Wednesday, February 27, 2013

"The Picture of Dorian Gray": A Review

“‘How sad it is!’ murmured Dorian Gray, with his eyes still fixed upon his own portrait. ‘How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrible, and dreadful.  But this picture will remain always young.  It will never be older than this particular day in June….  It if were only the other way!  If it were I who was to be always young, and the picture that was to grow old!  For that—for that—I would give everything!  Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give!  I would give my soul for that!’” 
~ Chapter 2, A Picture of Dorian Gray

I have a major problem reviewing this book.  You see, I have this weird verbal tic wherein I can’t pronounce certain names correctly, but tend to switch the first letters of the Christian and surnames, or add letters in inconvenient places.  This book is an example of the latter: I consistently want to call this guy Dorkian Gray.* 

Oscar Wilde’s novel about a young man obsessed with never aging is not so much about immortality as it is about morality and beauty.  Dorian Gray is a very beautiful young man: not only in outward appearance, but his manners and education make him instantly attractive to everyone he meets.  To Gray, to become old and…er…gray is a crime against his beauty, and any crime is evil.  To be old is to cease to be good, because it would have destroyed the goodness of his youthful appearance. 

In order to allay his mortality, Gray makes a Faustian deal with no one in particular, wishing that his recently completed portrait would age instead of himself.  The concept of giving up one’s soul has already been discussed in the story before this idea even crosses Gray’s mind: the artist painting his portrait, Basil, has introduced Gray to his friend Lord Henry, who plants not only the idea of fleeting mortality in Gray’s mind, but also the philosophy focused on beauty that Gray should adopt as his worldview. 

Gray doesn’t quite trust Lord Henry, asking if he is a bad influence.  Lord Henry says there is no such thing as a good influence, because whenever one allows influence on his life, it is like giving one’s soul to that influence.    Thus, in giving his soul for eternal youth, Gray is allowing himself to be influenced by a sort of worship of beauty.

Yet, as he soon discovers, eternal youth is not all it’s cracked up to be.  Even as his appearance doesn’t age, Gray starts to feel old, tarnished, and jaded to the world.  Evil and depravity grow within him until he seeks it and takes pleasure in the corruption of others.  Yet no one believes he is evil, because he looks so good.  “He had told her once that he was wicked, and she had laughed at him, and answered that wicked people were always very old and very ugly.” (Chapter 20)

In some ways this novel seems to be Oscar Wilde arguing with himself. Wilde was a self-proclaimed Aesthetic, meaning he lived valued “beauty for beauty’s sake,” and to him a thing only needed to be beautiful—without any other purpose—in order to be useful.  As Lord Henry says in Chapter 2:  “Beauty is a form of Genius—is higher, indeed, than Genius, as it needs not explanation.  It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or springtime, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon.  It cannot be questioned.  It has its divine right of sovereignty.”

This is just the sort of thing that Oscar Wilde would be expected to write.  This is the sort of thing he lived his own life by…and yet in Dorian Gray he lets this worldview run its full course to its ultimate despondent end.  Gray is not happy even though he has all the time to live his life, all the resources to seek beauty and pleasure.  His beautiful looks don’t make him a beautiful person.  If anything, this unnatural prolonged youth brings him more unhappiness than age and decrepitude would have done had time taken its course.  Because he faces no superficial consequences to his actions—his face doesn’t harden or his body suffer any ill effects of his libertine lifestyle—he has not deterrent from becoming, on the inside, a vicious and cruel old man, self-loathing and tired of life.

*Two unfortunate examples of the former are "Parry Hotter" and "Kellen Heller."  One of the more hilarious is "Wuce Brayne." 

Recommended Reading Age: High School

Parental Notes: Some homoerotic subtext can be inferred from some of the scenes, as well as the general thematic creepiness.  Since it deals with philosophies like aestheticism and morality, it’s more geared toward adults than children anyway. 

Availability: Free on Kindle, you can also buy it from Barnes and Noble in a nice pretty shiny thick Leatherbound volume along with some of  Wilde’s other works.
Sure, it's pretty on the outside, but is it good on the inside? Hmmm?

