Intertextuality essay on Borges’s four stories. Group 1020

ByAlexandra Voskoboynikova

Intertextuality essay on Borges’s four stories. Group 1020

“The author can use an expression that calls attention to other stories or refer to the historical background without explicitly mentioning it to give readers some food for thought and let them come up to their own conclusion.”

Allusions are used as stylistic devices to help contextualize a story by referencing a well-known person, place, event, or another literary work. These references do not have to be explicitly explained; more often than not, writers choose to let readers fill in the blanks. Regardless of whether the allusion is recognized, the phrase presents vivid imagery about the paths left from lies and deception. In the same way that readers can understand metaphors, words that have meaning beyond their literal interpretation, they can also understand allusions—it’s the same basic psychology. In fact, for well-constructed metaphors and allusions, this process of knowing the other meaning or greater subject surrounding these words is subconscious; it happens instantly and naturally.

And so, authors are able to evoke certain images and memories in their readers by describing something in passing. You may be wondering in your question, why use allusions rather than just describing the idea being alluded to? There are many reasons this may not be beneficial to the writer. First, there may not be room or time. Second, perhaps, more important – using allusions allows the reader to do quick and subconscious deduction, which involves them more in what they are reading and may even give a sense of cleverness. Looking at the Borges test, we can see that it is based on multiple allusions. The author refers to myths and history, allowing readers to dive deeper into the meaning of the words spoken by the author, to feel and understand by examples what he actually means. The reader is given a wide field to study the historical context, deduction, and long reflections on the text. Each reader can come to his own conclusion by analyzing what he has read, and isn’t that the main task, the greatest purpose of the author?

The first story – conquest.


In the first sentence, Borges states “There are only four stories”. Then he uses multiple allusions for each kind of story for people to think about what exactly these stories are. The first and the oldest one – the siege of the city is associated with the image of Achilles, who is believed to be the greatest warrior in history.

In Greek mythology, Achilles was a hero of the Trojan War, the central character of Homer’s Iliad. He was the son of Nereid Thetis and Peleus, king of Phthia. Achilles’ most famous feat during the Trojan War was killing the Trojan prince Hector outside the gates of Troy.

A prophecy had foretold that Achilles would die at Troy but also alleged that the Trojan War would be the only chance for Achilles to live his destiny as the greatest of the Greek warriors. If he refused to go, his greatness would go to waste. Achilles believed that he was born to be a hero, an undying legend, whose name shall be remembered, so he agreed to go to Troy. According to another version of Achilles’ prophecy, he should’ve died only as soon as  Hector was killed, which creates a whole different kind of dramatic story, more personal than the previous one, as Achilles was the only person who could slay the mighty prince. And he did that to avenge the death of his best friend. 

Either way, as Borges mentions it, Achilles knew for sure that he would not be alive long enough to see the victory, but that did not stop him from making a decision to take part in the war. He chose a short, but truly marvelous life that promised him glory over a long but insignificant one. People around him who cared for him knew that there was nothing that could stop him as he was a son of a goddess, a conqueror first and a human second.

The life and death of Achilles have numerous different interpretations, his character evokes a lot of debates even now, after more than 3000 years. Was he really the greatest warrior? Did he actually die the way we all believe that he did? Did he even exist? By mentioning his story in a  brief sentence Borges brings up all these long-existing conversations and arguments, questions to siege the minds of readers. 


As it was said, Borges repeatedly makes a lot of mentionings that one way or another are closely connected with the story. The author touches on the name of an ancient poet Homer. Borges does not stop on his name as if he suggests readers to be well-acquainted with history and ancient literature.

We must say that Homer was one of the most important characters in the story. In real life he was the first person who combined all the stories and myths about Troy. Undoubtedly, there were a number of people who were retelling those stories year to year but Homer not only combined it in two poems (Odyssey and Iliad) but, also, created his own individual style and language of the narration.

