Tuesday, April 8, 2014


Though the main purpose of this blog is still to record some of my thoughts about my current reading, one project I've meant to do for some time might be called "the Greatest Crossovers I've Seen."  Even that vague title, though, requires some sussing out.

First, it seems appropriate to confine the list to things I myself have experienced, if I'm going to claim they're especially noteworthy.  I don't mind admitting that there are works I've not yet read that probably have considerable merit. This essay by Jess Nevins, "On Crossovers," mentions several I haven't explored yet.  For example, he notes that there was an early crossover in 1896, in which two boys' adventure heroes, Frank Reade Jr. and Jack Wright, raced one another. I would admit that this story is historically significant, but I can't comment on whether it's "great" or not.

A more important distinction hinges on definitions: what is a crossover?

In archaic times, one cannot assign more than approximate dates to the appearance of specific figures in myth and folklore.  Nevins argues that a "liberal definition" might start with "the Greek myth of Jason and the Argonauts," since this narrative is famous for associating heroes who had separate histories, particularly Heracles, Orpheus, and the twins Castor and Polydeuces.  However, by the same logic, one could as easily cite the Iliad, one of the cornerstones of Western literature, which brings together many heroes who were almost certainly not invented by attributed author Homer, such as Achilles, Ajax and Odysseus. Even characters who had not yet attained the literary personae for which they're currently known, such as Aeneas and Oedipus, were likely to have been spawned not by the poet but by a long-standing oral tradition, one that the epic poem concretized.

Most if not all religious mythologies show this same tendency to bring together disparate figures, figures ranging from the gods and demigods of assorted geographical regions to mythologized historical personages.  Folklore, as Susanne Langer has observed, tends to be more inchoate, often not even giving names to protagonists or antagonists, so that the characters seem more like interchangeable symbols.

Even confining the argument to the ancient Greeks, though, I observe a difference between two forms of crossover: what I choose to term "the static" and "the dynamic."

The STATIC CROSSOVER is characteristic of both Homer's Iliad and Apollonius' Argonautica.  In such works, the author assumes an overall cosmos in which all of the myth-characters he invokes are capable of encountering one another at any time.

The DYNAMIC CROSSOVER, however, is one in which the author of the story makes much of the unusual-ness of the encounter of two or more established characters.  Very few classic plays or epics choose this mode, which would become the approach most pursued in 20th century fiction, so that my only example is that of the battle between Apollo and Heracles, shown in this Roman terra-cotta relief:

In his book THE WHITE GODDESS Robert Graves argued that this story, in which the gods fight over Apollo's prophetic tripod, indicated a real historical clash between the priesthoods or the two deities. This is possible, though Graves tended to explain a great many myths through this sort of hypothesis. I find the myth interesting in a different sense: in contrast to Heracles' encounters with deities important to his own myth, such as Zeus, Hera, and Hebe, Apollo really has nothing much to do with Heracles. This is why I term this sort of crossover "dynamic," because a great deal of its appeal stems from being extraordinary, from being something the average Greek would not have expected, at least not the way he would expect to read about another attempt by Hera to persecute her husband's bastard son.

In future installments I'll attempt to show some specific examples of these two types of crossover, in the hope of further elucidating my terminology.

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