Adaptations: Legend speaks of at least six movies based on this story.  Now if I could just find one of them at my local library.  Except I’m not so sure about this latest adaptation:

You can’t fool me, Caspian. I know it’s you.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Buried Alive: Some Historical Connections to Poe's Writings

One little-known fact of the Victorian era was their overwhelming phobia of being buried alive.  Victorians had many death rituals that to a modern person appear morbid…yet fascinating. When someone died in the 19th century, it was a common practice to let the body lay out on the bed for a few days. This served as a sort of in-home wake, as well as giving the body a chance to…revive.

Because of limited medical knowledge even among learned doctors, it was possible for someone to be declare dead when really they had only lapsed into a coma. Some people revived much to the shock, relief…and sometimes annoyance of their grieving relatives. 

The result of this phenomena was the creation of things like Bateson’s Device, a pulley-bell contraption rigged to underground coffins; the Society for the Prevention of People Being Buried Alive (also known as the S.P.P.B.B.A); and in the case of those annoyed relatives not wanting their relatives making a comeback tour of the land of the living, special coffins with fragile glass poison caplets that would finish the job should a relative try to unbury themselves.

Considering that Victorians’ obsession with death is perhaps second to none but Ancient Egyptians throughout history, Poe at the time was possibly not seen as creepy as he is by contemporary readers.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Thoughts on Edgar Allan Poe's "The Imp of the Perverse"

This story is a lot like The Tell-Tale Heart in that the murderer’s own neurotic obsession with hiding his guilt only makes it more ostensible. Of course The Imp of the Perverse includes a lot more contemplation on the psychological impulse to do wrong “merely because we feel that we should not.”

Now, I’ve never considered murder just because I now I shouldn’t, but the psychological theory has some validity on a smaller scale. Junk food, for instance, is all the more irresistible the harder one tries to resist it. It’s like a Chinese finger torture of the mind.

Perhaps Poe, being in a more Biblically-literate society, wrote The Imp of the Perverse with Romans 7:15-20 in mind:

"For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.  For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me."
(English Standard Version)

Certainly this similarity would not have been lost on the 19th century readership, especially since Poe’s audience was primarily comprised of women, who were seen as the moral and religious centers of society.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Reviewing Washington Irving's "The Legend of Sleepy Hollow"

The first time I encountered this story was on the Disney Channel. I was at a sleepover at my grandma’s house, and one of the perks of a sleepover was watching television late into the night. Unfortunately nothing of much interest to children is on late into the night, so I got stuck watching The Adventures of Ichabod Crane and Mr. Toad. I still have no inkling why these two were put together—unless it’s because both are a bit too smug for their own good—but boy! Did I get scared of the monster in that cartoon!  I’m talking about Katrina Van Tassel, of course. I was sure that girl was up to no good. Probably a Black Widow or something. 

It was only later that I read the real story by Washington Irving, and found that it was more of a parody of a ghost story than an actual ghost story. With tongue set firmly in cheek, Irving records events as they “really” happened. From the time the gangly schoolmaster Ichabod Crane comes to Sleepy Hollow, he is an interference in the previously-undisturbed lives of its residents. As I mentioned before, Crane is a bit of a humbug, and Jane Austen fans might picture him almost as a Mr. Collins: a buffoon who has deluded himself into thinking he’s a catch with the ladies. In particular, Crane sets his sights on Katrina Van Tassel, the young beauty who has already caught the attention of local boy Brom Bones. 

Seeing Crane is eyeing up his “territory,” Brom Bones decides to get rid of the intruder and breaks out the local horror story for such an occasion. Crane is vain, somewhat cruel, greedy, and foolish…now he proves himself gullible and superstitious. Brom Bones tells him of the story of the Headless Horseman—or the Galloping Hessian of the Hollow—which, added to a bunch of other ghost stories Crane has been hearing from the old wives of Sleepy Hollow, create the perfect atmosphere for Crane to be scared clean out of town.

Sure enough, no sooner has Ichabod Crane heard the story than he coincidentally encounters the Headless Horseman on his solitary ride and is never seen again. The old wives think he’s been carried off by the specter. Some people think they’ve seen him, married to a rich widow in a neighboring village. Brom Bones looks self-satisfied, and marries Katrina Van Tassel. 

Recommended Reading Age: 10+

Parental Notes: While as I said, this is more a parody of a ghost story than an actual ghost story, the whole headless-horseman idea could easily frighten the very young and/or very impressionable child.

