An Epic Ramble

Appropriately enough, this post on epic poems is too long. What can I say? Things got out of hand…I started out with a couple of thoughts on the Portuguese epic, but one thing led to another and before I knew it I was slashing my way through Greek hordes, roaming the Mediterranean, founding Italy, following Virgil through Hell, scolding Moors and generally having an exhausting time. 

Excerpt from The Iliad


The Iliad

What got me thinking about epics is that last year my husband John Dolan published a brand-new version of The Iliad. Not to brag, but he has managed to do what no one in the past ten centuries has done, which is to skirt the swampy muck of boringness in which other valiant authors have foundered, starved and been pickled like big cats in the La Brea tar pits. His is a version that a 21st-century audience can actually read, understand and enjoy.


John quickly realized that a word-for-word literal translation was not necessarily the best way to transmit this story to a modern audience. Until now, The Iliad has been treated (by academics) like a fragile museum artefact that must be handled with archival gloves, hidden behind glass, observed from a distance with a respectful hush and generally only handled by experts who know their dactyls from their trochees.

This approach disregards the fact that The Iliad, conceived and developed in the oral tradition is by nature supposed to be fluid and flexible. Ramon Glazov’s review succinctly describes the translator’s problem when choosing to treat this text as a sacred, immutable artefact:

Translation is more than just carrying a text from language to language; it’s also a passage from audience to audience. To its Greek listeners, the Iliad didn’t need footnotes or endnotes. It wasn’t ‘literature’ or a status marker for taste and education. It was popular entertainment, put on at boozy gatherings by MCs whose talent could get them free drinks. That mood is hard to recapture now, even if a translator’s philology is faultless. (Imagine a future where students pore over John Carpenter screenplays in Penguin Classics editions, but no living person has watched The Thing.

The epic is a particularly tricky genre to translate because the ancients favored conventions specially designed to infuriate us. These include Muses, ‘catalogues’ (endless lists of things like ships, heroes, nations, tribe names), lengthy formal speeches, stock phrases repeated ad nauseum (e.g. ‘the rosy-fingered dawn’) and poetic circumlocutions referring to places or people that necessitate reading footnotes. Also, I personally don’t know anyone who would willingly read a book-length poem in hexameter (or any other kind of meter). Since most of these conventions originated as mnemonic devices, it seems acceptable to drop them in an age of 64 GB memory chips. Elmore Leonard famously said, ‘I try to leave out the parts that people skip’, which is also a good summary of John’s modus operandi.

Sometimes, though, John actually had to replace what other translators had left out. Parts of The Iliad have been deliberately underplayed or even ignored, especially its comedy. Since Roman times, for example, we have been conditioned to expect high seriousness from Homer, and this blinds us to his humor. Erasmus went against the grain by saying, ‘if anyone examines more closely the lives of those sober gods in Homer…he will find them all full of folly’. A few scholars do point out that The Iliad contains a good deal of Punch-and-Judy style slapstick and cruel humor but, as Robert H. Bell says, ‘It remains difficult to comprehend (much less enjoy) [it].’ John’s translation, inspired by the shining examples of Looney Tunes and Itchy & Scratchy (which rely on exaggerated violence for laughs), manages to make it a bit less difficult.

There is another aspect that sits uncomfortably with modern readers expecting high seriousness: the prominence given to a less-than-benign supernatural/divine presence. The big family of squabbling, shape-shifting gods seems variously trivial, artificial or (for believers) blasphemous. The movie Troy, which is based on The Iliad, dispenses with the gods entirely (not counting Brad Pitt, of course). John, who is steeped in fantasy and Sci Fi lore, embraced the spooky weirdness. He had a good time tweaking these supernatural actors in a way that can intrigue a modern audience. The part where Achilles aggravates the river Yellow, who is the father of Asterapayos, is funny, wild and weird:

Akilles laughs, “I decide who dies and where! I won’t stop till Hector is looking at his own intestines at my feet.”

