The Aeneid by Virgil

The AeneidThe Aeneid by Virgil
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

One. That’s how many lives I have, you guys. And sometimes I can’t force myself to fritter it away reading dull books when I have stacks of other books looking at me longingly, calling my name, whispering that they will love me so much better than that other book if I would only put it down and listen to them…

Anyways, I didn’t finish the Aeneid. Virgil’s writing is descriptive but not engrossing and the same could be said for his characters. The whole book is essentially a Roman version of The Odyssey, but boring. Aeneas and his ships escape their beloved city of Troy after the Greeks sack it and sail around the Mediterranean in a quest for the land Venus has promised them wherein to found their new nation. Madcap hijinks ensue. Or they would, if anything that happened was exciting and quirky. Dull road-trip is closer. There’s a lot of sacrificing bulls, pouring streaming bowls of wine and oil upon altars, sailing cautiously through dangerous passages, and the like. They have the ancient Roman equivalent of a sports day, with sailing, shooting, running, and sparring challenges complete with fabulous prizes (more bulls). They battle harpies. Once. The ships pass Scylla and Charybdis and nobody dies. One of the most legendary, feared sea dangers; a piece from the Odyssey which I have never forgotten reading and seen reproduced in other movies and books time and again, and Virgil has his fleet get insider’s sailing advice from a god and slip through without so much as an interested snuffle from Scylla, nor a bubble from Charybdis. It’s not that there isn’t enough death, just that after the fall of Troy the whole book becomes almost unrelievedly boring. One life, guys. Don’t squander it on draggy sagas.

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Ramayana by Valmiki, retold by William Buck

RamayanaRamayana by William Buck
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What story has a cast of gods, demons, humans, animals and magical objects, spans thousands of years, features wars and curses and kidnapping along with tender scenes of romance and vibrant descriptive passages, and is way more interesting than you think?

Twilight.

No, I’m kidding. It’s Ramayana. William Buck discovered this famous epic poem around 1960, along with other priceless works of Indian literature, and was so captivated by it that he set himself to re-writing it for modern English speakers. Creative license was taken; the original was printed in chronological order but Buck has placed some later events at the beginning of the book, and in other places outright revamped interactions, even to the point of completely fabricating a letter which doesn’t appear in the original. Because this is my first experience with Ramayana I can’t speak to the veracity of Buck’s efforts, but I can tell you this is now one of my favourite ancient epic poems. Valmiki devotes lyrical passages to the beauty of the characters and saturates every page, body and outfit with rich colour and a wealth of ornamentation. People are by turns aggrieved, capricious, generous, forgiving, selfish, and kind. There is a handy list of characters at the front – to which I referred constantly – but no crash course in Hindu theology so if you aren’t familiar with the basics you may wish to do some light reading before embarking on Rama’s journey. It’s a very complex universe. Numerous gods reborn as different people, different gods, or whole sets of siblings. Since knowledge of this is sometimes assumed in the text it can be a little challenging to keep track of who is who. Even with the cast up front. Here’s a rundown: Ravana, the demon king, through devotion and will-power persuades Brahma to gift him with immunity from death by the gods or other demons. He then runs rough-shod over all the other gods, sacking heavenly cities and forcing their rulers into servitude. Indra, the rain god and king of heaven, after escaping from Ravana’s prison, goes to confront Brahma about Ravana’s omnipotence and how Brahma intends to stop him. Brahma sends him to see Narayana, who reveals his plan to be reborn as a man and defeat Ravana that way. Ravana saw men and animals as lesser beings and didn’t think to ask for protection from them. So Narayana, who is also Vishnu, is reborn as Rama, Lakshmana, Bharata, and Satrughna, sons of king Dasaratha’s three wives Kausalya (Rama), Sumitra (Lakshmana and Satrughna), and Kaikeyi (Bharata). Narayana’s consort Lakshmi is reborn as Sita, playing a crucial part later in the story. Despite all four of the sons being Narayana incarnate, the story revolves almost completely around Rama. Lakshmana is clearly an important supporting character, but Bharata plays only a minor role and Satrughna is practically irrelevant. Meanwhile Ravana has brothers Vibhishana and Kumbhakarna, sister Surpanakha, son Indrajit (né Meghanada), and numerous wives, spies, demons, and councillors, all of whom play roles of various importance. Anyways, through various godly machinations Rama and Lakshmana spend their youth learning heavenly weapons, Rama and Sita meet and are wed, and they all return to Rama’s childhood home of Ayodhya for a few blissful years together before political intrigue gets Rama exiled for fourteen years. Sita and Lakshmana refuse to be separated from him and join him as travelling ascetics until they cross paths with Ravana. And Ravana starts a war. In Buck’s retelling, the poem is related by a storyteller to his friend and unfolds in layers a little like 1001 Nights, where the character of one story becomes the narrator for a story within the first, and so on. It’s a literary device I quite enjoy. There are relatively minor content warnings for battle scenes and mentions of rape, plus the standard sexism you find in almost everything. Beyond that, there’s just guts, glitz, and glory. Ramayana is truly epic.

