A True History

by Lucian

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Critical Evaluation

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The point of A True History, as Lucian explains in his preface, is to make fun of the extravagant lies put out by poets, philosophers, and historians who write about fantastic creatures and improbable events. Lucian probably has in mind such authors as Antonius Diogenes, whose Wonders Beyond Thule appears to have been a particularly notorious example of fictionalizing narrative. A True History, the author warns, is nothing of the sort; rather, everything in it is emphatically untrue. The reader, however, should enjoy it as a form of mental relaxation and because it makes fun of such earlier writers as Homer and Plato.

Lucian’s narrative of a sea voyage inevitably recalls the journey of Odysseus, and, in fact, there are many allusions to Homer’s epics throughout the story. In the second book, when the travelers are in the land of the dead, the narrator actually meets Homer and has the opportunity to ask him some questions. Lucian also frequently parodies philosophers. His description of the descent into the belly of the whale and the eventual reemergence into the open clearly makes fun of Plato’s myth of the cave, which elaborated on ideas of knowledge and perception. Throughout A True History, there are references to philosophical schools and the quarrels among them. The battle between the forces of the sun and of the moon, with their grotesque armies of hybrid creatures, can, for example, be seen as a satirical depiction of the arguments among philosophers about stars, their size and nature, their inhabitants, and their connections with the earth.

A True History is also a comment on the writing of history, a topic addressed specifically in a treatise entitled History as It Should Be Written, which was, however, itself a not entirely serious work. As Lucian outlines, his prime concern is the need for the historian to be truthful and to avoid the excesses of poetry and fiction. In A True History, he begins in a manner that suggests he is following his own precepts and that the narrator will be a careful recorder of facts and figures. Soon, however, the narrative becomes outright fantasy, as the ship of the travelers is carried to the moon in a whirlwind. Much of the humor of the work comes from the matter-of-fact style that is maintained throughout: The narrator presents incredible details in such a way that they become almost believable. Lucian thereby proves his main point: that it is as easy to dress lies up as truth as it is difficult for the hearer to tell the difference between the two.

A True History is a work with overtones of an initiation: The god Dionysus keeps appearing throughout the story, and the first incident in the grapevine arbor has all the elements of an initiation into the Dionysian mysteries. Here, Dionysus and wine appear to represent the excesses of poetic and philosophical fictions; once the travelers become inebriated on the wine of fantasy, they are transported to the moon, into a whale, and to the world of the dead. The narrative also parodies theories of the journey of the soul. According to popular notions, the moon is the first resting place of the soul after death. The descent into the whale is a joke on the traditional descent into the Underworld, while the visit to the land of the dead parodies stock ideas about the Isles of the Blessed.

The journey of the narrator is a search for knowledge. When, at the end of the second book, the travelers reach the “other continent” on the opposite side...

(This entire section contains 906 words.)

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of the ocean, this is an allusion to Greek speculation about other lands beyond the Atlantic Ocean. Some, however, interpret that other continent as none other than the place from where the narrator started: He returns to it with all the new knowledge gained on the journey, so that it now seems like a strange place. This resembles the situation of a religious or philosophical initiate returning to the “real” world and seeing it now through different eyes.

In A True History, Lucian explores the intellectual landscape by blurring and challenging the oppositions and the boundaries on which Greek culture was built. In his fantastic world, the male inhabitants of the moon bear children and play the role of wives for each other; men have cabbage leaves attached to their backsides; and women are half-human, half-donkey. Lucian plays with numbers and dimensions and uses unexpected materials for certain functions, as when his ships have glass anchors and the inhabitants of the moon blow honey from their noses.

A True History partakes of many genres of writing: satire, parody, traveler’s tale, romance, and initiation story. It is the first genuine work of science fiction in the Western literary tradition. While it pokes fun at various poets, historians, and philosophers, it rarely does so by name and thus ensures the work’s continuing and universal appeal. It was also extremely influential for later works of satire, among them Jonathan Swift’s political satire Gulliver’s Travels (1726) and the science-fiction adventure novels of Jules Verne, which are direct descendants of Lucian’s book. Perhaps most important, it was the first work to problematize the issue of truthfulness in literature, provoking many of the same questions about interpretation, authorial reliability, and the nature of fiction that came into the forefront of late twentieth and early twenty-first century analysis of literary texts.