Children Reading Children’s Classics?


The link below is to an article that questions the ‘need’ for children to read classic children’s books.

For more visit:
https://bookriot.com/2018/11/13/do-we-have-to-read-childrens-classics/

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Guide to the classics: Homer’s Iliad



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The Greeks defend their ships from the Trojans in Alfred Churchill’s Story of the Iliad, 1911.
Wikimedia

Chris Mackie, La Trobe University

Homer’s Iliad is usually thought of as the first work of European literature, and many would say, the greatest. It tells part of the saga of the city of Troy and the war that took place there. In fact the Iliad takes its name from “Ilios”, an ancient Greek word for “Troy”, situated in what is Turkey today. This story had a central place in Greek mythology.

The poem deals with a very short period in the tenth year of the Trojan war. This sometimes surprises modern readers who expect the whole story of Troy (as, for instance, in Wolfgang Petersen’s 2004 film Troy). But Homer and other early epic poets confined their narratives to particular periods in the war, such as its origins, key martial encounters, the fall of the city, or the returns of the soldiers to Greece. There is no doubt that Homer and other early poets could rely on a very extensive knowledge of the Trojan war among their audiences.

Brad Pitt as Achilles in the film Troy.
Warner Brothers

The central figure in the Iliad is Achilles, the son of Peleus (a mortal aristocrat) and Thetis (a sea-goddess). He comes from the north of Greece, and is therefore something of an outsider, because most of the main Greek princes in the poem come from the south. Achilles is young and brash, a brilliant fighter, but not a great diplomat. When he gets into a dispute with Agamemnon, the leading Greek prince in the war, and loses his captive princess Briseis to him, he refuses to fight and remains in his camp.

He stays there for most of the poem, until his friend Patroclus is killed. He then explodes back on to the battlefield, kills the Trojan hero Hector, who had killed Patroclus, and mutilates his body.

The Iliad ends with the ransom of Hector’s body by his old father Priam, who embarks on a mission to Achilles’ camp in the gloom of night to get his son’s body back. It is worth noting that the actual fall of Troy, via the renowned stratagem of Greeks hidden within a Wooden Horse, is not described in the Iliad, although it was certainly dealt with in other poems.

All of this takes place under the watchful gaze of the Olympian gods, who are both actors and audience in the Iliad. The Olympians are divided over the fate of Troy, just as the mortals are – in the Iliad the Trojan war is a cosmic conflict, not just one played out at the human level between Greeks and non-Greeks. Ominously for Troy, the gods on the Greek side, notably Hera (queen of the gods), Athena (goddess of wisdom and war), and Poseidon (god of the land and sea), represent a much more powerful force than the divine supporters of Troy, of whom Apollo (the archer god and god of afar) is the main figure.

Achilles mourns the death of Patroclus.
John Flaxman, The Iliad, 1793

The many faces of Homer

The Iliad is only one poetic work focused on the war for Troy; many others have not survived. But such is its quality and depth that it had a special place in antiquity, and probably survived for that reason.

Achilles dragging the body of Hector behind his chariot. Vase circa 490 BC.

We know virtually nothing about Homer and whether he also created the other poem in his name, the Odyssey, which recounts the return journey of Odysseus from the Trojan war, to the island of Ithaca. The Iliad was probably put together around 700 BC, or a bit later, presumably by a brilliant poet immersed in traditional skills of oral composition (ie “Homer”). This tradition of oral composition probably reaches back hundreds of years before the Iliad.

Early epic poetry can be a way of maintaining the cultural memory of major conflicts. History and archaeology also teach us that there may have been a historical “Trojan war” at the end of the second millennium BC (at Hissarlik in western Turkey), although it was very unlike the one that Homer describes.

The Iliad was composed as one continuous poem. In its current arrangement (most likely after the establishment of the Alexandrian library in the early 3rd century BC), it is divided into 24 books corresponding to the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet.

It has a metrical form known as “dactylic hexameter” – a metre also associated with many other epic poems in antiquity (such as the Odyssey, and the Aeneid, the Roman epic by Virgil). In the Odyssey, a bard called Demodocus sings on request in an aristocratic context about the Wooden Horse at Troy, giving a sense of the kind of existence “Homer” might have led.

The language of the Iliad is a conflation of different regional dialects, which means that it doesn’t belong to a particular ancient city as most other ancient Greek texts do. It therefore had a strong resonance throughout the Greek world, and is often thought of as a “pan-Hellenic” poem, a possession of all the Greeks. Likewise the Greek attack on Troy was a collective quest drawing on forces from across the Greek world. Pan-Hellenism, therefore, is central to the Iliad.

Death and War

A central idea in the Iliad is the inevitability of death (as also with the earlier Epic of Gilgamesh). The poignancy of life and death is enhanced by the fact that the victims of war are usually young. Achilles is youthful and headstrong, and has a goddess for a mother, but even he has to die. We learn that he had been given a choice – a long life without heroic glory, or a short and glorious life in war. His choice of the latter marks him out as heroic, and gives him a kind of immortality. But the other warriors too, including the Trojan hero Hector, are prepared to die young.

The gods, by contrast, don’t have to worry about dying. But they can be affected by death. Zeus’s son Sarpedon dies within the Iliad, and Thetis has to deal with the imminent death of her son Achilles. After his death, she will lead an existence of perpetual mourning for him. Immortality in Greek mythology can be a mixed blessing.

The Iliad also has much to say about war. The atrocities in the war at Troy are committed by Greeks on Trojans. Achilles commits human sacrifice within the Iliad itself and mutilates the body of Hector, and there are other atrocities told in other poems.

The Trojan saga in the early Greek sources tells of the genocide of the Trojans, and the Greek poets explored some of the darkest impulses of human conduct in war. In the final book of the Iliad, Achilles and Priam, in the most poignant of settings, reflect upon the fate of human beings and the things they do to one another.

The archaeological site of Troy in western Turkey.
Jorge Láscar, CC BY

Postscripts and plagiarists

It was often said that the Iliad was a kind of “bible of the Greeks” in so far as its reception within the Greek world, and beyond, was nothing short of extraordinary. A knowledge of Homer became a standard part of Greek education, be it formal or informal.

Ancient writers after Homer, even the rather austere Greek historian Thucydides in the 5th century BC, assume the historicity of much of the subject-matter of the Iliad. Likewise, Alexander the Great (356-323BC) seems to have been driven by a quest to be the “new Achilles”. Plutarch tells a delightful story that Alexander slept with a dagger under his pillow at night, together with a copy of Homer’s Iliad. This particular copy had been annotated by Alexander’s former tutor, the philosopher Aristotle. One can only imagine its value today had it survived.

In the Roman world, the poet Virgil (70-19BC) set out to write an epic poem about the origins of Rome from the ashes of Troy. His poem, called the Aeneid (after Aeneas, a traditional Trojan founder of Rome), is written in Latin, but is heavily reliant on Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey.

The ConversationMy own view is that Virgil knew Homer off by heart, and he was probably criticised in his own life for the extent of his reliance on Homer. But tradition records his response that “it is easier to steal Heracles’ club than steal one line from Homer”. This response, be it factual or not, records the spell that Homer’s Iliad cast over antiquity, and most of the period since.

Chris Mackie, Professor of Greek Studies, La Trobe University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Reading classic novels in an era of climate change



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Smoke rises over the city of Manchester in William Wyld’s painting Manchester from Kersal Moor.
(1852).
Wikimedia commons

Philip Steer, Massey University

There is a strange and troubled kind of intimacy between our own moment of climate change and 19th century Britain. It was there that a global, fossil fuel economy first took shape, through its coal-powered factories, railways, and steamships, which drove the emergence of modern consumer capitalism. The Conversation

What might we now find if we look again at the literature of the 19th century? Although Victorian writers lacked our understanding of a warming planet, we can learn from their deep awareness of the rapid and far-reaching ways that their society was changing. In their hands, the novel became a powerful tool for thinking about the interconnections between individuals, society, economics, and the natural world.

North and South

One place to start thinking about such things might be Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South (1855), a classic example of the “industrial novel” genre that flourished in the middle decades of that century.

