Monday, September 30, 2013

The Aeneid: Virgil and Other Epics

As I read The Aeneid it was so natural to compare Virgil’s work to other epic poetry. Of course the character Aeneas and many of the events Virgil mentions are recounted or at least based on the Greek epics of The Iliad and The Odyssey by Homer.  <<<WHICH WAS COMPLETELY INCIDENTAL ACCORDING TO VIRGIL'S SHADE>>>> 

But in no other place does The Aeneid beg for comparison but in the sixth book, where Aeneas goes down to the Underworld to talk to his dead father. This is so much like what Odysseus did in The Odyssey that it’s practically plagiar<<<NO IT'S NOT!!!>>> 

But Virgil didn’t just reap inspiration from earlier epics: he would eventually inspire other poets to rip off from him, as well. I noticed as I read Book VI that Virgil notes some of the prominent people that were condemned in the underworld…which is very similar to what Dante Alighieri did in The Divine Comedy.  Dante even wrote Virgil into the role of tour-guide of the underworld in this Italian epic! 

But the influence isn’t just limited to Dante. At the beginning of John Milton’s Paradise Lost Satan and other angels fall from God’s grace and are cast into Hell. This is the origin of the famous quotation: “Better to reign in Hell, than to serve in Heaven.” Because I was reading The Aeneid via audio book I can’t point out the exact place, but there is a passage that has certain similar sentiments as Aeneas makes his journey in Tartarus.

Friday, September 27, 2013

The Aeneid: Virgil and Propoganda

All my life I've wondered one thing: What was Caesar Augustus pointing at?
Although now I realize: He's pointing at my blog post title!
According to what I’ve read during my long and in-depth research for fifteen minutes on the internet, Virgil wrote The Aeneid to justify the reign of Julius Caesar and his current heir, Caesar Augustus. For anyone with historical knowledge, Augustus basically converted Rome from a Republic into an Empire without telling anyone or asking anybody’s permission.  Some of his contemporaries got a little upset at not being asked permission, so Augustus sought to shut them up by propaganda.* This is where Virgil, lowly farmer’s son but having published some awesome poetry about cows, came in.

So Virgil’s job in writing this epic poem was not only to write something artistic, the Great Roman Novel as it were, but also to validate Augustus’ rule. And to do that, he had to validate that Julius Caesar really shouldn’t have been assassinated but was the rightful heir to the (nonexistent) Roman throne.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Aeneid: Virgil and His Times


Now that all that pesky romance between Aeneas and Dido was taken care of and thrown out the window, you can almost hear Virgil sigh a deep sigh of relief, rub his hands together, and say, “And now for some sports!”

Because that’s what happens next.  Turns out all that piggyback riding Aeneas gave his dad Anchises was for naught, because Anchises has died an off-screen death.  But unlike Aeneas’ wife Creusa, Aeneas remembers the anniversary of his dad’s death and decides to be Pious and honor his deceased father with some violence by having some War Games. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Aeneid: The Dido Problem

Aeneas finishes his story about how he escaped Troy with his son and father and a ton of other people (remind me again, did anyone actually DIE in the Trojan War?  Because it seems like the whole population escaped with Aeneas).  His rapt audience, Queen Dido, is like, “So your wife died…that means you’re single, right?”  And they immediately begin a romantic affair where she thinks they’re married and Aeneas is just like “Of course she’s in love with me.  Everybody loves Aeneas.”*

Then Venus, who made Dido fall in love with Aeneas in the first place so Dido wouldn’t kill the Trojans for trespassing on her borders of Carthage, comes and gives Aeneas a guilt trip for not abandoning Dido and going to Italy to Fulfill his Destiny.

So Aeneas like a good momma’s boy dumps Dido and builds a bunch of ships and starts cruising across the Mediterranean. 
Ahh the good old days when Dido and Aeneas would go around horseback riding half-naked and apparently with wings, without a care in the world.  These are the kind of memories Dido was no doubt thinking of as she burned and bled to death.

