The Art of Overstatement

You might recall a post a little while ago on understatement, a literary virtue, if you will. I thought nothing could be more sublime. But then I reread Sir Philip Sidney’s The Old Arcadia and realized that overstatement in writing is just as useful, though it makes for a different sort of storytelling.

The plot: An oracle in ancient Greece prophesies that the ruler of Arcadia will be ruined in a particular year, with both daughters put into terrible unions and the ruler losing his place. To avoid said ruin, the prince of that realm takes his family into solitude, thinking that he can outwit the gods and keep both land and family safe. Enter two noble princes. One sees a portrait of the younger princess, realizes that she is already secluded and difficult to access, and so his solution is to pose as an Amazon to get close to her. His cousin laughs at his folly until he is struck by the beauty of the older sister, whom he then pursues by disguising himself as a lowly shepherd.

Prince-turned-Amazon manages to enchant not only his target, but also both his target’s mother and father. The father, being fooled by the disguise, considers adultery; the mother, not fooled by the disguise, is miserable knowing that her daughter is the target of affection. The young princess struggles in the meantime with feeling attracted to another woman. The older princess, in the care of another shepherding family, catches on a bit quicker with her prince-turned-shepherd, although he must pretend affection towards the shepherding family’s less-witty daughter.

As both princes’ goals are to sweep their targets away, they get to work in hilarious fashion. Both are found out though, and even worse, the ruler of the realm is suddenly found dead. In other words, it’s all fun and games until someone loses a life, and here I end my synopsis so as to not spoil the rest of the story.

Now the author, Sir Philip Sidney, wrote the novel to entertain his sister (and her friends), and took hyperbole to new heights (or depths, depending on how you view overstatement) in the process. The reason this book took me so long to read was because of passages like this, that went on and on (and on, and on):

“He thought her fair forehead was a field where all his fancies fought, and every hair of her head seemed a strong chain that tied him. Her fair lids (then hiding her fairer eyes) seemed unto him sweet boxes of mother of pearl, rich in themselves, but containing in them far richer jewels. Her cheeks, with their colour most delicately mixed, would have entertained his eyes somewhile, but that the roses of her lips (whose separating was wont to be accompanied with most wise speeches)” (p. 176- 177).

Sidney, Sir Philip. (2008). The Old Arcadia. Oxford World’s Classics.

Initially, I scanned a lot, just wanting to get to the next plot point. Then I slowed down and started reading, realizing that though the hyperbole had a comedic effect, it also had the effect of signaling sentiment that perhaps really did need such a lot of ink after all. How else do you express love to the point where everyone else agrees you’re in love? How else do you express beauty to the point where everyone else agrees there must be some beauty on the page? The overflow of words had a surprisingly persuasive effect on my perception of the characters.

I say “surprising” because more often than not I mistrust hyperbole. I mistrust people who talk too much. The more they expound, the more cynical I am (and I criticize myself when I feel like I talk too much as well). I am also very critical of film that leaves nothing to the imagination. Visual hyperbole is too often used and with too little care. I speak, of course, in very broad terms, to increasingly graphic and extensive depictions of gore, sexuality, abuse, and so on in pop culture. Yet when it comes to Sidney’s prose, the more I paid attention, the better the picture became. Each sentence was as a skilled artist finishing a piece with a fine tip and many, many small strokes.

I’ve also found that, while I appreciate a tight plot and efficient character development in any given genre of storytelling, there’s something to be said for lengthy prose that impresses a book’s atmosphere upon the reader. I don’t know if it can be boiled down to a spectrum though (perhaps a coordinate map?). Rowling, for example, is a pretty efficient writer; she blends description with action well throughout the entirety of the Harry Potter series. Although the action is not as dramatic, Jacques makes greater use of poetry and song, as well as his well-developed tropes of feast and fight to draw out the well-loved world of Redwall. And on a much more extreme end, quite opposite to the understatement of Beowulf (a relatively short-in-length saga when you compare the going-ons of Beowulf to The Old Arcadia), there’s The Old Arcadia, an excellent example of how sometimes saying more (so long as it’s a thoughtful more), really does gift the reader with more.


Featured image by Birmingham Museums Trust on Unsplash

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