the Book of Revelations. There’s a good bit of Latin (some of it historical, some of it fictional), some references to Greek, a little German, and most of it untranslated. Even 1980 when the book was first published in Italy, knowledge of most of these languages was likely fairly limited, meaning most readers couldn’t read significant chunks of the book directly. The number of people who can is probably even less today. The nature of interpretation and meaning is a key concern, which makes sense for two reasons. First, Eco was interested in linguistics and semiotics (a branch of language theory that deals with meaning), and second, words like ‘symbol’, ‘sign’, and ‘signify’ (and their variations) appear almost constantly throughout the book. The theory of semiotics is not something particularly commonly known beyond scholars of literature and linguistics, meaning that a fundamental aspect of the book is not accessible to the general public. And yet, the novel was a best-seller. The movie didn’t do as well, at least not in the US, and it left out a lot of the more academic parts.

This is definitely one of those books that is worth reading at least once, carefully, but with the understanding that it’s intentionally very academic, and even academics have trouble with catching or understanding some of the more obscure references. Don’t even try to read this if you’re a person who needs to understand everything that occurs in a story. Unless you’re an expert in everything Eco was interested in and a bit more, you don’t stand a chance. It’s still worth the read though. At least once.

On the Necessity and Perils of Fun Reading

Sometimes being a professional literature academic has its hazards. You try to read something for fun, and you end up getting all academic on it. I personally believe that too much ‘high literature’ is not good for anyone (too much Beowulf or Chaucer would make anyone cranky), and that which is often called fluff can be surprisingly literary in some ways.

I present here a re-envisioning of Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” which has been highly influential in fantasy (and other forms of) fiction ever since it was first published. I’m going to use two major components of the theory: the ways tragedy and comedy fit in, and the structure of the narrative itself. Both are presented in full in the “Monomyth” prologue of The Hero With a Thousand Faces (first published in 1949). The original theory states that tragedy and comedy together are necessary for a total life experience, and that both are needed for catharsis, the Aristotelian goal of tragedy involving the release of negative emotions of pity and fear. The journey itself has 3 stages (separation, initiation, return) each of which consists of 5-6 steps or episodes. These 3 stages represent the trilogy structure as used in fiction, both literary and cinematic.

This theory first came to me when I was working my way through False Idols (Dragon Lords #2) by John Hollins. As of now, this series is a trilogy; I have no idea if the author will keep it that way or continue with further installments. I read the first one (Fools Gold) a while ago, and found it entertaining, if at times vulgar, fantasy fluff. I was in a bookstore, saw book 2, and picked it up because I felt the need for something of that sort. I was in for a surprise. Book 2 contained little of the screwball comedy between the characters and winning by the seat of their pants or in spite of themselves. The happy ending had not stayed happy; everyone was miserable and unlikeable, and the rest of the novel kept up the misery. By the end, the bad guy essentially had won and nearly all the heroes had been murdered. I was not pleased, but at the same time I hoped that book 3 (Bad Faith) would redeem things; I haven’t read it yet, and though it is literally sitting on my TBR shelf, it may be a while before I get to it. If I’m going to be reasonable, the final stage of the initiation sequence is “passage into the realm of night” which means that things will get metaphorically dark, and that the return (to the world of the first part) has to wait until the third stage. This would explain logically why the second installment would be considerably less happy and entertaining, as it is all about the trials of the hero.

This got me thinking about how this seems to be the eternal problem of the trilogy. Book 1 is a rousing, entertaining adventure, book 2 is depressing and not fun, makes you hate everyone and everything in the story, and then book 3 tries to create a balance of the seriousness of book 2 and the fun of book 1 but is rarely as good. I say ‘book’ here but very similar things can be seen in the original Star Wars trilogy, which was explicitly based in part on Campbell’s ideas. The original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles trilogy of movies follows the same general patterns as well. This visible influence of Campbell’s pattern on movies has been heavily criticized, and movie series rarely stick with trilogies anymore. Consider Lord of the Rings, a trilogy of books (which I have not read- so there!), which was made into a trilogy of movies, but then followed by The Hobbit (I have read this one), one book, made into a second trilogy of movies. Or Toy Story, left for 9 years a trilogy, which will become a quartet in 2019. The Campbell trilogy has been parodied as well, for example by the cartoon show The Fairly Odd Parents with aired three tv movies (1 hour each) as the season 6 finale, collectively titled Wishology! In addition to being a parody of the hero’s journey in terms of plot and characters, the episodes were titled “The Big Beginning”, “The Exciting Middle Part”, and “The Final Ending”. That’s another analysis.

Some contemporary novels series illustrate some of the trickiness of trilogies as well. V.E. Schwab’s recently concluded Shades of Magic series comes to mind. It managed to follow some of the structural rules of the Campbellian trilogy without getting too depressing or terrible in the second installment {this is another discussion in itself), but it will not remain a trilogy for long. The author has made known that she will be writing another series or two that includes some of the same characters and takes place in the same world, the first of which is already in publication (The Steel Prince comic volume 1 was released Oct. 8, 2018). Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles is a trilogy of novels, two of which have been published thus far (I haven’t gotten to The Wise Man’s Fear yet), but already has a fourth book which presents a side story about a side character. Brittany Cavallaro’s Charlotte Homes series seemed to be a traditional trilogy, but now has a forthcoming fourth installment labeled as the conclusion of the series. Which I will not be reading. Book two was such a turn-off in terms of character and plot, that book three could not redeem the series. The only novel series that I can think of that will remain a trilogy, at least as of now, is the Rotherweird series by Andrew Caldecott, currently at 2 books with a forthcoming third labeled as the “thrilling conclusion”. This one I have some hope for, since it illustrates many of the qualities of the Campbellian hero’s journey, but because of some good decisions concerning point of view, and character and plot development in the first two novels, has generally avoided the complete and utter alienation of the reader, namely me, in book two; again, this will be another discussion in itself.

So, the re-envisioning suggests first that most modern novel and screen writers can’t or won’t stick to the standard trilogy structure. Second, the hero’s journey 3 parts in most current hands leans toward this pattern: 1-complete in itself and fun, 2-all dark and despair and no fun at all, 3-trying to get the fun back or at least have the good guys win. A lot of modern fictional narratives prefer to forgo the happy or at least conclusive ending. I’m all for literary complexity, but sometimes tradition is good. And desired.

This comes back to the balance Campbell requires of comedy and tragedy. What gets me is the general trend of leaving out the comic ending. Campbell himself argued that by the conclusion of the hero’s journey, the comic is redeemed and the tragedy is overcome. Granted, in the context of myth and fairy tale, this conclusion makes sense, but if modern narratives are going to follow the patterns noted by Campbell, why is this last bit so often left out? While comic technically in the Aristotelian sense only requires the double ending of good guy wins – bad guy loses, and nearly all the narratives noted above that are complete do observe this factor, the level of comedy in the more modern sense of entertaining and fun is not present nearly as much. Campbell required redemption of the comic and the world; escapist though it might be, I wish that part were a bit stronger. The damage done by the tragic seems to stick with the characters and their worlds too much for comic redemption to really take place is a lot of literary fiction. Note that nearly everything I’ve named above falls more into the ‘fantasy’ category, save the one I ended up hating. What that means is yet another discussion entirely.