Tag Archives: epic

Mythology through (ancient) literature

Mythology through art - Theseus vs the Minotaur, National Archaeological Museum, Naples

Mythology through art – Theseus vs the Minotaur, National Archaeological Museum, Naples

I have stolen the title ‘Mythology Through Literature’ from an undergraduate course my wife had the good fortune of taking — I did not have enough room for that particular course due to an overload of Latin and Greek. However, as an undergraduate I had the opportunity not only to take ‘Greek Mythology’, but ‘Homer and Virgil’ and ‘Greek Tragedy’ besides courses on Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Iliad in the original languages. When I reflect on this, as well as my graduate education, the reality comes home to me time and again that our knowledge of Greek mythology comes to us through literature, and not simply compendia such as the Library of ‘Apollodorus’ — itself the greatest compendium of Greek myths. (I’d link to it, but WordPress has lost its mind.)

Of course, epic in the tradition of Hesiod can feel like a compendium, whether Hesiod’s Theogony or Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Such epics, however, are more than compendia (one might argue, in fact, that compendia are not ‘mere’ compendia, either). They, themselves, have all the artistry of more extended literary tellings of the ancient stories, whether Homer’s Odyssey or Virgil’s Aeneid. They are, themselves, literature, written in dactylic hexameters with their own beauty and structure and use of metaphor, simile, allusion.

I love Hesiod and Ovid. Nonetheless, there is a different kind of pleasure that comes from discovering myths in other poets. When I was studying Greek and Latin poetry, mythology felt as if it were hiding behind every corner. For example, reading The Iliad you encounter not even the whole tale of Troy (or Ilium), but along the way (in Book 6) you encounter the tale of Bellerophon, as recounted by characters on the battlefield. In Virgil’s Aeneid book 8, we meet what may be an Italic folktale in the story of Cacus vs Hercules. Or you sit down to read a victory ode written by Pindar for Arcesilas, King of Cyrene, for the victory of Arcesilas’ chariot in the Pythian Games (Fourth Pythian Ode), and find yourself reading about Jason and the Argonauts and the founding of Cyrene.

Another lyric poet who wrote mythological victory odes was Simonides of Ceos, who was once refused half of his pay on the grounds that Castor and Pollux should pay the other half, given how much they featured in the poem!

The most famous mythological literature of the ancients is, of course, the epics — Homer, Hesiod, and Apollonius in Greek, then Virgil, Ovid, and Statius in Latin (but also Claudian) — and the tragedies. Indeed, who can not be moved by the power and force of Aeschylus Oresteia? It is Sophocles’ telling of Oedipus that we all know, and the finish to the tale of Jason comes through Euripides’ Medea. Yet alongside the poetry, we meet mythology in an unlikely place — Plato, who barred poets from his Republic, is our main source for the myth of Atlantis in the Critias.

Ancient Greek and Latin literature is vast, spanning many centuries, from Homer in the 700s BC to Claudian in AD 400. The result of learning mythology through literature is that your Greek mythology storybook from when you were a kid is sometimes at variance with what you find. I remember one of my professors in university having given a particular version of a myth (really sorry, I forget which!!), and a friend was bent out of shape that he had ‘got it wrong.’ However, later on I discovered that he had, in fact, ‘got it right’ — there was more than one telling.

For example, how was Aphrodite born? Hesiod tells us that she was born from the foam that built up in the sea around Ouranos’ castrated genitals (Theogony 188). Homer refers to Dione as her mother (Iliad 5.370). Who is ‘right’? Hesiod even gives us conflicting accounts of Athena — daughter of Zeus and Metis, although born out of Zeus’ belly (line 887), or self-generated from Zeus’ head (line 924)?

According to ‘Apollodorus’, Athena blinded Teiresias for seeing her naked while bathing (Library 3.6.7). But another version (I forget the source!) says that Teiresias was blinded because he revealed that women enjoy sex more than men (having spent part of his life as a woman, part as a man), and Hera was angry with him for giving away her secret. Which is ‘right’?

Did Aphrodite offer Paris the most beautiful woman on earth or irresistible sexiness?

Such a list could go on.