And he jumps into the shallows to provoke the river, kicking at the stream. 

Yellow lashes up into a fist of water and knocks him onto the bank. Then the river calls, “Apollo, I know you’re watching all this! Where’s your bow? You always leave your people in the lurch!” 

Akilles is getting to his feet on the bank, but the river swells into a flood that flows uphill at him, uprooting brush and trees. 

Yellow crawls out of its banks, tossing Trojan corpses from its streams, surging toward Akilles. 

He sees a wave, another fist of water, rising up to hit him, and grabs at a tree. But the water-fist slams into him so hard that it rips the tree out by the roots. Akilles is knocked flying, and as he tries to get to his feet, Yellow forms another giant water-fist and sends him flying again. 

The way John has restored the humor and supernatural to The Iliad is analogous to the way conservators in the late 20th century have shown that Greek statues were originally painted. And not just a little highlight here and there, either, but full-on, over-the-top kaleidoscopic garishness, the kind you need sunglasses to look at. These developments allow us to view the ancient Greeks in a new light: not as elegant minimalists but gaudy showboaters.


A Persian archer in neat leggings. [Image from http://thedailycuriosity.tumblr.com/post/8371803203/despite-popular-belief-they-ancient-greeks-often ]

The Roman Empire

Before I get into a description of Os Lusíadas (The Lusiads), I should probably mention another epic, The Aeneid by Publius Vergilius Naso, aka Virgil. By the time Virgil was born around 70 BC, The Iliad had been doing the rounds for more than a millennium. It had been repeated by schoolboys, recited at competitions, alluded to by literary bigwigs and generally held up to everyone as a literary paragon.

It’s not surprising, then, that when Virgil set about writing his own epic, he aimed to incorporate, emulate and rival The Iliad and The Odyssey. The echoes are unmistakable: Aeneas is a Homeric hero present at the fall of Troy; he wanders the world and visits the Underworld, as does Odysseus in The Odyssey; battles are described in great, pathetic detail; there are those interminable catalogues. When Aeneas reaches Italy and establishes the race that will rule the world, the quest is at an end, creating a sense of homecoming and restored justice comparable to when Odysseus reaches Ithaca and resumes charge of his household. Virgil constantly evokes Homer to show how the Roman Empire is really an extension of those glory days. Augustus is a descendent of Aeneas (and by extension, Venus), Virgil is Homer’s heir. All this confers a kind of fatal inevitability on the status quo—things were always meant to be this way. This must have been a comforting idea in a century characterized by endless conspiracies and civil war. While some scholars argue Virgil is a subversive critic of the empire, The Aeneid looks like nation-boosting propaganda and Augustus himself was reportedly tickled pink. It is, perhaps, superfluous to say that Virgil dispensed with the humor. Everything is very serious, official and infused with gravitas, which is only palatable because of  Virgil’s sympathetic and frankly mopey nature.

Virgil Reading the Aeneid to Augustus, Octavia, and Livia by Jean-Baptiste Wicar, Art Institute of Chicago.


The Proto-Renaissance

With the rise of Christianity, Classical authors fell out of favor, especially in Western Europe and knowledge of ancient Greek was rare as early as 500CE. Even though scholars knew and admired Virgil and other Classical authors, they rejected their stories as un-Christian and therefore blasphemous. Saint Gregory of Tours reportedly said, “We ought not to relate their lying fables, lest we fall under sentence of eternal death.”

Classical works were, though, translated into Arabic, Syriac and Persian and distributed throughout the East. The Abbasid dynasty of Baghdad (750-1258) was particularly keen to amass and translate these treasures. It was during this period that the scholar Hunayn ibn Ishaq travelled to Alexandria, came away with a good knowledge of Greek and proceeded to translate a heap of manuscripts earning him the moniker ‘Sheikh of Translators’. The Moors’ occupation of Iberia (711-1492) meant that ancient Greek works began to be translated from Arabic into Spanish. Meanwhile, Byzantium (where Greek was the main language of administration and writing) held a large collection of works in the original Greek. With the gradual collapse of Byzantium, many scholars moved west, brought these manuscripts with them and translated them into Latin and European languages.

