Literary Saturday: Ancient Epics
Published on: April 24, 2010
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  • WigWag

    Professor Mead, how can you be so full of joy on Saturday and such a curmudgeon on Sunday? Your “literary Saturday” essays are always so uplifting while your “Faith Matters Sunday” essays are always so full of fire and brimstone.

    Your recommendation of “The Iliad,” “The Odyssey,” “The Aeneid” and “Metamorphosis” are all foundational but I would like to mention a book that is even older. I mentioned it on last week’s “Literary Saturday” thread; “Gilgamesh.”

    While “The Aeneid” is certainly Virgil’s masterpiece (it was a paean to Caesar Augustus), a lesser known work by Virgil is his epic poem about farming and gardening, “The Georgics.” While far less influential, the poetry is lovely and it’s well worth a look.

    While you didn’t mention it, Ovid influenced Shakespeare quite profoundly. Many of Shakespeare’s plots were lifted directly from Ovid including the plots for “Midsummer’s Night Dream,” Titus Andronicus,” “Twelfth Night,”” A Winter’s Tale” and “The Tempest.” There is actually a wonderful book on the subject still in print called “Shakespeare and Ovid” by Jonathan Bate. Alas, it isn’t available for the Kindle.

    “Metamorphosis” was also the precursor to extraordinary books from the Middle Ages including Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales and Boccaccio’s” “The Decameron.” Like “Metamorphosis” both books could be quite bawdy.

    I would make one last suggestion. While Fitzgerald’s translations of “The Iliad,” “The Odyssey” and “Aeneid” are beautiful and lyrical, those who aren’t use to reading verse might find them hard to plow through. The translations of these books by the late Professor Fagles of Princeton are widely available and I think much easier to read. They are better for the new reader; especially a reader taking on these books by choice not by the madate of a professsor. My suggestion would be to read the Fagles translations first and then go back and read other translations, including Fitzgerald’s later on.

  • fw

    This reminds me of the story of George Gershwin and Oscar Levant, traveling together by train. Gershwin got the top bunk, to which he remarked, “That’s the difference between talent and genuis.”

    Ovid may be more polished, and yet, there remains something starkly unsentimental about his stories, which may be characteristic of antiquity. A lot, if not most of the stories features characters meeting with horrible ends, the titular transformations being, as often as not, horrendous. And the virtues or vices of those changed has little bearing on their destinies; accident and fortune seem much more consequential, so these are not morality plays, with the good rewarded and the bad coming to a bad end. It reflects, I guess, a dry-eyed acceptance of the unpredictability and indifferent nature of fate.

    Which reminds me of this quote from one of Ireland’s greatest writers:

    “The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.”

    – Oscar Wilde, The Importance of Being Earnest, Act 2

  • Blane Burns

    I have read and loved them all. I loved Ovid but don’t think his work is in the same class as Homer’s. Ovid wrote a collection of stories much like Aesop’s Fables. His tales were much more along the lines of Skin Changers.
    Oh, and I loved Gilgamesh too!!!! It is a real epic.

  • Prashant

    I think Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” is more than just a collection of stories. For one thing, these stories are unified by the idea of change, which is fundamental to the universe. In the beginning itself Ovid declares his aim–“aspirate meis primaque ab origine mundi ad mea perpetuum deducite tempora carmen.”

    It is, in short, an epic poem in which the hero is the cosmos itself. I would not describe the tone, as a poster has suggested, as being unsentimental. In fact, Ovid can be quite moving at times–the episode of Philemon and Baucis comes to mind.

    I would suggest that Ovid’s worldview is anti-tragic, rather similar to the worldview of classical Sanskrit literature. This does not in any way diminish its seriousness.

    Finally, the Metamorphoses is remarkable also in its intricate and refined narrative structure and, in my eyes, deserves to be ranked above the Aeneid.

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