Availability: You can get it in paperback or on your Nook at Barnes and Noble, or view the e-text at

Adaptations: The Disney cartoon which--Bing Crosby musical numbers aside--is rather true to the plotline. The Tim Burton rated-R action/horror vehicle for Johnny Depp...not so much. 

Thursday, February 21, 2013

"Wuthering Heights": A Review

Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like Wuthering Heights should have been titled “A Love Story that Nobody Should Try to Emulate.”  Because there are a lot of bad role models in this book.  It’s almost as bad as Romeo and Juliet’s “romance” in which six people die and we’re supposed to find solace in the reconciliation of two rival families, as if that makes all the needless death better.

The story opens in medias res with the narrator, Lockwood, stumbling into the midst of the real main characters like a sheep might stumble into a nest of furious hornets.   His landlord, Heathcliff, is mean.  Heathcliff’s daughter-in-law, Catherine, is mean.  His maybe-kinda-ward Hareton looks mean.  It is, as Lockwood describes, a country for the misanthropic.

Lockwood makes things even worse by attempting to figure out how these characters are related—an endeavor which is laughable, as anyone knows who has read Wuthering Heights and still doesn’t understand why there are only about three families in the England this novel describes.

While it probably won’t answer all relationship-related questions, here is a genealogy to help explain matters:



Lockwood takes up residence in Thrushwood Grange, a house four miles away from Wuthering Heights.  There he asks his housekeeper, Nelly, for some background on Heathcliff et al.  She is only too happy to oblige—probably she was getting out of scrubbing out a privy or something.

It turns out that Heathcliff was adopted by a man named Earnshaw, who had two children of his own.  His son, Hindley Earnshaw hates Heathcliff.  His daughter, Catherine, comes to love him.  Confused yet?  It gets better. Hindley goes off to college, gets married, and has a son named Hareton.  When Mr. Earnshaw dies, Hindley inherits Wuthering Heights and the authority to make Heathcliff’s life miserable—which he immediately does.  Catherine and Heathcliff grow into a couple of intense young adults, undeterred from their love for one another even though Hindley tries to keep them apart.

Then Catherine is injured on the moors and taken in to the nearest house—Thrushwood Grange—to recuperate.  The lady of the house, Mrs. Linton, uses this opportunity to civilize Catherine.  During her stay Catherine meets Mrs. Linton’s son, Edgar, with whom she immediately becomes infatuated.  Following her ambition for higher society and forsaking her passion for Heathcliff, Catherine marries Edgar. 

Persecuted by Hindley and abandoned by the only friend he ever loved, Heathcliff disappears, only to return shortly after Catherine’s marriage.  He then sets his mind to revenge.  Instead of going on a rampage with an axe like any decent psychopath, Heathcliff marries Edgar’s sister Isabella, making himself a part of their family.  From this point on, Heathcliff basically impolites people to death:

Catherine goes first of a Victorian Brain Fever of Convenience—but not before giving birth to a daughter, who is also named Catherine for your reading confusion.  Hindley  also dies, leaving Heathcliff as the sole heir to Wuthering Heights.

Isabella grows a spine, runs away from Heathcliff to London, and gives birth to a son, whom she names Linton for your added reading confusion.  (Seriously, Emily, why couldn’t you think of a few more names?)  Too bad for her, Isabella dies, leaving Heathcliff to impolite his sickly son to an early grave.

Catherine Jr. becomes infatuated with Linton despite his sickliness.  This is a poor choice on her part, since Heathcliff decides to get the ultimate revenge on her father by kidnapping her, forcing her to marry Linton, and thus making her father so upset he dies.  This plan is surprisingly effective.  Then Linton dies, possibly just to escape his father’s wrath.  The only people left standing are Heathcliff, Catherine Jr., and Hareton. 

Upon hearing this horrific tale, Lockwood bales out of his tenancy and runs off to London.  Later, realizing he’s the narrator and he just abandoned the main plot, he returns to ask Nelly about further developments.

Lucky for him—and everyone—Heathcliff has died, having gone progressively crazy and speaking of Catherine’s ghost.   The last pair standing, Catherine Jr. and Hareton, have inherited both Thrushwood Grange and Wuthering Heights.  They have also fallen in love and are engaged.  Yay!  Happy ending!  And it only cost, what? Nine lives?   