Most of the novel’s events take place in the industrial town of Milton-Northern (Manchester), the epicentre of Victorian coal-fired industrial production. Our protagonist, Margaret Hale, is forced to relocate there due to family circumstances, and her first numb impressions are that the environment, the economy, and the city’s urban geography have all been transformed by fossil fuel consumption:

For several miles before they reached Milton, they saw a deep lead-coloured cloud hanging over the horizon in the direction in which it lay … Nearer to the town, the air had a faint taste and smell of smoke; perhaps, after all more a loss of the fragrance of grass and herbage than any positive taste or smell. Quick they were whirled over long, straight, hopeless streets of regularly-built houses, all small and of brick.

Milton is covered in a thick layer of pollution as a result of the town’s industrialisation, as depicted in the BBC mini-series North and South (2004), which starred Daniela Denby-Ashe as Margaret.
British Broadcasting Corporation

Gaskell brings her refined but impoverished heroine into contact with a forceful cotton-mill owner, John Thornton — imagine if Pride and Prejudice were set in a factory. Their love plot offers a symbolic means of restoring harmony to a nation disrupted by the new economy, as Margaret softens the edges of Thornton’s laissez faire practices and brings about improved relations with his workers. As he admits to one of his acquaintances, near the end of the novel,

My only wish is to have the opportunity of cultivating some intercourse with the hands beyond the mere ‘cash nexus’.

Thinking about this resolution in light of the fossil fuel economy, however, what comes into focus is how vulnerable this harmonious social vision is to wider social and environmental forces. By the novel’s conclusion, the global market — the source of raw materials, investors, and customers — proves to be so powerful and destabilising that the harmony of Thornton’s factory can provide only temporary solace at best, and he is bankrupted:

Meanwhile, at Milton the chimneys smoked, the ceaseless roar and mighty beat, and dizzying whirl of machinery, struggled and strove perpetually… . Few came to buy, and those who did were looked at suspiciously by the sellers; for credit was insecure… . [F]rom the immense speculations that had come to light in making a bad end in America, and yet nearer home, it was known that some Milton houses of business must suffer[.]

Looking back at North and South now, we can see how interconnected its vision of a fossil-fuelled society and the economy is, and how artificial the borders of the nation prove to be when faced with the instabilities that it causes.

The Time Machine

Australian author James Bradley suggests that writers today, grappling with how to represent climate change, have found genres such as science fiction more suited to the task than classic realism.

“In a way this is unsurprising,” he comments, because of those genres’ interest in “estrangement” from everyday circumstances, and their fascination with “experiences that exceed human scales of being.”

The last decades of the Victorian era were, like now, a stunning time of generic innovation, and prominent amongst those late-century innovations were the “scientific romances” of H. G. Wells.

The Time Machine’s bleak view of humanity’s future (seen here in the 1960 film adaptation) is a chilling one.
George Pal Productions

In The Time Machine (1895) Wells found a narrative device that would allow him to think about social and environmental change over enormous spans of history. Near the end of the novel, the inventor of the machine undertakes a voyage to the very end of the planet’s history:

I looked about me to see if any traces of animal life remained… . I saw nothing moving, in earth or sky or sea. The green slime on the rocks alone testified that life was not extinct… .
From the edge of the sea came a ripple and a whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All the sounds of man, the stir that makes the background of our lives — all that was over.

In imagining this bleak beach, Wells is taking up contemporary predictions that the law of entropy meant the inevitable “heat death” of the universe. Global cooling rather than global warming, then, but one thing that resonates now is how the novel views humanity as a species — and a finite one, at that — rather than from a more limited individual or even national perspective.

The Victorians were the first to stare into the abyss of geological deep time, and to confront the idea of natural history as a succession of mass extinctions.

As a result, Wells raises the idea of a future where even technology cannot overcome calamitous natural processes, and dares to imagine a planet without a human presence.

Tess of the D’Urbervilles

The novelist Amitav Ghosh has recently described a “broader imaginative and cultural failure that lies at the heart of the climate crisis,” arguing that the characteristics of the realist novel have made it resistant to representing those environmental and social complexities. Does the realist novel really have nothing to offer and nothing to say in an era of climate change?

The melting icebergs of Breidamerkurjokull’s Vatnajokull glacier in Iceland: is there a role for the realist novel in an era of climate change?
Ints Kalnins/Reuters

One place to look for an answer is another famously bleak Victorian text, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1891). The plot is set in motion with Tess’s father’s discovery that his family name, Durbeyfield, is a corruption of D’Urberville, and they are in fact descended from an ancient family that once dominated the area. When they are ultimately thrown out of their home, the Durbeyfields end up seeking refuge at a church, amongst the graves of their ancestors:

They were canopied, altar-shaped, and plain; their carvings being defaced and broken; their brasses torn from the matrices, the rivet-holes remaining like marten-holes in a sand-cliff. Of all the reminders that she had ever received that her people were socially extinct there was none so forcible as this spoliation.

A bit like our own era of increasingly constrained resources, Tess inhabits an exhausted present, and she moves amidst the ruins left by previous generations who have consumed the material wealth that once made life abundant.

Hardy is also deeply attuned to the ecological damage produced by increasingly industrialised forms of agriculture. Late in the novel, when Tess is abandoned by her lover, Angel Clare, she is forced to accept work on the vast and stony fields of Flintcomb-Ash farm.

She labours through a brutal winter, and endures the relentless demands imposed by a steam-powered threshing machine — “a portable repository of force” — that reduces the workers to automatons. Around the same time, Angel abandons England for Brazil, only to find that English bodies do not translate to tropical ecosystems:

He would see mothers from English farms trudging along with their infants in their arms, when the child would be stricken with fever and would die; the mother would pause to dig a hole in the loose earth with her bare hands, would bury the babe therein with the same natural grave-tools, shed one tear, and again trudge on.

Gemma Arterton as Tess in the 2008 mini series adaptation. Stuck on a farm, Tess seesk to make ethical choices despite overwhelming constraints in Hardy’s novel.
British Broadcasting Corporation

Both Tess and Angel — and the anonymous, sundered colonial families — seem to be climate refugees of a kind, caught between hostile climates and the environmental wreckage wrought by agribusiness.

What little Tess of the D’Urbervilles offers in the face of all this bleakness also centres on Tess. For one thing, she doesn’t just think of herself as an isolated individual, but sees herself as part of larger social and ecological collectives — her family, her fellow milkmaids, even the rural landscape.

She persists in her determination to care for those around her — including, most challengingly, the son she gives birth to after her rape — despite the weight of the moral and economic systems that bear down upon her. After her father refuses to let the parson visit, Tess chooses to baptise her dying son herself — naming him Sorrow — and then secures him a Christian burial:

In spite of the untoward surroundings … Tess bravely made a little cross of two laths and a piece of string, and having bound it with flowers, she stuck it up at the head of the grave one evening … putting at the foot also a bunch of the same flowers in a little jar of water to keep them alive.

Tess refuses to abandon her project of care despite its futility, persisting with her fidelity in the midst of catastrophe.

Literature in itself isn’t going to save us from global warming — if salvation is even possible, at this point — but then neither, on their own, will economics or science. But if Amitav Ghosh is right, and climate change has revealed an imaginative paralysis in western culture, one thing that the Victorian novel offers us is a means of thinking and feeling about our own moment anew.

The Sydney Writers Festival will host a session on the rise and rise of Cli-Fi featuring James Bradley, Sally Abbott, Hannah Donnelly and Ashley Hay on Friday May 26.

Philip Steer, Senior Lecturer in English, Massey University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas


Joy McEntee, University of Adelaide

American journalist Hunter S Thompson is a mythical figure, partly by his own design, and partly, perversely, against his wishes. Norman Mailer called him “a legend in successful self-abuse.” Biographer E. Jean Carroll reported Thompson’s daily working regime, which allegedly started at 3pm.

While writing he consumed: Chivas Regal, Dunhills, cocaine, orange juice, marijuana, Heineken, huge helpings of food, LSD, Chartreuse, clove cigarettes, gin and pornographic movies. He then spent some time in the hot tub with champagne and Dove Bars.