Friday, September 20, 2013

The Aeneid: The Creusa Problem

While Aeneas recounts to the fangirl Queen Dido about the tragic end to the Trojan War, he tells her how he made his escape.  He convinces his elderly father Anchises to get on his back (as in piggyback ride) and he takes his son Ascanius by the hand, and sets out of the burning Troy…telling his wife Creusa to walk behind them at a safe distance. 

What, Aeneas, you put your daddy on your back and you hold your son’s hand, but you can’t bother making sure your wife is safe?  You have two hands, don’t you?  Take your son’s hand with one and your wife’s with the other.  Sure, you may argue that “Oh but I have to carry my household idols with my other hand.”  Ummm have your son carry them for you.  He’s not a baby!

Here is Aeneas giving his dad a piggyback ride at an inappropriate time.
"Hey Dad, you've spent your entire life on my back, why break that habit now?"
Note that Creusa is just barely out of shot.  Her foot reaches out like "Don't leave me off the Grecian Urn, random ancient potter!" (Okay so it's just the photograph, but coincidence?! I think NOT!)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Aeneid: Virgil and His Unintentional Comedy

The first thing that struck me about The Aeneid is how funny it was.  And I’m pretty sure that’s not what Virgil was intending.  From a 21st century perspective, however, the first few books are hilarious.  Well, that or you cry. 

Our story opens with Aeneas—pronounced Eeny-ess, as in Eeny – meenymineymo + ess—being a bit of an emo.  It’s justifiable since he’s seen his homeland of Troy attacked, besieged, and finally conquered by wicked Greeks (see The Iliad), then he loses his wife (see below) and father, and finally Juno, goddess of troublemaking, convinced the a wind god to shipwreck them in Northern Africa, forcing him to lose half his fleet of exiled Trojans in the storm at sea.

Yeah, yeah, I know what you’re thinking.  “How is that hilarious?” Just wait.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Aeneid: A Multipart Review - Introduction

The Journey of Aeneas

Much as I enjoy reading epic poetry, I don’t enjoy reading epic poetry.  What I mean is that I don’t like reading it in black and white, on paper and ink, out of an honest-to-oh-so-goodness book.  Frankly my mind starts wandering and my eyes start skimming the lines.

So when I read epic poetry—or really any long book that might tempt me into this half-hearted reading—I listen to it on audiobook.   Not only is this an authentic way of enjoying things like Homer’s The Odyssey, but it is also a way to get a lot of reading done when you’re doing other things like driving or folding laundry—hopefully not both of those activities at the same time, that’s taking multitasking TOO far!

Therefore this is how I read The Aeneid by Virgil.  I listened to the Blackstone Audio book read by Frederick Davidson and translated by W. F. Jackson Knight.  I specify the reader and translator because both of these roles are important factors in how the audience (me, in this case) understands and enjoys an audio presentation of a story that was written in a dead language. 

You’ll notice that this review is only Part One.  That is not only because this is an epic poem of epic proportions—thus taking more than one blog entry to cover the plot—but also because there are a lot of different topics I’d like to focus on from The Aeneid which I would rather not jumble up into one entry anyway.  Long story short, this book gave me a lot of feelings.

This was surprising to me.  Usually when I read a book I catch on to one or two central themes, a few characters whose complexity intrigues me, or I focus on the author’s voice or underlying motivations.  I wasn’t really expecting Virgil to be very complex—I’ve read several other translations from Ancient Rome, mostly nonfiction like histories or epistles, but the Roman voice speaks plain English (or plain Latin, I guess), straightforward and pithy.  I guess I was expecting The Aeneid to be like The Odyssey or The Epic of Gilgamesh.  It’s not…although it makes for a good comparison with those and many other texts….

But I’m getting ahead of myself there.

