Reading · Teaching

Primary and Secondary Epics, or Why Virgil is Harder than Homer

Primary vs. Secondary Epics, or why students have more trouble with the Aeneid than the Odyssey

My students finished the Odyssey last week. I think it went well. We had good talks about all the things—from the mythic underpinnings to the historical details to the glory of oral formulae and the literary delights of the epic simile. (They found the animal similes charming—Odysseus as lion, as octopus… I still prefer Odysseus imaged as a sausage rolling in a pan, close to bursting.) We even discussed translation issues, and the fact that class issues are not obscured in Emily Wilson’s new translation—slave status was clearer than ever.

And we wrapped up, thinking this old tale is still beautiful, provocative, useful, and relevant. Mission accomplished.

Then we started Virgil’s Aeneid. And many of them balked.

It’s harder to read. They feel like they’re missing something. It’s so dense. And they’re absolutely right.

The Odyssey is a primary epic. Even though we pin our hopes on someone named Homer, it doesn’t feel authored. It feels straightforward, accumulative, formulaic, inevitable. It feels like it has been composed orally, around hundreds of hearths. It reads quickly, and it’s full of action. Everyone felt able to comment because it invites everyone inside. It builds its lessons by comparing examples of how to treat guests, for instance.  

The Aeneid, in contrast, is VERY authored. Commissioned by Augustus Caesar to give weight to the destiny of Rome, this story follows the Trojan survivor, Aeneas, on a comparable path through the Aegean and Mediterranean Seas, but continues on to the west coast of Italy, where he will found the city of Rome. The content is comparable, but everything else is different.

First, Virgil has a commission. He’s writing for the emperor—the most glorious audience, about the origins of Rome—the most glorious of subjects. So he’d better make it sound glorious. He does. But what makes a poem glorious can also make it difficult. He uses elevated language; he relies on his audience for allusions he makes to other texts and myths; he weaves in subtext about the possible collateral damage on the way to Rome. Especially for the protagonist, Aeneas, the founding of Rome must take precedence over anything he might want for his personal life—a happy second marriage in Carthage, for instance.

So we have a lot to unpack that we didn’t when reading The Odyssey. The poem begins, for instance, with Juno raging about Aeneas’s relative success. It summarizes neatly three main reasons Juno despises Aeneas. (Trojans have spurned her beauty and taken her daughter’s job, not to mention the fact that Trojan-founded Rome is destined to overthrow her cherished Carthage in the Punic Wars.) Virgil expects that his audience is familiar all these intertexts, and that they know the history of Troy and its many founders, and all the variant names of Roman gods. Spoiler alert: we don’t.

This means the first day of the Aeneid discussion was more literary and history lecture than most. It was more damage control and me assuring them that it was a really good story, worth the time to sink in to. Fortunately, there’s plenty to appeal. All I have to do (with any text, really) is show them where to look.

What you gain with an author over a folk composition is detail. Virgil details scenes and the emotions they evoke with painstaking, breathtaking precision. When the old Trojan king, Priam, dies at the hands of Achilles’s son, all the pathos of the young, disrespectful thug desecrating the sacred altar of the Trojan gods bring one to tears:

                “…he dragged him to the very altar stone,
                with Priam shuddering and slipping in
                the blood that streamed from his own son. And Pyrrhus
                with his left hand clutched tight the hair of Priam;
                his right hand drew his glistening blade, and then
                he buried it hilt-high in the king’s side.
                This was the end of Priam’s destinies.” (Aeneid II. 738-43)

And when Dido falls in love with Aeneas, tempting him to linger in Carthage, his divine mandate to leave and get back to his destiny makes Dido desperate, and she lashes out at him:

“Deceiver, did you even hope to hide
so harsh a crime, to leave this land of mine
without a word? Can nothing hold you back–
neither your love, the hand you pledged, nor even
the cruel death that lies in wait for Dido?” (IV. 410-14)

She vacillates between outrage and despair, and she sounds at once timeless and current–psychologically real. That’s what an author adds that oral formulae don’t achieve. These characters pulse and bleed. We feel we know them. The emotions  they feel are real and immediate; we feel with them.

So it may take a little longer to get in to, but when we do, all will be well. Authored texts offer different experiences, and they’re usually the kind that English majors respond well to—ones where we can talk about how knowledge of the culture and the author add to our understanding. Folk texts are not less cool, with their archetypes and patterns and regional “flavors.” But they are different. It depends on whether you’re in the mood to read about “Jack” or Jay Gatsby. You get to choose.

Except when it’s assigned for a class. Then you read what is assigned. Yes, there will be a quiz.

