Tag: Epic

132. The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes (c.245 BC)

132. The Argonautica by Apollonius of Rhodes (c.245 BC)

Plot:  Jason, the rightful heir to the throne of Thessaly, forms a league of Ancient Greek superheroes to help him retrieve the Golden Fleece; fighting harpies, giant snakes, and fire-breathing bulls along the way.

My version was the Penguin Classic The Voyage of Argo,  translated by E. V. Rieu (ISBN 0140440852) which includes a detailed map of their journey throughout the Mediterranean and a useful glossary. The verse retelling also published by Penguin was tempting too, and I may very well buy myself copies of both editions.

My thoughts:  I had been looking forward to reading this as the 1963 Ray Harryhausen movie Jason and The Argonauts is one of my favourite childhood memories. I am pleased to say that the book was very enjoyable, although the “foul murder” of Apsyrtus by Jason and Medea took some of the heroic shine off. There is also a wealth of information about other Greek myths, weaving through the story as background, including Hercules’ twelve labours, and Perseus slaying Medusa, which brings the whole mythic world together in a satisfying way.

To focus the reader on Jason as the hero, the tale does not say much about the other Argonauts except Heracles (who leaves the story about a quarter in) but they really were sprinkled with superheroes. Most were related in some way to the Gods, who left plenty of their genetic stock lying around. Besides Heracles’ strength, we have Orpheus who could charm the very rocks and trees with his music, Tiphys who could read the waves and winds, Lynceus who could see further than anyone (including underground), Periclymenus who could shapeshift in battle, Euphemus who could run so fast he could speed across water, and the twins Zetes and Calais who could fly with wings on their ankles. Few of these powers were used in the tale, as they also had Hera, Athene,  Aphrodite, Haephestus, Aeolus, Triton and Apollo on their side, and relied heavily on the magic of the witchette Medea.

Apart from various tribes who they managed to get on the wrong side of, the Argonauts also had to face the Clashing Rocks, the Harpies, the Stymphalian Birds, the fire-breathing bulls of King Aeetes, the earthborne army of warriors (beautifully realised as skeletons in the movie) and the giant snake guardian of the Fleece, and the bronze giant Talos. Quite an adventure! Of course things don’t bode well for Medea later (see Euripides’ play Medea) but she eventually marries Achilles in the Underworld.

The only fault is that Apollonius ends his story quite abruptly with a promise that the Argonauts safely arrived home but no mention of Jason’s welcome bearing the Fleece.

Some of the many dangers faced by Jason in the movie version

Apollonius had two attempts at writing this tale. The poor reception of the first version, along with his feud with Callimachus, drove him to leave Alexandria and resettle in Rhodes. His redrafting of his epic was apparently much better received, allowing him to eventually return to Alexandria and gain the role of Librarian at the Great Library.

Favourite lines/passages:

Once more the Rocks met face to face with a resounding crash, flinging a great cloud of spray into the air. The sea gave a terrific roar and the broad sky rang again. Caverns underneath the crags bellowed as the sea came surging in. A great wave broke against the cliffs and the white foam swept high above them. Argo was spun round as the flood reached her.

But the dove got through, unscathed but for the tips of her tail-feathers, which were nipped off by the Rocks. The oarsmen gave a cry of triumph and Tiphys shouted at them to row with all their might, for the Rocks were opening again. So they rowed on full of dread, till the backwash, overtaking them, thrust Argo in between the Rocks. Then the fears of all were turned to panic. Sheer destruction hung above their heads.                                                                                                                    page 88-89

Diversions and digressions:  Just HAVE to rewatch that movie 🙂 

Personal rating:  A delightful read with equal doses of poetic description and myth-laden action. 9/10. Will definitely re-read.

Kimmy’s rating:   Lots to creatures to bark at here. 4 paws.

 Also around 245 BC:  Ptomley III of Egypt defeats Seleucus II of Syria in the Third Syrian War (246-241 BC). Parchment starts to be used as writing material in Pergamum, in Asia Minor.