When I read this book as a teen, I couldn’t get past all the first-person narratives that nestled inside each other like Russian dolls.  Is this Lockwood fellow reliable?  What about Nelly?  Couldn’t she just be making the whole thing up?  How would she know the story in such detail, anyway?

Granting that both narrators are reliable, there’s the question of Catherine.  Is she a ghost?  Is Heathcliff insane?  But if Heathcliff is insane, how did Lockwood have a dream about Catherine his first night in Thrushwood Grange, before he had heard anything about her?  Ooo…spooky, right?


Recommended Reading Age: High School

Parental Notes: Overcomplicated narrative structure, annoying female characters, maybe-ghosts, and general thematic creepiness.

Availability: Free on Kindle, this book has no lack of choices when it comes to hardcover:  Barnes and Noble has two special copies: a Leatherbound which I think is a bit garishly colored and a Barnes and Noble Classic, also offering the Penguin Classics copy which is my favorite. 
Adaptations: I am way behind the times in watching the newer adaptations.  The most recent—and only—version I’ve seen is the one starring Voldemort before he lost his nose. Now we know why he went evil.  Too much confusion of which Catherine he was in love with, and too much rejection from her to deal with.  It’s almost enough to make me read/watch Parry Hotter, with all this added psychological  background subtext to the villain.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Frankenstein and Friends (the sequel to the novel)

CLARENCE*: Finally, having walked all the way across the Antarctic, travelled back to Switzerland—I always DID like Switzerland!—and taken the exact same Doctorate program in nebulous science that my creator did, I have come full circle in my existence! It’s….ALIVVVVVVE!

FRANKENSTEIN: Wait what?  I thought I died?  What am I doing here?  Where am—oh no.  What are these cords doing attached to me?  ACK!

CLARENCE: Hello, Victor.

FRANKENSTEIN: Well I can’t be in the afterlife, because I don’t believe you have a soul.  What have you done, you monstrocity, you?

CLARENCE: No need to be snippy.  I just brought you back to life.

FRANKENSTEIN: What?! How could you?!

CLARENCE: It was pretty easy, actually.


CLARENCE: Um, you’re welcome!

FRANKENSTEIN: This is a nightmare!  I’ve become…you!

CLARENCE: Kinda makes you want to treat me with a little more respect, doesn’t it?**

FRANKENSTEIN: Uh, no.  That would be stupid.  Fine, so I’m alive again.  At least tell me you brought Elizabeth back, too.


FRANKENSTEIN: What about my brother?



CLARENCE: Never crossed my mind.

FRANKENSTEIN: Then, if you don’t mind me asking, why did you bring me back at all!!??

CLARENCE: I felt bad the way things ended with us.  I needed some closure.

FRANKENSTEIN: How’s this for closure: I HATE YOU!!!

CLARENCE: I know, I know.  But I feel like maybe it’s because we never had much time to talk, you and me, mano-e-mano, you know?  So this is an opportunity for us to have a real heart to heart.  Assuming you put a heart in me when you sewed me up, of course.

FRANKENSTEIN: I wish I’d thought of sewing dynamite as a failsafe into you so I could detonate when you turned into a rampaging murderer.  Or I could’ve listened to that Isaac Asimov chap about programming you with the three laws of robotics…if he’d been born yet.

CLARENCE: Look, I get that we’ve had our differences in the past.  I don’t much care for you, either.  But look on the bright side.

FRANKENSTEIN: The bright side of being resurrected by my nemesis?

CLARENCE: This situation could be the basis of one of those half-hour comedy programs on television! You know, the kind of sitcom where the two room-mates are forced to interact in awkward and hilarious situations while mutually hating each other?  I can practically hear the theme song now! 

FRANKENSTEIN: Please kill me again.

CLARENCE: Hey, how about I do revive Justine, and she can be the third point in a love triangle or the comedic straight-man who rooms with us?  It could be like a reverse Three’s Company!

FRANKENSTEIN: *pulls a lever to turn on the Tesla Coil electricity thingy and stuffs his head in the lightning bolts.  Much to his disappointment he survives*
CLARENCE: Hey, Frank...can I call you "Frank"?  I just had an awesome idea for some situation comedy relationship conflict!  See, I know I indirectly caused her to be executed for a murder she didn’t commit and all, but do you think Justine would be interested in dating me?