Living · Reading

Learning to Love

At our most base and primitive, all we care about is ourselves—survival. We protect ourselves and our families, so the line will survive. We hoard. We fight. We resist others and fear them because they may take what we need to survive.

But the history of world civilization—and of mythology, literature, and religion—is the history of refuting those impulses, of raising us up to higher selves, of forming communities and cultures that enhance the lives of all. These help us to thrive, not just survive.

This is why so many cultures have a myth or parable about gods visiting humans in disguise: why The Odyssey is essentially a long disquisition on hospitality; why Odin and Thor visit Midgard and Jesus appears to poor people to test their generosity. Because even though the strong, animal instinct in us compels us to protect what we have and exclude others, the higher path, the path toward community and humanity, is helping others.

In Ovid’s Metamorphoses¸ Zeus visits Lycaon and, disgusted by his behavior (Lycaon does not believe Zeus is a god and tries to feed him human flesh and plots his murder). Zeus’s reaction is to flood the world and kill off this undeserving race.  The lesson here is multiple, including an admonition to have faith in the gods, but how one demonstrates that faith is in being a good host. Lycaon should have fed his guest, offered him shelter, protected him—not tried to kill him.

Lycaon should have read The Odyssey.

Photo of children embracing their animal natures. In children, it’s ok. 🙂

In The Odyssey, Odysseus the Greek hero and king of Ithaka is trying to get home from the Trojan War. His journey is a return trip. The main action of the war has passed (see The Iliad), and all he’s trying to do is get back. Why? That’s not really as exciting a premise for a book as chronicling the cause and scope of a war. It’s not a meteoric rise to fame for a hero who fights a monster or saves a maiden. It’s a voyage. It’s full of scenes where Odysseus is welcomed or attacked, of examples of good hospitality and, for lack of a better phrase, bad hospitality. The Odyssey is about how to treat people, and ultimately about how to be human.

Odysseus fails with some regularity.

He starts out with a host of men. Some are eaten by Laestrygonians. Some are eaten by a cyclops. Some are eaten by Scylla, the flying monster with six heads who fills each of her six gullets with one of his men. You’re seeing a trend here, yeah? It’s not about the guys; they’re essentially pawns (“red shirts,” in Star Trek parlance). It’s about Odysseus learning to be a person who is worthy to rule when he gets back to Ithaka. Odysseus learns how to deal with all different kinds of humans and monsters. He stops all over the Aegean on his way back, and when he stops in lands governed by good kings, he is welcomed and feasted and encouraged to speak. When he stops at a monster’s house, his guys get eaten. Lesson? Anyone? Humans, at least good ones, welcome guests. They care for their fellow human beings. They give of their resources, knowing that if they are washed adrift, they’ll be able to count on being welcomed and sheltered and protected.

The Christian tradition (and others) shares these stories. In the Old Testament, God floods the world when people forget how to be good people. In the New Testament, we are reminded to show hospitality because some have “entertained angels unawares” (Hebrews 13.2). And then there is the story of Jesus visiting the shopkeeper in the guise of three poor people (Johnny Cash’s “The Christmas Guest,” which derives from Helen Steiner Rice’s version of a French folktale, probably).

It’s a common enough trope, though. The same scene begins Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, really. A powerful enchantress tests the young French lord, and when he fails to be gracious and generous to another human being, she punishes him by turning him in to a beast. He acted no better than an animal; his appearance should reflect his monstrosity.

Why do we have to keep telling this tale? Does each generation need to learn it for themselves? Are we still so ruled by fear of scarcity that we require acculturating over and over again?


Fortunately there is no shortage of material, ancient to contemporary, that we can read or watch or listen to in order to find this lesson. To quote a friend who has learned it very well, “We belong to each other.”


