I picked this book from the New Books shelf at one of my libraries because I was intrigued by the title and because they had chapters on Ursula le GuiI picked this book from the New Books shelf at one of my libraries because I was intrigued by the title and because they had chapters on Ursula le Guin and Philip Pullman (whose Golden Compass books I had just finished reading). It wasn't until I started reading that I realized the authors were evangelical Christian apologists (not a "bad" thing in and of itself).
As Christians, the authors have little use for myth that doesn't conform to their notion of usefulness; and part of that usefulness is the struggle between objective, transcendent Good and Evil. Thus, their chief objection to Le Guin is her rejection of that world view in favor of a more East Asian-flavored one of balance and karma. The authors dismiss Le Guin because she doesn't subscribe to a notion of good and evil that transcends a particular context. For Le Guin, a "good" action is one that maintains the "balance"; an "evil" action is one that disrupts it. Now, admittedly, what Le Guin might mean by "balance" can be a bit fuzzy (she's an author telling a story, not a philosopher, after all) but the context is a fantasy, where long, didactic passages are to be avoided. Particularly in her latest work, however, I think Le Guin has shown how her morality works out in practice. As she has written about her Earthsea novels, she would have written parts very differently.
The authors don't believe in Le Guin's basis for moral acts, and are in the habit of dismissing her justifications as "unsatisfying" or "evasive" -- which, of course, they would be to someone who believes Good and Evil are defined by a transcendent Superior Being (God, Allah or Iluvatar, as the case may be). The authors are great fans of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis because both base their mythologies on essentially Abrahamic foundations.
What really galls me is that Dickerson and O'Hara think it's a failing that Le Guin's morality "places a burden on people without giving them any means to lift that burden." (p. 185) They believe it's better to do something because it is ordained by God, who bears the responsibility for its consequences, than to do something because one has weighed the consequences and has consciously chosen to bear them. It's all well and good to let God "bear the burden" but in the real world it's real men and women who wind up bearing it. Le Guin's notion of a constant struggle between actions that are not wholly right or wrong is far closer to reality than a bold hero, confidentally choosing Good over Evil. A struggle, ironically enough, Tolkien clearly recognized. The example the authors employ to illustrate their point -- Aragorn's decision to follow Merry and Pippin instead of Frodo and Sam or go directly to Gondor -- undermines their argument. Aragorn's dilemma is precisely that he doesn't know what the Good is and must rely on what he believes will result for the best, knowing that the consequences will fall entirely upon him and his fellows. In the context of Earthsea, the authors are upset that Le Guin's resolutions tend to be "ambiguous, and the problem winds up being skirted by unfounded dogmatic assertions." (p. 186)
They also complain that in Le Guin's moral universe, the best choice is often to do nothing as the more power one can wield, the wider the consequences. But this is exactly the conundrum that faces the Valar and Gandalf and Aragorn and Frodo, all in their own ways. Gandalf, potentially as powerful as Sauron, his fellow Maia, cannot exert his power without risking his "integrity" (or "soul," if you will) and becoming Sauron (a trap Saruman doesn't escape). Of course, there are times to act -- Radagast is an example of falling into the opposite hole that snared Saruman, doing nothing regardless -- but the choice is fraught with perils and it's not easy to know when it's necessary, i.e., it's AMBIGUOUS!
I think the authors are right, however, in their distinction between Tolkienesque worldviews and Le Guin's ("leguinian"?) -- Tolkien sees a permanent, eternal life beyond this one; Le Guin sees a transient flame that burns briefly and then is gone, making it just that more precious. They dismiss Le Guin's views as "unfounded dogmatism" but Tolkien's are just as baseless. It's a matter of how one chooses to understand their place in the world.
Despite my "one star" rating, I would recommend this book to anyone interested in the issues raised by the authors; I just profoundly disagree with their conclusions....more
It’s odd how, at times, my readings appear to converge or echo each other quite unconsciously. From two entirely different directions I determined toIt’s odd how, at times, my readings appear to converge or echo each other quite unconsciously. From two entirely different directions I determined to reread my collection of Emma Goldman’s writings and Christa Wolf’s Medea. And yet I found striking parallels between Goldman and Medea. Both women flee their homelands (Tsarist Russia and Colchis, respectively) when young, disillusioned with their countries. Both travel to an idealized land that promises a better life (America, ancient Greece). And both hook up with men who prove unreliable (Alexander Berkman, Jason). But aside from these rather superficial correspondences, the vital parallel is that both women fight to live in a world where they can freely express their individuality; and beyond that for a world where everyone can have the same opportunity. It can be disheartening to see how little progress we’ve made in the 72 years since Goldman died. Indeed, I could suggest that we’re rapidly becoming more and more like the societies both women fought against, making this book (and Emma Goldman) all the more relevant.
For those unfamiliar with the story of Medea (and that may be a larger figure than I’d like to think considering the state of modern education :-), let me quote from Margaret Atwood’s introduction as she gives a reasonably concise outline:
Aeson, king of Iolcus in Thessaly, had his throne usurped by this half brother Pelias. Aeson’s son Jason was saved, and sent away to be educated by the centaur Cheiron. Grown to manhood, he arrived at the court of Pelias to claim his birthright, but Pelias said he would surrender the throne only on condition that Jason bring back the Golden Fleece from Colchis – a demand which was thought to be the equivalent of a death sentence, as Colchis, situated at the extreme end of the Black Sea, was thought to be unreachable….
Jason had either to refuse the quest and give up all hope of the throne, or accept it and endanger his life. He chose the latter course, and summoned fifty heroes from all over Greece to his aid. These were the Argonauts – named after their ship – who after many perils and adventures arrived at last at Colchis…. There Jason demanded the Golden Fleece as his by inheritance.
Aeëtes, King of Colchis, set more impossible conditions…. Jason was ready to admit defeat when he was seen by Princess Medea, daughter of Aeëtes, granddaughter of Helius the sun god, priestess of the Triple Goddess of the Underworld, and a powerful sorceress…. Overcome by her love for Jason, she used her occult knowledge to help him surmount the various obstacles and to obtain the Fleece, in return for which Jason swore by all the gods to remain true to her forever. Together with the Argonauts, the two lovers set sail by night; but once the alarm was raised, King Aeëtes and the Colchians followed them….
Some say Jason killed Medea’s younger brother Apsyrtus… others, that Medea herself murdered the boy, dismembered him, and scattered the pieces in the ocean…. After several more escapades… the two, now lawfully man and wife, were welcomed at Corinth by its King, Creon….
Jason, forgetting both his debt of gratitude and his vows to all the gods, forsook his loyalty to Medea. Some say he was swayed by the insinuations of Creon… others, that he was overcome by a new love; others, that he was impelled by ambition; but in any case he decided to repudiate Medea, and marry Creon’s daughter Glauce, thus becoming the heir to Corinth. Medea herself was to be banished from the city.
Medea, torn by conflicting emotions… concocted a horrible revenge. Pretending to accept Jason’s decision and to wish for peace between them, she sent a bridal gift to Glauce – a beautiful but poisonous dress, which, when the rays of the sun hit it, burst into flame, whereupon Glauce in agony threw herself into a well. Some say that the people of Corinth then stoned Medea’s children to death; others, that she herself killed them, either to save them from a worse fate or to pay Jason back for his treachery. She then disappeared from Corinth, some say in a chariot drawn by dragons. Jason… abandoned by the gods whom he had foresworn, became a wandering vagabond and was at last crushed by the prow of his own rotting ship. (pp. ix-xi)
As Atwood alludes and as one can read in Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, there are many variations to the story. It was ancient when Homer composed The Iliad and its most ancient layers hearken back to a pre-Greek era when the Goddess in her many guises was the supreme deity and women more than the chattel of their male relations. It’s this most archaic stratum that Wolf mines to present her version of the myth. While it can be read as a strictly feminist tract, it shouldn’t be. It’s issues are far broader than a discussion of women’s place in society. It’s a critique of modern, capitalist (and, yes, male-dominated) culture, and – on a personal and the more important level – it’s an argument for the importance of retaining one’s integrity as a person in the face of enormous pressure to conform and submit. And that’s why I’ve revised my rating to four stars – it spoke to me more powerfully now than it did 15 years ago when I was – unfortunately – a less discerning reader.