There is much appeal to reading mythology through ancient literature — the literature itself is pleasant to enjoy. The drama of a tragedy, the glory of an epic, the terseness of a lyric poem. The beauty of it all. And, alongside it, there comes the pleasure of encountering new versions of old stories, revealing a textual and narrative playfulness with the ‘canon’ that we have difficulty grasping ourselves. Once you’ve read a book about Greek myths, there’s no better place to turn next than the ancient literature itself.

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Epic review of Paradise Lost (also: Is there ring composition? Discuss)

Paradise LostParadise Lost by John Milton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It seems silly to write a review of Paradise Lost. ‘You mean Matthew, of all people, liked this book? What a shock!’ And, really, how can one give a star rating to one of the pinnacles of English literature? Obviously my five stars for something like Milton is far more subjective than rating of, say, The Horse, the Wheel, and Language or Discourse Particles in Latin. Nonetheless, to get to the matter at issue:

Read this book.

Paradise Lost is epic.

As you undoubtedly know, it is the tale of man’s first disobedience, and the most interesting character seems mostly to be Satan. In his programmatic statements about the poem, Milton may claim to justify the ways of God to men, but that doesn’t really happen. Mostly, an epic tale of G vs E goes down, crafted out of exquisite, beautiful, finely-crafted English blank verse (no rhymes here, friends!).

It begins, as Homer and as Vergil, with the theme presented in the first line — Of man’s first disobedience — and in medias res. We find Satan and the angels who joined him in rebellion lying on the Lake of Fire in Hell. From Hell, we watch Satan travel to Earth in order to corrupt the Almighty’s new creation — man. And there, we meet Adam and Eve and Uriel, Raphael, and Gabriel.

In wondrously beautiful verse, beating in its iambic rhythm like the human heart, the tales of the War in Heaven and of creation are poured out before us by Raphael, with Adam filling in what happened after the birth of man. So here, as in the Odyssey or Aeneid, the necessary background for the early books is told by the characters themselves in a nice touch of narratology at the centre of the poem. These central books are my favourite part of Paradise Lost.

The inevitable Fall, followed by an encounter with the Son of God, and then the Archangel Michael giving a somewhat over-detailed account of the Old Testament. And it ends, as it began, with exile. I’ve not looked at it, but I wonder if there isn’t a bit of ring composition here? We begin with Satan and his angels exiled in Hell and end with Adam and Eve walking out of Eden. The second major episode of the book is Satan crossing to Earth, as later he crosses back. The centre is telling the past, while later Michael tells the future. I’m not sure; it’s not perfect, but it’s not lacking.

That is how fantastic a piece of literature this is. I don’t care if your religious or not. I don’t care if you’ve not read as much epic as I have. Read this book.

It is beautiful and powerful and will overcome you.

Be forewarned that it is not easy going until Milton’s poetry captures your mind and colonises your brain. This was my third or fourth attempt to read this book. It really helped to have read C. S. Lewis’s A Preface to Paradise Lost first. I’m sure some other similar introductory volume would be worth the time, because it would be a shame to go through life without having read Paradise Lost.

View all my reviews

Beowulf and The Hobbit I: The Epic and the Episodes

Sutton Hoo Helmet

My photo of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet, pre-dating the composition of Beowulf but still awesome

When I was in Grade 13 (‘OAC’) English, I wrote a comparison of The Hobbit and Beowulf. I do not wish to resurface that essay. However, I recently read The Hobbit for the fifth time, and over the summer was my second reading of Beowulf,* so I feel like revisiting the topic.

JRR Tolkien was a scholar of Germanic philology, specialising in mediaeval literatures such as those of the Anglo-Saxon and Norse worlds; his literary interests rarely ranged to the modern or the ancient, equally rarely to the literature of the Romance languages. His was the world of ‘Northernism’, the world of the Edda and the Volsunga Saga, the world of the Ruthwell Cross and Beowulf. I have talked here about how his work on Norse philology led to the production of The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun (here and here).

In the realm of Anglo-Saxon philology, Prof. Tolkien’s work included an essay on Beowulf called ‘The Monsters and the Critics’ and a book on Finn and Hengest published postumously with co-author Alan Bliss, Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, drawing on an episode referred to in Beowulf. It was inevitable that when Tolkien decided to write his adventure novel for boys (as I heard somewhere he thought of The Hobbit) his other life and the other worlds where he dwelt would make themselves felt.

