Let’s start in the middle (of things)

In the beginning was the word. In the middle was the story. Many ancient epic poems are known to begin in the middle of things, in medias res. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, Virgil’s Aeneid all begin ‘into the thickst’ (Thomas Drant), at a point in the narrative where things had already moved significantly from the beginning. The beginning of the story gets told later on, as the narration moves back but also forward using advanced techniques, usually flashbacks and characters reminiscing about how it all began.

The canon of European storytelling starts with Homer and Virgil, and their epic poems continue to be read with pleasure and excitement even today. Yet retrospective narration such as that which we find in these amazing poems is not something that comes naturally to a storyteller. When we tell our friends stories about things which happened to us or to other people, we almost never start in the middle. Sometimes we’d begin at the end and work our way back in order to arouse wonder in the audience and create a sense of mystery. In the movie Sunset Boulevard, the story begins at the end with a floating body in the pool before it starts winding back.

But the middle stays clear. Fur us, strict chronology tends to be the norm, and where this is disrupted, it’s less to do with storytelling proper than with artistic enhancement or mannerism. This was also the case in ancient times, despite Homer, Virgil and a few others raising the curtain in the middle of the play. Another epic poem which aspired to overshadow Homer but never managed to told things from the top. Apollonius of Rhodos’ Argonautica (3rd century BC) tells the story of Jason, the Golden Fleece and tragic Medea. But contrary to Homer before him, Apollonius follows a strict chronological sequence. Storytelling has something to do with truthfulness and forensics and telling a story is like recovering the truth of the past, whether in conceded fiction or counterfeit report. In the 1st century BC, the Roman poet Horace highlighted the peculiarity of ‘hurrying the hearer into the story’s midst’, the earliest theoretical articulation of the in medias res approach, which he himself coined:

Nor does he [Homer] begin Diomede’s return from the death of Meleager, or the war of Troy from the twin eggs [i.e. the deep cause of the conflict]. Ever he hastens to the issue, and hurries his hearer into the story’s midst [in medias res], as if already known, and what he fears he cannot make attractive with his touch he abandons. (Art of Poetry, 146-50)

 

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