Uncle Fix-It – Thoughts on Creon of Thebes

It’s odd how your thoughts about a character from mythology can completely change when you spend some quality time – real heavy-duty quality time – with the myths and stories around him or her.

I’d experienced this before, but Creon’s surprising me again.

I read Oedipus Rex for the first time as a high school senior. To me then, Creon was just the royal brother-in-law who ran errands to the Oracle and who ended up as pick-up-the-pieces regent when the tragedy ended. He wasn’t a bit character, by any means – the methods and requirements of Greek theater meant they really didn’t have room on the stage for bit characters – but he wasn’t really a fleshed-out player in what happened.

Creon’s actions were bookends to the real action.

The next year, I read the complete Oedipus Cycle as a college freshman. It was a 9am class. We’d read through Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey with the same professor at the same hour, and I’m sad to report that some of us did do the reading in the three hours before class started, required page long response included. This meant that despite the fact it was a discussion course, we really didn’t get all that deeply into the text. Even if we had read the text well before class or even several times before class, it was still the first experience most of us had reading either Oedipus At Colonus or Antigone.

Creon is barely mentioned if that, and certainly doesn’t appear, in Oedipus At Colonus. That play takes place far from him, and his position in the family is still as Uncle Fix-It. There’s no sign he will be anything else.

That changes in Antigone. Creon’s pretty much framed as the villain there, making edicts against the will of the gods and completing the destruction of his sister Jocasta’s family and of his own. He and his niece Ismene are left as the only two surviving members of the family. In class we focused on Antigone’s fulfillment of divine edict despite personal risk and Ismene’s following of human law; this meant that Creon was pretty much Mr. Horrible.

I spent three of four graduate school semesters focusing on and rereading these works.

I’ve spent quite a bit of time since then immersed in these works while working on my novel (thusly the categories this post is filed under).

It wasn’t until I flipped through a random copy of a translation I hadn’t seen yet off of a library sale cart that I realized there was a very simple explanation for why Creon was mad enough to make an edict against a nephew’s burial.

If someone was thinking entirely logically at the moment Creon made the edict, the choice would have been against the brother who had been fighting on the side of Thebes. He violated the power-sharing agreement, which led his twin to attack the city seeking the throne that was supposed to have been his at that time. It was his action that caused a war.

(Or it would have been a ruling against both, or dooming them both to the simplest burial that would not anger the gods.)

But that’s not the brother Creon dooms to non-burial and everything that means in the Greek religious structure of the time. He rules against the brother who attacked the city. He doesn’t want so much as a handful of dirt sprinkled over the body.

And flipping through that paperback, with the lines and scenes in different places than in the battered copy I used as an undergraduate and as a masters student, I suddenly realized why.

I had been judging Creon as Uncle Fix-It, always dealing with actions of relatives that only affected him when he had to help figure out what was wrong and how to clean things up. But in Antigone, Creon is not Uncle Fix-It anymore.

He loses one of his two sons in the battle, defending Thebes. The entire contents of the play take place in the week or less following this.

Creon isn’t Uncle Fix-It anymore. He’s a father in mourning who directs his anger at the brother who brought force of arms into the tragedy of the family for the first time.

Antigone is the tale of what happens when a man who has already lost a brother-in-law, another brother-in-law(/nephew, but Creon never really deals with Oedipus as such), and a sister to the problems the family has gotten into with the Fates and Apollo suddenly loses three family members in the span of hours and just can’t deal with it anymore.

And who could?

That’s the tragedy of Creon. Not that he’s a complete and total idiot, as I had thought until recently, but that he just can’t cope with what he has to cope with and that, unfortunately, means his problems increase through his reaction.

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