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Saturn in Keats’ ‘Hyperion’

John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1819

John Keats by Joseph Severn, 1819

Having read Dan Simmons’ Hyperion, I was inspired to read Keats’ Hyperion. Keats’ Hyperion is a fragmentary narrative poem about the Titans after their defeat by the gods of Olympus. I didn’t quite absorb it all. It washed over me in a wave of words and rhythm, entrancing me and tugging me, but I was lulled by it in the wrong way.

So I’ll have to reread it.

Anyway, the thing that struck me at the very beginning is that Keats’ vision of Saturn takes into account one striking fact that careful readers of Latin verse observe — Saturn is not Kronos.

We all know the old story of Roman adaptatio of Greek deities with their own, something that had such a powerful impact upon them (and, it seems, their Etruscan neighbours) that little of pre-Greek Italic myth has any existence. And so, it is very frequently (but not always!) possible to say, ‘Jupiter/Jove is Zeus. Juno is Hera. Minerva is Athena. Mars is Ares.’

Saturn is Kronos.


I mean, he is the leading ‘Titan’ and father of the Olympians, such as Jupiter.

However, when we read Vergil, it is evident that Saturn is not a mean, nasty jerk-face who enjoys gobbling up his children the moment they’re born (this is about all most of us are aware of re Kronos via Hesiod). He is, rather, the king of the Golden Age. He creates the first and greatest race of human beings. For Latins, the return of the Age of Saturn is a good thing.

Keats’ Hyperion begins with Thea approaching the supine form of defeated Saturn. And the Saturn she approaches is not the Titanic villain Kronos. He is clearly the golden god of good things, the god of plenty, the king of a golden age.

Of course, Keats knows his Greek myths as well.  The creation of all things from Chaos, for example, is part of the poem. But he has made for us a sympathetic Saturn, rather than the rather the unsympathetic Kronos of Hesiod (and Goya).

This is a wee reminder that when Romantics name ‘Greek’ gods by their Roman names, they are not (merely?) being patronising. There may in fact be a point to so doing. And I would further argue that for someone like Keats, naming the gods by their Roman names makes the most sense, given that he spent his final years in Rome, leaving Hyperion unfinished at the time of his death in 1820.

Just a quick thought, but I felt like articulating it.

My review of Dan Simmons’ Hyperion

Hyperion (Hyperion Cantos, #1)Hyperion by Dan Simmons
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

As my Goodreads progress updates from this book were imported into Facebook, a number of friends were requesting my impressions, to know what I think about Hyperion. So here we go. I started Hyperion because it was one of those books that always featured in my Science Fiction Book Club leaflets when I was a teenager. I finished it because it is an elegant book with narratological layers and a compelling story.

Hyperion is the story of seven travellers—pilgrims—chosen to make the ‘last Shrike pilgrimage’ on the planet Hyperion (hence the title). As they make their journey, interstellar and then across Hyperion, each of them tells his or her story. This is not merely passing the time but seeking answers as to why they had been chosen by the Shrike Church to go on this pilgrimage. The end result of the pilgrimage is a place called the Time Tombs, where time itself is distorted, and where they will encounter a four-armed, metallic being called the Shrike, around whose cult the Shrike Church and Shrike pilgrimages arose.

Most of the book is taken up with the travellers’ tales. Simmons writes each tale in its own style—the ethnographer, the soldier, the mad/drunken poet, the academic, the private investigator, the diplomat. And as the stories unfold, so does the imagined universe of Hyperion and the story of the planet Hyperion. I like the narratological techniques, that the story is comprehensible at the beginning, but persevering throughout changes your understanding of earlier references either through deepening or shifting.

I have no doubt my opinion was solicited not only because this is a great piece of fiction (let alone science fiction), but also because of the various perspectives on religion represented. In this post-earth future, Christianity is almost dead (although we get the all-American favourite, a Roman Catholic priest, to represent the faith), and, as I say, cult has arisen surrounding the being called the Shrike, although not necessarily to worship it as a God, so much as to venerate it as God’s weapon of destruction. Other religions are mentioned throughout; one character is an agnostic Jew who has encounters in dreams and such that seem to be with the divine. Other characters also have dream encounters, or what seem to be dream encounters, with other intelligences. The book presents a lot to think about concerning belief and the fate of religion in a post-earth universe.

The other area of philosophical inquiry that unfolds slowly throughout the book is that of artificial intelligence and human interaction therewith. How far beyond us could AI go? Could it? How can humanity guide its future? What would the results be of super-powerful AIs that are beyond human control?

This is a great book, and now I need to read the sequel since I have no idea how any of it ends!

View all my reviews