Homer’s style is interesting and has a lot to learn about. The plot, characters and their characteristics. It all draws attention. Homer uses many epithets that give a certain color, not at a specific moment, but remain attached to certain characters/situations/objects. Also, those epithets usually consist of two words (‘rosy-fingered Dawn’, ‘owl-eyed Athena’). The Homeric epics are written in an artificial literary language or ‘Kunstsprache’ only used in epic hexameter (Hexameter is a metrical line of verses consisting of six feet) poetry.

Homer created semi-mythical semi-historical poems that not only tell about past events, but allow one to conjecture and think out the plot and different moments of the story. These poems contain the most accurately described events of the Trojan War. Many Trojan heroes owe their glory to this war (Achilles, Odysseus, Atreus, etc.). Homer pointed out the quasi-historical fact of the abduction of Helen of Troy as the reason for the war.

So there is an interesting discussion from ancient times: if there were real Homer and if stories about Iliad and Odyssey have a historical background. This phenomenon is called “Homeric question”.

Helen of Troy

Well, speaking about Helen of Troy, the most beautiful woman in the world, she was believed to have been the daughter of Zeus and Leda. In our collective opinion, the author connects her character with four Borges’s cycles as he believed that she was a symbol for the victory for the Achaeans (the first Borges’s story).

By the way, according to the classic Homeric story, Helen escaped with the Trojan Paris. According to another version proposed by the poet, Paris stole only a ghost and Helen was transferred to Egypt, where she spent all the years of the Trojan War. That is why her character adds magic to the story. The war started exactly due to Paris kidnapping Helen.

To be more specific, people began to believe that Elena, for whose sake the armies were dying, was a beautiful cloud, a vision, the ghost was also a huge hollow horse that sheltered the Achaeans. Homer was not the first to tell this legend, from the poet of the fourteenth century there will be a line: “The borgh brittened and bred to brondes and askes”.

Dante Gabriel Rossetti would have probably imagined that the fate of Troy had been decided already at the moment when Paris fell for Elena, Yeats would have preferred the moment when Leda was woven with God appearing as an image of a beautiful swan.

To conclude, it makes sense to point out that Helen of Troy definitely affected historical events and her strong and rather unique character still has an influence on many authors and their works. There is not any accurate view on this theme, no-one is right or wrong, everyone has the right to have his own opinion. And I just have presented ours.

The second story – return.

Usually the author refers to some ancient stories or history to make their story not so obvious and more complete. In this case, readers can make their own conclusions while thinking about reasons for using these particular stories in this particular context. Readers can interpret stories in their own way because most of the references don’t have only one meaning. Due to this, referring to other stories helps the author to call attention to the readers as they start to think about the text on its own deeper and more complex. The second story in Borges’s work is about Ulisses returning home.

Borges mentions Ulisses and his journey to fourteen islands.

Ulisses is another name for Odysseus. His trip starts at Troy, which refers us to the first story, from the Trojan war. With quite a big crew, he travels from one island to another, facing challenges on each of them. They make locals angry, turn Poseidon – the God of the sea, against them, almost get carried away by mermaids and more, so that in the end Ulisseus is left alone, having all of his team killed by cannibals, gods, or other creatures. He loses his crew, his ship, his belongings. When he finally gets home, after spending ten years on his journey back, he sees that many suitors are trying to marry his wife. He kills them in anger and reunites with his wife, who has never cheated on him in all these years. Knowing that Borges calls this story the story of returning home, we as readers can make some assumptions about the meaning of Ulisses’s journey. I reckon that sometimes it is very easy to leave something behind, striving to get a better life, justice, or something else. But returning can be much harder. You stumble into unexpected challenges and circumstances, and it may require a lot of strength, courage, and hope to get back to the place you abandoned so easily. Another way to interpret the story is to see it as a story of an adventurous traveler who seeks action. He experiences a lot of failures and problems during his journey, but he manages to fight it all. He is brave and smart enough to get through every obstacle, even when it comes to dealing with extremely powerful gods themselves. I think his desire to get home is what drives Ulisses through all of these fights.