Wolf picks up the tale toward the end of Medea’s exile in Corinth. She and Jason are estranged, and she has long since lost any illusions she may have had about the nature of her erstwhile lover’s homeland: It is as corrupt and oppressive as Colchis was becoming under her father’s faltering grip. The story is told in six “voices”: Medea’s, of course but also Jason’s; Glauce’s; Agameda’s, a Colchian exile; Akamas’, Creon’s first astronomer; and Leukon’s, the city’s second astronomer.
AGAMEDA: Agameda, one of the Colchian exiles who have followed Medea and a former pupil, is an angry young woman. Too weak to live up to the standards Medea sets for herself and others, Agameda embraces Corinth and accepts her role as a woman in it, though she ruthlessly manipulates the men around her to ruin Medea. Everything revolves around herself, and there’s no thought for others. As she notes:
We spoke not a syllable about what this desired result might be. We made a game of our plans, which grew more and more refined, and played it in an unreal atmosphere, as though no one could be affected by our playing. If one wishes to think freely and effectively at the same time, this is a very useful method. It’s a kind of thinking, moreover, that we in Colchis haven’t yet recognized, and supposedly given only to men; but I know I have a talent for it. Only I practice it in secret. (p. 64)
And she combines a colossal ego (p. 59) with low self-esteem (p. 58).
If Agameda symbolizes anything in this myth, it’s the person who submits to oppression, then manipulates the system to feather her own nest, deluding herself that she has power over her destiny and others.
JASON: If Agameda is the sly Quisling who betrays her own interests for short-term fantasies of power, Jason is one who submits and then does his best to remain unnoticed. He’s the gullible idiot who believes the lies and self-delusions. He doesn’t even pretend to manipulate events but whines incessantly about his powerlessness. Both of his chapters begin with a variation of chapter nine’s plaint: “I didn’t want any of this to happen but what could I have done?” (p. 165)
GLAUCE: Glauce is burdened with a hideous secret (view spoiler)[her sister’s murder by her father (hide spoiler)], and it’s made her a physical and mental wreck. She suffers from seizures and headaches and nameless fears. Under Medea’s tutelage and care, she begins to overcome her frailties and become an individual. But when Creon exiles Medea from the palace, Glauce again is surrounded by the sycophants who only see her as a dynastic asset:
What man, even if he’s her father, would want to touch a girl’s pallid unclean skin, her thin lank hair, her awkward limbs, even if she’s his daughter, isn’t it so, yes, the first thing I knew for certain was that I’m ugly; the woman whose name I don’t want to say anymore can laugh at me as much as she wants, she can teach me tricks, how I should carry myself, how I should wash and wear my hair, naturally I was taken in by all that, and I would almost have believed her, would almost have felt like any other girl; that’s my weakness, believing those who flatter me, though it wasn’t actually flattery, it was something else, something cleverer, it went deeper, it touched the most secret spot inside me, the deepest pain, which up until then I was able to display only to the god and will be able to display only to the god again from now on, forever and ever, that’s my sentence, I dare not think about it, it makes me sick, she taught me that, it makes me sick when I keep recalling to my mind those images of myself as an unlucky person, as a poor soul, but why, she said, laughing as only she can laugh…why, she said, do you want to suffocate your whole life under all this black cloth, she took off the black clothing I’ve worn as long as I can think…. She sewed the clothes for me…I ran through the halls with downcast eyes, one of the young cooks didn’t recognize me and he whistled at me after I passed, unheard-of, unheard-of and wonderful, oh how wonderful, but her black magic was just that, she let me feel something that wasn’t real, isn’t real, all of a sudden my arms and legs became graceful, or anyway that’s how it felt, but that was all deception, ridicule…and proof of all this is that now, when they’ve taken me away from her corrupting influence and given me back the dark-colored clothes I belong in, that now my arms and my legs, too, have lost their deceitful gracefulness again and no apprentice cook, no matter how stupid, is even going to think about whistling at me….
[S]he was the one who tried to persuade me that I was free to think, I hate my father, and nothing would happen to him because of that thought, there was no need to feel guilty about it. That’s how her wicked influence on me began, today it seems incredible to me, outrageous, that I surrendered myself to it, that I reveled in my surrender to it, that was the wickedness in me, all at once it was free to present itself as my best side, my obsession with fancy dress, the pleasure I took in trivial diversions and in those childish games she made me play with Arinna. (pp. 106-9)
Glauce’s voice is particularly difficult to listen to. Wolf manages to pull off making her characters both mythic symbols and real people, and nowhere better than with this 13-year-old girl whose life is destroyed by her father’s ambitions.
AKAMAS: Akamas is the villain of the piece. Unlike Agameda, he actually does wield power over the lives of others. And he convinces himself that everything he does – the lives he destroys – is all for the good of Corinth. Echoing Jason, “we must do quite a few things that give us little pleasure” (p. 90) and “of course, the price one might be called upon to pay for this could be very painful.” (p. 95) But Wolf uses that echo of Jason’s complaint to illustrate how, ultimately, Akamas is as powerless as the Argonaut.
While he admires Medea, Akamas has no qualms in abetting the schemes of Agameda and her other enemies among the Colchians or fanning the fears of the Corinthians. It removes a disruptive influence from the politics of Corinth.
MEDEA: Medea is the ideal. The only truly adult person developed in the course of the novel. (We are introduced to Oistros, her lover, and Arethusa, a Cretan exile, who share her beliefs and live their lives as they wish but they’re secondary characters.) Her charisma is palpable to everyone she meets as is apparent in this excerpt where Jason describes their first meeting:
Then again the woman, the one who came up to us in Aeëtes’s vine-covered court, was the opposite of the horrible corpse-fruit, or maybe it heightened the impression she made on us. The way she stood there, stooped over, in that red and white tiered skirt and close-fitting black top they all wear, and caught the water from the spout in her cupped hands and drank. The way she straightened up and notice us, shook her hands dry, and approached us frankly, taking quick, strong steps, slender, but with a well-developed figure, and showing off all the virtues of her appearance to such advantage….
Of course it was odd, how she greeted us with her hands raised in the sign of peace, a sign proper only to the King or his envoys; how she openly gave her name, Medea, daughter of King Aeëtes and High Priestess of Hecate; how she desired to know our names and our destination, as though it were her right to do so, and I, taken by surprise, revealed to this woman what was meant for the King’s ears only. (pp. 32-3)
Her refusal to compromise her beliefs added to the fact that she knows Creon’s secret make her a dangerous person in the eyes of the ruling elite. And those same qualities make the Corinthian populace fearful and angry since, as Agameda remarks, “they need their belief that they live in the most perfect land under the sun.” (p. 59)
LEUKON: I saved Leukon for last because his voice spoke loudest to me. It’s not a terribly complimentary comparison but when he opened his chapter with the following, I was nodding my head in sympathy:
I see plainly what will happen to her. I shall have to stand by and watch the whole thing. That is my lot, to have to stand by and watch everything, to see through everything, and to be able to do nothing, as though I had no hands. Whoever uses his hands must dip them in blood, whether he wants to or not. I do not want to have blood on my hands. I want to stand up here on the roof terrace of my tower, observing the milling throngs below me in the narrow streets of Corinth by day and bathing my eyes in the darkness of the heavens above me by night, while one by one the constellations emerge like familiar friends….
Medea says I am a man who fears pain. I should like her to fear pain more than she does. (pp. 125-6)
I liked this version of Medea a great deal. It may have strayed far from its deepest origins in the Neolithic and its reiterations down through the centuries but I believe that when Medea says “good [is] anything that promote[s] the development of all living things” (p. 91), she (or more properly perhaps, Wolf) is saying something we need to remember in this era when we too are succumbing to nameless, baseless fears cultivated by our rulers and endured because we’re too much like Glauce or Jason or Leukon to imagine that things can be any different. (In the same vein, I would have to recommend A.S. Byatt’s Ragnarok, which touches on the same theme of our incapacity to thinks things can be any different than our “betters” tell us, and on the theme that society stifles the individual – especially the woman. Or V for Vendetta, which I reread over the weekend.)
