The line-end formula, smoking gun of play-mechanics in oral epic

Part of a series on the educational affordances of interactive narrative.

ba da Bum ba da Bum bum

Podas ōkus Akhilleus (pronounce the final “eu” as “yoo” if you have to—it’s a diphthong: the final Bum).

Polumētis Odysseus (same here).

“Swift-footed Achilles.”

“Cunning Odysseus.”

These are line-end formulas. Think of them as series of key-presses in a digital role-playing game to produce a player-character’s most common attack, and you won’t go far wrong.

It doesn’t seem like much, but the line-end formula might be described as giving birth to the Western literary tradition, out of its oral-formulaic roots in the Iliad and the Odyssey. In its simple essence, it functions as the smallest unit of kleos, usually translated “glory” but really having much more to do with what we call “fame.” When the bard sings the name of a hero and describes him by his most renowned characteristic—the characteristic that indeed becomes renowned through the system of epic poetry’s ensuring that the epithet (“swift-footed” or “cunning”) receives frequent repetition—he has bestowed on the hero what Lin-Manuel Miranda memorably describes in the musical Hamilton as a “dollop of fame.”

Thankfully, there’s no need to get into the weeds of the famous meter of epic, called dactylic hexameter, although the subject is a fascinating one. What you need to know to understand the analogy I’m drawing between the tradition that gave us what we call the Iliad and what we call the Odyssey and modern digital games is only that the ba da Bum ba da Bum Bum of these tiny units of glory proved to be the foundational building blocks upon which professional singers of tales could assemble tales of adventure that eventually became so much more.

Just as the player of a digital game—let’s take the very familiar example of Super Mario Bros. as a starting point—learns to build his or her play-performance on the foundation of basic sequences of button-pushes and, in later games, thumbstick movements at precisely timed moments, the bards (think of the bard wanna-be herdsman I described above) learned to deploy the names of the heroes. Just as the first level of Super Mario Bros. presents few challenges, and from the larger perspective the first digital games present a great deal less complexity than later levels and later games, we can discern especially in the Iliad the traces of the earliest stories erected on the foundation of the line-end formulae: what today we tend to call the “battle books.”

It’s not terribly germane to the more important structural point I want to make in this series, but it’s nonetheless very interesting in its own right, that these battle scenes, which most readers of the Iliad skim or skip altogether, are possessed of a level of graphic violence to rival the most parent-and-teacher-worrying videogames. Of course, ancient Greeks had perhaps more reason to use their educational technology of interactive-narrative to prepare young men to fight than we have to do the same with our young citizens. Nevertheless, the development of these simple, violent narratives into the foundation of so much good in Western Civilization might persuade us to worry less that even violent video games are ruining generations of students.

What is germane about the battle books is that they evolved into a larger unit called the aristeia, which we can compare with great utility to what in digital games usually goes by the name “boss-battle,” though the aristeia, as we’ll see, involves a good deal more that we can profitably compare to elements of digital games than simply the final battle.

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