BMCR 2008.06.13

Theocritus and the Invention of Fiction

, Theocritus and the invention of fiction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007. viii, 183 pages ; 24 cm. ISBN 9780521865777. £50.00.

Table of Contents

The contention of this book, implicit in the title, is stated at the outset (p. 1): the pleasure of Theocritus’ bucolic Idylls, as opposed to any earlier (lyric or narrative) poetry, is in their creation, for the first time, of a fully fictional world—that is, an alternative to reality, not a mimetic version of it (p. 2). In this introduction, Payne defines his concept of the fictional with admirable clarity,1 comparing and expertly bringing together theories from the earliest Greek movements towards the concept of fictionality to the most current treatments of the topic (pp. 1-15). He then outlines the stages of his argument and the structure of the chapters that follow (pp. 15-23). The major contribution of this study is to bring the bucolic Idylls under the lens of a line of inquiry that Greek poetry has not traditionally been subjected to; the concept of fiction is—superficially at least—so self-evident to the modern reader that it is easy to overlook the innovations made in periods in which the development of a critical language for dealing with ‘fiction’ was lagging behind authors’ creation of fiction itself. The same potential for being overlooked is especially present in texts and genres not obviously associated with fiction (such as the ancient novel)—or perhaps more crucially, not studied a great deal by scholars whose primary interest is in such evidently and purely fictional genres. This book should therefore be read not only by scholars of Hellenistic poetry and pastoral, for whom it will offer engaging and detailed readings of some of their central texts, but also by anyone interested in any form of fiction in antiquity or in the invention and rise of fiction in Western literature. In fact, without explicitly setting out to do so, Payne steals some of the ancient novelists’ and their contemporaries’ thunder and—rightfully, I think—redistributes a large measure of it to Theocritus. It is of course in the interests of scholarship on the novel and Imperial literature more broadly to emphasise the innovations of these works, but this too often leads us to overlook the continuities with, and the importance of, earlier literature, particularly of the Hellenistic period.

As Payne points out, the world of the bucolic Idylls is neither a real(istic) world (as in comedy or mime) nor the world of myth, but is kept at one remove from both by the co-presence of characters from both. He focusses in particular on those Idylls in which this co-presence is found, and on those in which there is a frame narrator. In these latter (best exemplified by Idyll 11), it is the self-conscious representation of the art of story-telling—of the creation of a fictional world and its pleasures for the reader—which Payne argues constitutes the first portrayal of a ‘fully fictional’ world. He also places great emphasis, in a different way, on the Idylls with no frame, since their fictional world is introduced to the reader unmediated by any narrator or authorial stand-in, to either authenticate or offer an apologia for the fictional contents within the frame: the reader is immediately confronted with a character in a fictional world, and thus with that fictional world. One might quibble that what Payne presents Theocritus as ‘inventing’ is not strictly fiction itself, but variously self-conscious fiction, metafiction, the unmediated encounter with fictional worlds, etc., but understandably ‘fiction’ was chosen for a rather more catchy title than might otherwise have graced the cover of this book. Given certain definitions of fiction and ideas of what it would mean to invent it, however—and any book with such a title would inevitably have to include its own definitions of these—I do not think that the title’s claim is misleading by any means.

In chapter 1, ‘The pleasures of the imaginary’, Payne focusses on Idyll 1 and its method of thematising the aesthetic and imaginary pleasure of reading, through the analogies it creates between other sources of such pleasure for an audience (the unnamed goatherd): song, visual art, and landscape. The imagination of the reader is engaged by the need to take her pleasure in things which are not present to her, and are evidently fictional; this applies even to herdsmen’s songs, which here and elsewhere in the Idylls are only approximations to imagined songs, since they are presented in the same metre which represents spoken dialogue in the framing parts of the poems, and since they are evidently highly allusive, heavily textual creations, not songs.

Chapter 2, ‘The presence of the fictional world’, investigates in formal terms the ways in which Theocritus creates his fictional bucolic world(s), whether through characters’ dramatic speech, the poet’s narration, or a combination of the two. Here Payne ranges from Aristotelian to modern narratological theory, and surveys other genres’ modes of creating fiction to illustrate the development of fictional representation. The heart of this chapter is a reading of Idyll 3 with its quasi-dramatic herdsman’s prologue: Payne convincingly places the herdsman’s performance ( like that of an actor delivering a New Comic or Tragic prologue) as existing on the boundary between the reader’s and the fictional world. Although what he does is referred to as a performance or enactment, the herdsman in fact fails to ‘perform’ or ‘act’, instead of only narrating, so that the fictional world is more an embedded character-narration (i.e. like a messenger speech, in dramatic terms) than a ‘real’ fictional world (i.e., a staged location in which an audience encounters action directly). The rest of the chapter analyses the use of framing devices (in Idylls 11 and 13) which, like the ‘prologue’, act as mediators for fictional worlds; they are specifically used to introduce fictional worlds in written, non-performative literature—i.e. especially in narrative fiction, of which the Idylls represent some of the first true examples.