*Clarence is the name of the "monster," as I mentioned in my previous post.

**Yes, Clarence is a fan of Pig-Pen from "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Reviewing Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein"

Perhaps people would be able to tell the scientist from his creation if we were more diligent in using Mary Shelley’s entire title: Frankenstein, or, The Modern Prometheus. Prometheus is a character from Greek mythology, a Titan who dared to steal fire from the Olympian gods to give to humanity, and endured a very painful (and highly imaginative) punishment. 

Dr. Victor Frankenstein seeks to obtain “the principle of life” (much like Prometheus’ fire), flouting the laws of life and death for the benefit of all humanity. And, just as Prometheus suffers the consequences, Frankenstein is dogged by the results of his experiment. Literally.

The monster he creates through his nebulously described science follows Frankenstein to the ends of the earth. Or is it Frankenstein who’s chasing the Creature? Ugh, this whole “I’m chasing you so you’ll make me a girlfriend!” “No, I’m chasing you, so I can kill you!” is so confusing. They really just needed to have a long meaningful talk over a bowl of hot soup and fresh-baked bread. 

As soon as Frankenstein successfully brings his subject to life, he immediately moves on to other interests..and by that I mean he screams and abandons the Creature in weak-kneed terror. (Shoulda thought that through a little more, huh, Vic?) Nevertheless the Creature is able to obtain some level of learning and intelligence: wandering the earth for his creator, he stumbles into a deserted cottage, teaches himself to talk from eavesdropping on passersby, teaches himself to read, and through his readings teaches himself to think. 

(It’s totally unfair, in my mind, that Shelley makes us think of this being as an animalistic “thing” when he so obviously has thoughts and emotions. So I named him Clarence, because the way I picture him, he looks like a Clarence.)

With the ability to think comes the ability to understand his emotions: his confusion, loneliness, and his anger towards his creator. Thinking that Frankenstein can help alleviate all these things, Clarence seeks him out. But Frankenstein is repulsed by his creation, and refuses to help by creating a Clarencita to be a companion for him. To Clarence, Frankenstein as his creator is like his personal god. Yet unlike God in Genesis—who created a companion for Adam when He saw he was lonely, because “it is not good for man to be alone”—Frankenstein refuses Clarence any companionship.

And so the murder and mayhem begin!…or at least, amp up quite a bit. Clarence has killed Victor’s brother, leading to the false accusation and execution of an innocent woman.  Now to bring Frankenstein the same feeling of solitude, Clarence murders his wife, Elizabeth.   

Frankenstein takes it on himself to stop the rampage of his own creation. Considering that it’s all his responsibility to begin with, the doctor is pretty whiny about his quest to hunt down and destroy Clarence. And in the end, it turns out he was better giving life than taking it away: he dies of Victorian Convenience Fever on his way to Antarctica.  Clarence for his part weeps over the body of his creator, and, his revenge complete, he walks off over the ice to die.

Although…will he die? Does he require shelter from the elements? Does he eat food? What exactly is he, anyway? A robot? A zombie? Shelley is never clear about the makeup of her iconic “monster.” It might be that, being in close proximity to a body that was killed by Victorian Convenience Fever, Clarence too succumbed and died as the plot demanded.

And so the book ends on a hugely depressing note. To cheer us up, let me point you to a link to SparkNotes’ “Chat Between Dracula and Frankenstein” skit, which is quite humorous.

Recommended Reading Age: High School

Parental Notes: Crimes against nature, murder, overly complicated narrative structure and annoying female characters (except Justine, but Shelley executes her as soon as she starts showing signs of being remarkable).

Availability: A reproduction of the original 1818 text is available for about ten dollars in softcover  and for 99 cents via Kindle...unless you'd like a shiny hardcover
Adaptations: Oh, so many. And oh, so not by the book. Every time someone paints their skin green and stomps around calling themselves “Frankenstein” Mary Shelley rolls over in her grave. Plug her into a flywheel and she’d power the whole of Bournemouth with her constant spinning. Although I’d love the irony if she came back to life to take vengeance—and renew her copyrights—on those who had turned her psychological thriller into a campy Halloween cliché. Maybe she has neck bolts.