Loving the World: The Literature Approach

I had a cousin who was always fascinated with Japanese culture. He spent a lot of time and travel learning everything he could about it, and he worked it in to his life in lots of ways. With a Welsh last name, he didn’t know he had any genetic tie to Japan until he did a spit-in-a-tube DNA kit, which confirmed for him what he had always felt and even hoped: 5-10% East Asian ancestry.
But what about when you love something you have no claim to—just love?
My relationship with the Finnish Kalevala is long and convoluted. And there is, so far as I can tell, not a cell of Finnish in my body. I don’t care.
When I was nine, my aunt gave me a book about eggs for Christmas. It was a weird little book—not really for kids, I don’t think. I have seen it since (and books like it) in gift shops and bookstores over the years. It’s a little, hardbound, dust-jacketed gift book, with lots of folklore, vintage postcards, customs, and legends about eggs from all over the world. If it were bigger, it would be a coffee table book.
I read the whole book, but a few pages I must have read a hundred times over the years. Some had images that worked on my imagination, sticking there, rolling around, popping up when tangentially related topics or stories crossed my path. I grew up wanting to know how to make Ukrainian pysanky (I learned in grad school, as one does). I knew a Slavonian tale about a witch who turned an egg shell in to a boat. And I learned the weird, spell-like word Kalevala.
One two-page spread had an excerpt from the Kalevala, titled CREATION OF HEAVEN AND EARTH, which, in retrospect, seems momentous enough to catch a kid’s attention. The text describes the water mother Ilmatar, who lifts herself out of the sea, becomes a perch for a bird’s nest, and uses the eggs that fall when she twitches her knee as raw material to shape the cosmos: the shell for the dome of heaven and the earth below, the yolk for the sun, the white for the moon, the mottled parts for stars, the black bits for clouds.
There was a picture. I was done. It stayed with me forever.
All it said at the bottom of the page was Kalevala. Neither of my parents had ever heard of it, and there was no Google in 1980. That was all I knew of it for years and years.
One day in grad school, a friend and I were talking about what it meant to be well-read; we listed all the medieval epics we knew and felt we should know. He mentioned the Kalevala.
A bell chimed in my head, and that image of Ilmatar was right there, as if it had been fifteen minutes, not fifteen years, since I’d thought of it. Clearly I had to follow up.
A professor of Old English recommended the translation I love and teach now, by Eino Friberg, and the Kalevalabecame one of my “Desert Island” books. (Do people still do that—think of which ten books you’d need on a desert island?)
When I had the opportunity to design a course around epics, I included the Kalevala. It rounds any epic discussion nicely, being so lately “gathered,” like the Grimms gathered folktales, with similar nationalistic fervor in the 19th century. Students come in to the class expecting the Odyssey, which they get, but not many think of epics as still being a genre so late as 1870. It feels like a relic, with its shamanism and magic, but the culture it depicts feels fairly modern. It puzzles students and enchants them.
Two years in to my teaching of epics, I stood in line at Subway in Kalamazoo, Michigan at the conference on medieval studies I attend every spring. While chatting up the gal behind me (we all sported the spiffy lanyards with our names and institutions), I learned she was a Finn studying in the states, and she had never met any American who taught the Kalevala. Did I know, she asked, “The Canine Kalevala”?
Of course we’re still friends. The picture book she referred to was hard to find in the United States, but it was available in English. She sent me a copy from Helsinki filled with museum postcards because the illustrator had used famous art depicting scenes from the text, and she wanted me to see the originals.
I shared these “scholarly materials” with my students, and I read that children’s book to my kids any number of times. When my daughter was in second grade and the principal suggested–in light of the “wonderful problem” she presented as too advanced a reader–that I teach her a second language. My daughter chose Finnish. (She lost—I know several other languages well enough to teach a seven-year old, but still not Finnish).  And the Kalevala circle kind of closed.

We have no Finnish ancestry—just a deep love for the characters, the magic, and the world of the Kalevala. That’s enough.


Stones and Stories

Last week was my kids’ spring break, so we hopped in the car and drove to Utah, staying two nights in Bryce Canyon and two at Zion National Park.  My kids are teenagers in the 21stcentury, so by nature sedentary and attached to their computers and cell phones as if to IVs.  They are also my kids and Rob’s, so they have the added bonus of being bookish, imaginative, and mildly introverted (I totally was an introverted kid—I think I’ve grown up to be an ambivert, but I still LOVE my downtime, for anyone snickering), so they resist long adventures and would naturally choose to stay home and “chill” for spring break.  Unfortunately, for their short-term goals, I think it’s important to a) unplug, b) explore the natural world, and c) encounter and begin to understand the rest of the world.  Poor kiddos.