In this first post, ‘The Epic and the Episodes’, I shall turn our attention to Beowulf and The Hobbit and the nature of mediaeval literature. Our other posts shall be ‘The Monsters and the Magic’, and ‘On Hero-Stories’. In each of these blog posts, I shall show us how Tolkien’s fiction was indelibly touched by Beowulf and the wider mediaeval world, yet at the same time, no matter how ‘anti-modernist’ the mead-drinking, Old Norse-speaking, Roman Catholic philologist was, he was in many ways inescapably of his own age.

The Epic and the Episodes

A feature of most pre-modern (and much early modern) narrative literature of any length is its tendency towards episodic storytelling. This is visible in Gilgamesh and Homer, Virgil and — especially — Malory’s Morte d’Arthur. Rather than telling a single, perfectly united story that builds in tension through a series of interrelated crises that are released at the climax and resolved by the denouement, episodic literature tells us a string of stories which often have no bearing upon one another or what comes next.

They are simply interesting tales in and of themselves that happen to be about the same people — even in The Aeneid, one cannot help but wonder what role the magnificent katabasis of Book 6 plays plotwise. Aeneas knows where he must go and what he must do without visiting Anchises, does he not?

If I remember Walter Ong’s Orality and Literacy correctly, such episodes are a feature especially of oral literature (and we do not move into something new until we have thoroughly technologised the word). And Beowulf is, at some stratum, oral literature. Like Homer (whose Iliad and Odyssey you should really read, as I argue here and here), the Beowulf poet stands at the end of a long string of oral poets who have been telling these same stories over and over again, each changing things for the audience, each leaving his own artistic stamp. By the time we have it, a pagan tale has been Christianised. This is sometimes called ‘primary epic’.

Beowulf is certainly episodic. Grendel. Beowulf vs. Grendel. Grendel’s Mom. The Dragon. Along the way, we have the tale of Beowulf’s full-armour swimming contest. Now, Grendel through to Grendel’s Mom is part of the same story arc, of the sorrows of Hrothgar and Heorot.  Undeniable. Yet each story is still, in its way, inescapably its own little story. You could (and sometimes do) tell Grendel without his Mom; and often people tell both without the Dragon. The swimming contest is merely incidental detail; it tells us of Beowulf, but does not contribute to the action necessarily.

And so The Hobbit. The unexpected party certainly leads into the road that goes on and on. But then the Trolls. Rivendell. The goblins which lead to the wargs. The eagles as a rescue. Beorn. Mirkwood. Spiders. Elves and escape. Laketown. From Laketown to the death of Smaug. From the death of Smaug to the Battle of the Five Armies. Back again.

These all appear, as we look at them, to be episodes. They are simply the things that happen to our merry band of fourteen-fifteen as they journey to reclaim Erebor from Smaug the Magnificent. The connecting thread seems to be the desire to get to the Lonely Mountain.

But here we see Tolkien is a man of his age. Despite his insistence in the essay ‘On Fairy-Stories’, these mediaeval episodes are connected together by a very modern literary element — the development of the character of Bilbo Baggins, Esq. In said essay, Tolkien rightly proclaims that the main business of stories is telling them. Stories, that is. The main business of stories is not the exploration and development of characters. This, he says, is often forgotten in English literature because our best-known and possibly greatest author was a playwright and poet. But the psyche of Hamlet, an appropriate focus for a play, is not the appropriate focus for a story. A story should focus on the story. On the narrative.

But there we have Bilbo. He starts his journey a very comfortable Englishman — I mean, hobbit, who has no inclination for adventures and is set in his ways with little about him of ingenuity or scheming or burgling. But as the adventure continues, Bilbo emerges as a savvy burglar and even the leader of the party. He schemes and uses his wit to get them out of jam after jam, his prominence really beginning with the spiders but reaching its peak in his dealings with the elf king and the Arkenstone.

Bilbo becomes an extraordinary hobbit.

Beowulf, however, is not the focus of his story. Not as a character, at least. He stands before Hrothgar an accomplished warrior who knows his strengths. He dies beside Wiglaf an accomplished warrior who knows his strengths. He is ever concerned for the well-being of his people. He is always courageous.