The Norse gods

They belong to two major clans: Æsir and Vanir. The first type was associated with chaos and war, the second – with nature and fertility. Odin, Frigg, Thor, Loki, Balder, Hod, Heimdall, and Tyr are the most elevated representatives of Æsir and are known as the main gods. The second clan, Vanir, contains the fertility gods and count Njord, Freyr, and Freyja as their most notable members.

The Norse gods are the main characters of the mythology, their impact on the world is incredibly important. But what’s the point of writing about them in this short story? The main point is that Borges uses historical personas and events because he claims that the joy of literature is the appeal to the imagination, that history is memory, and that a literary experience is as real as any other experience. The Norse gods are the characters who were used in many mythological texts; thus, we can learn something else about them from the history of other texts and artworks.

But this is the main point of what Borges tries to conduct that people should use their imagination when they are reading because the very origin of poetry is ambiguous, it is a divine gift, a present of nature, and an artifact inspired by previously created works. Borges states that poems are “ejercicios mágicos,” “given” in a mystical-biblical sense as “a revelation.” (Borges at Eighty 6). They are also “gifts of nature,” he suggests, evoking John Keats’ approach to the creation of poetry as a natural phenomenon. Thus, using the Norse gods in his text Borges tries us to think about their meaning, he doesn’t give us a clear answer, because he leaves us with the room for our imagination, we can by ourselves define what’ their meaning in this particular story, and every person would see something different, something personal in this text, just because they’re using their own imagination.

What about Ithaca?

This is a Greek island located in the Ionian sea, to the west of continental Greece.  The location of this island is still a cause for controversy. There are many different theories about its location, but no one can say for sure. Homer described it as being “low-lying” and farthest to the west, despite being mountainous, and the island of Kefalonia being even more to the west. Each approach to location determination differs in its degree of scientific procedure, well-founded hypothesis, pure fantasy, and belief in reality.

Every theory is very unique and based on a variety of facts, which makes it original. Each theory and its author deserves attention, as it shows the specifics of the time and place when it was created. Perhaps that is why readers always return to Homer’s Odysseus to offer their own theory or supplement someone else’s. This is probably why the exact location of the island is not mentioned, so that it is an undisclosed secret that we would always like to return to and think about.

This reference calmly follows from the first, which reminds of the importance of being united to such things. In this case, readers can truly think for themselves and come up with their own conclusion. As well as Odyssey’s story ends when he eventually returns to his home hundreds of other stories come down to this ending.

All of these stories (about Ulysses’ returning to Ithaca and about Norse Gods) aren’t purely and entirely given to us in the Borges’s story. He only makes a reference to them. Nevertheless, investigating connections between them and learning context, we get the opportunity to understand the author more clearly. Consequently, by mentioning ideas of different time periods and cultures, which are united by the same meaning( in that case every story refers to a “returning”), the author provides us a space for our own thoughts. All of these conclusions prove the importance of understanding references and context in literature.

The third story – journey. 

Unlike return, where there is more certainty, probably because the place where the hero returns is often known, there is more suspense in the search. Not only we may not know what we are looking for, but it may not always be clear why we do it. The mention of persons, objects, and places about which we know very little brings us closer to the uncertainty of the characters themselves.


Known from the mythology of ancient Greece, Jason was in search of the Golden fleece, but it was known much less about it than we do now. What is it like to search for something without knowing what? It is exactly hard. And Jason had to find it by order of King Pelias, in order to place Jason rightfully on the throne of Iolcus in Thessaly. Fortunately, through the help of Medea, they acquired the Golden Fleece. Thus the fleece is a symbol of authority and kingship.

Simurgh and 30 Iranian birds.

Again we get the task from the author to ask ourselves why we meet it here, in the story about a journey. Simurgh is a mythical bird in Iranian mythology, sometimes recognized as a phoenix. The bright color of its feather was so addictive and eye-catching that all the birds wanted to get it. But many birds were scared and refused to fly. Many birds could not fly all the way because of quests and challenges. And only 30 birds that overcame the suffering, reached the goal and realized how powerful they are. And as soon as we learn it everything becomes clear. In these few words, the author describes a big amount of journeys, during which people face difficulties and have to fight them to find what they are looking for.