Compare this with the drug collection of Raoul Duke, the first person narrator of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1971):

We had two bags of grass, seventy-five pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a salt shaker half full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers … and also a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of Budweiser, a pint of raw either and two dozen amyls … The only thing that really worried me was the ether.

The parallels between the Duke persona and Thompson’s own life have led to a conflation of the two. This arises in part from the approach which Thompson made famous: Gonzo journalism.

Hunter S Thompson in 1997.
REUTERS/Christian Thompson

Gonzo journalism

Far from being an objective observer of the action, the Gonzo journalist becomes a participant in it and reports on it subjectively. Thompson went further: he was often a provocateur. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was a fictionalised account of two trips Thompson made with his friend Oscar Zeta Acosta from LA to Las Vegas.

It was published by Rolling Stone magazine in 1971 under the byline of Raoul Duke, but Thompson’s name does appear. Presented with a photo of himself, Duke identifies it as Thompson: a “vicious, crazy kind of person”.

Rather than effacing himself as a chronicler of the scene, Thompson injects himself, via his Duke persona, as a character. Acquaintance Peter Flanders observed:

Hunter was a theatre. He was a roving kind of theatre. He was not just a writer … he was an actor. He was creating his own subject matter.

The aim of Gonzo journalism and other kinds of New Journalism was to write factual reporting that read like fiction. In Thompson’s case, the truth was outrageous, and then it was outrageously embellished by means of fantasy and hallucination.

What is the book about?

“It was time,” says Duke, “for an Agonizing Reappraisal of the whole scene.” The novel confronts “the brutish realities of this foul Year of Our Lord, 1971,” when the “whole scene” consisted of the state of America as a nation, the squandered promise of the 1960s counter-culture, and the inadequacies of traditional journalism to cope with the chaos that confronted it.

Cover of the 1998 edition of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
Vintage Books

As a reading experience, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a wild torpedo ride through some of the strangest scenes in American fact, or American fiction. Or whatever bizarre hybrid of fact and fiction this book represents.

In terms of its plot, the book falls into two halves. In the first, Duke, a journalist, and Doctor Gonzo, his attorney, travel at high speed in a red convertible from LA to Las Vegas so Duke can cover the Mint 400 motorcycle race. He fails conspicuously to do so, and they wander in a drug-addled state among the various sensory intensities of Vegas. They behave despicably, “burning the locals, abusing the tourists and terrifying the help.”

They thoroughly trash the hotel room and run up a stupendous room service tab. They destroy the car. They flee before there is a reckoning. Duke, however, encounters a highway patrol officer who interferes with his plans, so he turns back to cover the National District Attorney’s Conference on Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. He feels it is his obligation to represent the drug culture.

The conference only serves to demonstrate how out of touch law enforcement is. The second half of the book follows much the same trajectory as the first, with the pair compounding their felonies of (statutory) rape, fraud and larceny.

Duke and Doctor Gonzo must be admired for their sheer bravado, if condemned for the political unsoundness of their behaviour. The novel alternates hilarious scenes of madcap knavery with elegiac essays on the lost promise of the 1960s, but it does not become bogged down. This is because of its gleeful, manic energy.

Tom Robbins says:

It lifts you out of your seat when you’re reading it. It’s out of control … in an exhilarating, hallucinatory way.

Anthony Bourdain has said:

Thomson’s wild, hyperbolic prose … showed me not only a whole new way to see and think about things … a whole new way to live. I embraced the doctor wholeheartedly, developing a lifelong love for melodrama, overstatement, lurid imagery and damaged romanticism.

Christopher Lehman-Haupt described the novel’s “mad, corrosive poetry.”

The setting of Las Vegas is exploited for the surreal images it offers, and because the protagonists’ enormities are accepted. As Raoul Duke says: “the mentality of Las Vegas is so grossly atavistic that a really massive crime often slips by unrecognized.”

Raoul Duke chases the American Dream in a red convertible.
Chad Horwedel/Flickr

This might not be as disturbing as it is if the trip to Vegas were not also a quest for the American Dream.

The American Dream

Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s trip is “a gross, physical salute to the fantastic possibilities of life in this country.” Their ostensible mission is covering the Mint 400, but their actual goal is ill defined:

What was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad on drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.

Alger was a 19th-century author who typically wrote rags to riches stories; in Vegas, his relevance is about greed as a distinctively American quality. In fact, Duke eventually finds the “main nerve” of the American Dream in the Circus-Circus casino. The owner, who dreamt of running away to join the circus as a child, now has his own circus, and a licence to steal. He, it is said, is the model for the American Dream. If this seems cynical, so it should.

Other references to the contemporary condition of America include discussions of Nixon’s perfidy about the Vietnam War. Of Thompson, the anti-war Democrat Senator George McGovern once said:

Hunter was a patriot… [but] he was not a jingoist. He hated that war in Vietnam with a passion. He hated the hypocrisy of the establishment. Basically, I think he wanted to see this country live up to his ideals. And he wanted us to do better.

The Kent State University protests against the Vietnam War, in which four students were killed when the National Guard opened fire, occurred a year before Thompson published Fear and Loathing.
May 4 Collection/Kent State University Libraries/Special Collections and Archives/Handout via REUTERS

The 1960s

One of the things Thompson wanted America to do better was fulfil the promise of the 1960s. Some of the novel’s most trenchant criticisms are levelled at counter-cultural gurus like Timothy Leary who, it seems to Duke, set up new regimes of authoritarianism to replace the old. One of the novel’s most famous passages reveals its bitter nostalgia:

San Francisco in the middle sixties was a very special time and place to be a part of. Maybe it meant something. … It seems entirely reasonable to think that every now and then the energy of a whole generation comes to a head in a long fine flash, for reasons that nobody really understands at the time … There was a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning. … that sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil. …. Our energy would simply prevail. … We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave. … So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high-water mark — that place where the wave finally broke and rolled back.

Journalism

Finally, the novel addresses a contemporary crisis in journalism. Duke starts out full of his professional obligation to “cover the story,” but quickly abandons all pretence. Throughout the narrative, there are traumatic encounters with traditional news coverage, from mendacious TV broadcasts about the war in Laos and Vietnam to newspaper reports on police killing anti-war protesters, to grotesque stories about the consequences of drug taking. “Against this heinous background,” says Duke, “my crimes were pale and meaningless.”

This culminates in a cynical statement at the end:

Why bother with newspapers, if this is all they offer? …The press is a gang of cruel faggots. Journalism is not a profession or a trade. It is a cheap catch-all for fuckoffs and misfits.

Thompson might proudly have self-identified as a misfit, but he was also a journalist, so this seems a strangely self-castigating statement, until you consider what it was that he did for journalism, which was to redefine it. This is his contribution to the American canon.

Contemporary resonance

Pondering all this in the age of Donald Trump, another of Thompson’s books comes to mind: Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72, in which he covered the campaign of the Democratic Party’s nominee McGovern (the Presidential race was eventually won by Richard Nixon). Profoundly critical of the relationship between political processes and the media, this collection of articles again attacks both America and journalism at the same time.

Perhaps it is now, more than ever, that we need Gonzo journalism to help us understand the bizarre nature of US national politics today.

The Conversation

Joy McEntee, Lecturer, University of Adelaide

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: the Arthurian legend


Amy Brown, University of Geneva

The early trailers for Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) were released last (northern) summer, which means my favourite season in life as a medievalist academic is coming: the season of The Truth About King Arthur. It doesn’t matter if the movie itself is good or bad: the question I will be getting is “but how accurate is it?” Does it represent the “real” legend of King Arthur?

Knowing Guy Ritchie’s films, the answer is going to be a glorious “no, and it’s not even trying”, but modern audiences often seem to be attracted to the idea of an adaptation that is more true than others.

