I am excited about the Alexander Romance again.
Look, it’s not that I haven’t been. It’s just — after living with something for (exactly) 5 years, that something becomes comfortable. I am used to the shape and texture of the Alexander Romance, its themes, its historiography, the main guy I am spinning like an orb in my mind’s eye… Ask me something about the legends and the personal stories of Alexander’s life, and I am likely to recognise it. Show me a drawing of a woman in bed with a dragon and I can tell you how that imagery got there. Though I am bad at remembering precise details word for word, the knowledge is now familiar. Instinctual. Comfortable.
For a long time I was exploring the history of things. I didn’t know much about Alexander or the Romance then, so I put a lot of energy towards understanding and researching, and figuring out how my modern, 21st century interpretation could be in alignment with the words and images my elders left for me, or better, how my voice could offer a new perspective on an old subject. A lot of the 5 years was me distilling history enough to craft a response that matched its 2000 year legacy. Matching the past to the present.
(I don’t think I ever brought it up publicly) Yet from very early on in the project, there had always been two faces of the 21st century Alexander Romance:
How do you match the past and the present to the future?
I had left the future component aside because the future was just so messy. It isn’t even that far away either – all the pieces that make up the future are happening right now, as I am breathing and blogging and doing my part and grieving. Climate change. Continuing, endless wars. The resurgence of fascism. 9/11 and security theatre. Silicon Valley nonsense. Civil rights reckonings.
Given the fact that a new Alexander Romance had not been made for the 20th century, I am also considering the consequences of those particular events and anxieties: the rise of fascism and the World Wars, the reordering of global power, the dismantling of overt colonialism into subtle post-colonialism, nuclear anxieties, civil rights advancement, the breaking down of walls, the second Industrial Revolution (of gas, plastics and chips). And those 20th century concerns still live within the 21st century. It’s not over. It’s inescapable. I break open a pinata and out falls a trillion, billion other things.
How on earth is Alexander going to make sense with all of this? For 2000 years, the concept of a king who models his society didn’t seem all too stretched from reality. The king is the apotheosis of his world: the representation of its morals, its anxieties, and how best to justify/rationalise them. As long as kingship exists, then the world is as it is. Always and forever. But–
Our monarchies don’t hold that same glamour anymore. All of us are living way better lives than any king in medieval times and before. (I can make Caesar jealous with all the boba tea ice cream and fruits I can access) We live in a world where absolute power is not concentrated and given shape, but abstract and amorphous. Our dangers are almost eldritch-esque; you can slay a dragon, but how do you put the ice back on the glaciers? A thousand small things have chipped away the old world, and no one person can represent it all and simultaneously comfort us. The world of kingship is long gone.
A few people have rightly recognised this tension. Alexander and his legends belong to a wildly different world. How do you match the past to the present?
It’s not too difficult to modernise the retelling; thanks to the work of modern historians, Alexander’s biography is more or less pieced together, allowing a post-modernist approach that dissects the legends and puts them in context with the biography. Something no other Romance has done yet due to not having the resources and knowledge at the time. And with the advancement of visual storytelling, there’s room for formalistic indulgences.
But how do you match the past to the future?
In the original Alexander Romance, there are two motifs: the philosophers and the wall/gate.
The philosophers, as a set piece, to me are crucial. They are Rosetta Stones and evidence for the fact it’s not true that people and art accepted kings and wars as mere ethers of life, as moral ‘just-so’s of living on this planet. People in the old days critiqued and debated and questioned power and violence – just as we do today. There was never a time when art was devoid of politics, whether in service of criticism and propagandism. How they do it, and how far they get to advance their critique, is variable. The philosophers form the biggest and most obvious set piece where such criticism plays out, though they are not the only one in the Alexander Romance. And for me, they point the way to the future.
The wall/gate is another set piece, which happens late into the narrative of the legends. Alexander is and will be the king who builds the wall that keeps the demons at bay from destroying the world.
In 2017, when I encountered Alexander and his legends, the wall stuck out to me. Remember, this was after 2016 – after Trump became president. I don’t recall if the rhetoric of “Building the Wall” came during the election or after, but that phrase and the (horribly xenophobic, racist, stupid etc) idea behind it were in my mind. I thought about who these demons were actually.
Just like Alexander, the names and faces of the demons change accordingly to the times that particular Alexander Romance was written. The tribes of Israel, the Mongol and the Turkic, such and such so-called foreign invaders.
So what are the demons of the 21st century?
What is this world we are protecting – or keeping out?
Is the wall even necessary anymore?
The Alexander Romance cannot end without my answer to those question(s). For 5 years I had been cracking my head on how to resolve it. Maybe you’ve guessed what my response would be by now – but there’s more the story demands out of the answer. It’s not just “Yes/No”, it’s How? and Why? And the framing as well.
It’s very easy to approach the question the way a lot of contemporary SFF does: change the face of what is Good vs Evil, but never change how that battle is fought. Take down the Bad Guy and not the System. The Good assumes the reigns of the System, hoping that their Pure Presence will somehow prevent the Badness inherent in the System from resurfacing again.
Or wonder why is there even a concept called Good vs Evil? Is the world really this way? Where does that even come from? How has history and literature calcified its tropes and ideas? In a radical future where we hope such a thing no longer exists, what does it mean if we still keep holding on to that baggage in the present?
What happens if we choose to tell the story differently?
For a very long time I had turned my attention on the past to match the present. Needed work obviously, or my own take won’t have that lived-in quality.
I am confident enough now to look at the other direction. The knots that made the last half of the Alexander Romance messy are beginning to loosen.
Though I am reluctant to go on about this in most spaces (because it may seem cringe or woo-woo, but hey, cringe is dead, and I am embracing my tendency for the spiritual, and also this is my blog), I am genuine when I say that my role as the latest link in the Alexander Romance is as Alexander’s death doula.
Arrian and Nizami and the rest all had different duties when it comes to their role as Alexander’s storyteller. Often it is to honour him and keep him alive forever, and show us how he is relevant to today.
To be a death doula a specific sort of duty. Just as writing a dirge is different from writing a bubblegum.
I still don’t know what this means for me yet (or how I could even articulate it to others, especially in the context of writing historical fiction), even after 5-ish years of being aware of my role,
but I know the task that I must do for my client/muse.
Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.
She writes and illustrates quite a few webcomics and graphic novels. When not making books, she lulls away her time with essays on craft, life and experiences in the publishing industry. Some of her thoughts of art and life are rather unstructured and will evolve over time as this blog matures, as they should be.
Currently committed to being Alexander the Great's death doula. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.
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