I would also recommend John Gardner’s Jason and Medeia, a poetic retelling of the myth, which ranks up there with this version as one of my favorites.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I first read The White Goddess during a road trip with my ex at the turn of the century. I can remember several days when we were staying at a bed-andI first read The White Goddess during a road trip with my ex at the turn of the century. I can remember several days when we were staying at a bed-and-breakfast in pre-Katrina New Orleans. It was neither overly warm nor overly humid, and my erstwhile spouse was recovering from serving as a mosquito smorgasbord, so I had some down time to sit out on the patio and read. I have to say that the first time through this book left me confused and lost; the second time through I’m on firmer ground in understanding what Graves is trying to do with his “historical grammar of poetic myth” and I’m glad I have spent the last few months reading it again.
Truly, you can read only the Forward and Chapter XXVI, “The Return of the Goddess,” and get the gist of Graves’ argument. What comes between is the convoluted path of erudition and intuition (and a certain amount of wish fulfillment on Graves’ part) where he explains the original purpose of poetry (myth) and its perversion.
As Graves explains, poetic myth (the first poems) “are all grave records of ancient religious customs or events, and reliable enough as history once their language is understood and allowance has been made for errors in transcription, misunderstandings of obsolete ritual, and deliberate changes introduced for moral or political reasons.” (p. 13) Poetry originates as the invocation of the Triple Goddess (Aphrodite-Hera-Hekate are just one of her many iterations, she’s also the Muse who Homer calls upon in the Iliad) and the expression of the exaltation, horror and awe one feels in her presence. For millennia it was the religion of the Eastern Mediterranean and put out feelers throughout West Asia until it was perverted and eventually subsumed by invading patriarchal Sun worshippers (aka, Indo-Europeans and Semitic tribes) whose gods (Zeus, Apollo, Yahweh, etc.) usurped her attributes and – in the extreme case of Judaism and its descendants – denied the feminine principle entirely. This ur-religion persisted in a severely attenuated form in mystery cults (e.g., Eleusinian or Orphian), the bardic colleges of Ireland and Wales, and in witches’ covens before nearly vanishing utterly except in the intuitive inspirations of modern poets who don’t understand what it is they’re invoking.
Graves’ purpose in writing The White Goddess is nothing less than to restore the Goddess to her rightful position as the source of all acts of creation – physical, spiritual and intellectual – and depose the unholy trinity of Pluto, god of wealth; Apollo, god of science; and Mercury, god of thieves, who have ruled the world for the last three thousand+ years. (A sentiment shared by a growing number of people today, if not expressed quite so mystically.)
The book is a rather scathing indictment of Western civilization. Here’s the author’s description of the collapse of Western religion: “As a result, all but a very few have discarded their religious idealism, Roman Catholics as well as Protestants, and come to the private conclusion that money, though the root of all evil, is the sole practical means of expressing value or of determining social precedence; that science is the only accurate means of describing phenomena; and that a morality of common honesty is not relevant either to love, war, business or politics.” (p. 476) And he anticipates Stephen Prothero’s arguments in God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run the World--and Why Their Differences Matter: “[N]o good can come from publicizing either the contradictions between the main revealed religions and their mutually hostile sects, or the factual mis-statements contained in their doctrines, or the shameful actions which they have all…been used to cloak. What is really being urged is an improvement in national and international ethics, not everyone’s sudden return to the beliefs of his childhood – which, if undertaken with true religious enthusiasm, would obviously lead to a renewal of religious wars; only since belief weakened all around have the priests of rival religions consented to adopt a good-neighbourly policy.” (p. 477)
Graves’ solution to our woes is…idiosyncratic. It’s certainly utopian and it’s disturbingly nondemocratic:
If…it is wished to avoid disharmony, dullness and oppression in all social…contexts, each problem must be regarded as unique, to be settled by right choice based on instinctive good principle, not by reference to a code or summary of precedents; and, granted that the only way out of our political troubles is a return to religion, this must somehow be freed of its theological accretions. Positive right choosing based on moral principles must supersede negative respect for the Law which, though backed by force, has grown so hopelessly inflated and complex that not even a trained lawyer can hope to be conversant with more than a single branch of it. Willingness to do right can be inculcated in most people if they are caught early enough, but so few have the capacity to make a proper moral choice between circumstances or actions which at first sight are equally valid, that the main religious problem of the Western world, is…how to exchange demagogracy, disguised as democracy, for a non-hereditary aristocracy whose leaders will be inspired to choose rightly on every occasion, instead of blindly following authoritarian procedure. (p. 479)
And I think many people – while acknowledging many of the problems he points out – would balk at this answer. (view spoiler)[I got the impression that the author would not regret a return to the ancient ways of the Goddess, with year-kings and human sacrifices to ensure prosperity. (hide spoiler)]
I can’t recommend The White Goddess. If this brief review has sparked any interest or you’re a fan of Graves, then you may want to try this book. If you’re interested in authors such as Riane Eisler or Merlin Stone, there’s interesting information here. As I wrote, you can skip or skim Chapters I through XXV, without losing the author’s central message, which takes up all of 20 pages (in this edition).
I have an ugly secret to divulge - with few exceptions I have not read in their entirety the foundational epics of Western civilization. You name it,I have an ugly secret to divulge - with few exceptions I have not read in their entirety the foundational epics of Western civilization. You name it, chances are good I haven't read it: Gilgamesh - no; Homer - no; Virgil - no; Beowulf - no; The Song of Roland - no; Cervantes - no. I could go on with the "roll call of shame" but I'm sure you get the idea.
Oh, I've taught parts of many of these works as a TA during my days at UCLA, and I know their gists but I've never been able to sit down and read them with any great degree of enjoyment. I vastly prefer modern retellings like Gardner's Grendel or Jason and Medea or S.P. Somtow's Shattered Horse.
One factor in my "shameful" literary history is that I find the "heroes" of these epics somewhat ludicrous and not people to emulate. The epic hero is no longer a "hero" in the modern sense. All too often, he's a spoiled child without conscience or morals (Achilles in the affair with Briseis being, perhaps, the iconic case study of this phenomenon). Another part of the explanation lies in a fundamental difference between how & what people enjoy today and what they enjoyed 1,000+ years ago. Until relatively recently, few people read. Illiteracy was the rule not the exception (TV may be far more retro than we realize). People heard and watched their entertainments, and most of the works cited above were meant to be recited or sung.
(Ah, hah - light bulb goes off): I can't change the first factor but I could try an experiment related to the second. I would check out a couple of epics and see if they were more palatable "said" than "read."
In the case of this audiobook version of Gilgamesh, I'd say the experiment has been a success. The entire reading is only 2 hours or so long, and managed to hold my attention much of the time (while I'm certainly not an ADD child, my thoughts have a tendency to latch on to something and go off on its own flights of fancy, missing the later narrative or the rest of the interview; it's why I'm not a fan of audiobooks in general). I hope the version of Beowulf I checked out as well proves equally engrossing.
Gilgamesh, for those of you whose literary landscapes are even more parched than mine, is the story of the king of Uruk and his boon companion, Enkidu. Their struggles against the gods and Gilgamesh's ultimately futile quest to conquer death. It has been restored to a place among the canon (having been lost for 2,000 years) because, in addition to being an exciting adventure, it's also a remarkably sophisticated reflection of humanity (remarkable at least to those who find it difficult to accept that our distant ancestors had mental lives as rich and complex as our own). There's a great deal of moral ambiguity that one doesn't find in the Homeric epics or the Norse sagas. Gilgamesh begins the poem an uncontrollable tyrant, enslaving men, raping virgins and generally doing as he pleases without regard to consequences. By the end he has become a model despot, a wise ruler and resigned (however reluctantly) to the futility of glory and the inevitability of death.