The 2004 film King Arthur, a glorious romp featuring Kiera Knightley in an impractical outfit fighting hand-to-hand with an even more impractical short bow, billed itself as telling the “real” story of King Arthur as we’d never seen it before. Set, ostensibly, in the 5th century, it promised the story of a beleaguered Briton warlord rallying his people against the Saxons – but it also gave us a love triangle featuring Arthur, his wife Guinevere, and the knight Lancelot; a tale which first appeared in the 12th century, in France.

Can you tell a King Arthur story to a modern audience without including the royal love triangle? The Australian animated series Arthur! And His Square Knights of the Round Table (1966), aimed at young audiences who presumably weren’t supposed to comprehend a complicated narrative of love, betrayal and sin, is nevertheless peppered with in-jokes about the Queen’s devotion to the comically inept Lancelot.

The BBC’s Merlin (2008), a delightful festival of historical inaccuracies, made the triangle a key part of Guinevere’s character arc for several seasons, ending with poor Lancelot as the tool of necromancy and plots against the throne.

Interestingly, Guy Ritchie’s Legend of the Sword seems to have cast no Lancelot; it remains to be seen if modern audiences will accept a Lancelot-less Camelot as “real” Arthuriana. But whether they do or do not, Ritchie’s work will be compared to an imagined true story of King Arthur, which never existed, even in the Middle Ages. The medieval sources dealing with King Arthur are numerous, inconsistent, and wildly ahistorical in and of themselves.

The historical sources

‘King Arthur’ by Charles Ernest Butler.
Charles Ernest Butler [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The name Arthur first appears in the work of the 9th century Welsh historian Nennius, who lists twelve battles this Arthur fought against invading Saxons. Similarly, the Welsh Chronicles (written down in the 10th century) make some references to battles fought by Arthur. On this shaky foundation, along with a scattering of place-names and oblique references, is an entire legend based.

Ask any scholar of Arthurian literature if King Arthur really existed, and we’ll tell you: we don’t know, and we don’t really care. The good stuff, the King Arthur we all know and love, is entirely fictional.

The “Arthurian Legend” really kicked off in the early 12th century, with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (1138), which purported to describe the entire history of Britain from the day dot until about the 7th century.

He describes the founding of Britain by the (mythical) Trojan warrior Brutus; he covers a lot of the historical events described in Nennius’ earlier work; and his account is the first to really describe King Arthur’s reign, his wars against the Saxons, and the doings of the wizard Merlin. Some elements, like the part where Merlin helps Arthur’s father Uther deceive and sleep with another man’s wife, thus conceiving Arthur, remain key parts of the Arthurian legend today. Other elements modern audiences expect, like the Round Table, are still absent.

Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote in Latin, and his book was read and treated as a history book in the Middle Ages. But very quickly, the material was re-worked into French and English poetry. The Norman poet Wace, whose audience included people living in both France and England, based his Roman de Brut (1155) on Geoffrey’s History. He added many things to the story, including the Round Table itself.

Around the turn of the thirteenth century, an English poet named Layamon took both Geoffrey and Wace’s works, combined them, and added more in his long English poem Brut. Arthur is not the only subject covered in the Brut, but it’s the first treatment of King Arthur in English.

These versions, and some of the later English romances like Of Arthur and of Merlin, focus on battles and political tensions. Aside from Merlin they feature few supernatural elements, and do not usually devote much attention to love. In these versions, the traitor Mordred who defeats Arthur at the battle of Camlann is usually his nephew, not his illegitimate son; and Guinevere may willingly marry him after Arthur’s death.

The Romances

Arthurian romance is where things really start getting fun, from the 12th century onwards. The earliest romances did not focus on Arthur himself, but on various heroes and knights associated with his court.

The very first might be the Welsh Culhwch and Olwen, the events of which rarely make an appearance in later Arthurian works, but which share with them a common basic plot structure: a young man needs to prove himself to win the hand of a fair lady, goes to Arthur’s court, undergoes a series of supernatural adventures, and is eventually able to marry his lady and settle down.

‘Arthur’s Tomb’ by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The earliest surviving French Arthurian romances are by an author named Chrétien de Troyes. He wrote five romances, of which the most fun, in my humble opinion, is The Knight of the Lion (1176). The most famous is The Knight of the Cart (1180), which introduces Lancelot and his love affair with Queen Guinevere.

Hot on its heels came The Story of the Grail (1181), which introduces Perceval and the Grail quest – although Chrétien himself never finished that work. At around about the same time, a separate tradition of romances about the knight Tristan and his affair with Queen Isolde of Cornwall was also circulating.

Over the 13th to 15th centuries countless romances were written in French and in various other European languages, telling tales of the adventures of individual knights associated with King Arthur.

For instance, in the 14th century English poem Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (1390), a young Gawain is challenged to cut off the head of the Green Knight, in return for which the Green Knight will cut off Gawain’s head a year later. Unfortunately for Gawain, the green knight has supernatural headless-survival powers which Gawain lacks, and so the adventure unfolds as Gawain seeks to keep his bargain and his head.

After Chrétien de Troyes’ day, the Grail quest story became extremely popular: there are several continuations of his unfinished poem, a complete reworking in German by a Wolfram von Eschenbach, and many translations. In these, Perceval is the hero who becomes keeper of the Grail. In the complex French prose version known as The Quest of the Holy Grail (1230), Lancelot’s illegitimate but extraordinarily holy son Galahad takes that honour.

How Sir Galahad, Sir Bors and Sir Percival Were Fed with the Sanct Grael; but Sir Percival’s Sister Died by the Way by Dante Gabriel Rossetti.
Dante Gabriel Rossetti [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The death of Arthur

If you read no other piece of medieval Arthuriana, read the 13th century French prose romance The Death of King Arthur (1237). The Penguin translation by James Cable is eminently readable, and cheap too. This romance circulated in the middle ages as the last of a “series” of Arthurian works beginning with the Grail’s arrival in Britain and ending with the break-up of the Arthurian court and Arthur’s own death. We call this whole series the Vulgate Cycle, or the Lancelot-Grail Cycle.

This series, rather like many modern fantasy series, was written out of order: the long romance known as the Lancelot Proper and the Quest of the Holy Grail (the one with Galahad, mentioned above) were composed first, by different authors; very quickly afterwards the Death of King Arthur was added, and then the prequel material dealing with the origin of the Grail and the birth of Merlin was added.

In the Death of King Arthur, the Arthurian court is aging. Lancelot has lost his chance at the Grail, the court’s harmony is shattered as Guinevere’s adultery comes to light, Mordred betrays Arthur, and everything falls to pieces.

A detail of the painting The last sleep of Arthur by the Pre-Raphaelite painter Edward Burne-Jones, 1898.
via Wikimedia Commons

Fast forward to the 15th century, and an English knight named Thomas Malory, serving time in prison in Calais for attempting to abduct a young heiress, gets hold of the Vulgate Cycle, the Tristan romances, and a range of other material, and produces the most famous piece of English-language (despite its French title) Arthuriana: Le Morte d’Arthur. Malory, whatever else he might have been, was a completist, and he tried very hard to make a single coherent story out of the many contradictory he sources he had.

Chances are, if someone in an English-speaking country says to you they’ve read the “original” story of King Arthur, it’s Malory they mean. Its great popularity is explained by the fact that William Caxton put out a printed edition in the late fifteenth century. You can find that for free online, but the best reading version is the Oxford World’s Classics translation by Helen Cooper.

The ‘real’ Arthur today

Very few people get their first idea of King Arthur from a medieval text, today. When I taught Arthurian classes at Sydney Uni I used to ask the group to describe their first encounter with the Arthurian legend – it got oddly confessional at times, liking asking people to describe their religious conversions or coming-out experiences.

A lot of people my age and younger met Arthur through the movie The Sword in the Stone (1963), although in my case it was the infinitely funnier and more terrible Quest for Camelot (1998).

I was reading Arthurian stories long before I learned that the way we’re supposed to judge an adaptation in the modern world is its “fidelity” to its source. I loved Howard Pyle’s The Story of King Arthur (1903) and the 1998 miniseries Merlin and the ridiculous BBC children’s show Sir Gadabout (2002), and the last thing I worried about was whether or not they incorporated exactly the same plot elements.