The author mentioned that in the past it was a success in the end almost all of the time. Like Jason, Hercules earned a magnificent triumph against all the obstacles he has faced. The last heroic deed seemed impossible as the treasure that he needed to find was Golden Apples. These apples were kept in a garden at the northern edge of the world, and they were guarded not only by a hundred-headed dragon, named Ladon, but also by the Hesperides, nymphs who were daughters of Atlas, the titan who held the sky and the earth upon his shoulders. Even after defeating all these creatures, he had a long way until the end. He never knew how many problems he had to overcome to finally get the precious prize but he continued going. Nothing could stop him on his path. His faith in his own power and will are what got him there. I think that what makes a big difference between the future and the past, success, and failure. Never-ending disasters, collapses, and breakdowns represent a long way of searching. And searching represents life…

Capitan Ahab

«Теперь поиски обречены на провал. Капитан Ахав попадает в кита, но кит его все-таки уничтожает»

To carry on with the theme of searching and seeking, Borges mentions a fictional character, Captain Ahab – a one-legged captain of the whaling vessel named Pequod, who was made to share his story on the pages of the novel “Moby Dick”.

As the novel reveals, he is the captain of the whaling ship Pequod (Пекод), who has lost his leg in a fiercest battle with the white whale Moby Dick. After this accident, Ahab became monomaniacal about getting revenge on the whale and devoted all his life and efforts to such a fanatical mission. In the captain’s world view killing Moby Dick is equal to eliminating all the evil in the world. Ahab himself confesses: “Sometimes I think that there is nothing beyond the wall. But id does not matter. He himself is enough, he is challenging me, I see a cruel power in him and exactly this cruel power I hate most of all. I am going to bring my hatred on him”.

These powerful words beg a question, what happened in the end? In the end, during the whaling voyage, he finally sighted the White Whale, and Ahab’s hatred robbed him of all caution, so the whale dragged Ahab to the bottom of the sea.

Here, we meet with the same question again: what does Borges want to tell us, by using the story of the Captain? It becomes clear, when we view him through the prism of Ancient Greek’s mythology: Ahab is the one whose obsessive thoughts turn him into Prometheus. The one, who is going to feed his vulture, his ravager, with his own heart; and the vulture of his – is what he creates. He devoted his life to finding the creature, which he was not sure to ever see again and, moreover, which eventually took away his life. He was fascinated with revenge, though was doomed to lose his life, therefore he tragically failed in this search. The main point of Borges’s metaphor is that the ultimate purpose is ephemeral and phantom: you can try your hardest, but after all, no one knows whether we will accomplish it or not, whether it may become real or not. (Stacy Rudnova)

The holy grail

To put things into perspective, the term “holy grail” is often used to denote an elusive object or goal that is sought after for its great significance. And even though a lot of people spend their lives searching for the Holy Grail, it’s a treasure nobody ever managed to find. For example, there is a story about Knights of the Round Table who were searching for this treasure their whole life. You may wonder, ‘what was it about the Grail that made people sacrifice their time and safety looking for it?” The reason was that the Holy grail is supposed to give you happiness and prolong the youth. So, it becomes clear that the holy grail is an allusion to something very desirable, yet unreachable. It helps us understand the challenging but thrilling nature of searching.

Kafka highlights the problem in his novel “The Castle”: how a person can reach God and find the way to him. The main character tried to find the castle. And the author mentioned that not all of the efforts could be always brought to a successful end. In this way, we realize that the search is an uncertain process with its own pitfalls. Not everybody can reach his goal especially when it is not completely known.

The fourth story – sacrifice.