Bryce Canyon awoke my inner rock hound.  It is a geologist’s playground, and we soaked up both breathtaking vistas (literally—it’s roughly 9000 feet elevation, so the air was thin!) and scientific descriptions of the rock formations. “Hoodoo,” for instance, is the glorious term for the pillars of stone that form as the walls of limestone erode from walls to a line of individual spires. Of course we went to the geology talk with a ranger, where we learned about the eons of formation and erosion of the canyon as well as the strata of stone and mixture of minerals that make it so beautiful—pinks and oranges and reds of the stone against the green pine trees, the blue sky, and in April, the white snow.
But the best part for me was when he told us the legends.  He barely hinted, just teasing us with one story, really, that the Navajo told about Coyote luring all the bad guests to a spot where he promised them a banquet, but instead turned them all to stone. Those hoodoos, man. They look like people.
Because they form in rows, they look like lines of people, like families or groups of people interacting.  I usually have one eye on wildlife and find myself repeating “someone lives there” every time we see a cave or an obvious shelter that could be a den, but here I was muttering the whole time, “They look like people,” so I may have been smug when the ranger told us this tale. And I was struck by the common theme of hospitality, remembering my Odyssey, and my Beowulfand all the other tales that teach us about being good guests and hosts, “lest we entertain an angel unawares.”
Tolkien said “he sees no stars who does not see them first of living silver made that sudden burst…” (and some more great stuff, in my favorite poem, “Mythopoeia.”)  This was that kind of moment.  I could not see the stones as stones completely until I had my imaginative moment about them.  I know they’re masterpieces of sediment and erosion, but they look like people—people in line, people walking together, people with animals (some were shorter and decidedly canine-looking, or maybe I was getting carried away…).

I had a momentary affinity with those Navajo all those years ago, who looked and saw stories. I wasn’t expecting that.  Beauty, yes.  Nature, yes.  Geology, yes.  But not kinship.  That’s another reason to keep waking the kids up and shoving them in the car and dragging them out in to the beautiful world. 


Reading to Kids

The best thing I have ever done for my kids, and probably for myself as well, is read to them. When I was pregnant, I had my husband read to me. (People told me that was a good way to have the baby recognize daddy’s voice when he or she made her appearance.)  When they were too tiny to scoot away, I held them and read to them, pointing at pictures and making big faces along with the book. By the time they were able to scoot away, they didn’t want to.  Storytime was such a warm, happy place that we could sit for an hour by the time they were one, when everyone was telling me babies had no attention span. A few years of books bringing close, loving, quiet time, and my kids associated books with happiness. Neither one of them has lost that, even during those perilous ‘tween years, when pressure increases to do more and be more cool.They are 14 and 16 now, and they both read more than I do. And while we don’t have faithful, nightly storytime (starting about a year ago), I still read some–just bigger books: The Odyssey and The IliadA Tale of Two Cities.
There have always been books all over my house. My parents used to talk about “decorating with books.” They had whole walls of bookshelves in most rooms of their house, so I grew up knowing books as a part of daily life long before college–where I first dubbed myself a reader. My house looks like that too, now, but with a lot more kids’ books, and a lot less order. There are books in every room, and some of them are not neatly stored on shelves, but stacked on tables or desks, resting on the couch where they were last read, or piled on the floor, practically becoming furniture themselves because we can’t bear to put them away and have them not close at hand. That was the one request I could never refuse, if I had the money. I could say no to the Nerf gun or the latest Littlest Pet Shop critter, but if they wanted a book, that was something else.That was an investment.

And it has paid off more than I could have anticipated. At the end of third grade, my daughter was testing at 12th grade level, and her teacher thanked me for doing all that “enrichment” at home.  Reading to her?  Really? I certainly never did flashcards or drills or any overt reading instruction. All I did was read. We talked about the books, defined unfamiliar words as we went, and talked about anything scary or troubling as well as laughed together about the funny moments. And we built a repertoire of stories that became our shared frame of reference for the world. That kid is just like Ferdinand the Bull; he just wants some quiet time to himself. Today I feel like Angelina the mouse, when she submarined herself and missed her chance to be in the big ballet. Poohsticks is just like Calvinball is just like our made-up games.
Both kids called the shots on their relationship to storytime, in addition to helping choose the titles. The girly went through a phase where she wanted to “be” the people in the stories.  She would point and assign: “I’ll be Frances, Mommy. You be Gloria.” (Can you name that picture book series?)  And we would start from the plot of the book and make up new adventures for the sisters. My son left the couch at around 8 years old and never came back. He built stuff with Legos on the living room floor while we read; his sister eagerly followed along with the words, but he was happy to listen and keep his hands busy.
I don’t think there’s any right way to read to kids. I think any time we spend reading to kids is good. If we ham it up with voices and emotions, they get involved viscerally, but if we don’t do so much, they bring their own faculties to bear. If we let them read some too, they get to feel like they run the show too, but if we don’t, they get more time listening to an experienced reader, and their skills improve more quickly. Kids benefit from being exposed to a wide variety of genres and cultures, so it helps if the reader brings in new stuff the kids have never seen. But kids also thrive on repetition, the familiar, and the power to choose texts for themselves, so reading time is best when it’s a mix of both impulses. In fact, the only way I can think of screwing up storytime is simply by not having it.