There’s a distinct pleasure, though, in reading your favourite story told again in new ways: Sir Gadabout was so funny to me precisely because it plays fast and loose with elements that are treated as sacred in the solemn Victorian style of Howard Pyle, or the serious moralising of T.H. White’s Once and Future King (1958).

Ask a group of medievalists what the best Arthurian movie is, and 95% of us will answer Monty Python and the Quest for the Holy Grail (1975). The reason for that is not, as anyone who has seen it can guess, because it is exceedingly faithful to Thomas Malory’s monumental work, or to any other particular text.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)
EMI Films

What Monty Python did so brilliantly was take the cultural “idea” of Arthur (perhaps at that time best encapsulated in the musical Camelot (1967)), along with a broad knowledge of Arthurian traditions both medieval and modern, and have fun with it on various levels. You don’t need to have read the weird romances dealing with the Questing Beast to laugh at the Black Beast of Argh, for instance, but if you have, knowledge of the “original” can only improve your appreciation of the adaptation.

And so I contend that whether or not Guy Ritchie includes Lancelot is immaterial. As far as I’m concerned it’s not a real Arthurian movie unless it contains the Beast of Argh, and that’s the stance I’m sticking to.

Readers interested in the history and development of Arthuriana could consult the second edition of The Arthurian Handbook (Routledge, 1997), or explore the texts, images and mini-histories at The Camelot Project.

The Conversation

Amy Brown, Doctoral Assistant in Medieval English, University of Geneva

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: Christina Stead’s The Beauties and Furies


Margaret Harris, University of Sydney

From the beginning Christina Stead’s fiction divided critical opinion, and reactions to The Beauties and Furies, her second novel, were no exception. Where some saw “garrulous pretentiousness”, Clifton Fadiman in the New Yorker found “such streaming imagination, such tireless wit, such intellectual virtuosity” that Stead must be recognised as “the most extraordinary woman novelist produced by the English-speaking race since Virginia Woolf”.

What Fadiman discerned is the extraordinary originality of Stead’s modernist experiment, ranking her achievement with that of James Joyce. Ulysses, published in 1922, was no longer banned for obscenity in the United States by 1936, when The Beauties and Furies was published.

Of the major novels published in that year, only William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! and Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood rival The Beauties and Furies in its contempt for prevailing realist-narrative expectations. (The big commercial success of 1936 was Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, much to Stead’s chagrin.)

Once I would have thought Fadiman’s claim excessive. My introduction to Christina Stead was through the reissue of The Man Who Loved Children (1940) in 1965, which astounded me.

I was already reading her in earnest in the late 1970s when the Virago republications began, including The Beauties and Furies in 1982. I found it baffling, over-shadowed by its predecessor, Seven Poor Men of Sydney (1934), and its successor, House of All Nations (1938) — the latter is Stead’s other Paris novel, based on her experience of working in the private bank where her partner, William Blake, was a financial adviser.

Christina Stead

I wasn’t alone. The Beauties and Furies has never been taken up as The Man Who Loved Children and For Love Alone (1944) have been. Only in recent years, as I have thought more about Stead’s early writings, has it been borne in on me that it is arguably her most experimental work, disconcerting and disturbing, a searching, sometimes ironic, depiction of a decadent society. It is a quintessential modernist text that heeds Ezra Pound’s injunction to “make it new”.

Its affinity with Ulysses is marked. In letters back to Sydney after her arrival in London in 1928, Stead called Joyce “the modern Shakespeare, superior to Shakespeare in command of language, equal in music”, acknowledging that Ulysses is “hard work” because it “has to be read with a rhyming dictionary, an encyclopaedia, the grammars of ten languages, and an annotated ‘crib’”.

James Joyce by Berenice Abbot.
alrionun/flickr, CC BY

Joyce was far from being her only discovery in those heady years. Stead’s fiction from the start displayed the interest in dreams and the unconscious flaunted in The Beauties and Furies, everywhere mixing fantasy and reality in extravagant swoops of tone and register. The influence of surrealism is pervasive, reaching greatest intensity near the end, in the spectacular sequence in the Somnambulists’ Club.

Yet a plot summary could represent the novel as no more than a variant of 1930s lending-library romances: a bored London housewife, Elvira Western, leaves her solid doctor husband, Paul, for a younger lover, Oliver Fenton, a student in Paris.

At every turn, though, the narrative undermines romantic expectations. There is an undertow of incestuous and same-sex attractions among the various heterosexual liaisons, along with daring depiction of casual couplings, and references to prostitutes, venereal disease and abortion. This is not the Paris of romantic love: dreams are nightmarish in a city of night rather than light.

A ‘middle-class’ novel

The action takes place in a specific timeframe in 1934, in a moment of political instability due to an economic downturn and the menace of fascism. It begins in March, with Paris still unsettled following an outbreak of violence in February, and ends in the winter of 1934–35. Throughout there are references to contemporary events, including the workers’ rallies in May attended by Oliver.

There is much political rhetoric. Characters’ analyses of such issues as the operation of capital are largely Marxist-Leninist, and to a significant extent are attributable to the input of William Blake. But they are the views of the characters, frequently belied by their actions, and not endorsed by Stead. The weight of this depiction of bad faith rests on Oliver.

Although he supports the workers by attending rallies, he harbours a desire for a career in business rather than academia. His commitment to the labour cause is expedient. The topic of his thesis, on which he works fitfully, is The French Workers’ Movement from the Commune to the Amsterdam Congress of 1904, chosen for easy archival access and exotic appeal to his English university. However, his cynicism rarely finds such epigrammatic expression as in his observation that

All middle-class novels are about the trials of three, all upper-class novels about mass fornication, all revolutionary novels about a bad man turned good by a tractor.

According to this mocking definition, The Beauties and Furies is very much a middle-class novel, though bourgeois values and behaviour are among its targets. In the rich opening chapter, the first of a sequence of triangles is set up, involving the “runaway wife” (as Elvira is described in the List of Characters), her husband and “her lover, a student”.

The similarity of the names Elvira and Oliver is curious, and they are sometimes described as twins: Elvira’s brother Adam Cinips also enters the emotional equations. Oliver’s affairs with the actress Blanche and the lace artist Coromandel set up further triangles.

Scene from Parsifal, from the Victola book of the opera (1917).
flickr

The idea of Paris as an underworld is spelled out by Annibale Marpurgo, “a lace-buyer”, a manipulative self- made cosmopolitan. His declaration that “Paris is Klingsor’s garden, to me” is typical of the range of allusion that Stead
deploys, here bringing into play Wagner’s opera based on the medieval Grail quest epic Parzival.

An “annotated crib” would tell us that in Wagner’s version, Parsifal, Klingsor— who has been denied entry to the Temple of the Holy Grail, despite having attempted to do away with his impure thoughts by self-castration — constructs a garden into which questing knights are seduced. The sexual connotations are especially relevant. Similar intertextual references proliferate in the novel, including an explicit invocation of Ulysses when Oliver reads to Elvira as she is lying ill (an episode that tells us a lot about Oliver).

Lace and capital

From the first chapter, where Marpurgo trades radical credentials with Oliver, political affiliation is a persistent topic in The Beauties and Furies. Marpurgo declares that they are “Brothermarxists … and brother fantasts”, tossing in mention of the Arabian Nights and Hegel.

Elvira refers to the economic determinism of capitalism, using imagery from lace manufacture to enunciate a tension between romantic dreams and fate: “Life’s a pattern, and we’re just shuttles rushing in and out thinking we are making jerks up and down freely.” The image is potent, playing into the role of the lace industry in the novel as well as signalling that these characters lack agency.

Although the characters articulate insights both about others and themselves, these rarely translate into action, any more than do such histrionic processes of irresolution as this:

Elvira sat at home and ate olives and chocolates alternately. She also wound herself, slow, cold, beautifully-diamonded, as a snake, round the problem, and colder and more forbidding grew her brow. She began to smoke, and was presently smoking the chamber full of her resentment, desolation and increasing resolution.

‘What a damned traitor!’ she cried, beside herself with impatience. Her smoke-trails, as she paced about, were like wraiths waiting about the ceiling to topple on Oliver’s much-cursed and oft-coddled black topknot.

