The extras who populate any large-scale epic always generate undue curiosity in me. It’s obviously not what the writer intends – emphasis is always given where they feel emphasis is due – but it happens to me regular as clockwork just the same.
I read such epics for the main currents of their drama and plot, of course – I’m not capricious. But along the way, I always find myself daydreaming about the lives and experiences of characters who sometimes inhabit only a few lines of text, characters about whom the books’ authors clearly wish me to feel no curiosity at all. In this writers are akin to directors, who routinely cast extras specifically for how unobtrusive they are. If you’re pouring all your creative heart’s blood into your main and secondary characters and their travails, the last thing you want is for the audience to be pointing to the left of your leading man at Male Passerby #5 and asking “Who’s THAT?”
I sympathize, but I can’t help myself. During the sweeping battle-swath scenes in the Iliad, when Hector or Achilles is mowing down opponents with wild abandon, I’m told just enough about those opponents so that I want to know more. I realize that virtually all of those names and tag-lines accumulated in the text as traveling bards needed to please their audiences with quick mentions of famous ancestors or local legends, but when I read that Asios Hyrtakides got speared to death because he was too proud to dismount and face the Greeks on foot like all his Trojan peers – Homer actually calls him a moron – I want to hear his story.
Then there’s the great undersung (and sometimes jarringly Genji-like) prose epic of Anthony Trollope’s “Palliser” novels: in the last volume, The Duke’s Children, we get the detailed and engrossing loves and complications of two of the Duke of Omnium’s children – Lord Silverbridge and Lady Mary. But of the third child, the younger brother Lord Gerald, we learn hardly anything substantial in the course of the whole book in part titled for him (and don’t even get me started about the Duke’s mysterious disappearing second daughter!). Is it wrong for me to wonder how Lord Gerald made his way in the world, a world so fundamentally changed from that in which either his father or his mother grew up? Perhaps, but I wonder even so.
Likewise in War and Peace, or The Mahabarata, or Lord of the Rings, where I can’t be the only poor soul who’s devoted more energy to wondering about poor Radagast the Brown (‘Radagast the bird-tamer! Radagast the fool!’) – wondering if there can possibly be such a thing as an inconsequential wizard. It’s a mania, but these writers are partially to blame: even what they only negligently create has the power to compel.
Certainly this odd little reading trait gets an inordinate workout in The Tale of Genji, where minor characters in their scores and hundreds crowd around the doings of the great and the mighty. We see it in Spring Shoots, in which the old retired Suzaku emperor is so pathetically desperate to make a good match for his Third Princess that he ignores – and admits he ignores, the old rascal! – his other daughters. Murasaki Shikibu tells us just enough about these poor young women to make some readers wonder what their lives must have been like. We don’t get the impression they’re great beauties (in fact, though the text is as painstakingly courteous as always, we don’t get that impression about Onna San no Miya either), and quite unlike their sister, they have hardly any prospective husbands. But the real shiver of their personal tragedy lives in two telling, Darwinian lines: “To her alone he gave not only his favorites among the precious things and furnishings of his palace but the least trinket of any interest at all. The remainder went to his other children.”
I can’t help but wonder about these unfortunate young women. As far as we know, they’re guilty of no crime other than of which so many children stand accused: having the wrong parent. Did they like their privileged sister? Did they ever perhaps covet one of those least trinkets? For that matter, did they covet their father’s affection, only to watch it brusquely given elsewhere? And what about those paltry few suitors of theirs? Imagine the awkward moments, with each of those men knowing full well the unloved Cordelia they were seeking. Did they persevere, regardless? Who tells that story?
It’s as easy to ask the question as it is to answer it: we would only want Murasaki Shikibu to tell it – it wouldn’t be the same from anybody else, but her eyes are turned elsewhere. There’s a bit of disappointment in that, but I’m used to it by now.