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The Lightning Thief: Percy Jackson and the Olympians #1 by Rick Riordan

The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians, #1)The Lightning Thief by Rick Riordan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Young adult books make for a speedy finish! It didn’t hurt that I could not put this book down. Riordan made quite the page turner. It took me a couple of chapters to get through the whole “main character is a whiny pre-teen” but once Percy gets his quest that pretty much fades away. Thankfully. There are a couple of issues that prickled me at the beginning of the story, but by the end Riordan had presented them in a different light and they troubled me less. The overall plot is pretty straightforward. A somewhat troubled youth who has bounced from school to school throughout the states finds out that his dyslexia and ADHD are actually caused by the fact that he is the son of a Greek god and a human woman. He doesn’t know which one, although he finds out later. Lots of characters straight out of Greek mythology, and the main story is an Epic Quest™ complete with cross-country trip and descent into Hades. Mystery, prophecies, betrayals, everything you’d expect to see in a Greek myth. There is a fair bit of violence, obviously all directed against youths, so if you’re sensitive to that proceed with caution. There’s also a couple of deaths. One within the context of the story and one that predates it, and if memory serves me correctly only one of these shows up in the movies, so be aware if you’re reading the book after watching the movie you might still be in for a surprise. Aside from that, the movie stayed pretty true to the original story. And neither was too shabby.

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Metamorphoses by Ovid

Metamorphoses (''Transformations'')Metamorphoses by Ovid
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One downside to ebooks: if you’ve never seen a physical copy of the book you’re starting, when you break out your ereader and flip that first page you have no idea what you’re getting in to. Did you know Metamorphoses is huge? I didn’t! It’s 15 books long! I guess Ovid sat down one day and banged out a chronological list of every transformation in Roman mythology, and then wrote a poem for each one. And then wove them together like some massive, wordy scarf. Everything rhymes. He even includes things you wouldn’t typically think of as transformations, like Caesar being deified. Metamorphoses includes such classics as Orpheus and Eurydice, and Narcissus. The Trojan war shows up in segments too, as does the Odyssey. And plenty of myths I’d never heard before, all wrapped in a rich cloth of descriptive imagery. Unfortunately, because in the earlier myths transformation was typically a way for a woman to escape an assaulting god, or a punishment for failing to, the first half of the book is loaded with sexual assaults and victim blaming. There’s also some passages of gory violence. Mainly pitched battles, but also a boar hunt. Surprisingly, there’s a sizable monologue towards the end by a guy espousing the virtues of vegetarianism, specifically to stop cruelty to animals. Not an attitude I was expecting to see displayed after so many pages of sword fights. One of my favourite poems came towards the end of the epic; in the Trojan war segment. The Greeks are discussing who should get Achilles’ armor now that he’s been killed. It’s down to Ulysses (Odysseus) and Ajax, neither of whom will budge. The solution winds up being a trash-talking contest; the one whose accomplishments are the most impressive and who can make his opponent seem the weakest wins the armor. Ajax accuses Ulysses of being a coward and Ulysses claims that since he persuaded Achilles to join them in the war the armor is rightfully his. Ovid really makes you see how invested each man is in winning the right to wear the armor of their greatest warrior, how they try to be nonchalant while brimming with emotion. In fact, this poem is suffused with men feeling every emotion: sadness, rage, embarrassment, pride, love, desire, you name it. I’m not sure where people got the idea that men don’t have emotions, but it couldn’t have been from this. Furthermore, it’s a giant poem. You can’t write poetry without having emotions. It just doesn’t work. And unless it turns out Metamorphoses was ghost-written by one of Ovid’s wives, this means not just that men write poetry, but that they have a full range of complex human emotions! So the next time someone tries to tell you men don’t cry, grab your copy of Ovid’s Metamorphoses and smack them with it. Ovid earned us all that right.