Monday, February 18, 2013

"Wind in the Willows": Some Illustrations

Oddly enough, much as I love The Wind in the Willows and a few other books like it, even as a child I found anthropomorphic animals (read: white rabbits in waistcoats) confusing, unnerving, and downright creepy depending on the books they were in. 

Brian Jacques’ popular Redwall series, for instance.  It’s about mice…in Britain…in the Dark/Middle Ages…that are monks…. That’s just too many factors for my literal-minded brain to handle.  Re-reading The Wind in the Willows this past January brought condundrums afresh!

Of course, reasonable explanations can be thought up for some things, such as when Mr. Toad has a “birdcage with a bird in it,” it could be a fake one (since later Ratty has conversations with birds, it seems beyond credulity that a bird would allow Mr. Toad to hold it captive, nor would Ratty have allowed such a travesty to occur).  Indeed most of the human things (like picnic baskets, boats, and clothing) could be made in miniature.  I assume that this is how Mr. Toad’s cars and horse-cart and everything were built, since he seems the vain sort of creature who would pay extravagantly for anything to be tailor-made to his dimensions.

That falls apart when Toady steals a human car.  Twice.  Once, when humans are still in the car, and he is disguised as a washer-woman.  He breaks out of prison in the washerwoman’s garb, having switched clothes with a human girl’s aunt. 

These sorts of impossibilities are discussed more in-depth in the blog entry by First Things, called “Beyond the Wildwood,” which discusses the quandaries Kenneth Grahame imposed on his illustrators.  

But as for me, I will consider it part of the book’s humor by interpreting scenes as if the creatures were realistically-sized:
Here is Mr. Toad driving his "gipsy caravan," from Chapter 2: The Open Road.
Here Mr. Toad is with his newest obsession: motorcars! 
And here Mr. Toad is, ready for his daring prison break, disguised in the clothes of a washerwoman.  (Huh, can't seem to get this image to show up any larger.  Suffice it to say that little dark dot at the neckline is the head of Mr. Toad.)  This scene shows up in Chapter 8: Toad's Adventures.
 And lastly, here is the Mole in Chapter 12: The Return of Ulysses. "The good-natured Mole picked up a stick, formed his prisoners up in a line on the floor, gave them the order 'Quick march!' and led his squad off to the upper floor." 

Friday, February 15, 2013

Some Father-Son Bonding Between Nestor and Paris

NESTOR: Welcome to Troy, population 1500.  I’m its king, Nestor.

PARIS: Hi dad, my name is Paris and I’m your younger son.

NESTOR: I immediately believe you despite lack of DNA verification.  Good thing that shepherd named you exactly the same thing I would’ve named you if I hadn’t abandoned you on that mountain.

PARIS: About that, you owe me money to pay for a therapist to deal with those abandonment issues. Why did you abandon me anyway?

NESTOR: Oh, something about a prophecy that you would get us all killed and make the kingdom fall.  By the way, who’s this?

PARIS: My wife Helen.  I stole her from Menelaus.

NESTOR: That’s my boy!  Wait, what?

PARIS: You know, Menelaus?  The king who won Helen fair and square and has this whole posse of other people who wanted to marry her in his corner coming for her any second now.  I thought maybe I could lay low here.

NESTOR: Yes, because nobody would look for you here, in the kingdom where you are a prince.

PARIS: Exactly. 


NESTOR: Wait a minute, how would they know you were a prince of Troy when even you didn’t know? 

PARIS: Um, I might have maybe left a forwarding address after I found out I was a prince from the goddesses. 

NESTOR: I’m beginning to wonder how good an education your shepherd father gave you out in the sticks.

PARIS: What?  I didn’t want my mail to get lost.

NESTOR: You are dumb as a brick.  But you sure are pretty.  I’m sure that prophecy person didn’t know what they were talking about.  They must’ve just been high on snake fumes or something.  Come on in, your brother Hector will be thrilled to meet you.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Reviewing Homer's "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey"

The Trojan War is one of the most famous wars that maybe really happened. Verifying its historical origins, however, is secondary to all the literature written about it in Ancient Greece. Homer’s The Iliad is an epic where the gods of Olympus play favorites with mortals to satiate their own pride, where heroes and villains are split between the two factions until the reader doesn’t know which side to root for. 