I’ll merely introduce this series of reviews on The Aeneid by telling of my first encounter with the story.  It was in my History of Music class in college, and we listened to the opera Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell, specifically the death scene of Dido where she sings “Remember my fate!” to her unhelpful servant girl (who should be calling an ambulance).  The way the woman sang it in the opera, however, she kept mispronouncing “fate” so that it sounded like “Remember my feet.” 

So this is the preconception I had as I embarked on reading The Aeneid. 


PARENTAL NOTES: Lots of gore.  LOTS. 
AVAILABILITY: As with almost every traditional epic poem, the translator plays and important role, and translation preferences differ from reader to reader.  I personally own the Robert Fitzgerald translation because I’ve preferred Fitzgerald’s other work.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Reviewing Jane Austen's "Mansfield Park"

I started this series talking about the most famous and well-loved Jane Austen novel, Pride and Prejudice. Now I will talk about one of the least-read and often despised of her works, which also happens to be my personal favorite: Mansfield Park. 

Our story begins with three sisters. One marries a rich knight and lives in affluence at Mansfield Park.  One marries a clergyman who then is employed by the rich knight.  And the third sister marries “for love,” to a common sailor whose drunkenness and coarse manners drag them down in society into a life of poverty. 

The main character, however, is the third sister’s daughter, Fanny Price. Because her parents are too poor to support all of their numerous children, Fanny and her older brother William are shipped out: William to the Navy,* Fanny to her rich aunt, Lady Bertram, at Mansfield Park. The story forgets William and follows Fanny as the shy ten-year-old is immediately harassed by her evil aunt Mrs. Norris and her selfish and mean cousins Tom, Maria and Julia. Fanny’s rich uncle Sir Thomas is stern and scary, her aunt Lady Bertram is vapid and careless, and Fanny is pretty much relegated to being a servant and a doormat to everyone.

Everyone, that is, except her cousin Edmund, who somehow miraculously is not a jerk like everyone else at Mansfield. Of course Fanny falls in love with him (which was okay at that time and in that culture, the whole “cousins” thing not being considered as gross as we tend to think of it now).

Fast forward eight years. Fanny is still a servant. Her cousins are all jerks (except Edmund, who wants to become a clergyman). Her uncle and aunts are the same. The only thing that changes is the introduction of the Cad and the Cad-ette: Henry and Mary Crawford.  Henry is probably the worst of all of Austen’s cads. There’s Wickham and Willoughby and Thorpe and William Eliot and Mr. Elton (and Frank Churchill)…but of them all, only one has set out to make someone in love with him for the sheer entertainment of it, and that is Henry Crawford. He makes emotional conquests of Maria and Julia, and once he’s done with them he becomes so bored he sets his sights on Fanny.

Fanny is a bit of a controversy even among Austenites. On the one hand, she is a pushover.  She lacks Elizabeth Bennett’s playful wit, Emma’s charisma, Anne’s maturity, Catherine’s imagination, Marianne’s passion and Elinor’s sense. On the other hand, Fanny is also stubborn. Maybe that’s what I like about her: she goes from being pushed and pulled in every direction and at the beck and call of everyone, to standing up for herself even when those she loves (*ahem* Edmund) tell her to conform.

Let’s be completely honest: this novel is not a romance. The love story between Fanny and Edmund is almost nonexistent. Neither is it very humorous. To me, this novel is a foreshadowing of the psychological novels of George Eliot, where human interactions are described in detail and human feelings are treated as important plot points. No character in Mansfield Park is a caricature. There are no Mr. Collins or Miss Bates here. Even the humorous characters are treated as real, feeling, and with their own underlying motives and opinions. 

Recommended Reading Age: 15+

Parental Notes: Villainy and amorality are more apparent than in any of the other Austen novels. There is an extramarital affair, which is treated as abhorrent and its participants are punished. 

Availability: Again with the Penguin Classics. Even I’m starting to tire of them, so it’s a good thing this is my last Austenian review for a while, isn’t it? Actually I really like this cover because it has necklace chains all over the cover, which is symbolic to anyone who has read the book. 

Adaptations: Skip ‘em.