Next :  The Constellation Myths (Catasterismi) of Eratosthenes



17. The Mahabharata

Plot: Some similarities to the Ramayana, as five princes undergo exile in the forest before waging a war with their cousins, although in this case, to regain their kingdom.
Within the great expanse of text, there are many side stories, including the tale of the Ramayana read earlier, and a whole section discussing dharma (the correct way to live) of kings and warriors which has gained its own title – the Bhagavad Gita, and has had a deep impact on Hinduism.

My thoughts : The Mahabharata is the very definition of epic. The abridged version I read still ran to over 790 pages, but the original in Sanskrit can run to 32 volumes.
I felt that the Mahabharata was much more gritty and less fantastical than the Ramayana, despite the presence of gods, demons, supernatural weapons and superhuman stamina and abilities of the various heroes and their anatagonists. Much of the story centres on the battles of the war, with each encounter between heroes showering each other with thousands of arrows; and chariots, horses, elephants and drivers destroyed in their hundreds of thousands.
Favourite lines/passages:
“his weapon…. was as unbearable as a flesh-eating ghoul” p. 523 – What??!!!
“ Bhrgu’s son Cyavana performs [religious] austerities for so long that he becomes an anthill” p. 189. This has to be the most bizarre and random opening line of a chapter in the whole of world literature!

And finally, not so much a favourite as a jaw-dropping image repeated several times descibes a battle so ferocious that …”with his torrents of sharp arrows the wearer of the diadem set a dreadful river flowing on that battlefield: its water was blood from the wounds of weapons on men’s bodies, its foam human fat ….. corpses of elephants and horses formed its banks, the entrails, marrow and flesh of men its mud. Ghosts and great throngs of demons lned its banks. Its waterweed was hair attached to human skulls, its billows severed pieces of armour … fragments of the bones of men, horses and elephants formed the gravel of that fearful destructive, hellish river ; crows, jackals, vultures and storks, and throngs of carrion beasts and hyenas were approaching its banks from every direction”  p.377.
Diversions/digressions : When reading a 800 page epic with a huge cast and lots of repetition of circumstances and similes, everything else in life is a distraction
Personal rating : plenty of great ratings for the Mahabharata on http://www.goodreads.com, so I don’t feel too guilty giving this only 4/10. Just too long to enjoy (as The Prince said to Mozart in Amadeus), and I didn’t feel the ‘heroes’ demonstrated true dharma – quite the opposite : Arjuna burning the Khandeva forest and killing 1000s of animals, Yudhisthira lying to Drona in the midst of battle, telling him that his son was dead to demoralise and defeat him, the five Pandava heroes not acting to protect their shared wife from the humiliation and torment of the Kauravas. Or maybe I still don’t understand the true concept of dharma.
Next : The Homeric Hymns – not written by Homer, but are they hymns?

14. The Ramayana by Valmiki

Plot :  A young prince Rama, his beautiful wife Sita and his loyal brother Lakshmana agree to 14 years’ exile in the jungle on the eve of Rama’s coronation as King of Asoyada. In the last year of exile, Sita is kidnapped by the king of demons Ravana,  and it is Rama’s destiny to kill Ravana. He is aided by a race of magical monkeys (vanaras), bears and other demons (rakshasas)


My thoughts : A truly epic masterpiece, ranking in terms of literature with western classics such as The Lord of the Rings, yet with a very strong moral centre and a host of admirable and godlike individuals. Even the villain Ravana is described in noble and praiseworthy ways, and the reader has to be reminded how evil he is, when it is easy to sympathise with his Fate to love Sita leading him and many of his subjects to their doom.

I read a modern English version written by Ramesh Menon which was extremely approachable despite hundreds of unfamiliar Indian words (a glossary is provided in the back of the book, but the reader soon becomes in tune with the words and accepts their approximate meaning so as not to disrupt the story too much). Menon uses a great many small chapters within the original seven book structure, and it took me a long time to read the almost 700 pages.

