You've got to love a story about a feud that spans centuries and whose original motivating factor was a poop.
This is one of those old Icelandic sagasYou've got to love a story about a feud that spans centuries and whose original motivating factor was a poop.
This is one of those old Icelandic sagas that everyone would like to have read but never seem to get around to reading. It's a history of the settlement of Iceland and the introduction of Christianity. But there are also ghosts and spears through throats and stuff, so it's a lot of fun, too.
The most obvious hazard in this book is the reader's status as stranger in a strange land. Unless you're a time traveling Viking, all of this is likely to be unfamiliar territory for you. There are more Thorolfs and Thorirs and Thorleifs and Thorbrandssons and Bjorns and Altabjorns and Bjornsons than anyone is likely to want to shake a stick at, making the long list of characters (in a short book, I might add) immensely more confusing than the last tome about Russian aristocracy you read.
It's a funny little book. It can't seem to pick a subject and stick with it, which is why you should make sure to read a good introduction to the work before you embark. As you're reading, it's hard to keep in mind what's really happening and how it relates to what you've already read.
But as with its distant cousins the Iliad and the Arthurian legends, the persistent and thorough reader will be rewarded with a wealth of great scenes, short stories, and characters. If there's a unifying theme in this book, it's that men are fickle creatures, and what better theme could you have for an ancient text than that?...more
How old is the novel? Can you identify the first novel? I've heard lots of people say Don Quixote is the first. It was written in the early seventeentHow old is the novel? Can you identify the first novel? I've heard lots of people say Don Quixote is the first. It was written in the early seventeenth century. The most commonly cited first novel is The Tale of Genji, dated to the late tenth, early eleventh century. If you google the words "oldest novel", Genji is the top result.
I don't understand how this and other ancient Greek novels were overlooked, though. Heliodorus's work, alternatively known as Aithiopika, An Ethiopian Story, etc. is a 250+ page novel about two lovers cast about the Egyptian, Persian and Ethiopian countrysides, continuously falling in and out of captivity, always in danger of being sacrificed to a heathen god or killed in battle or sold into slavery. It is a novel by any common definition. And it predates Genji by about 700 years. The truly oldest novel known to the modern world, Chariton's Callirhoe, was written in the first century of the common era, almost a thousand years before Genji. I'm sure Genji is a fine piece of writing, but COME ON, PEOPLE!
As for the book itself... it's an incredibly fun adventure story, filled with swashbuckling and horse riding and wrestling matches. It's basically the authentic The Princess Bride.
Another thing that makes it really interesting and fun is that it's a book of stories within stories within stories. Often, a character will start a story only to meet a character within his story who would like to tell a story of his own, within which, of course, lies another story. This is known as subsequent layers (a fact taught to me by the all-knowing Wikipedia.) It can get confusing, but it's all riveting stuff. And all the stories are relevant to the main plot, unlike many of the digressive stories of Don Quixote or the essays within Les Misérables.
And I must mention that William Shakespeare was apparently a fan. He references Aithiopika in Twelfth Night when he writes:
Why should I not, had I the heart to do it, Like to the Egyptian thief at point of death, Kill what I love?
Aithiopika feels very Shakespearean, in fact. It has the gravity of Shakespeare's tragedies without itself being a tragedy. Its intricate and complex plot recalls those of the bard.
Obviously, highly recommended. It's not easy to find, however. I figured it would be readily available on the interwebs in ebook format, but all I could find were badly scanned PDFs. I would recommend getting Collected Ancient Greek Novels, which will give you several ancient gems, including the aforementioned oldest extant novel....more
Far less exhilarating than I anticipated; far less Freudian than I expected. As the Electra complex is the female equivalent of Oedipus, so I expectedFar less exhilarating than I anticipated; far less Freudian than I expected. As the Electra complex is the female equivalent of Oedipus, so I expected Electra to be that of Oedpius, but Electra, the play and the character, are vastly inferior creations....more
How to review Herodotus? It's much like trying to review the Bible. Most would probably say something like, "I liked the blood and guts and stories abHow to review Herodotus? It's much like trying to review the Bible. Most would probably say something like, "I liked the blood and guts and stories about the cheating wives of kings; the genealogies were boring." But I found the entire book utterly captivating. It's something special to be able to lose yourself in a world that's completely different from your own, that has a rich history of its own with strange characters and stranger frontiers.