Stead took pains to study the practical aspects of lace-making. The industry provides an economic case study of a venerable craft being overtaken by mechanisation.

Lace from Lille.
The Dictionary of Needlework/flickr

The novel focuses on the businessmen who manage the trade, the Fuseaux brothers (“lace-jobbers”) and their employee Marpurgo: the operatives are not seen. Paradoxically, these economic issues are explored in some of Stead’s most fantastical writing, particularly in the presentation of the Paindebled family, whose members literally live off the past. Both the Paindebled house and shop are repositories of lace as a work of art, exemplified by the prized umbrella cover, a beautiful decorative object entirely lacking utility.

The Paindebled daughter, Coromandel, despite her family context has more agency than any other character in the novel — as demonstrated in a seduction scene that enactsa metaphysical poem like Donne’s “The Good Morrow” (“This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere”).

Later she carries Oliver off on a crazy drive into the countryside. She can operate in the bucolic environment of the farm in Burgundy, beyond the house and shop. Along with Blanche, the characters in the lace storyline are the only Parisians among the dramatis personae: the others are transients.

Stead reaches beyond the immediate setting in the allusion of the title to the Furies of Greek mythology, goddesses of vengeance who brought pestilence and misfortune. Marpurgo says that Paris “has many beauties — and furies”, and the three central beauties, Elvira, Blanche and Coromandel, all become destructive furies.

“Alecto, Megaera and Tisiphone send me for you,” says the Machiavellian Marpurgo to Oliver — who he is about to lead into a hypnotic drunken revel. In a welter of allusion, Marpurgo casts himself as Laius, father of Oedipus, and addresses Oliver as Orestes, who was pursued by the Furies for killing his mother.

The classical references reinforce Stead’s alignment with Joyce, which is evident also in the wordplay of Oliver’s poems. Like Ulysses, The Beauties and Furies is concentrated in a particular city at a particular historical juncture, though its action extends beyond a single day to run across a full year.

The novel is shaped by the cycle of the seasons, within which is conducted the minuet of characters meeting and parting, mainly in interiors or nocturnal scenes from which the natural world is largely excluded. The seasonal round offers no promise of anything other than a different version of the same kinds of romantic illusion and delusion that have been delineated with such exhilarating energy over some 350 pages.

The Beauties and Furies is a challenging novel of breathtaking ambition. Surrender to it, and marvel.

This is the introduction to the new Text Classic edition of The Beauties and Furies.

The Conversation

Margaret Harris, Challis Professor of English Literature Emerita, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: Ovid’s Metamorphoses and reading rape


Marguerite Johnson, University of Newcastle

Ovid’s Metamorphoses (AD 3-8) was not originally as controversial as his other poetic works. But as centuries have passed, its notoriety has increased. Recent calls to provide trigger-warnings to university students before they study the work tell us as much about modern Western attitudes towards sex, violence and censorship as the Metamorphoses tells us about the gender politics of ancient Rome.

Ovid’s 15-book epic, written in exquisite Latin hexameter, is a rollercoaster of a read. Beginning with the creation of the world, and ending with Rome in his own lifetime, the Metamorphoses drags the reader through time and space, from beginnings to endings, from life to death, from moments of delicious joy to episodes of depravity and abjection.

Such is life, Ovid would say.

The madness and chaos of some 250 stories, spanning around 700 lines of poetry per book, are woven together by the theme of metamorphosis or transformation. The artistic dexterity involved in pulling off this literary feat is testimony to Ovid’s skill and ambition as a poet. This accomplishment also goes a long way in explaining the rightful place the Metamorphoses holds within the canon of classical literature, placed as it is beside other great epics of Mediterranean antiquity such as the Iliad, Odyssey and Aeneid.

Kicking against the pricks

But for some, the Metamorphoses sits uneasily alongside its more morally and patriotically sound predecessors. Like a troublesome younger brother, an embarrassment to the family, Ovid’s epic “kicks against the pricks,” to paraphrase the paraphrase of Nick Cave.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, translation David Raeburn (2004).
Penguin

The Homeric Iliad (c. 850 BC) soars to the literary heights of the sublime, and shows us how to live and die, to meditate on mortality, to embrace sorrow, to grip and then release hate, to truly love.

The Odyssey (c. 800 BC) takes us on an epic voyage forever leading towards home, sometimes making us laugh, and occasionally letting down its high-brow hair with some sex and infidelity. Yet, appropriate to the gravitas of epic poetry, the Odyssey is also about the journey of a man determined to maintain his heroic stature as he navigates all sorts of dangers in strange lands.

Some 700 years later, when the Homeric verses were still regarded as the benchmark for epic poetry, Virgil composed the Aeneid (19 BC). This Latin epic casts a patriotic spell over its audience in its evocation of the foundation of Rome from the ashes of Troy to the glory of the Augustan Age. Unlike his poetic successor, however, Virgil is alert to literary censorship under the reign of Augustus (63 BC-AD 19), Rome’s first emperor, and carefully navigates its perilous terrain.

Rome is great according to Virgil. It always has been. It always will be. But Ovid is not convinced, and he seeks to capture an epic world of uncertainty and destabilisation instead of “drinking the Kool-Aid” that flows from Augustus’ fountains.

Ovid’s graphic tales of metamorphosis begin with the story of Primal Chaos; a messy lump of discordant atoms, and shapeless prototypes of land, sea and air. This unruly form floated about in nothingness until some unnamed being disentangled it. Voilà! The earth is fashioned in the form of a perfectly round ball. Oceans take shape and rise in waves spurred on by winds. Springs, pools and lakes appear and above the valleys and plains and mountains is the sky.

The Untangling of Chaos, or the Creation of the Four Elements, Hendrik Goltzius, published 1589.

Lastly, humankind is made and so begins the mythical Ages of Man. And, as each Age progresses – from Gold, to Silver, to Bronze and finally to Iron – humankind becomes increasingly corrupt.

Ovid’s gods and humans never really escape the Age of Iron in the Metamorphoses. Throughout the epic, the setting that emerges in Book I functions as a brilliantly appropriate dystopic stage on which the poet-cum-puppeteer orchestrates his spectacles.

Drawing on the Greek mythology inherited by the Romans, Ovid directs his dramas one after another, relentlessly bombarding his readers with beautiful metrics and awe-inspiring imagery as that of Deucalion and Pyrrha, Arachne, Daphne and Apollo, Europa and the Bull, Leda and the Swan.

Hundreds of hapless mortals, heroes, heroines, gods and goddesses rise victorious, experience defeat, endure rape, and inevitably metamorphose into something other than their original forms. Chaos begins the world, and so into Chaos we are born, live and die. As the offspring of the Age of Iron, we must endure and struggle against corruption, brutality and injustice.

The Phoenician woman Europa was abducted by Zeus in the shape of a bull; she later gave birth to their son, King Minos.
The Rape of Europa, Titian, 1560-1562.

A poem and a mistake

Ovid experienced a world of chaos and iron firsthand when, in AD 8, he was banished by Augustus. His wrongdoings were, in his own words, carmen et error (“a poem and a mistake”).

The poem was the Ars Amatoria (The Art of Love), a three-volume lovers’ handbook that explains the dos and don’ts of personal grooming, how to organise trysts with married women (get her maid “on side”), repairing a broken heart (surprise your “ex” while she’s in the middle of her beauty routine – yuk!), names the best places for “hooking-up” (try the races or the theatre), and offers advice on keeping your girl (be attentive when she’s unwell). Interestingly, the third volume was written for women – quite a revolutionary move in view of the gender inequality in the twilight years of the 1st century BC.

The Art of Love, Ovid, translation by James Michie (2002).
Modern Library

What irritated Augustus sufficiently enough to relegate the poet to the middle of nowhere was his perception that the Ars Amatoria made a mockery of his moral reforms. Not one for frolic, Augustus had spearheaded and implemented a series of legislative campaigns that raised the moral bar for the goodly citizens of Rome. Adultery, while always illegal in Rome, was made especially so under the watchful eye of the emperor and legal ramifications were more actively enforced than in previous decades.