Favourite lines/passages : In such a long epic, there are many scenes which stand out. Ravana’s gigantic brother Kumbhakarna who must sleep all but two days per year as his massive appetite would devour the world, and must be woken carefully with great piles of food and drink, and willing women, to satisfy all his hungers at once, was a wonderful villain, and his ravenous attack on the monkey army was chilling to read. The marvellous and wise vanara Hanuman, who flew to the Himalayas not once but twice to carry a mountain of medicinal herbs to the battle at Ravana’s citadel in Lanka (Sri Lanka), and his other magical tricks, was also a favourite.

Diversions/digressions : As Rama and Sita are human incarnations of Vishnu and Lakshmi, it would be appropriate to learn more about the Hindu pantheon. It was also interesting to speculate on the flying machine, the Pushpaka vimana, which Menon describes as a flying disc, bigger on the inside (able to carry the thousands of monkey-like vanaras at one time back to Rama’s coronation), and transparent from the inside.

Personal rating : Enjoyed immensely 8/10.

6. The Odyssey, by Homer c.750 BC

Plot : While a plague of arrogant young suitors camp in his house, feasting and laying waste to his flocks and vineyards; Odysseus is struggling to return home, and must face the giant flesh-eating Cyclops, the magical witch Circe, the besotted nymph Calypso, the spectres of the dead in Hades, the seductive song of the Sirens, and the twin threats of Scylla and Charybdis.
My thoughts : If The Iliad was a slug-fest war story, The Odyssey is an adventure story, a one man quest filled with magic and monsters. Ray Harryhausen must have loved it.
In some ways a sequel to the events of The Iliad (classical scholars are divided on which was written first), The Odyssey starts by describing the fate of many of the Greek leaders from that story, including Achilles, Agamemnon, Menelaus and Nestor ; in tandem with the shameful events in Odysseus’s own palace brought about in part by his prolonged absence. The central third of the story is told in flashbacks by Odysseus himself, describing the fantastical adventures he faced; before the climactic conclusion of his homecoming and defeat of the Suitors.
For my money, I found this a more interesting read than The Iliad, which was very repetitive despite its remorseless build towards a tragic end. I understand the repetition of phrases was a feature in being able to recite sections orally for an audience, but it does tire when on the written page. However, The Odyssey is more varied and kept my interest due in large part to the encounters with mythological beings as well as the Gods, and the buildup to his defeat of the gang of Suitors. Odysseus is more human and prone to mistakes, partly because he loses some of the glory and status he wore on the battlefield.
The Trojan Horse is also mentioned in passing, so my comments on that score in the Iliad review stand corrected.
My copy for this project was the Penguin Classics edition, edited by E. V. Rieu. (9780140449112), but there are many different versions available.
Favourite lines/passages
Achilles’ lament in Hades (Chapter XII) struck a chord, especially from a character who was the greatest hero of the Greeks in The Iliad:
“Spare me your praise of Death. Put me on Earth again, and I would rather be a serf in the house of some landless man, with little enough for himself to live on, than king of all these dead men that have done with life.”
Agamemnon’s fate is also the basis for later tragedies by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. There is obviously some value in reading literature chronologically, as now his back story as Leader of the Greeks and the reason for his own long absence is already known.
The mythological quest story will also reappear in our readings when Jason and the Argonauts go in search of the Golden Fleece, a legend set before the Trojan War but surviving in recorded form by a version after Homer.
There is also a more modern appropriation of The Odyssey (a term my teenage daughter taught me this week) in James Joyce’s Ulysses, which is years away for us yet.
Personal rating : 7.5/10
Kimmy the Lit-Terrier’s rating : Too much messing around in boats for Kimmy, but the bitter-sweet reunion scene with Odysseus’ old dog Argus in Chapter XVII redeems a little : 3/5

5. The Iliad by Homer (c.750 BC)

5. The Iliad by Homer (c.750 BC)

Plot :

For nine years, the massed armies of the Greeks and their allies have laid siege to the walled Trojan city of Ilium, seeking revenge for the abduction of their King’s brother’s wife Helen (she of the Face that launched the thousand ships). The Gods of Olympus are also divided in support of the two warring sides, and goad and support the fighters as the tide of battle ebbs and flows from side to side on the field between the beached Greek ships and the city walls.