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The Poetic Edda translated by Jeramy Dodds

The Poetic EddaThe Poetic Edda by Anonymous
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Before I stumbled across a review in the back of http://www.vallummag.com/ (12:1) I had never heard of The Poetic Edda. Or any Edda. I was so entranced by the description I added it to my “to-read” list and actually managed to track down a copy a few months later. But you know, I don’t actually know anything about Norse folklore. I’ve heard of Thor, and Odin and his ravens; Loki; Sigurd and Brynhild. I didn’t think my lack of knowledge was going to be an issue. It’s a book about Icelandic mythological poems. Surely it will cover whatever I need to know. Tell you what, just to make doubly sure I have all the information necessary, I’ll read the foreword and introduction. Even the index! I’m set.

Foolish.

I dog-eared the pages with the family trees and the index because I referred to them so often and still barely scraped by. The index is a list of character names with single-word descriptors like “dwarf” or “Jotuness” and the pages the names are used on. Odin’s nicknames run an entire column. Different people may have the same name. If your level of knowledge of Nordic legends is mostly gleaned from Avengers movies, you’ll be as lost as I am. The Poetic Edda is meant to be the paper mimic of an ancient, community-building aural experience, by firelight with a tankard of ale. Interruptions were probably punished by stabbing. The poems are reproduced the same way. I’ve heard rumblings of a Prose Edda version which sounds like it might be better suited to the novice reader, so if this is your first kick at the Viking saga can consider starting with that? Without sufficient background, it’s hard to construct a frame to hang the poems on.

And hang they must, because they don’t really stand on their own. The language is rigid and brittle, although there are parts that glow. Two of my personal favourites were:

I know I hung in a winded tree
nine whole nights, spear-pierced,
ardent to Odin, me to myself
on that tree whose taproots
no one will ever know. (53)

and

He began to bloom at the bosom of his friends,
a radiant-born elm backlit by bliss. He gave
openly and paid his horde in gold, never
hoarding any of his blood-splattered loot. (127)

But stanzas like that are few and far between. To be fair, these poems began as oral traditions. They were meant to flex with the times and audience in addition to being augmented by facial expression, inflection, tones, and pauses, vital elements of communication which are impossible to duplicate in writing even when you don’t have hundreds of years’ distance, culture, and language barriers putting the finishing touches on the crevasse before you. Tall order. Still, even when I peered out from the haze of characters to marvel at the language there wasn’t a lot of language to marvel at. Maybe the tone and meter are more faithful to the Icelandic originals than other works have been. Apparently what I was really hoping for was an epic poem (or several) with rich, luscious language to feast on. This wasn’t it.

Final note: content warnings for some homophobic language, quite a lot of violence, and some graphic sexual coercion.

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The Once and Future King TH White

The Once and Future King (The Once and Future King #1-5)The Once and Future King by T.H. White
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Originally published May 10th, 2015
There are some books that, when you flip the final page, overwhelm you with emotion. You wish for more, for the universe you’ve been immersed in to continue and take you along with it. For just one more page of adventure.

This was not one of those books.

White took one of the most classic, long lived stories and made it boring. This should have been a gripping epic of romance, drama, and sword-fighting! It had knights! Treachery! Magic! Forbidden love! What more could you ask for in story-fodder? Apparently, in White’s mind, the missing component was moralizing. The entire book is one long rumination on how the human race should be run, from the perspectives of the unnamed narrator, Merlyn, a few enlightened individual characters, and several anthropomorphised animals. Even badgers and owls know what’s wrong with the human race. And they’ll spend pages and pages beating you over the head with it. (Hint: it’s because of national property. Only species that own property in common go to war. The ones that just have private property are all pacifists.(810) At least, that’s the conclusion Merlyn spent the last chapter of the book forcing down my throat. Although he did say glands may have been part of it.(828)) White seems to gloss over any event that could have been the least bit interesting to leave more room for pedantry. He spends more time railing at Guenever for getting old and wearing too much make up than he does actually describing her relationship with Lancelot. Who, by the way, is not subjected to the same vitriol over being a normal human being with a normal lifespan as what White dumps on Guenever. And White makes a point of mentioning that they are the same age, so if Guenever is old and wrinkly Lancelot is too. (Whenever Lancelot refers to Guenever as “Jenny” I picture him as Forrest Gump talking to the woman he had a crush on. This didn’t help me take the book seriously.) But White’s scorn for Guenever is nothing compared to his disdain for Lancelot’s unwanted admirer Elaine, who has the further audacity to get old and fat, instead of staying “pale and interesting” (457). I’m glad White mentioned that, I was hoping to find sexism and ageism sprinkled on top of my moralizing. I like the crunch.

