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.

As Aeneas is moaning and groaning about how he’s lost all his friends, who should show up but his mom, Venus, goddess of love and meddling. She disguises herself as a Randomly Helpful African Maiden, who comes up and miraculously a) knows how to speak Trojan and b) is willing to tell half a fleet of complete strangers all about the founding of the nearby city of Carthage.

Venus-in-Disguise tells Aeneas all about the lovely Queen Dido, a princess of Phoenicia whose husband was killed by her brother so she ran away with her sister to found Carthage.  Then as Venus finishes spilling her guts and starts to walk away, her feeble disguise slips and Aeneas sees her radiant goddess-y beauty. 

“Ma!  Why do you have to be such a drama queen!?” he demands.

As if giving the Trojans all this reconnaissance information wasn’t enough, Venus then cloaks them in a Cloud of Invisibility which allows them to walk straight into Carthage unnoticed. They see tons of murals depicting scenes from The Iliad, giving Virgil the opportunity to basically recap the Trojan War (and also pad his own epic with plot lines from Homer). The fact that Carthage has murals about Troy immediately tips us off to the fact that Queen Dido is not only well-informed on current events, but also is a fangirl.

With their Cloud of Invisibility the Trojans sneak into the very throne room of Carthage, where by coincidence Queen Dido is having a meeting with—SURPRISE!—all the other Trojans who have ALSO crashed nearby.  Turns out all that crying Aeneas was doing about his lost men…was only for one dude who drowned. 

“Oh you poor things,” Dido says. “Since my brother killed my husband and I’m exiled here I’m so sympathetic to you. You can resupply and rebuild your ships to go on to Italy, or, hint hint, you can stay here and hang out with me. If only your awesome leader Aeneas was here.”

After seeing how Dido is totally fine with Trojans trespassing on her shores, Aeneas shows himself to be his mother’s son by being all dramatic and stepping out of the Cloud of Invisibility and going, “IT IS I, AENEAS!”

“Wow, all this unexpected company and all I have ready to entertain you is this huge feast,” says Dido. “How about as we eat you tell me all the gory and disgusting and sorrowful details of the Trojan war, although since I have murals of it in my city I obviously have already read The Iliad.”

“Lady, this is a tale that is so heartbreaking and sad to tell that even the most macho and warriorish of men—ahem ahem hint hint me that is—can’t tell it without shedding a manly tear.  It also is super late at night and this story is an epic one that will take about a week to tell.  But hey, why not?”  

Virgil takes the opportunity now to recap The Iliad again. Don’t judge; anyone who’s done NaNoWriMo has encountered this same problem with meeting word quotas. It's not like Virgil was blatantly ripping off Homer or anyth


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