Now in the tenth year, the greatest Greek fighter Achilles has withdrawn from the fighting after an insult from his KIng Agamemnon, and it seems as if the Trojans under the leadership of King Priam’s son Hector will succeed in driving the Greeks into the sea. What will it take for Achilles to resume the battle and save his side from defeat?

My thoughts: The first lengthy piece of literature surviving from ancient times, the Iliad starts fairly slowly with hosts of unfamiliar Greeks and Trojans, each briefly outlined with their various histories and successes, usually just before they meet a stronger foe on the battlefield and find themselves killed and on the way down to Hades. As the war turns in the Trojans’ favour and they have pushed the battle to the very brink of the Greek ships, the excitement of the fighting actually starts to impact on the reader, and the violence becomes very graphic.

Who is the hero of the story – Hector or Achilles, or even Patroclus? To Homer’s Greek audience, Achilles might appear the hero –  the doomed man who loses his best friend through his own pride and inaction. Yet he treats Hector’s corpse shamefully, and spends much of the story sulking near his tent. On the other side, Hector is fighting for his town and family, and the scene where he says goodbye to his wife and child are heartfelt, but his cowardice in running from Achilles for three laps around the walled city is not the modern concept of a hero. The truth seems to be that heroes or cowards are judged by their actions, not just in war but also sport and love, which is influenced very strongly by the whims of the Gods. So much of the action in the Iliad is directly or indirectly due to Their intervention – we are all playthings of the Gods indeed! In literature up until now, the Gods were beseeched for help, but did not appear on the stage in the way Homer has included them.

Several of the players are very well drawn in their characteristics. I can easily imagine old Nestor telling his long stories of his glorious youth and boring the grouped soldiers, Achilles nursing his pride and hurt, Paris’ vanity and the criticism from his older brother Hector.

The ultimate sacking of Ilium thanks to the Trojan Horse strategy is not reached by the end of this story, which seems odd. Why did Homer not include such a momentous conclusion? Is that part of the story a fabrication from a later age? Homer settles for the climactic battle between Achilles and Hector, and Achilles’ final softening to release Hector’s body to Priam.

Two of the survivors of the Trojan war will appear in later works : Odysseus’ long delayed voyage home is described in Homer’s other major work, The Odyssey, while Aeneas’s future is featured in Virgil’s Aeneid.

If Homer made his living telling this story in sections after banquets, he must have dined long and well pretty frequently.

Favourite lines/passages : When Hector breaks through the gates of the Greek defence, at the end of Chapter 12, exactly half way through the story:

He lifted up the rock … hit the doors full in the middle, and broke the hinges off on either side… as the panels were smashed to splinters by the impact….. Glorious Hector leapt inside, with a look like nightfall on his face. He held two spears in his hand and the bronze on his body shone with a baleful light. …. With fire flashing from his eyes, he turned and called on the Trojans … some swarmed over the wall, other poured in through the gate itself. The panic-stricken Danaans fled among the hollow ships, and hell was let loose.

Diversions/digressions : The Greek Gods (later adopted and renamed by the Romans) are certainly worth study. Bullfinch’s is a well known reference work, but also Graves’ 2 volume The Greek Myths gives both the myths and plenty of footnotes to explain.