The mistake that Ovid mentions is more difficult to identify – with scholarly opinions differing on what it was Ovid actually did to offend Augustus. Theories range from Ovid engaging in an affair with one of the imperial women – perhaps Augustus’ daughter (Julia the Elder) or granddaughter (Julia the Younger) – to his accidentally witnessing an imperial scandal.

Whatever the error, combined with the ill-themed Ars Amatoria, it was sufficiently serious to result in Ovid’s banishment to Tomis (Constanța in modern-day Romania). Tomis, at the very edges of the Roman Empire, was regarded as a barbaric, frightening and uncivilised place. Ovid certainly painted it this way in his poetic epistles, the Tristia (Sorrows) and Epistulae Ex Ponto (Letters from the Pontus).

Forced to exist in a place where his native Latin was scarcely heard, Ovid’s despair is evoked in one of his most memorable couplets: “writing a poem you can read to no one / is like dancing in the dark.”

For the optimal punishment of Ovid, Augustus chose his location well, and he never reneged on his decision. Nor did his successor, Tiberius (42 BC-AD 37).

Ovid died in Tomis in AD 17.

An epic about silencing

In one of the definitive pieces of scholarship on the Metamorphoses, Reading Ovid’s Rapes (1992) by classicist Amy Richlin, it is argued that the epic was completed during Ovid’s time in Tomis. This may not initially appear to have any bearing on its content or intent, yet Richlin suggests a profound relevance:

The silenced victims, the artists horribly punished by legalistic gods for bold expression … read like allegories of Ovid’s experience …

Accordingly, Tomis not only gave Ovid time to augment the poem in view of his own experiences but, equally as important, its composition was being finalised during the emperor’s inquisition into the carmen et error.

Arachne challenged the goddess Athena in weaving; Athena turns Arachne into a spider.
Illustration for Dante’s Purgatorio 12 by Gustave Doré.

Indeed, Ovid’s own silencing by Augustus may be seen to be enacted over and over again in the Metamorphoses in the most grotesque of ways. Ovid’s tales describe tongues being wrenched out, humans barking out their sorrows instead of crying, women transformed into mute creatures by jealous gods, and desperate victims bearing witness to their abuse through non-verbal means.

The Metamorphoses is an epic about the act of silencing.

Jealousy, spite, lust and punishment are also consistently present in Ovid’s chaotic world.

So is rape.

Rape is undoubtedly the most controversial and confronting theme of the Metamorphoses. It is the ultimate manifestation of male power in the poem and the hundreds of transformations that occur are often the means of escaping it.

An early tale of attempted rape is narrated in Book I, involving the nymph, Daphne and the god, Apollo. Intent on raping Daphne, Apollo chases her through the forest until, utterly exhausted, she calls out to her father, the river god Peneus to rescue her:

“Help, father!” she called. “If your streams have divine powers!
Destroy the shape, which pleases too well, with transformation!

Peneus answers his daughter’s entreaty, and Daphne is transformed into a laurel tree:

… a heavy torpor seizes her limbs,
her soft breasts are encircled with thin bark,
her hair changes into leaves, her arms change into branches,
her feet once so swift become stuck with stubborn roots,
her face has a leafy cover; only her elegance remains.

The tale of Daphne and Apollo, like so many stories in the Metamorphoses, is classified as an aetiological myth; that is, a narrative that explains an origin. But, as the excerpt above testifies, it is so much more than that.

Peneus weeps as Daphne escapes Apollo by turning into a tree.
Apollo and Daphne, Nicolas Poussin, 1625.

Reading Ovid now

Where does a modern audience begin with a story such as Daphne and Apollo?

How do we begin to unravel the hundreds of other such tales that follow it?

During the last few years, the Metamorphoses has been challenged as a legitimate text for tertiary Humanities students. Defying the hundreds of years of pedagogical tradition that has seen the poem set for both Latin students and, more recently, literary students who study it in translation, the Metamorphoses has not only been interrogated by scholars such as Richlin, but has also been the subject of increased student complaints and calls for trigger-warnings.

In response to the growing number of objections to the work, academic and university executives have been called on to take a position – not only in relation to the Metamorphoses, but in response to other materials that are perceived to render the tertiary experience unsafe.

Chris Patten: we can’t rewrite history.
Suzanne/Plunkett

The Chancellor at Oxford, Chris Patten, has been quoted as saying that history cannot be rewritten to suit contemporary western morals. At the opposite end of this debate, are students such as the members of Columbia University’s Multicultural Affairs Advisory Council, who have challenged the inclusion of the Metamorphoses without an explicit trigger-warning in one of the core curriculum courses in the Humanities.

How close such responses to the Metamorphoses verge on literary censorship or, in the words of one journalist, Literature Fascism, does not only depend on one’s philosophical or educational viewpoint. Equally as important to the debate, and the decisions that may ultimately result from it, is the life-experience of every individual in the classroom. Amid a class of students taking notes from a lecture on the Metamorphoses, for example, may be a rape survivor.

Current statistics from the United States in particular suggest that the likelihood of this is exceptionally high. Emerging statistics from across Australia are painting a similar picture.

Such a situation requires alertness and sensitivity when handling texts such as the Metamorphoses. But should the work of Ovid be banned or placed among the shelves marked “Warning: Wicked Books”? What would such measures ultimately achieve? Would it augment safe spaces? Or, would it censor discussions around rape and shut down interrogations of sex, violence and female exploitation? Would it silence one of the means of opposition to the societal sickness of rape?

Barrie Kosky: Ovid helped inspire The Lost Echo.
NewZulu/AAP

The Metamorphoses of Ovid has had a long and fascinating history. Its presence among the literary canon of the West has functioned as a strange but valuable mirror that has, for over two millennia, reflected social, moral and artistic customs.

From the time that Shakespeare read Arthur Golding’s 1567 translation and incorporated so many of the stories into his plays, to the thousands of artworks that have been inspired by the poem, to Barrie Kosky and Tom Wright’s 2006 extravaganza, The Lost Echo, to the production in the 2016 Sydney Fringe, to the student protests and the calls for trigger-warnings, the Metamorphoses – much like Ovid himself – simply refuses to go away.

Much like the self-portrait by Albrecht Durer, Olympia by Edouard Manet, the works of modernist painters that enraged European Fascists, Tracey Emin’s My Bed, the installations at MONA, Joyce’s Ulysses, and a host of films and photomedia, Ovid’s Metamorphoses testifies to the fact that great art is not necessarily created to please.


Recommended reading: Metamorphoses: A New Translation Paperback by Ovid, translated by Charles Martin (2005).

Montague Basement’s Metamorphoses is currently showing as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival.

The Conversation

Marguerite Johnson, Associate Professor of Ancient History and Classical Languages, University of Newcastle

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: The Histories, by Herodotus


Julia Kindt, University of Sydney

It is easy to see why Herodotus’ Histories may seem overwhelming. Too much is going on, right from the start. We have only just embarked on the Histories’ central theme – the origins of the conflict between Greeks and barbarians in the fifth century BCE – when the narrative suddenly changes tack and we find ourselves in a boudoir tale of nudity, intrigue and murder, only to veer off again when a dolphin saves the singer Arion from drowning. A wild ride!

Herodotus, a Greek from the city of Halicarnassus in Asia Minor (today’s Bodrum in Turkey), published his Histories sometime between 426 and 415 BCE. His principal aim was to explain the unlikely Greek victory against the much stronger Persian army in the so-called Persian Wars that ravaged the Greek world between 500 and 449 BCE.

Statue of Herodotus
Wikimedia Commons

For his pioneering critical enquiry into the past he was named “father of history” by Cicero. His love of stories and storytelling, however, was notorious already in antiquity: Plutarch called him the “father of lies”.

Most of the tales have no clear link to the main story. They seem peripheral, if not entirely unrelated, to the account of the Persian Wars and their pre-history. Many characters appear only once, never to be seen again. To the reader accustomed to a stable cast of characters and a straightforward plot with a clear beginning, middle and end, Herodotus’ Histories read like a digression from a digression from a digression.

