A True History Analysis
by Lucian

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A True History Analysis

A True History, written by Lucian of Samosata in the second century CE, takes readers on a series of fantastical and absurd journeys that parody myths and epics of Greek mythology and literature. In the fictional “history,” sailors embark upon an epic odyssey in which they are subject to many bizarre events. They encounter various half-human creatures and exotic lands, become stranded upon the Moon, are swallowed by a two-hundred-mile-long whale, are frozen in wintery seas, witness and take part in absurd battles fought by even more absurd creatures and beasts, and sail through seas of milk to the islands of the Blessed and the Damned.

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In this text, Lucian exaggerates the already fantastical elements of a Greek mythology and literature to absurd effect, emphasizing the ridiculousness of presenting clearly mythological and fictitious stories as truth. In Lucian's era, presenting mythology as fact was a common occurrence in literature; Lucian pokes fun at this practice in his outrageous satirical text. He tells readers at the beginning of A True History that the stories in his book are utter lies and that readers must not believe a word of them. This claim serves to underscore Lucian's focus on the preposterousness of framing mythology as fact.

Lucian's novel is also of great importance to the literary world because it is often considered the first work of science fiction ever published. The text contains many aspects of what would later come to characterize science fiction writing, including the story of the ship becoming stranded upon the Moon; the interstellar battles and fights between the armies of the Sun and the armies of the Moon; alien life-forms; non-earthly physical laws and atmospheres; and the existence of robot-like creatures. With A True History, Lucian challenged the culture of his time and presented the Roman literary world with new and fantastical themes, motifs, and settings that hadn't been seen before.

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Sea

Sea. This 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...

(The entire section is 1,166 words.)