Even when White has the opportunity to expand on a plot event which should be exciting he ignores it. [Spoiler Alert]
Near the end of the novel, when Mordred and Agravine have forced Arthur to acknowledge that Guenever is cheating on him with Lancelot and she is about to be burned at the stake for it, Lancelot shows up to rescue her. The King and Gawaine are watching from an upstairs window, and Gawaine’s brothers Gareth and Gaheris have gone down to add a token show to the guard. Mordred had requested that all three join the guard to attempt to stop Lancelot from saving the Queen, but Gawaine refused outright and the other two did not wear armor so that Lancelot would recognize them and know they were friends. Mordred disappears when the battle breaks out and returns with the news that Gaheris and Gareth have been killed, both with vicious head wounds. He blames this on Lancelot, in spite of the fact that Lancelot was close friends with those 3 of the brothers. The text seems to hint that Mordred did it, or got someone else to do it, but no one explores this idea. The closest we get to evidence is Mordred’s assertion that it was Lancelot, and Gawaine’s grief stricken cry that he “found a man wha’ saw it done.” (664) Lancelot doesn’t even remember doing it, and although I don’t personally have any battle experience, I feel like killing your unarmed friends would be something you’d remember. It’s so completely out of character for Lancelot I can’t take it seriously. The kind of events a normal writer would get a whole novel out of, White just glosses over and moves along. [End Spoiler]

I can see in places where White made attempts to add dimension to his characters, since we follow many of them over a lifetime we should see at least a couple personality changes. But it doesn’t seem successful, and his characters rarely seem to react authentically to anything. They’re all paper dolls, they don’t exist. Which may sound obvious, but when you consider praise of a book often includes discussing how the characters seem to “come alive on the page”, it’s an apt point. There’s not enough room for the character to breathe and grow. They’re too confined by White’s moralizing. As if he doesn’t want us to get emotionally involved with his creation. So I’d recommend that you don’t get involved. Don’t read it. There’s better stuff out there.

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A Brief Guide to the Greek Myths by Stephen Kershaw

A Brief Guide To Greek MythA Brief Guide To Greek Myth by Stephen Kershaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Originally published July 27th, 2015
Initially I was concerned this book was going to be really dry. Greek mythology is something I’ve always enjoyed, but so often non-fiction books have anything remotely interesting surgically removed before they are put on the shelves. I’m happy to say that this is not the case! This book is absorbing, well organized, and not so academic it’s incomprehensible. Kershaw even includes family trees where it’s relevant, so you can attempt to trace how the various characters are related to each other. I say attempt because, possibly in part due to the…liberal… sexual attitudes ascribed to the gods, the family trees can be a little difficult to follow. It doesn’t help when you have individuals reproducing with their relatives, or being born without intercourse at all. Or (in the case of Zeus) screwing anything that moved. I wasn’t expecting to watch the morality morph through the centuries of myths, as we got to the (relatively) newer and more detailed stories. In the beginning, there seemed to be fewer consequences, though it’s possible this has more to do with the paucity of details available in the earliest myths. Somebody might still attack and kill you, but generally only if you’d been keeping everyone else locked up under the earth so they can’t overthrow you. Or if you’ve been eating your own children. As we move into more recent myths, the list of things that can get you fed to a sea monster or turned in to a spider gets longer. I suppose part of that is because the tales have morphed from interactions between gods, to interactions between gods and man, and the power imbalance means when a man oversteps what the gods have defined as boundaries, he can be punished with impunity because the chances of him being able to stand up for himself against the god are slim to none. And as women slid onto the lower strata of society in everyday life, their positions of power as represented in the myths slid also, until they could be punished (or attacked) by men and by gods with impunity, and were only rescued if another man or another god stepped in. (Which may or may not happen, so don’t hold your breath. Apparently these myths predate the classic princess story.)

The icing on cake, for me, was how Kershaw ended each chapter with examples of these myths in the arts. One of my favourites was Euripides’ Medea (Medeia in the ancient Grecian spelling), the discussion of which takes up several pages. Detailed, stunning pages. Euripides’ sensitivity to Medea’s point of view, especially considering the attitudes of the time, completely blew me away. Although his attitude is kind of an outlier, even compared to his other works. For the rest of the book Kershaw just gives brief outlines of whatever works he’s discussing. He even mentions the occasional heavy metal album. Greek mythology does not seem to have become less popular with the passage of time. Scholars still study it, archaeologists excavate searching for truth, artists stretch their skills with it. It’s still everywhere, even after thousands of years. A Brief Guide to the Greek Myths is a brief guide to the stories that have made us who we are, and that still continue to form us.

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