Personal rating : 7/10

Kimmy’s the Lit-terrier rating : Lots of exciting action and roast meat, and camp dogs to play with. The noise and terror of battle costs the story a point : 4/5

Next : Homer’s other surviving work, The Odyssey

1. The Epic of Gilgamesh : “He who saw the Deep” : circa 2000 BC

Plot : King Gilgamesh of Uruk is tyrannizing his subjects so they call on the Gods for relief. The Gods create an equal and companion for Gilgamesh, the hairy wild man Enkidu, born of clay and raised by gazelles. After their initial battle, the two become brothers and set off on adventures, including slaying the ogre Humbaba and the Great Bull of Heaven. Enkidu sickens and dies, leaving an inconsolable Gilgamesh fearing his own death and wandering the wilderness seeking immortality, where he faces scorpion-men and stone men, and must run the Path of the Sun.

My thoughts: Within the limitations of the style (and I admit the repetition of long tracts was tiresome), I thought the essentials of the story were worthy and my imagination provided an excitement and interest to the various trials of Gilgamesh. I loved the character of Enkidu, the noble savage who provided friendship, counsel and a moral voice to Gilgamesh.
Scholars have pointed out the similarities of the Great Deluge and Uta-napishti with the Biblical Flood and Noah. Like the Egyptians, the Mesopotamians were reliant on the rivers for their fledgling agriculture so naturally minor floods were part of their everyday experience. I was more taken with other Biblical similiarities such as Enkidu’s seduction leading to his loss of innocence and banishment from the natural world.

The story is not a well known one today, and has not been ‘adapted’ by Hollywood, probably because there is no climactic ending, although Gilgamesh’s own journey does come full circle and his personal story shows him grow in wisdom.

Favourite line/passages:
From tablet III
Ninsun, Gilgamesh’s goddess mother, calls on Shamash the Sun God to send the thirteen winds to assist Gilgamesh and Enkidu in their battle against Humbaba
“O Shamash, rouse against Humbaba the mighty gale winds:
South Wind, North Wind, East Wind and West Wind,
Blast, Counterblast, Typhoon, Hurricane and Tempest,
Devil-Wind, Frost-Wind, Gale and Tornado.”

And a little later she entreats Gilgamesh to take care and rely on Enkidu
“Who goes in front will save his comrade,
Who knows the road shall guard his friend”

Diversions and digressions: I am tempted to find out more about the Mesopotamian pantheon of gods, but as they do not seem to impact significantly on world literature like their Greek counterparts, I think I will move on.

Personal rating : 6/10

Next : The Code of Hammurabi , a list of laws and penalties attributed to the Babylonian king Hammurabi around 1750 BC. Which raises the question : what will I consider literature on this journey? Each reader must answer for themselves. I will read titles I find interesting or have resonance to later works. So for me, sacred texts (The Bible, The Koran, The Vedas, etc. ) are definitely ‘in’, and basic works on politics, history, science, etc. are also ‘in’. But you must read what you consider worthy : your time is precious. If you want to stick solely to fiction, I’ll meet you again at Homer’s twin works The Iliad and The Odyssey.

PS Any Doctor Who fans out there should try John Peel’s novel Timewyrm : Genesys (ISBN 0426203550) where the Doctor and Ace team up with Gilgamesh and Enkidu to defeat the alien/goddess Ishtar.

The Epic of Gilgamesh (around 2000 BC)

gilgamesh tabletGilgamesh gilgamesh2

I have two copies of Gilgamesh at hand, both are published by Penguin. I love the image chosen for the cover above with King Gilgamesh swinging lions about by their tails! It is a slim volume (around 100 pages) translated by N. K. Sanders (ISBN 014044100X) and is written in easy to read text, and very welcoming to start our epic journey. Personally I prefer Penguin publications as they always have a useful introduction and are very accessible to new readers (and look great spine out on shelves). The other Penguin version is a later edition translated by Andrew George (ISBN 9780140449198) which is in verse and presented in separate chapters corresponding to the original dozen clay tablets into which the story was carved. As I have read Gilgamesh some time ago, I think I will try the verse format and keep the prose beside me for reference. Will be back once the story is told.