Illumination from Hunayn ibn-Ishaq al-‘Ibadi manuscript of the Isagogue (An introduction to Aristotle’s ‘Categories’)

The Late Middle Ages brought us the ‘three fountains’ of Humanism: Dante Alighieri (1265), Petrarch (1304-1374) and Bocaccio (1313-1375). These Florentine writers and scholars were all strong exponents of Classical learning.

Petrarch had a particular love for Latin literature and was an advocate of the continuity between Classical culture and Christianity. The Encyclopedia Britannica sums up the importance of his influence:

By making a synthesis of the two seemingly conflicting ideals–regarding the one as the rich promise and the other as its divine fulfillment–he can claim to be the founder and great representative of the movement known as European humanism.  

On Easter Sunday 1341, in an elaborate ceremony on Rome’s Capitoline Hill, Petrarch was crowned laureate. In his speech, Petrarch claimed he was reviving a classical tradition and that a return to the spirit of the ancients would revive an exhausted culture (Rome was at that time wracked by civil strife and had lost the Papal seat to Avignon).

As a youth, Dante developed a taste for Latin literature. When the great unrequited love of his life, Beatrice, died, he turned to Latin literature for solace. His Divine Comedy, though not strictly an epic, borrows the tone and author of The Aeneid: Virgil himself is the narrator’s guide and spiritual advisor. This was not quite as blasphemous as it might seem–many people of the age believed that Virgil had predicted the birth of Christ and was therefore some kind of honorary Christian. Not only that, but Hell is peopled with the souls of antique characters: Achilles, Statius, Tarquin, Telemachus, Vulcan and Penelope.

Dante meets Virgil in Inferno 1 (Bodleian Library, Holkham Hall, misc. 48, p. 2)

Boccaccio, a friend of Petrarch, was also a scholar, poet and champion of Classical learning. He befriended a scholar and theologian named Barlaam of Calabria who had tried his hand at translations of Homer, Euripides and Aristotle. Discussions with Petrarch led Boccaccio to write Genealogia deorum gentilium (On the Genealogy of the Gods of the Gentiles). This was not only an extensive guide to deities mentioned in Classical literature, but also an apologia for the study of ancient literature and thought.


The Portuguese Empire

Fast-forward a couple of centuries and Europe’s elite are up to their necks in Classical art and literature. Many modern artworks had Classical themes, such as Giambologna Douai’s ‘Venus’, Sandro Botticelli’s ‘The Birth of Venus’ c.1480), and Raphael’s ‘The School of Athens‘ (c.1509). French writers not only translated and staged the plays of Sophocles, Seneca, Euripides and others, but they also wrote original plays based on plots from ancient mythology or history.

Pegasus and Mercury; detail of ‘Parnassus’ by Andrea Mantegna https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parnassus_(Mantegna)

In 1497, the same year Andrea Mantegna painted ‘Parnassus’, a doughty admiral named Vasco da Gama found a sea-route from Portugal to Calicut, allowing his countrymen to monopolize the spice trade. Portugal became wealthy and powerful and its empire extended from Brazil to Eastern Africa to the East Indes.  

Brass figure of a Portuguese soldier holding a musket, 17th century C.E., Benin, Nigeria © Trustees of the British Museum

Not much later, a man named Luís Vaz de Camões (1524-1580) would write an epic poem about this fateful voyage: Os Lusíadas (1572), referring to Portugal’s former name of Lusitania. Da Gama’s feat was an astonishing achievement, and it is not hard to see why a bright young man of the age would see a way to make a link between the feats of ancient heroes and those of contemporary ones. Like The Aeneid, Camões’ epic celebrates the achievements and virtues of his countrymen. Like Dante, he stresses continuity between past and present and, like Virgil, he suggests that the great feats of antiquity have been outdone:

Cease the sage Grecian and Man of Troy

To vaunt long Voyage made in bygone day:

Cease Alexander, Trajan cease to ‘joy

The fame of vict’ories that have pass’d away:

The noble Lusian’s stouter breast sing I,

Whom Mars and Neptune dared not disobey:

Cease all that antique Muse hath sung, for now

A better Brav’ry rears its bolder brow.