Chapter 3, ‘Becoming bucolic’, investigates the relationship between bucolic character and imaginative role-play (performance, impersonation), through readings of Idylls 6 and 12 in particular. In the former, and in its interplay with Idyll 11, Payne argues, the “malleability of characters in a fictionalised literary tradition” (97) is Theocritus’ metaliterary theme: “Daphnis [in Idyll 6] fictionalizes the Cyclops for Damoetas, just as Theocritus fictionalizes him for Nicias in Idyll 11… What [Theocritus] did to Homer, he has Daphnis do to him.” (96-7). It is through this reflexive emphasis on their own fictionality that the Idylls earn Theocritus the accolade of (an) inventor of fiction, for Payne; and in a sense this is right, since his self-conscious creation of fiction marks his pastoral poetry as among the first to recognise ‘fiction’ (implicitly) as a category or kind of narrative. Pastoral is self-consciously fictional in that it thematises its fictionality as the role-play or impersonation in which its characters regularly engage when they voice the songs of others (such as the Cyclops in 6). Comedy, of course, has strong claims to priority in the fiction race, if the need for self-consciousness is removed from the idea of the ‘invention’ of fiction; Comedy is also formally restricted from displaying both the particular kinds and the degree of self-consciousness Theocritus shows in the Idylls. Nevertheless, in terms of inventing narrative fiction, and certainly of the development of fiction and its conceptualisation, Payne’s claims for Theocritus are valid.

Payne’s focus on the self-conscious aspect of Theocritus’ attitude to fiction culminates in chapter 4, ‘From fiction to metafiction’, in which Idyll 7 and its poet-figure Simichidas are the main focus. If we accept the poet-character and poet-poetry identifications which have been posited for Theocritus especially in this Idyll —and we should at least accept it as a dominant ancient reading strategy (especially but not only with pastoral)—then this famously metaliterary representation of poetic initiation, following Payne’s earlier chapters, inevitably becomes equally metafictional. The ‘autobiographical’ elements of this poem, Payne argues, represent Simichidas-Theocritus’ initiation not into a career (only) of bucolic poetry, but of fictional poetry, in which fictional doubles for the bucolic singer are successfully created. That is, the imaginative impersonation or role-playing by bucolic characters in the Idylls, and the creation of fictional worlds through that impersonation, is for Payne what is being identified with Theocritus’ bucolic poetic career in Idyll 7. If this is accepted, the question of the relationship between the pastoral and other Idylls is raised: if it is fictional poetry into which Theocritus is initiated, why is it that (according to Payne) the term ‘fictional’ or ‘fully fictional’ can only be applied to the pastoral Idylls; or to put it another way, why does Theocritus not engage in the same modes of fictional world creation and self-conscious fictionalising in the non-pastoral Idylls too? Payne describes the unique feature of the pastoral Idylls as the herdsmen’s (and the poet’s) engaging in bucolic role-play as a form of therapy: the pleasure of creating fictional worlds to inhabit, temporarily. The discussion of fiction in this, Theocritus’ most metafictional Idyll, is also read by Payne as a deliberate inversion of Platonic opposition to mimesis (and therefore presumably fiction) as portrayed in the Phaedrus : in this intriguing reading, Payne argues that Idyll 7 represents the therapeutic mimesis of bucolic singers’ role-play as a counter-argument to Platonic condemnation of the same as deception, and thus engaging with ancient literary criticism and showing further Theocritus’ reflexive development of the idea of ‘fiction’ as a category of literature—what is more, a type of literature with a particular use. It would be interesting to further compare the strategies of representation in the non-bucolic Idylls; and indeed, if the poet’s impersonation of characters as well as other characters’ role-playing is the important factor in fictional creation (for therapy, and in general), surely the same kind of impersonation is performed by Theocritus in the case of his non-bucolic characters too.

In his conclusions, Payne looks beyond the Idylls to later pastoral, and emphasises the presence already in the former of self-conscious fiction and the self-reflexive poet. The projection of the author and of his characters into (other) fully fictional personae, and the exploration through that device of the process of writing fiction, is something with which pastoral is especially associated, almost uniquely so in antiquity. It is this which constitutes Payne’s claim for Theocritus, and in this sense he is correct in labelling him an inventor of fiction and a major influence upon its development.

This well-written volume is now an essential addition to every classics and comparative literature library, and it is of particular value to those whose primary interest lies not only in Theocritus, but also in the development of fictional narrative literature.


1. This is for the most part well kept up throughout the book, although there are occasional uses of terminology undefined or unexplained, e.g. ‘represencing’, p. 72.