Short Story Spotlight: “True Stories,” by Lucian of Samosata

Battle between armies of the sun and moon in the True Stories
Battle between the armies of the sun and moon from a seventeenth-century print of the True Stories (In possession of and copyright of the British Library)

“As I had nothing true to tell, not having had any adventures of significance, I took to lying. But my lying is far more honest than theirs, for though I tell the truth in nothing else, I shall at least be truthful in saying that I am a liar.”

– Lucian of Samosata, Prologue to the True Stories

 

The Vera Historia, or True Stories, has often been called a multifaceted work, and its author, Lucian of Samosata, was similarly many-sided. An Assyrian living under Roman rule in the first century A.D./C.E., he traveled across the empire to practice rhetoric, but his writing was what eventually distinguished him. He was a master of satire, snark, and wit, which all feature prominently in the True Stories, a fictional travelogue adventure written to lampoon those by other great writers of the Greco-Roman world. There’s no doubt that he succeeded, as his work is an amusing and entertaining adventure story.

Lucian begins it with something of a joke: he admits that everything in the story is a lie, all the while claiming everything in it is the truth. It’s a direct stab at his literary predecessors, who regularly claimed truthfulness in the most outlandish parts of their stories.

Lucian of Samosata image
Lucian of Samosata, first-century A.D./C.E. writer

With that, his characters (he and his companions) begin their journey, setting sail across the Mediterranean and passing the Pillars of Heracles. Their misadventure first takes them to an island with sentient grapevines and rivers of flowing wine. Amazed and resupplied, they cast off again and are launched into space where they land on the moon and participate in an intergalactic war between moon, sun, and stars. Eventually, they are able to return to earth and continue their travels, ending up, at various points, in the mouth of a continent-sized whale, on the Isle of the Blessed, the Isles of the Wicked, the Isle of Dreams, and other places in between.

For those so inclined, the True Stories is an ambitious work with a ton of literary merit. It’s clear that Lucian attempts to ridicule and undermine the tropes and genres of other writers. Plato’s utopian work, Republic, comes under direct mockery, as does Antonius Diogenes’ travelogue, On the Wonders beyond Thule, and Herodotus’ writings. Lucian’s clever management of such satire is worth enough as it is, but his story achieves a second, likely unintended effect. Despite attacking other genres, the True Stories further cemented them in tradition. Elements of Lucian’s utopian explanations of other cultures can be found in Thomas More’s Utopia and Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels; his habit of placing both historical people and his contemporaries in the afterlife echoes in Dante Alighieri’s Divine Comedy; and the intergalactic warfare he establishes with his trip to the moon resounds throughout science fiction into the modern era.

Because of the story’s pseudo-science-fiction elements, Lucian has been hailed as one of the earliest sci-fi writers. Although some have argued that the True Stories doesn’t fit enough of the genre’s criteria, sci-fi is known for its loose, flexible nature, so the story’s “qualification” appears to be a less legitimate concern. Others have already written quite a bit about that, so suffice it to say that sci-fi lovers will likely find entertainment in Lucian’s lunar trip.

Even readers with less interest in literature or a specific genre can find entertainment in Lucian’s fantastical journey. While it lacks the detailed descriptions of action sequences that have become a hallmark of modern stories, it’s still packed with action: Lucian and his companions participate in and are witness to war, kidnapping, exploration, and politicking. It’s a truly imaginative fantasy adventure, full of strange encounters and exotic settings that easily captivate a casual reader’s imagination.

The True Stories is a work of contradictions that sought to discredit popular genres but ultimately strengthened them at the same time. It’s also a work of pure entertainment and an enjoyable story. Lucian asks no “big questions,” nor does he attempt deep philosophical discussion. Instead, he tells his tale simply to tell it—and to make his readers laugh. The True Stories is a perfect example of literature done well; it has all the qualities of a literary “classic” while still being accessible to a casual reader. Lucian succeeds all around, and it is especially this success at balancing literary elements with an engaging plot that makes this story worth reading.

Interested readers can read the True Stories online at the Internet Sacred Text Archive (with explanatory notes; recommended) and The Lucian of Samosata Project. Free copies can be downloaded from Archive.org and The Lucian of Samosata Project (under “English”).

 

*While the True Stories is often entertaining, readers may feel that Lucian trivializes a few items and situations that ought to be treated with more seriousness. While this blog feels that more tact and discretion on his part would have been appropriate, it is also important to understand this work as a product of its time. His society’s mentality was different, and we are separated from him by a gulf of eighteen centuries. It’s possible to enjoy this work without condoning the treatment of these items and without condemning the author for not acting differently. Further explanation is given on this blog’s Disclaimer.

**Technically, the True Stories is a “book,” but it is sufficiently short enough to be finished in two or three hours and it reads more like a story than a novel. Consequently, this blog has treated it as a longer short story for purposes of this series.

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