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Books You Should Own, But Probably Don't. Part 1: Literature: Epic Poetry (Iliad, Odyssey, Aenied, Etc.).
This is part one in a new series of hubs all of which are designed to inform and guide anyone who might want to know a little bit more about the rich tradition of art, letters and philosophy we have inherited from those who came before us.
Often times it is difficult to know what books are worthwhile, or what to expect inside. This series will give brief overviews of different works from different fields of fiction, history, drama, philsophy, and critical theory in order to help someone unfamiliar with the literary canon not only learn a little bit about our rich culture and heritage as human beings, but also make wiser investments when purchasing books for both pleasure and serious study.
I have even researched the books on amazon.com and have links to both affordable and more impressive volumes of the works. There will be several forthcoming hubs all with a specific theme or type of literature.
One of the earliest forms of literature on this planet was epic poetry. It can be defined as long, narrative poetry that evolved as an amalgamation of what were originally diverse and numerous oral traditions. As cultures traveled, warred, developed, and disappeared, these stories grew and were passed back and forth as they evolved and took unique shape. Sometimes these tales evolved into completely different ancient texts (take for example Gilgamesh and the Bible's nearly identical "flood" stories).
Somewhere along the way people started collecting these stories into long tales. The Greeks, who were the dominant society in the Mediterranean, told many stories about their gods and heroes of long ago. Homer, who is normally credited with the writing of the Iliad and the Odyssey, was truly more a capstone, a man who stood upon the shoulders of an entire history of storytelling. The Iliad and the Odyssey are the two longest oldest remaining examples of Epic Poetry available to us today, but they are by no means the only.
This hub will only cover a few pieces as it is impossible to own every book and the point of this series is to create a diverse and cultured collection without having to have an entire library.
Translated by Stanley Lombardo.
Homer's first remaining epic is part of the story of the Trojan War. There is a large misconception that the entire story of Paris and Helen and the fall of Troy is in the Illiad. In fact very little of the story is conveyed. The two major events in the Iliad are the Trojan Horse and the fight between Achilles and Hector. The story is much about the glory of war, but it is also about the cost of vanity. Homer's works also instruct and reinforce virtues and morals that would help society to survive in prehistoric times. These are things such as fealty, respect for the gods, hospitality to strangers, and the overwhelming power of fate. All of these themes weave their way through a tale of battle and loss, a tale of victory and spoils, and a tale of the biggest war in the ancient world. Lombardo's translation is excellent and modern and will be very readable to someone unfamiliar with reading verse. His diction is purposely familiar to a late 20th, early 21st audience. This volume would be a great addition to any library.
This is the same as above, only in a nicer hard back edition.
Notice the cover art. I think it is really powerful in all Lombardo translations.
Translated by Stanley Lombardo.
This is the companion piece to Homer's Iliad. Instead of covering the 10 years of war in Troy, it follows the adventures of Odysseus, one of the only surviving Greek generals, on his journey home to Ithaca. Odysseus's journey is so long and winding that it spawned the whole idea of an "epic journey". Indeed it is truly one of the originals, if not the original, epic adventure. Complete with sirens, cyclops, witches, gods, and bloody fight scenes, Odysseus does as much to aggrandize the reputation of epics as it will your collection. One of the best parts about the poem is that it is episodic and you can start anywhere within it and follow a shorter story-cycle within the whole narrative.
It is the must-have companion piece to the Iliad and helps form the corner stone of what would eventually become the entertainment industry.
The same as above, only in a heavy bind for serious collectors.
"Go big or go home."
Translated by Stanley Lombardo.
Virgil, the national poet of Rome, was commissioned by Caesar to write an epic poem the likes of Homer's that would give Rome it's rightful place in literary tradition. The unfinished epic, the Aeneid, is the result of that commission. It was surrounded by controversy as a propagandistic work, and as the story goes, Virgil himself asked it be destroyed upon his death bed.
The story itself is about a young son of Priam of Troy who leads the survivors of Troy (for Rome wished to appropriate a tradition to make them appear as old and powerful as the Greek stories they aped) on an odyssey of an adventure that ends with the founding of Rome. The epic is not quite complete, and the story gets cut short. This can be said to be true of much literature though, many unfinished works have passed the test of time, following Virgil's imperfect, yet inspired classic.
In style the work is so similar to Homer that, in Lombardo's hand, it feels almost penned from the same story and has effectively achieved Caesar's dream of giving Rome life and legend to match Greece.
A more reasonably priced version, but not translated by Lombardo.
Ovid, or the other Roman poet, wrote not long after Virgil. He was only about thirty years younger. But rather than try to copy the Greek style in the epic, Ovid turned it on its head. Instead of one long narrative of a hero on a journey or at war, countless stories that seem hardly related are weaved together out of the materials of all the mythology the Roman's had appropriated from the lands they conquered, like Greece. By the time Ovid wrote, the stories were so saturated in the culture he lived and studied in that almost everyone knew them. So when Ovid wrote, he changed things, he paired new characters in different situations and told stories backwards or farcically different in order to satirize the form of poetry that was, by then, in need of a fresh approach, at least in Ovid's mind. It is ironic now that the backwards presentation of the canon of Roman Myths is the oldest and most complete surviving copy we have of many of the smaller tales not included in Homer. The names have been changed, for the Romans did that, but the characters are mostly the same. One interesting note is that it is in Ovid the stories of Echo and Narcissus were first combined. It is the literary skill of Ovid that saw the potential of interweaving these two myths. Metamorphoses is fascinating, dizzying, complex, huge, and at times rotations of disgusting and hilarious. It would make a great addition to any collection of serious literature.
Want to fill out a shelf or two in your new guest room, but actually want the books to be as good as the look? Here's the copy you are looking for.
John Milton's Paradise Lost
During the Protestant Reformation in England in the 17th century, John Milton wrote one of the last true "epics" ever. Milton may also have been the last true "Renaissance Man" as he pretty much knew everything there was to know and was master of all disciplines of learning the western world had developed. After the 17th century mechanistic thinking and science grew far too fast for a single man to ever once again be capable of knowing all there was to know. Milton's epic, much like Virgil's, takes its cue from Homer and attempts to appropriate the form to aggrandize something other than the Trojan War. Virgil wanted to glorify Rome, but Milton? He wanted to glorify God of the Bible. Yes, Paradise Lost is a golden-age Greek treating of the book of Genesis, the Garden of Eden, and the fall of man. Complete with heavenly weapons of destruction, Satan's bride and son, a complex and intriguing Eve, Milton's epic has done more than he may have ever intended. In fact, William Blake, a gifted and brilliant poet, has suggested Milton's epic does not glorify Genesis at all, but rather undermines it by making Eve and Satan as the most realistic and likable characters. In the end it is a staggering work of a brilliant man. Milton, who went blind as he aged, even wrote a smaller sequel called "Paradise Regained," though it was not near as epic in its scope or form as its predecessor. Milton's work is a great addition to any collection because it is not only a much more exciting version of the first chapters of the Bible, but does far more to inform our relationship with the Bible than Milton could ever have intended.
A nicer, hard back version of Milton's classic.
Coming Next: 20th Century American Literature
These five works are just a selection in the vein of Epic Poetry and are a great starting place for anyone who has ever been interested in our literary heritage.
Next installment will cover 20th century American Literature for something to balance out all the dry reading of those ancient and epic poems!