Some of the other themes that Gilgamesh addresses include:
1. The role of friendship/companions in person's life.
2. The tension between Man and God, and what each owes the other.
3. The tension between Ruler and Ruled similar to 2 above.
In both 2 & 3, the somber conclusion appears to be that the weaker of the two must rely upon the mercy of the stronger to ameliorate the harshness of life as there is no legitimate recourse to the "natural order" of things.
4. In the Flood Digression, we are also introduced to the nascent idea of justice in proportion to the offense when the gods reprove Enlil for destroying all of mankind rathan than just decimating them for their sins.
5. The absence of biblical prudery. In fact, sex is a civilizing event, and it's clear that Gilgamesh and Enkidu are carnal lovers as well as "lovers" in the Platonic sense.
6. Defeating death and achieving immortality (or not, as the case may be).
I learned a few fascinating things from the accompanying essay by Mitchell:
The earliest form of the Gilgamesh story comes from five separate tales in Sumerian from c. 2100 BC. Gilgamesh, himself, was a real king in Uruk c. 2750 BC; a man who obviously made an enormous impression on his society to be remembered 600 years later (how many figures are remembered from the 1400s in our culture?). Unfortunately, what the real man may have accomplished is lost in the depths of time.
Our version is primarily based on a Babylonian synthesis from c. 1750 BC, a version of which was preserved in Ashubanipal's library in Nineveh (c. 7th Century BC). I find it wonderful and humbling to think that Ashurbanipal stood as far from Gilgamesh in time as we do from Jesus and Mohammad. I'm not so sure what to make of the fact that we're still wrestling with the same problems that bedeviled humans 5,000 years ago.
As to the translation: I found it a bit flat and passionless. The English is serviceable and supposedly closely follows the connotative meaning of the original but there's no "poetry" in the language and little emotion except for a few passages.
I'm glad I decided to try this and get the whole story directly from the source....more
Well, I was right - I wouldn't have gotten through this in book form but listening to it was tolerable. The basic story is exciting enough, and it's bWell, I was right - I wouldn't have gotten through this in book form but listening to it was tolerable. The basic story is exciting enough, and it's been reprised innumerable times both before and after the monk (or monks) sat down in the 11th century (or was it the 9th?) and put pen to parchment.
I found the Gilgamesh audiobook (see my review) to be more interesting because it was the story of an urban civilization even if it flourished 5,000 years ago. Beowulf, though 4,000 years closer to me, depicts an utterly alien culture and ethos, and presented it in a literary style that I don't enjoy reading....more
I finished rereading this and found it considerably more engaging on the second round.
The Penelopiad isn’t bad but there’s little to engage the readerI finished rereading this and found it considerably more engaging on the second round.
The Penelopiad isn’t bad but there’s little to engage the reader. Atwood throws up myriad ways to reinterpret Penelope’s role in the legends of Odysseus but doesn’t take them anywhere. It’s only toward the end that we see where this could have gone when the two are canoodling in Odysseus’s famous bed after his return:
After a little time had passed and we were feeling pleased with each other, we took up our old habits of story-telling. Odysseus told me of all his travels and difficulties – the nobler versions with the monsters and the goddesses, rather than the more sordid ones with the innkeepers and whores. He recounted the many lies he’d invented, the false names he’d given himself… and the fraudulent life histories he’d concocted for himself…. In my turn, I related the tale of the Suitors, and my trick with the shroud of Laertes, and my deceitful encouraging of the Suitors, and the skillful ways in which I’d misdirected them and led them on and played them off against one another.
Then he told me of how much he’d missed me, and how he’d been filled with longing for me even when enfolded in the white arms of goddesses; and I told him how very many tears I’d shed while waiting twenty years for his return, and how tediously faithful I’d been, and how I would never have even so much as thought of betraying his gigantic bed with its wondrous bedpost by sleeping in it with any other man.
The two of us were – by our own admission – proficient and shameless liars of long standing. It’s a wonder either one of us believed a word the other said.
But we did.
Or so we told each other. (pp. 172-3)
Atwood’s a good writer, however, so reading it while working on this Fourth of July holiday made the time pass far more enjoyably than otherwise. And I do like modern or revisionist interpretations of old myths (e.g., Christa Wolf's Medea, John Gardner's Jason and Medeia or any entry in Robert Graves's The Greek Myths: Combined Edition)....more
UPDATE JAN 2013: I finished reading Stephen Mitchell's translation soon after the New Year and can't recommend it enough.
And, as with any good literatUPDATE JAN 2013: I finished reading Stephen Mitchell's translation soon after the New Year and can't recommend it enough.
And, as with any good literature, I find that upon rereading the Iliad, I got something more out of it. Something that had nothing to do with my first impressions noted below (and that I'll elaborate upon more fully in my review of David Malouf's Ransom: A Novel when I finish that book). ____________________________________________
Up to now, I’ve only read fragments of The Iliad. First as an undergrad in various Western Civ and Greek history classes, then as a TA in grad school (for the same classes just from the other side of the podium). I even got to translate fragments in my Greek-language classes. But I never had a desire to read it on my own. Three things have militated against reading it up to now: Until recently, I hadn’t done a lot of poetry reading. That prejudice began to crack about 15 years ago when a former flame introduced me to Dickinson and Plath. I then read John Gardner’s epic recasting of Medea (Jason and Medeia). The “block” is still pretty high but I’m far more open to poetry now than in my youth.
A second factor in my reluctance was that The Iliad lacks any reasonably sympathetic character. Among the “heroes” there’s Odysseus (perhaps) but he doesn’t really get a chance to shine until Homer gives him his own epic. Even then, for me, Odysseus has always been an anti-hero rather than someone to admire or emulate. Hector, too, generates some sympathy but not for anything “heroic.” Rather it’s his interplay with Andromache and Astyanax that makes him a real person.
The final impediment to reading this classic is that I already know why it’s so important – why read the original when I have a wealth of analyses by men and women who’ve done it for me?
Yet – there’s always been a nagging guilt that I hadn’t read it. When I saw that an audio cassette of the Fagles translation was available at the library, I decided this was a prime opportunity to assuage that guilt (after all, I had enjoyed both Gilgamesh and Beowulf much more in their audio incarnations).
So, having finished it, did I learn anything? Were my perceptions and preconceptions challenged and/or changed? Up to cassette 6, side A, I would have had to say “no.” But then I heard a line that fundamentally altered my view of the poem and made it pertinent in a wholly unexpected way. It was the point where Homer says that Paris chose Aphrodite (as the fairest) for love. The whole poem fell into place then, and I understood what it meant to me and why Homer had written it (or had sung it) in the manner he did. After all, there’s this schizophrenic attitude apparent on the author’s part: Though much of the tale revolves around the “glorious” exploits of Akhaia’s and Troy’s greatest warriors or the machinations of the gods, there is yet a sense that Homer despises his subjects, finding worth only in those human moments when they exhibit glimpses of love, charity and compassion.
When I heard that line, though, I knew how to see the poem: As a cri de coeur against a world where Love seems unable to prevail against the brutality of War (Ares/Athena) and the cold rationalism and realpolitik of Wisdom (Hera/Athena). At that moment, I saw Paris in an utterly new light. He’s still a fool but not because he chose Aphrodite so much as that he chose her without considering the consequences. Heck, in this light, I could argue that he does realize what he’s doing but chose Love regardless, making him the bravest figure in the poem (it reminds me of a line from the song “You’ll Never Be the Sun” – “You won’t find that love comes easy, but that love is always right”).
So let this be a lesson: Works of art do not survive 3,000 years because of a fluke. They survive because they speak to audiences across time, space & culture. Perhaps not clearly, perhaps not in the way the author originally intended, but speak they do.
