sometimes witty book reviews
First published: 1101 CE
Found: Syllabus of a Literature Course at Peking University
Pages/read time: 997, sort of, kind of skimmed over a period of ten days
[edited version of a class summary]
I found this text both swashbucklingly compelling and conversely utterly uninteresting. Reading Outlaws of the Marsh feels like watching all five seasons of HBO’s Prison Break in one go: a series of adventures with a gaol* aesthetic that eventually gets very old. But then so have other epics I’ve read, such as Homer’s Iliad and One Thousand and One Arabian Nights. Yet again, upon reading about one third of the text I can conclude that that this epic – like so many others – it not so much a singular narrative as a collection of instances strung together – and held together – by a set of similar characters with roughly the same ideal goal. It’s not my kind of ‘epic’. Works such as Dickens’ Bleak House, Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway or Salman Rushdie’s Satanic Verses are far more interesting to me. The sustaining of a singular idea and complex plots may be more exhausting, to be sure, but Outlaws of the Marsh was monotonous in its unending adventure plots and scuffles.
The biggest singular reason for my disinterest, however, may be the absence of a character or scene in which I can see myself. This is firstly due to the male-centric nature of the text (and, of course, the time it was written). Though there are females within the text, they are very often described in clumps (the girls set to work/the women were like ants on a hot griddle/the women wept, etc.). The men, however, are given singular descriptions and action sequences during each tale. Secondly, the male characters, though plentiful and individual and named, are very similar. Through almost a thousand pages of English translation I cannot genuinely tell you that character development occurs. Of course, I am reading this text without the historical context completely in my mind. Finally, they main male characters as a group are resoundingly uninterested in the lives, emotions or adventures of those outside of the group.
In this final point I find an interesting parallel between Outlaws of the Marsh and King Arthur and his Knights. Men are there for men, as men, and love their men. Women are not even true objects of desire or interest. They are foibles in a larger story, or the temptress, or the character requiring rescuing in order for a man to prove himself to his men – again. The homo-romantic (and even –erotic) nature of the two texts, sprung for such different civilizations, is striking. The key difference in the two appears only to the Outlaws are a band of criminals, and the Knights are a band of men fighting against criminals (in both cases both human and supernatural). Though each story as an episode itself is compelling, when read one after the other they do become repetitive and honestly, quite predictable.
*That, American-English speakers, is how Australian-English speakers spell ‘jail’