It all starts with stealing Helen of Troy…wait, no, it all starts with the Judgment of Paris…wait, no, that’s still wrong. It all starts with the Wedding of Thetis. And, like a fairy tale, everyone knows that when you forget to invite the evil fairy, something bad is going to happen. Eris, goddess of discord, crashes the party by throwing a golden apple with “To The Fairest” engraved on it. 
(Unfortunately this was before Snow White was born, so the decision was a lot harder than it would’ve been in other circumstances.) 

Hera (wife of the king of Olympus, Zeus), Athena (goddess of wisdom), and Aphrodite (goddess of love) start catfighting over the thing, then decide to have the shepherd boy (and secretly the abandoned prince of Troy) Paris decide. Aphrodite cheats and so he picks her, and as reward she gives him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen. One hitch: she’s already married. Now if Paris were any decent guy, he’d stay up in the mountains content with the knowledge that he could make the most beautiful woman in the world fall in love with him. Instead he decides to go see this Helen. They fall in love instantly and unavoidably, and he takes her away to live under the protection of his true father, Nestor of Troy. 

This plunges Troy into a war that lasts for years and kills off almost all the characters I like. Finally, because the majority of gods are against the Trojans, and because Odysseus is a sneaky trickster, Troy falls, Helen goes back to Menelaus, and everyone goes back home.

That’s where The Odyssey begins. Originally there were lots of “spinoffs” following the homecomings of not only Odysseus, but the other surviving Greek heroes like Agamemnon (of which a few tragedies like The Oresteia survive) and Menelaus. In fact, Homer’s works were once a trilogy, and one of those books was lost among all the other loose sequels. Once again time has stolen so much that I would hold dear if only I knew what it was. Fortunately The Odyssey has survived. In tone it’s much lighter and in structure it’s more episodic than The Iliad (leading me to explain the Star Trek spinoff to my literary-minded friends as “Deep Space Nine = The Iliad, Voyager = The Odyssey. Yes.  Bibliophiles and Trekkies unite!).

Odysseus must get home to his faithful wife Penelope and son Telemachus, to keep his kingdom of Ithaca from falling into the hands of ruffians posing as Penelope’s “suitors.”  Facing the wrath of Poseidon for killing his Cyclops children, Odysseus and his crew face monsters, enchantments, and jealous nymphs at every turn. Even when Odysseus gets home, it’s not over until he’s reunited with his son, confirmed his wife’s fidelity (though he hasn’t been as sterling in that area himself), and kicked all the freeloading thugs out of his house.

The Iliad and The Odyssey are important books to read for anyone serious about reading classic literature. Ancient Greek literature is famous for its use of epithets for characters (“grey-eyed” Athena, for example) and complex, drawn-out metaphors, such as:

“Sometimes in farmyards when the cows return
well fed from pasture to the barn, one sees
the pens give way before the calves in tumult,
breaking through to cluster about their mothers,
bumping together, bawling.  Just that way
my crew poured round me when they saw me come—
their faces wet with tears as if they saw
their homeland, and the crags of Ithaka,
even the very town where they were born.”
(Book 10, lines 456-464, translation by Robert Fitzgerald)*

Thus it is fitting that such symbolic-rich literature would impact our own language.  If you want to understand a character’s “Achilles’ heel,” or you’re tempted by a “Siren’s call,” or want to know why you should beware Greeks coming with gifts, or someone tells the “Cassandra truth,” look no further. 

*C'mon, Odysseus, just say "They were glad to see me," why don't ya?

Recommended Reading Age: High School.  Retellings are better suited for younger children, such as Rosemary Sutcliff’s Black Ships Before Troy and The Wanderings of Odysseus. These books are tactful without glossing over plot points, and are beautifully (if sometimes graphically) illustrated by Alan Lee (of Lord of the Rings fame).  

Parental Notes: Boy, did those Ancient Greeks like to describe gore in all its…uh…gory detail. And The Odyssey isn’t much better on that score. There's also the whole extramarital affairs thing, which isn't graphic but still objectionable.

Availability: It’s safe to say that Homer’s lost his copyrights, so there is a free Kindle edition of The Iliad and The Odyssey. These epics, being originally oral stories, are pretty cool to listen to on audiobook (The Iliad and The Odyssey audiobooks can be found on Amazon as well).