Sidebar: This version of The Iliad is not harmed by Derek Jacobi’s wonderful reading. He makes the poem come vibrantly alive with a masterful command of its rhythms, characters and voices without distracting from the content....more
The first part of this novella (107 pages in my edition) almost - almost - had me sympathizing with Achilles, and then he goes and murders and rapes PThe first part of this novella (107 pages in my edition) almost - almost - had me sympathizing with Achilles, and then he goes and murders and rapes Penthiseleia:
"Now he pins her down, all his hurt, unmet tenderness turned to indignation. He bends back her fingers to make her release the flint and she makes those fingers her weapons, tearing his face, stabbing at eyes. His knee bent across her ribs, holding her down, he covers her face with one hand, the heel of the other hand cradling the back of her skull, and pushes. He feels her body trying to arch beneath him, the resistance of her head as she struggles to free it. He pushes on. Pushes and then, with practised economy, twists. He holds her a little longer. Waiting for the turmoil of the body to quieten. Waiting for it to be over." (p. 53)
With one exception, all of the sexual encounters in the book are rape scenes: Peleus and Thetis, Achilles and Penthiseleia, Helen and Theseus (and, by implication, all of her lovers). The one exception is when Achilles is hiding at the court of Lycomedes as a girl (Pyrrha), and he and Deidamia, Lycomedes' daughter, carry on an affair. It's the one encounter where there is mutual tenderness.
I'm free associating here, but that just now brings up the absence of any homosexual relationships. Explicit ones, anyway. Achilles' great love for Patroclus is evident but any sexual element is buried fairly deep in the prose.
Perhaps there's a message here that sex/love between equals (man-to-man, woman-to-pretend-woman) is tender, giving, etc. - all the things modern Western idealism makes it out to be - and that sex between unequals (man-to-woman) is inherently violent rape?
The third part of the book takes a radical departure from the first two parts. The first part sketches the life of Achilles until he's killed by Paris; the second part tells about the aftermath - primarily the slaughter of the Trojans. Part three takes us to the life of John Keats as he contemplates the life of Achilles and his death. When I first read this part, I was nonplussed. What in the world was Cook doing? But in reading some of the other GR reviews, I think I see what the purpose may have been: Keats as a modern-day Achilles; a kinder, gentler hero whose star burned bright and brief but whose relative immortality is assured.
Chalk it up to my prosaic mind but I wasn't bothered by Cook's occasional resort to crudity or mundanity (as were other GR reviewers). In fact, I consider that some of the best parts of the novella:
"Ajax and Menelaus have rescued the poor, heavy, mangled body.... Achilles washes the dear flesh. He tells Patroclus he will not sleep till Hector is dead. Nor will he eat.
Achilles of the loud war cry lets out his war cry...
and the Achaeans regroup. Each man of them merry and agile for war.
The Trojans shit themselves. (p. 33)
Or the scene where Thetis is collecting Achilles' bones and she's forced to balance his skull with her chin, like someone carrying a large load of laundry or a pile of books:
"It is Machaon, the surgeon, who follows Thetis into the heart of the ash-field, who lifts the skull of Achilles from the dust. He wipes the dust from it and gazes with humble reverence into the dark hollows that housed the eye-pits. He walks over to Thetis. Gently he sets the skull down at the top of her bundle of bones.
Like the jar which Hephaestus gave her she has to hold it in place with her chin to keep it from rolling off." (p. 69)
I give it but two stars because, while I liked it well enough, it was passionless for me. Too dry. An academic exercise more than a novel written from the heart. ...more
There is a section in Mark Edmundson’s Why Read? where the author discusses the difference between “literature” – those works of prose and verse thatThere is a section in Mark Edmundson’s Why Read? where the author discusses the difference between “literature” – those works of prose and verse that are read and discussed for generations – and what isn’t – those works that may be well written and engaging but don’t have the power or impact that survives the ages. Two of the authors he chooses to illustrate this are Homer and Stephen King. The distinction, Edmundson writes, is that Homer (and “literature” in general) challenges the reader. He makes the epic genre do things it usually doesn’t, and forces you to ask questions about the assumptions you make about life, morality, religion, war, etc. Stephen King is a good author but ultimately he doesn’t challenge you to move beyond a certain comfortable zone of limited expectations:
King is an entertainment. King is a diversion. But when you try to take him as a guide to life, he won’t work. The circles he draws on the deep are weak and irresolute. And this is so in part because King, for all his supposedly shocking scare tactics, is a sentimental writer. In his universe, the children…are good, right, just, and true…. Just about all adults who are not in some manner childlike are corrupt, depraved, lying, and self-seeking. This can be a pleasant fantasy for young people and childish adults…. But bring this way of seeing the world out into experience and you’ll pretty quickly pay for it. Your relation to large quadrants of experience…will likely be paranoid and fated to fail. (Why Read, pp. 133-34)
I’m reminded of this in Caroline Alexander’s The War that Killed Achilles, where she argues for a similar conclusion when she attempts to explain why The Iliad is still read and discussed three millennia after its creation. While she doesn’t cite Edmundson (nor King, oddly enough :-), she wants us to see that The Iliad is not a glorification of war and the warrior (as some parts can be interpreted or misconstrued). Neither is it its opposite – an anti-war manifesto (as other parts can be understood). If is, rather, an unflinchingly honest story about why men fight and the price they and their families and comrades pay. It remains a story about Achilles’ rage and the choice he must make – glory and a short, long-remembered life or mediocrity and a long but quickly forgotten life – but the poet demands a deeper exploration of the choice than the typical epic cycle, where there’s rarely even the pretense of a choice and the worth of glorious battle and defeating one’s enemies is taken for granted.
An example: All know why Achilles abandons the war in its final year. Agamemnon, the Greek high king, seizes Briseis, a captured Trojan woman, when his own prize, Chryseis, is ransomed by her father. Achilles stalks off to sulk in his tent, and the Achaeans come near to losing everything as the Trojans take advantage of the Phthian’s absence. The hero abandoning, for a time, the “cause,” is a common trope in ancient literature, but Alexander argues that Homer uses it as an opportunity to raise questions about why we fight and under what conditions must you obey a leader who is manifestly incompetent and wrong.
As an example of the first contention, the author points to Achilles’ reply to the embassy sent to try and convince him to return to the fray. Alexander writes, “Achilles, moreover, not only rejects the Embassy but…goes further, challenging the very premise of the heroic way of life” (p. 87):
I hate his gifts. I hold him light as a strip of a splinter….
…For not worth the value of my life are all the possessions they fable were won for Ilion, that strong-founded citadel, in the old days when there was peace, before the coming of the sons of the Achaeans….
Of possessions cattle and fat sheep are things to be had for the lifting, and the tripods can be won, and the tawny high heads of horses, but a man’s life cannot come back again, it cannot be lifted nor captured again by force, once it has crossed the teeth’s barrier. For my mother Thetis the goddess of the silver feet tells me I carry two sorts of destiny toward the day of my death. Either, if I stay here and fight beside the city of the Trojans, my return home is gone, but my glory shall be everlasting; but if I return home to the beloved land of my fathers, the excellence of my glory is gone, but there will be a long life left for me, and my end in death will not come to me quickly. And this would be my counsel to others also, to sail back home again, since no longer shall you find any term set on the sheer city of Ilion, since Zeus of the wide brows has strongly held his own hand over it, and its people are made bold.
Do you go back therefore to the great men of the Achaeans, and take them this message, since such is the privilege of the princes: that they think out in their minds some other scheme that is better, which might rescue their ships, and the people of the Achaeans who man the hollow ships, since this plan will not work for them which they thought of by reason of my anger. Let Phoinix remain here with us and sleep here, so that tomorrow he may come with us in our ships to the beloved land of our fathers, if he will; but I will never use force to hold him.