Yet do not chastise Beowulf and his poem on this account. Welcome to the world of ancient and mediaeval literature! This is not the point of the story. I believe Tolkien hit Beowulf on the head in ‘The Monsters and the Critics.’ The stories show us the changes, although the changes are never the focus. Beowulf stands before Grendel naked but for his God-given strength. Easily victorious. With a magic sword, he confronts Grendel’s Mom and almost dies. With a war-band and full armour, he meets the dragon and is slain at the moment he saves his people.

The lesson is to trust in the things of God, not the things of the world. This is the timeless about Beowulf, and it is not portrayed through psychology but through the story and through the episodes.

Do not fault Beowulf. It performs its function and produces its own art masterfully.

And so we see how Beowulf and mediaeval literature have left their mark upon The Hobbit at the macro-level, the level of narrative (narratology??). Tolkien writes us an episodic narrative, not unlike Beowulf, but with a modern twist in the growth of Bilbo Baggins as a protagonist and as a hero of small stature.

Next in this series: ‘The Monsters and the Magic’.

*NB: Besides this, I’ve read Gareth Hinds’ graphic novel twice and I’ve seen the film starring Christopher Lambert as well as the film Beowulf and Grendel starring Gerard Butler and the animated cartoon narrated by Derek Jacobi; I’ve also seen the stilt play, and I’ve read the novel Grendel by John Gardner.

Ovidian humanity

Recently, I read the Oxford World’s Classics translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses by A. D. Melville. This translation captures the speed, the vividness, the living poetry of Ovid’s’ hexameters. I recommend it (whereas the Penguin Classics translation I most emphatically do not).

Unlike most of the epics we think of when we think epicThe OdysseyThe AeneidGilgamesh, Beowulf and such — the Metamorphoses is an entire history of the cosmos from Creation to the deification of Julius Caesar, told through the specific lens of — you guessed it — metamorphosis.

Right now, I wish to focus in on one passage from the creation story of Ovid’s mythological epic (epic mythology?). In Bk 1 (remember that in ancient literature a ‘book’ is like a chapter), we read:

Then man was made, perhaps from seed divine,
Formed by the great Creator, so to found
A better world, perhaps the new-made earth,
So lately parted from the ethereal heavens,
Kept still some essence of the kindred sky–
Earth that Prometheus moulded, mixed with water,
In likeness of the gods that govern the world–
And while the other creatures on all fours
Look downwards, man was made to hold his head
Erect in majesty and see the sky,
And raise his eyes to the bright stars above.
Thus earth, once crude and featureless, now changed
Put on the unknown form of humankind.

Hopefully you have enjoyed Melville’s blank verse rendering of Ovid’s hexameters; I know I do. What’s to notice here is what makes us human. All the other animals have been created (as in Genesis), and now, ‘in likeness of the gods’ (as in Genesis), the human race is made.

This post is not about Christian theology (fear not!). Nonetheless, Christian theologians/exegetes/preachers/commentators have spent much time mulling over what it means to be made in the image of God. Does it lie in God’s first commandment to the man and woman? Does it lie in the nature of the Holy Trinity? Is it reason?

It seems to me that Ovid’s answer is that ‘man was made to hold his head / Erect in majesty and see the sky / And raise his eyes to the bright stars above.’

We are fashioned of earth and heaven, says Ovid. And so, of earth, our feet are planted on the ground. Yet, of heaven, our eyes look upwards. We touch the sky (excuse us as we do so, says Jimi). We, unlike the four-footed beasts (says Ovid), stand erect and behold the vastness of the Milky Way, the passage of the Moon, the blazing inferno of the Sun. We walk beneath this vast, starry host and cannot help but consider our place in the universe.

And, as beings who can feel small in the face of that speckled black vastness, we sing songs of this earthy life and that heavenly glory. We philosophise to make sense of it all. We tell of deeds great and deeds small, of gods gigantic and humans striving for gigantism.

Poised between animal and divine, we are human. Walking beneath the vastness of the stars of night, we turn mystical, philosophical, scientifical.

Not such a bad way to be.