Notes on the Bard in Xena

“Around the hero everything becomes a tragedy; around the demigod everything becomes a satyr-play.” – Nietzsche

In the “The Quill is Mightier” episode of Xena Warrior Podcast, the ladies bring up James Boswell. He was once called the greatest English-language biographer of all time. This is a great irony, because while James Boswell’s biography, The Life of Samuel Johnson, has survived, Samuel Johnson himself is largely lost to history. Meanwhile, James Boswell became a fascinating figure in the 20th century as a diarist. It’s his life we look to, not Samuel Johnson’s. Similarly, Anais Nin wrote of Henry Miller and DH Lawrence, yet her diary endures.

I’m not saying Xena herself isn’t important. As a hero-mythological figure in classical antiquity, she’s a stand-in for strong women of that era overlook by history, and a feminist icon that’s becoming more ageless and symbolic as the problematic ’90s culture slips away from time and leaves her bronzed.

But the show isn’t about her. It’s about Gabrielle, the Bard. She’s writing Real Person Fiction about Xena, the hero-archetype.

Aristotle writes of Real Person Fiction in classical antiquity:

By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages…Tragedians still keep to real names, the reason being that what is possible is credible…what has happened is manifestly possible: otherwise it would not have happened. Still there are even some tragedies in which there are only one or two well-known names, the rest being fictitious… We must not, therefore, at all costs keep to the received legends, which are the usual subjects of Tragedy. Indeed, it would be absurd to attempt it; for even subjects that are known are known only to a few, and yet give pleasure to all. It clearly follows that the poet or ‘maker’ should be the maker of plots rather than of verses; since he is a poet because he imitates, and what he imitates are actions. And even if he chances to take a historical subject, he is none the less a poet; for there is no reason why some events that have actually happened should not conform to the law of the probable and possible, and in virtue of that quality in them he is their poet or maker.

The Real Person Fiction wiki entry, as of this writing, gives the definition: “In general, the authors seem to adopt the public personas of the celebrities in question as their own characters, building a fictional universe based on the supposed real-life histories of their idols.”

Gabrielle is not writing a biographical account, it’s not even Boswellian (though <I>Fallen Angel</I> in “When Fates Collide” might be close). She’s basically creating a Xena romance. It’s added to by other bards performing her works in taverns and theaters, and in stories that warlords tell each other. Think of Palaemon in “Blind Faith” wanting to challenge Xena in order to establish himself as a slayer of warlords. The Xena romance goes viral during the 25 year gap. Xena’s truly the stuff of legends now, as nicely explored in Genevieve Valentine’s Xena comics.

(If you’re interested in exploring Xena’s purpose as a mythical figure, check out Philip Harland’s excellent podcast on the origins of Satan. I’m not saying Xena is Satan. The podcast talks a lot about the hero myth.)

(As an aside, a lot of hero myth work was done by Otto Rank, who heavily influenced Anais Nin. It’s all connected, people!)

Note: This isn’t a completed piece, it’s a place to jot down notes about this idea. I’ve been thinking about it for years and as the podcast progresses, especially through season 5, I’m sure more ideas will be triggered. So, uh, watch this space? Leave comments with your own ideas and links to any scholarly materials you come across.

Note2: If you missed my little shoutout to Warehouse 13, I’ll throw in that H. G. Wells is a female hero on a journey to her own redemption. It’s not as good or as gay as Xena, but it’s nice to see female characters in television taking on that story arc. It’s still a little gay.

Warehouse 13 - Helena and Myka

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with Xena Warrior Podcast or Xena: Warrior Princess in any way. Just your average pseudo-intellectual obsessed slash-fic-writing fan.

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