So he spoke, and all of them stayed stricken to silence in amazement at his words. (pp. 97-8)
The infamous Thersites articulates the second contention in his confrontation with Agamemnon, who has foolishly decided to test the Achaeans’ resolve by advocating that they go home:
It is not right for you, their leader, to lead in sorrow the sons of the Achaeans. My good fools, poor abuses, you women, not men, of Achaea, let us go back home in our ships, and leave this man here by himself in Troy to mull his prizes of honour that he may find out whether or not we others are helping him. And now he has dishonoured Achilles, a man much better than he is. He has taken his prize by force and keeps her. (p. 34)
A strength of the book is that it made me – once again – reconsider the character of Achilles and appreciate him as a human being far more than ever before. He does find a reason to return to the war – the death of Patroklos – and Alexander suggests a parallel between Achilles’ reaction and that of modern-day soldiers who lose comrades, “[c]ombat trauma undoes character” (p. 169):
So the glorious son of Priam addressed him, speaking in supplication, but heard in turn the voice without pity: Poor fool, no longer speak to me of ransom, nor argue it. In the time before Patroklos came to the day of his destiny than it was the way of my heart’s choice to be sparing of the Trojans, and many I took alive and disposed of them. Now there is not one who can escape death, if the gods send him against my hands in front of Ilion, not one of all the Trojans and beyond others the children of Priam. So, friend, you die also. (pp. 167-68)
Compare that to a modern soldier’s reflection:
I just went crazy. I pulled him out into the paddy and carved him up with my knife. When I was done with him, he looked like a rag doll that a dog had been playing with…. I lost all my mercy. I felt a drastic change after that…. I couldn’t do enough damage…. For every one that I killed I felt better. Made some of the hurt went [sic] away. Every time you lost a friend it seemed like a part of you was gone. Get one of them to compensate what they had done to me. I got very hard, cold, merciless. I lost all my mercy. (p. 169)
There is much more to Alexander’s arguments than the few points I’ve raised here, all equally fascinating and equally well presented by the author. E.g., she points out that Homer plays with readers’ expectations by describing visions of marching armies with scenes of life (pp. 39ff). Elsewhere, she argues that Hera’s extortion from Zeus of a promise to let Fate take its course reflects Homer’s recognition of the mutually destructive nature of war – no one can win, all are destroyed (pp. 60ff). Another observation I found interesting was the probable origin of “Achilles”: He was not a hero from the epic tradition but a figure of folktales. A late addition to the cycle that made him someone Homer could use to comment on the war (pp. 83ff).
While classicists and those obsessed with ancient Greek literature may find The War that Killed Achilles thin fare, the general reader will find it a valuable commentary on The Iliad and I would recommend it....more
Update (8/15/12): A week or so ago I listened to the Audio CD and was impressed - again - with just how good this book is. The reader (whose name I'veUpdate (8/15/12): A week or so ago I listened to the Audio CD and was impressed - again - with just how good this book is. The reader (whose name I've forgotten) does an excellent job, and I gained a better understanding of what I had read from listening to it.
Update (6/6/12): I found the short story I mentioned in my review below. It's from an anthology titled Starlight 3 and called "Wolves Till the World Goes Down," by Greg Van Eekhout. (view spoiler)[It's told from Hugin's POV (Hugin is "Thought," one of the ravens who are Odin's eyes and ears in the world), and recounts how Baldr plans to permanently die and, thus, break the prophecy of Ragnarök. (hide spoiler)]
In Ragnarök: The End of the Gods, A.S. Byatt recounts the Norse myth of the end of the world, and she favors the (probably) pre-Christian version where there’s no rebirth into the Field of Ida. Everything ends. Forever.
The earth was Surtr’s. His flames licked the wounded branches of Yggdrasil and shrivelled the deep roots. The homes of the gods fell into the lake of fire. Grieving Frigg, on her gold throne, sat and waited as the flames licked her door sills and ate up the foundations of the house. Unmoving, she flared, shrank black, and became ash amongst the falling ash.
Deep in the kelp forests Surtr’s fire boiled in the foundations of the sea. The holdfast of Rándrasill ripped loose and its lovely fronds lost colour, lost life, tossed in the seething water amongst the dead creatures it had once sheltered and sustained.
After a long time, the fire too died. All there was was a flat surface of black liquid glinting in the small pale points of light that still came through the starholes. A few gold chessmen floated and bobbed on the dark ripples. (pp. 143-4)
Unlike many authors in the Canongate Myth series, Byatt deliberately avoids recasting the myth to modernize it for her audience, giving the gods human emotions and motives, making them people like ourselves trying to get by or to make sense of the world. She wants, instead, to retain the mythic quality of the story. She wants Ragnarök to be unsatisfactory and tormenting. Unlike the fairy story or a modern novel, the reader shouldn’t contentedly close the cover satisfied that Good has triumphed over Evil and all live “happily ever after.” A myth should leave its reader (or hearer) puzzled and haunted by the world it presents, and humbled by incomprehensibility. (p. 161ff)
Her prose is (like good poetry) precise but lush and vital as in this description of Jörmungandr as she grows into her full strength:
All this time she grew. She was as long as a marching army on land. She was as wide as underwater caverns, stretching away and away into the dark. She spent more and more time in the darkest depths, where no sunlight came, where food was sparse and strangely lit with glowing reds and cobalt blues. She came across mountain ranges in the water, and belching chimneys and columns of hot gas. She sipped at the blank white shrimp down there, and picked the fringed worms from their crevices. Nothing saw her coming, for she was too vast for their senses to measure or expect. She was the size of a chain of firepeaks: her face was as large as a forest of kelp, and draped with things that clung to her fronds, skin, bones, shells, lost books and threads of snapped lines. She was heavy, very heavy. She crawled across beds of coral, rosy, green and gold, crushing the creatures, leaving in her wake a surface blanched, chalky, ghostly. (pp. 71-2)
Or in the description of the thin child’s days in the countryside:
The thin child fished in the pond for tadpoles and tiddlers, of which there was an endless multitude. She gathered great bunches of wild flowers, cowslips full of honey, scabious in blue cushions, dog-roses, and took them home, where they did not live long, which did not concern her, for there were always more springing up in their place. They flourished and faded and died and always came back next spring, and always would, the thin child thought, long after she herself was dead. Maybe most of all she loved the wild poppies, which made the green bank scarlet as blood. She liked to pick a bud that was fat and ready to open, green-lipped and hairy. Then with her fingers she would prise the petal-case apart, and extract the red, crumpled silk – slightly damp, she thought – and spread it out in the sunlight. She knew in her heart she should not do this. She was cutting a life short, interrupting a natural unfolding, for the pleasure of satisfied curiosity and the glimpse of the secret, scarlet, creased and frilly flower-flesh. Which wilted almost immediately between finger and thumb. But there were always more, so many more. It was all one thing, the field, the hedge, the ash tree, the tangled bank, the trodden path, the innumerable forms of life, of which the thin child, having put down her bundle and gas-mask, was only one among many. (pp. 35-6)
The framework in which Byatt tells her myth is the story of “a thin child in wartime.” It’s World War 2, and families are fleeing London and other major cities in anticipation of the Blitz. The thin child, an asthmatic girl whose father is away fighting, finds herself and her mother in the English countryside. She spends her days wandering the countryside and reading Asgard and the Gods and Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. This gives Byatt the opportunity to address a remarkable thematic range, such as the need to control and order the world (Odin and her father) vs. the darkness that lurks beyond the borders of Asgard or the walls of the garden (Loki and the world outside of the city). Another idea that resonated with me – related to the theme of order vs. chaos – is the pressure to conform. To choose security over risk, exemplified in what happens after the war ends and the thin child’s father – against all expectations – comes home and the family returns to the city:
They went back home, the thin child and the family. Home was a large grey house with a precipitous garden in the steel city, which had its own atmosphere which could be perceived as a wall of opaque sulphurous cloud, as they came in from the countryside to which they had been evacuated. The thin child’s lungs tightened desperately as the fog closed in on her….
The long-awaited return took the life out of the thin child’s mother…. Dailiness defeated her. She made herself lonely and slept in the afternoons, saying she was suffering from neuralgia and sick headaches. The thin child came to identify the word ‘housewife’ with the word ‘prisoner’. Fear of imprisonment haunted the thin child, although she did not quite acknowledge this….