Unfortunately, the poem is ghastly, at least in the translations that I’ve seen. Burton’s effort (1880) is full of words like ‘rutilant’ and ‘welkin’. I couldn’t get past Canto III in spite of the titillating prospect of a sojourn on the ‘Isle of Love’ later in the poem. Confronting aspects (aside from tedious braggadocio), include the rabid, really almost psychopathic, hatred of Moors and other foreigners and the relentless, unconvincing depiction of the Portuguese as the innocent and long-suffering good guys. This becomes particularly objectionable when you know they were chopping off the hands of anyone who looked at them funny.

If you’re interested in the story of Portuguese exploration and conquest, a good prose account (recommended to me by John) is the history Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire, by Roger Crowley.

Camões’ own life is an interesting tale and a bit epic in itself. When his father died young seeking his fortune in Goa, his mother remarried and young Luis was taught by Dominicans and Jesuits. As a youth he was a talented scholar and handsome person who cut a neat figure at the Lisbon court until he irritated someone and was exiled from the capital in 1548. He then enlisted in the overseas militia and fought bravely in Ceuta (on the north coast of Africa), losing an eye in a naval battle. He returned to Lisbon but got in trouble for assaulting a member of the Royal Stables. Thrown into prison, he was released thanks to his mother and his sentence was reduced to a fine and three years’ service in the militia in the Orient. In 1553 he boarded the São Bento for Goa. During his obligatory service he fought along the Malabar Coast and near Egypt and India. At the end of the three years, he became chief warrant officer in Macau, charged with managing the properties of missing and deceased soldiers in the Orient, which gave him plenty of time to work on his poem. On his way back to Portugal he was shipwrecked near the Mekong River on the coast of Cambodia and lost his Chinese lover. Legend has it hthat he managed to hold his epic over his head while swimming to shore, which sounds pretty dubious. Anyway, he arrived back in Lisbon in 1570 and published Os Lusiadas two years later. In 1578, in the Battle of Alcacer Quibir, Portugal’s army was destroyed, along with King Sebastian himself and most of the country’s nobility. Two years later, Camoes died. Mickle describes the poet’s sad end in an introduction to his translation:

By some it is said he died in an almshouse. It appears, however, that he had not even the certainty of subsistence which these houses provide. He had a black servant, who had grown old with him, and who had long experienced his master’s humanity. This grateful Indian, a native of Java, who, according to some writers, saved his master’s life in the unhappy shipwreck where he lost his effects, begged in the streets of Lisbon for the only man in Portugal on whom God had bestowed those talents, which have a tendency to erect the spirit of a downward age.


Sir Richard Francis Burton

As I said, I don’t think that much of Burton’s translation of The Lusiads. However, I am a huge fan of the mustachio’d renegade Ruffian Dick and intend to write plenty more about him later. His picture says it all:

What a guy!


I was quite taken with the introduction to his translation, written by his wife Isabel. She did burn his translation of The Perfumed Garden, which is a shame, but you can’t really blame a Victorian woman for not wanting her husband to be known for a how-to manual on pederasty.  Anyway, here is her description of Burton’s attitude to Cãmoens:

this translation stands apart from all the rest–as far apart as the Passionspiel of Ober-Ammergau stands apart as a grand dramatic act of devotion from all the other Miracle-plays, now suppressed. This translation is not a literary tour de force done against time or to earn a reputation; it is the result of a daily act of devotion of twenty years from a man of this age who has taken the hero of a former age for his model, his master, as Dante did Virgil; and between whose two fates–Master and Disciple–exists a strange and fatal similarity. 

Leave a Reply