Places: A True History

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First transcribed: Alēthōn diēgēmatōn, second century (English translation, 1634)

Type of work: Short fiction

Type of plot: Satire

Time of work: Second century

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedSea

Sea. True History, AThis work’s voyage takes place over a boundless ocean, which lies beyond the Strait of Gibraltar. The sea is the realm of the unknown beyond the Mediterranean, a realm where fantastic creatures dwell in all sorts of imagined locations. Drawing on the tradition of Homer’s Odyssey (c. 800 b.c.e.), Lucian uses the sea as a symbol of the unpredictability of human fortune and of sudden, unexpected turns of events. The sea also represents the literary text, as the sailors in the ship become analogous to the readers, striving to make sense of what they encounter in this fantastic narrative.

*Moon

*Moon. The first full episode of the story occurs on the Moon, when the ship is whisked up to the heavens in a whirlwind. After a battle between the Sun and the Moon, in which both entities clearly stand for warring nations down on Earth, Endymion, the king of the Moon, takes the narrator and his crew on a tour of the lunar landscape, which is populated by bizarre life-forms. This appears to be Lucian’s parody of Greek ideas about the dead, which included the notion that souls of departed humans spent time on the Moon. Thus the Moon is both a strange, yet oddly familiar, otherworld–much in the mode of modern science fiction–and an abode of the dead.

Whale

Whale. Upon their return to the sea, and the land of the living, the voyagers are promptly swallowed by a huge whale, inside which whole communities of beings live. The travelers spend several months in the company of an old man and his son, who have cultivated a farm in the whale’s stomach. The whale appears to be a parody of Plato’s Cave, where men live in intellectual darkness until they find their way out to the sun, through philosophical enlightenment. Once again, the voyagers get caught up in a war before escaping back to the sea by burning a hole in the whale’s side.

Islands of the Dead

Islands of the Dead. The third major episode takes the sailors to a group of islands lying far across the ocean. It turns out, after some initial confusion on the part of both the voyagers and readers, that these islands are the mythical Isles of the Blessed and the Damned. Both places afford Lucian the chance to parody all sorts of nonsense which was circulating about the afterlife, promulgated by philosophers, poets, and other notorious “liars.” So, for instance, the city on the Isle of the Blessed, which has buildings of gold and an emerald wall and is surrounded by a river of perfume, is an elaborate pastiche of the Greek tradition of Utopia: the ideal city, where everyone lives in luxurious and harmonious equality. The city is populated by heroes of mythology and historical personages, including Homer, who again offer ample opportunity for satirical comment. The Isle of the Damned is also described, again drawing upon the long tradition of accounts of Tartarus and Hades.

Other Continent

Other Continent. After a few minor episodes, including a visit to Lucian’s version of the land of the Sirens, the ship is wrecked in a storm and the travelers struggle ashore on what is mysteriously termed the “Other Continent,” at which point the narrator breaks off his story. The Other Continent may be the land at the end of the ocean, of which the Greeks had only a vague notion–that is to say, a place which is so radically different that it defies description. Alternatively, it may be the land from which the voyagers originally set out–their own land which they now fail to recognize, after the journey of philosophical and psychic enlightenment they have endured.

In terms of the symbolism of reading and making meaning, the Other Continent is the as yet unencountered literary work, which readers will have to explore and interpret. After passing through the initiation of Lucian’s parodic satire, however, readers are now better prepared for this task.

BibliographyBaldwin, Barry. Studies in Lucian. Toronto: Hakkert, 1973. An evaluation of Lucian and his works by an expert scholar. Chapter 5 includes comments on Lucian’s view of the writing of history. Also includes a useful bibliography.Fredericks, S. C. “Lucian’s True History as SF.” Science Fiction Studies 3 (March, 1976): 49-60. Suggests that A True History is an early instance of science fiction writing. The landscape of Lucian’s journey can be seen as an “alternative world” through which the author explores the features and problems of the real world.Jones, C. P. Culture and Society in Lucian. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986. A good general study of Lucian’s many works. Locates them in the social and intellectual conditions of his time, the Greco-Roman imperial age. Chapters 5 and 6 discuss A True History in connection with Lucian’s views on truth and lies.Robinson, Christopher. Lucian and His Influence in Europe. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979. A thorough account of Lucian’s influence on such later European writers as Henry Fielding. Offers a historical account and critical evaluation.
Categories: Places