As we have already figured out, Many great works of world literature are based on the four common clichés, and one of the most often used is a story of the Suicide of God, or a Hero, who is giving his life away for the sake of a good will. By suicide, we mean not exactly the action of self-destruction but the heroic Sacrifice made in order to protect or teach more vulnerable ones, or the philistines, who are lead by the God’s or Hero’s persona.

Sacrifice as love for others.

Real sacrifice is only such an act that is dictated not by selfishness and the desire to be a hero for others, but by sincere love for people. The example of such self-sacrifice can be found in the story of Maxim Gorky “The Old Woman Izergil”. The main character of the narration lived among people who were driven by the enemies into an old gloomy forest. No one knew the way out of that place. The people were frightened and they were ready to surrender to their enemy. Danko treated them with love, he inspired people to follow him. He dragged his heart out of his chest to light up the way for people. Danko did not demand any reward, because his act was dictated by ardent love for people, a great desire to save them.

Christ figure

Oftentimes a literary technique called “Christ figure” is used to directly tie a certain character to the image of Jesus Christ. The plot doesn’t necessarily revolve around that character, but generally they at least play a major role in the “making” of other characters. One such example is that of Aslan from The Chronicles of Narnia series.

Aslan is known as the Great Lion in the series (with the word lion often capitalized to indicate his status) and is the only character to appear in all 7 books. He is referred to as “king of the narnians”, just as Jesus is referred to as “king of the Jews”. Aslan is able to perform miracles, and even turns a well of water into wine – establishing a clear connection between the two. The Lion has a massive following, and is kind and caring to everyone, making him a natural leader, or a messiah, if you will.

Another theme that ties directly into the Christ figure trope is the betrayal. Edmund betrays Aslan for 30 pieces of Turkish delight, just like Christ’s disciple Judas betrays him for 30 pieces of silver. However, despite all this, the King above all High Kings forgives Edmund and takes his place of being killed, also just about saving everyone in turn. Jesus, as we all know, is sacrificed for the sins of mankind.

Last but not least, Aslan is reborn after being killed by the White Witch later into the story. Same as Jesus is resurrected by God three days after he died on the cross. Both of them are subsequently pictured as ever living.

All of these motifs are alluding to the story of Jesus Christ and Christ’s sacrifice, while not directly addressed as such, making it a great case in point.

Joan of Arc

A great example of sacrificing yourself is Joan of Arc. Her strong and courageous persona allowed us to compare her acts of bravery with God’s suicide. Her life and death were covered in a plethora of stories by many authors. A seventeen-year-old lady has left her youth and headed to war. She was captured by Burgundians and then sold to the English. During the tortures, she acted more bravely than most men, denied her supernatural ties. However, her enemies managed to find a reason to burn her, and, eventually, it happened. Everyone in the crowd was aware that she was not guilty, while she was dying with unbelievable patience and self-control. Her story is in some ways similar to the story of Jesus Christ because eventually she was rehabilitated.

In conclusion, it’s necessary to say that the usage of allusions doesn’t make literature any more monotonous or repetitive, as there are numerous combinations of the same clichés. Readers can’t really distinguish a common motive because it is elaborately written into the unique plot so the allusions turn out to be invisible, just as they should. Moreover, readers unconsciously face familiar narratives and characters which make them more interested in the storyline, it’s a matter of human mind nature. Finally, the exact number of common plots in literature is still being actively discussed, but these four storylines selected by Borges are the most referred ones, which basically makes them a universal source of multiple allusions. 

(Authors: Grishina Elizaveta, Sukhonitskaya Polina, Khramova Dana, Avtonomova Anfisa, Voskoboynikova Aleksandra, Filippov Mikhail, Livashova Daria, Kharchik Varvara, Khovrenko Ksenia, Turyanskaya Valeria, Kaldarikova Angira, Rudnova Anastasia, Kuratova Anastasia, Rudenko Anastasia, Valko Valeria, Shevchenko Natalia, Buev Artem, Khristich Arina, Matveeva Daria, Danilova Maria).

About the author

Alexandra Voskoboynikova administrator