Herodotus is truly a child of the world, marveling at its every wonder. To the modern reader, much of what he writes is quaintly naive (and at times pretty racist). For instance, when describing Indians (a people he located in the very northwestern part of what we now know as India), he says that they "dwell farthest to the east and closest to the sunrise. For east of the Indians lies an uninhabitable desert of nothing but sand." (3.98.2) These Indians also "have intercourse out in the open just like animals" and "the seed they ejaculate into their wives is not white like that of the rest of men, but black like their skin and like the semen of the Ethiopians." (3.101.1-2) And in describing the land of Egypt, he constantly spews wildly inaccurate exoticisms. He describes the symbiotic relationship between an alligator and a plover (bird); the alligator, who is the most vicious creature in the world, opens its mouth to let the plover eat the leeches from his gums (not true, despite the misinformation still circling today, even). There is a report of ants that are smaller than dogs but larger than foxes who gather gold out of the desert. He tells a story about a race of one-eyed men who steal gold from gold-hoarding griffins, but he discounts the story because he can't believe in the existence of one-eyed men (the eagle-headed lion, however, he has no trouble accepting.)
Herodotus's histories are great fodder for contemporary literature. I have no doubt that every story that could be told had already been told by the time of Herodotus. The influence of literature like this is most plainly seen in fantasy works; after all, the ancient Greeks lived in a fantasy world, where gods wreaked havoc and monsters resided in the shadows. George R.R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire would never have existed without Herodotus and the works of his peers. His tyrants, whores, valiant knights, plots of political intrigue and betrayal, may very well have all been lifted right off the papyri of these ancient texts. And no one could blame him for doing so. This is good stuff.
So Herodotus is truly a child of the world, marveling at its every wonder. But if he's so gullible, can we really call this history? My answer is that I don't really care what you call it. This is better than history. It's entertaining, it's fascinating, it's educational at times. Much like the Bible, it's got a bit of everything. It's a collage of knowledge, ancient rumors, wild speculation, and bewildering stories, that's begging out to be read and enjoyed by even such a removed generation as ours.
P.S. A quick note on the Landmark edition, translated by Andrea L. Purvis and edited by Robert B. Strassler. With all these maps and appendices and copious footnotes, why would you ever read a different edition? It's well worth it to shell out a few more bones for this one. ...more
What can I do to win eternal life? Wherever I go - even here - I am drawn back to death.
I always thought Gilgamesh was the monster that was slain in hWhat can I do to win eternal life? Wherever I go - even here - I am drawn back to death.
I always thought Gilgamesh was the monster that was slain in his eponymous epic poem; likewise, Beowulf. Both protagonists have monsterish, evil-ish sounding names. So what I expected to discover in Gilgamesh was an action-packed hero story akin to Beowulf, but I was pleasantly surprised to find much more depth here. This epic poem is a treatise on suffering, friendship, mortality, loss, and redemption. And rather than Beowulf, it has the flavor of the Bible, Homer, and Hans Christian Andersen's folk tales.
The story of Gilgamesh focuses on the characters of Gilgamesh the oppressive king of Uruk and Enkidu the feral man-beast, between whom the greatest bromance ever known is struck. Together they slay a couple monsters and heavenly beasts, but for their impudence Enkidu is sentenced to death by the gods. Gilgamesh then wanders the earth in search of relief from his intense loss, which is where the story gets good. And not only is the story emotionally and philosophically interesting; being so old, it's got a lot of historical and religious significance in its parallels to the Bible. Could Gilgamesh's account of a primal flood be a precursor to Noah's flood? Is the serpent who tricks Gilgamesh out of something very important an analogue of Adam and Eve's serpent?
If you're scared off by the word "epic", don't be. It's not epic in the sense of Lord of the Rings or The Iliad, because it's very short. I read it in about an hour and a half. So instead of watching a crappy movie on Netflix tonight, take a while to read one of the oldest pieces of literature in the world. It's worth it....more