But on the other side of the closed gate was the bright black world into which she had walked in the time of her evacuation. The World-Ash and the rainbow bridge, seeming everlasting, destroyed in a twinkling of an eye. The wolf with his hackles and bloody teeth, the snake with her crown of fleshy fronds, smiling Loki with fishnet and flames, the horny ship made of dead men’s nails, the Fimbulwinter and Surtr’s conflagration, the black undifferentiated surface, under a black undifferentiated sky, at the end of things. (pp. 148-54)
A third, was the need to build up defenses against loss, against futility. The gods huddle behind the walls of Asgard boasting of their prowess, feasting, and occasionally sallying forth to battle the monsters beyond the battlements. The thin child loses herself in imagining an eternal spring of poppied meadows and singing birds.
A final theme that I’ll mention is the inability of gods, men or giants to conceive of any alternative to Ragnarök:
They [the gods] are human because they are limited and stupid. They are greedy and enjoy fighting and playing games. They are cruel and enjoy hunting and jokes. They know Ragnarök is coming but are incapable of imagining any way to fend it off, or change the story. They know how to die gallantly but not how to make a better world. (p. 169)
Based on my own readings in evolutionary science, history and economics, this last seems a particularly appropriate description of our own times (which is – as Byatt explicitly states – a reason for why she wanted to write about Ragnarök in the first place). There is a short story, a copy of which I know I have stored somewhere in the apartment, that I read about 12 years ago (and shared with the HS English class I was teaching at the time) that directly addressed this point, imagining that one of the Aesir defied Fate and did try to “make a better world.” Unfortunately, I’ve forgotten its title and author, but I’ll find it and update this review when I do because it was a very good story and deserves more attention.
I originally gave Ragnarök: The End of the Gods three stars but upon reflection and rereading (at random) portions of the book in the course of writing this review, I’m persuaded to revise my initial reaction to four. I enjoyed Byatt’s writing and found a wealth of ideas to consider (or “digest,” as I mention in one of my comments below). In my case, at least, the author succeeded in leaving me puzzled and tormented (but in a good way). And there’s much more to this slim volume than what I’ve touched on here to puzzle and torment the reader, if they so wish.
As the Preacher says, “vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” and it’s all too easy to become nihilistic or apathetic. But I don’t think Byatt is either. There is an underlying optimism that the reader can see in the quote above where she writes “make a better world.” And I’m reminded of Ursula Le Guin’s image of our lives as candles that burn for a time and are then snuffed out. But, oh, what we can do for that time. Or Olaf Stapledon’s Last and First Men/Star Maker, where after a billion+ years of struggle (and 18 separate but human species), Man’s sojourn ends but: “Man himself, at the very least, is music, a brave theme that makes music also of its vast accompaniment, its matrix of storms and stars. Man himself in his degree is eternally a beauty in the eternal form of things. It is very good to have been man. And so we may go forward together with laughter in our hearts, and peace, thankful for the past, and for our own courage. For we shall make after all a fair conclusion to this brief music that is man.” (p. 246)
With four stars, it should go without writing that I recommend this book without reservation.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I initially gave this book two stars but upon a moderate amount of reflection, I'm bumping it up to three. It's still not a resounding three, but it'sI initially gave this book two stars but upon a moderate amount of reflection, I'm bumping it up to three. It's still not a resounding three, but it's more than 2.5, so I should round up (according to my math teachers at any rate).
Somehow, I became aware of the existence of Thomas Burnett Swann and what I read about him and his works intrigued me.
Green Phoenix is a tale about Aeneas and what happened when he brought his Trojans to Italy. The chief characters are Aeneas, his son Ascanius and the dryad Mellonia; and the antagonist is the dryad queen Volumna. It's a myth more than a novel so there's not much in the way of character development, and I found the writing style a bit odd (though by the end, I had become accustomed to it). Aeneas is depicted as a heroic warrior who doesn't enjoy war and is tormented by the destiny that forces him to abandon all of the women he loves. Ascanius comes across - in the beginning - as little more than a thug, a child so brutalized by war and the life he's lived for the last 20 years that women are little more than things to be raped and vessels to bear heirs. But he loves his father fiercely and is capable of feeling much more, a quality that becomes evident over the course of the story. Mellonia is an innocent dryad who bridges the gulf between Aeneas, his men and the coming Age of Iron and the remnants of the Golden & Silver Ages, the dryads, satyrs, fauns and other nonhuman inhabitants of Italy.
I'm still intrigued by Swann's work and continue to keep my eye out for the books that initially attracted me to him - Wolfwinter, How Are the Mighty Fallen, and The Gods Abide - but I'm still on the fence with him and can't quite recommend him yet.
On a side note - This is my first Kindle book. Yes, I finally took the plunge and acquired an electronic-book reader. I think I like it; I certainly like the fact that I now have the complete works of Shakespeare and H.P. Lovecraft at my fingertips any time I want (assuming the battery's charged) and I downloaded Andre Norton's Plague Ship for free. I've yet to learn how to bookmark my favorite passages though :-(
So far my experience with the Kindle library is like my experience with Netflix's streaming library: Yes, there are many books (movies) available but there are still far too many books (movies) that I want to read (watch) that aren't....more
I like Finland, and while I'm happy enough to be descended from Celts on both sides of the family, I could wish to have some Finnish sap running throuI like Finland, and while I'm happy enough to be descended from Celts on both sides of the family, I could wish to have some Finnish sap running through the family tree.
This is a quickly readable English translation (in free verse) of Vainamoinen's
wooing of Louhi's
daughter (sorry, no picture of the maid).
Louhi's daughter, Aila, is surprisingly astute - (view spoiler)[she'll have neither suitor (hide spoiler)] - though whether this is because she's a willful 14-year-old or canny enough to know what it's like to be married to a hero is up to the reader to decide.
Free (or only a penny) on the Kindle, this was more than worth it.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
I’m giving Percival Everett’s For Her Dark Skin a cool three stars. It’s a retelling of the Medea myth (following Euripides’ own rather late interpretI’m giving Percival Everett’s For Her Dark Skin a cool three stars. It’s a retelling of the Medea myth (following Euripides’ own rather late interpretation*) but it falls rather short of saying something new – at least to me.
As Christa Wolf does in her Medea, Everett tells the tale in brief chapters told from various points of view, chief among them being Jason, the traditional hero of the myth; Polydeuces, the brother of Helen of Troy and in this version Jason’s friend; Tamar, a woman of Corinth and Polydeuces’ wife; and Medea.** While all four are rather richly developed characters, and I liked how the latter three interacted with each other, I couldn’t accept the sum total of their interactions. By which I mean that I could never accept Medea and Jason getting together in the first place. In the myth, Aphrodite has her son Eros shot Medea with an arrow of love, making it fated that she would fall for Jason and help him steal the fleece, even to the extent of murdering her own brother, Apsyrtus. But in For Her Dark Skin, the gods, as real beings, are absent. Medea excuses her actions as the result of Eros’ arrow (and she even has converse with the imp in parts of the novel) but these can be construed as her own consciousness rationalizing her actions. Aside from Eros, no other god appears as a character. Given that and given that we understand from Medea’s first appearance that she despises Jason, I couldn’t believe that she would do all she does for him.
There are hints, however, of deeper motivations that a longer novel might have brought out to greater effect. For example, Everett usually portrays Medea as worldly and wise but elsewhere hints at a youthfulness and naiveté suggesting the Medea who fell in love with Jason was a moonstruck teen-ager. Or there’s the possibility that Medea sees Jason as a means to escape a life she finds stultifying (a decision she quickly comes to regret). The dissonance within the characterization of the novel’s chief character is the book’s greatest weakness.
That said, I still liked the book (though I’m glad I first read Everett’s more mature novels; I’m not sure I would have read more from him if this had been my first): Recommended with caveats.
Finally, there are some instances of terrific writing or interesting lines that I can’t fit into the review but which I found interesting: Jason and Medea are the quintessential dysfunctional couple. While Medea has scoped Jason out very well, Jason is such a self-centered imbecile that it’s almost comical. For example, Jason expects Medea to be the perfect (ancient) Greek wife: submissive and compliant to her husband’s wishes. In one scene, as told from Jason’s POV, he berates her for leaving his presence without permission:
She gained her feet and her balance, for a second, seemed to desert her. She became steady, straightened, and walked away toward her chamber.
“Medea!” I shouted.
“I have not dismissed you.”
She turned to face me. “Would you repeat that?” she asked.
“I have not dismissed you.”
Her eyes teared. (p. 102)
The same scene as told from Medea’s POV:
I could find no words that this creature would understand, none that would find entry into his tunnel of perception. So, I stood and started for my bed. He stopped me with a shout and I turned to hear him say –
“I have not dismissed you.” Twice he said it.
“And you do well not to,” I said. (p. 103)
I also liked these two quotes:
“Spare me your lofty philosophy, your oriental rambling. I truly believe that men should never set out for adventure; they learn things, but gain no wisdom.” (p. 46)
“It struck me that man was the only creature capable of denying something known to be true. Nature had not done well by us.” (p. 115)
* Everett makes Tamar a cousin of Euripides. One chapter is a letter from her to him laying out what’s happening in Corinth.
** Polydeuces is perhaps better known to the general public by his Latin name of Pollux. He is the twin brother of Castor and (as mentioned above) his sister is Helen of Troy. Aside from his attested participation in the quest for the Golden Fleece, Everett largely ignores Polydeuces’ accepted mythography. Tamar is wholly an invention of Everett’s....more
I’ve never liked Achilles but the more times I read The Iliad and related material, the more I’ve come to appreciate the difficulties he faced. Do youI’ve never liked Achilles but the more times I read The Iliad and related material, the more I’ve come to appreciate the difficulties he faced. Do you act in the world and risk failure or the betrayal of everything you hold true? Or do you – in effect – keep your head down and hope the gods take no notice of you? (I can’t buy into the Bronze Age warrior ethic of Homer nor its modern equivalent but I can understand that fear of acting, and in that sense I have a deep sympathy for Achilles.) Even on a simple (hah!) personal level, acting is a terrifying thing: Do I quit my dead-end, boring job? Do I ask that person out? How far do I go to keep my aging cats healthy? Doing something – anything – leaves you open to its consequences. And it is that idea that has made The Iliad and now Ransom such interesting reads for me as a maturing reader.
In the 24th book of The Iliad, Zeus, disturbed at Achilles’ excessive grief over Patroclus’ death and his attempts to defile Hector’s body, sends Thetis to tell her son that he must surrender the body, and Iris to Priam to tell him that he must take a ransom to secure it. This sets up one of the more poignant episodes of the epic, when Priam approaches Achilles and begs for his son’s corpse (the text is from this edition of Stephen Mitchell’s translation):
Then Priam spoke to Achilles in supplication: “Remember your father, Achilles. He is an old man like me, approaching the end of his life. Perhaps he too is worn down by enemy troops, with no one there to protect him from chaos and ruin. Yet he at least, since he knows that you are alive, feels joy in his heart and, every day, can look forward to seeing his child, whom he loves dearly, come home. My fate is less happy. I fathered the bravest men in the land of Troy, yet not one remains alive. I had fifty sons before the Achaeans came here, nineteen from a single woman, and all the rest were borne to me by other wives in my palace. Most of my sons have been killed in this wretched war. The only one I could truly count on, the one who guarded our city and all its people – you killed him a few days ago as he fought to defend his country: Hector. It is for his sake that I have come, to beg you for his release. I have brought a large ransom. Respect the gods now. Have pity on me; remember your father. For I am more to be pitied than he is, since I have endured what no mortal ever endured: I have kissed the hands of the man who slaughtered my children. 24.475-497
In Ransom, David Malouf has taken this all-too-brief moment of compassion in the midst of dreadful war and has expanded upon it to create a modern novel that explores the possibilities of ignoring Fate.
The novel begins with Achilles brooding on the beach, reflecting on his life and his destiny. Malouf’s Achilles rages not at Agamemnon’s insult (though it’s the catalyst) but against his fate: “But in some other part of himself, the young man he is resists, and it is the buried rage of that resistance that drives him out each morning to tramp the shore” (p. 10). To add to his misery, he now feels guilt that Patroclus has died in his place and apart from him, and he feels trapped: “He is waiting for the break. For something to appear that will break the spell that is on him, the self-consuming rage that drives him and wastes his spirit in despair” (p. 35).
That “break” soon appears in the guise of Priam, who conceives of an audacious plan to recover his son’s body. Audacious because it calls upon him to act as a simple man, not the king he has been nearly his entire life.
Malouf’s Priam, like his children Cassandra and Helenus, is prone to inspirations from the gods, and one night he is visited by Iris – goddess of the rainbow and Zeus’ messenger – who whispers in his ear the blasphemous idea that the way things are is not how they must be in a world “that is also subject to chance” and gives him a vision of a night-time journey, accompanied only by one companion, to the Achaean camp.
From the day he was born, except for one brief, traumatic moment, Priam has been ringed about by ritual, tradition and expectations based upon his sacred role as king. It’s a sterile life, cut off from any real contact with other humans – even in what should be the most intimate of relationships: husband/wife, father/children. But he senses the possibility in the act of approaching Achilles as a simple man, a father. The possibility to confound what Fate and the gods have in store for Troy, if only for a moment [the 12-day truce]. Similarly, when Achilles sees Priam in his tent, he realizes the possibilities the old man’s appearance opens up - though neither has the strength at the end to seize them. Which, for me, is the real tragedy of The Iliad and of this novel: We see the man Achilles might have become. An honor-bound warrior – yes; a god-like killing machine – yes; but also a man capable of empathy and compassion (a notion I don’t think entirely alien to Homer’s original).
There’s a third character – Somax – the humble carter whose cart and mules are hired for the trip to the Achaean camp, and who – for that night – takes on the persona of Idaeus, the king’s herald. Somax is Priam’s gateway into the world of humanity; and their journey is Priam’s introduction to what he’s lost by being king. There are near-lyrical scenes where the old king marvels at cooling his feet in a river or learning how to make griddle-cakes (realizing for the first time that a real person makes them).
The climactic scene reprises – of course – the episode from The Iliad quoted above but with subtle differences that deepen the poignancy of Homer’s description:
“Father,” he [Achilles] says again, aloud this time, overcome with tenderness for this old man and his trembling frailty. “Peleus! Father!”
The great Achilles, eyes aswarm, is weeping. With a cry he falls on one knee*, and leans out to clasp his father’s robe. Automedon and Alcimus, their swords now drawn and gleaming, leap to his side.
Achilles, startled, looks again….
“I am Priam, King of Troy,” he says simply. “I have come to you, Achilles, just as you see me, just as I am, to ask you, man to man, as a father, for the body of my son. To ransom and bring him home.” (pp. 174-5)
The only reason I’m not giving this book five stars is a personal disagreement with how Malouf handles the gods. In the beginning, when Iris visits Priam in his bed-chamber, there’s an ambiguity about what the gods are. Are they real or are they products of mortal minds? Priam is alone. He’s prone to visions. Could Iris be his subconscious creating the only thing that could move him from his appointed role, the cage he’s constructed around himself – a god? That ambiguity is sacrificed when Somax and Priam meet the quite real figure of Hermes as they cross the Trojan plain. Unfortunately, in my view. I would have liked the author to retain that sense of ambiguity.
That aside, I very strongly recommend this novel.
And on a similar note: As you may have gathered, one of the principal reasons I thoroughly enjoyed reading (and rereading for this review) Ransom is the theme of denying the existence of Fate, and I was reminded of two tales that I would also recommend: The short story “Wolves Until the World Goes Down” by Greg Van Eekhout (in Starlight 3) and China Miéville's Un Lun Dun. The former is a subversive tale about Ragnarök and breaking the chains of Fate. The latter begins as the usual tale of a chosen hero who will defeat the evil ruler but soon switches gears entirely to become a story about an entirely different hero who ignores the maunderings of hoary old Fate to make her own destiny.
* Note the inversion of roles in Malouf’s version....more