Yet as soon as one pauses and appreciates the stories for what they are one cannot but marvel at the events Herodotus relates. There is the conversation between King Croesus of Lydia and the Athenian statesman, reformer and poet Solon, on the true nature of human happiness. The moral is, in a nutshell: call no man happy until he is dead.

That same king consults the Delphic oracle and learns to his delight that he will bring down a great empire. Certain of victory, he wages war against the Persians; as the oracle foretells, Croesus duly ends up destroying an empire – his own.

Herodotus’ ingenuity emerges most clearly when considered in relation to Homer, who had set the benchmark and provided all writers to follow with a model for talking about the past.

Consider for example his opening statement in the beginning of the book:

Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not become forgotten in time, and great and marvellous deeds – some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians – may not be without their glory.

Unlike Homer, Herodotus no longer claims to be inspired by the Muses. Yet his opening lines still pay homage to the world of the Homeric hero and his perpetual striving for kleos (“glory”). After all, Homer, too, reported great deeds by Greeks and non-Greeks alike and preserved them for posterity.

Herodotus combined the two major themes of Homeric epic – travel and warfare – into a single whole. Travel and the insights they yield are as dominant a theme in the ethnographic sections of the Histories as expansion, warfare and conflict are in the historical sections. Herodotus uses the gradual expansion of the Persian Empire to delve deeply into the cultures of those who came under its influence in the century preceding the war. In his account the historical and the cultural influence each other.

While Herodotus does not dismiss the Iliad and the Odyssey, he openly takes a swipe at Homer at least once. Helen, he claims, never made it to Troy: she was diverted to Egypt due to bad weather. Homer – so runs Herodotus’ accusation – simply changed the course of the story to make it fit the genre of epic poetry. This shows an awareness of the particular demands of the kind of account Herodotus hoped to write as being different from Homeric epic.

The father of history

What specifically sets Herodotus and his enquiry apart, then, is the proto-scientific way he explores the inner workings of the world. The question “why” drives this inquiry in all its aspects. It brings together the different strands of Herodotean investigation: Why did the Greeks and the barbarians go to war with each other? Why does the Nile flood? Why do the women of Cyrene abstain from eating beef?

Herodotus frequently finds the answer to these questions by looking at origins and beginnings. He takes the military conflict between Greeks and barbarians back to its roots in mythical times. In a similar vein he enquires into the source of the river Nile and traces the names of the twelve Olympians – the major deities of the Greek pantheon – back to their origins in ancient Egypt.

The quest for origins and beginnings runs deep in the Histories. It introduces a form of explanation which links the disparate strands of Herodotean enquiry by presenting them as part of an ordered cosmos. The world Herodotus outlines in the Histories ultimately and profoundly makes sense.

His efforts to establish himself as a credible researcher and narrator are tangible throughout. He is careful to tell his reader from where he derived his information on foreign lands, whether he witnessed personally or learnt from a reliable source:

As far as Elephantine I speak as an eye-witness, but further south from hearsay.

My own observation bears out the statement made to me by the priests…

Of the Pelasgian language I cannot speak with certainty…

Frequently, he gives us all the different explanations sourced from others. In the case of the flooding of the Nile he adds why he favours one (incidentally, the wrong one) over all others. By presenting views other than his own, Herodotus gives his readers the chance to form their own opinion.

The same striving for precision, exactness and authority also explains his diligence when it comes to numbers, distances and measurements.

From Heliopolis to Thebes is a nine days’ voyage up the Nile, a distance of eighty-one schoeni or 4860 states. Putting together the various measurements I have given, one finds that the Egyptian coastline is, as I have said, about 420 miles in length, and the distance from the sea inland to Thebes about 714 miles. It is another 210 miles from Thebes to Elephantine.

Why does this level of detail matter, and do we really need to know it? We do! This kind of accuracy and precision bolsters Herodotus’ authority as a credible source of information (even though some of his data verge on the fanciful).

To Herodotus, at least, measuring the world, mapping new territory, noting the features of distant lands and territories are all part of the process of “sense-making”, in which the new and unknown is related to the well-known and familiar:

The difference in size between the young and the full-grown crocodile is greater than in any other known creature; for a crocodile’s egg is hardly bigger than a goose’s, and the young when hatched is small in proportion yet it grows to a size of some twenty-three feet long or even more.

At the same time, Herodotus shows a profound interest in names and naming and the translation of words and concepts from one language into another. He tells us that the name Egypt applied first to Thebes, and that the name of the Asmach people of Egypt means those who stand on the left hand of the king.

Being able to name things in the world is part of being able to explain them. Herodotus was not just pioneering critical enquiry; along with the world he discovered, he had to invent a method and a language.

Figuring out the fantastic

Occasionally the strive for authority and exactness falters and the reader is left wondering whether the narrator has been unreliable all along, such as when Herodotus’ observations truly defy credulity.

Take the gold-digging ants of India, “bigger than a fox, though not so big as a dog”; the winged snakes of Arabia that interfere with the frankincense harvest; the Arabian sheep with tails so long they need little wooden carts attached to their hindquarters, preventing the tails from dragging on the ground.

A fragment from The Histories on Papyrus dated to the early second century AD.
Wikimedia Commons

All these are instances in which Herodotean inquiry – despite his own claims to the contrary – slip beyond the realm of the authentic, credible and real.

But it would be a mistake to make too much of these examples. They are memorable only because they stand in such marked contrast to the accurate pictures Herodotus sketches elsewhere of the world.

And who can say for sure that the gold-digging ants, the long-tailed sheep and the flying snakes did not, in fact, exist? Some have argued that the gold-digging ants of India were actually marmots and Herodotus applied a Greek word for ant to a creature unknown to him but reminiscent (albeit faintly) of an ant.

Other creatures, however, take the reader fully into the realm of the fantastic. In his description of Libya, Herodotus says emphatically:

There are enormous snakes there, and also lions, elephants, bears, asps, donkeys with horns, dog-headed creatures, headless creatures with eyes in their chests (at least, this is what the Libyans say) wild men and wild women and a large number of other creatures whose existence is not merely the stuff of fables.

Some of these beings belong to a different, more archaic world, where the boundary between man and beast was fluid and uncertain. We can see a whole spectrum of more or less fantastic creatures, whose ranks included the Cyclops and Sirens of the Odyssey.

Herodotus accommodates such creatures in the absence of better information, but at the very least he feels the need to explicitly confirm their place in the new world of critical inquiry.

A special category is reserved for the most startling aspects of the world. In the Histories, the concept of the wondrous (thaumastos/thaumasios) is applied to those aspects of the world which at first defy explanation and seem to fall outside the laws of nature.

A floating island is a wonder; lions who attack camels but no other creature in Xerxes’ entourage – another wonder; the complete absence of mules in Elis – again a wonder. Ultimately, many of the phenomena Herodotus considers wondrous ultimately have a rational explanation of cause and effect. Others turn out to be divinely inspired.

Eternal themes of power, greed and fate

Beyond the question of whether any (let alone all) of the Histories’ events occurred as Herodotus relates, his stories share a common humanity. The examples of all-too-human foibles and traits like overconfidence, greed and envy but also of fate, luck and fortune reverberate down the ages. Through these stories the Histories still speak to us, 2500 years later.

Traditionally, the Histories were dismissed as anecdotal. Herodotus was seen as lacking gravitas and not on par with Homer, Euripides, Thucydides, Cicero and their like. Consequently, the Histories were not considered central to the humanist canon. Over the last three decades, however, this has changed; Herodotus’ Histories are now widely regarded as a foundational text in the Western historiographic tradition.

Classical scholars have discovered that the work has a coherence after all. Unity between the digressions and the main narrative emerges on a level other than plot: by theme. Many stories in the Histories are case studies in the nature of power.

It is not Everyman who makes history in the Histories: the focus is squarely on those at the top of the game. Yet in most instances the rise to power is followed by a sudden and catastrophic fall.

The reasons are always similar: power leads to excess. Blindness to the limitations of human action incurs the downfall of mighty kings like Candaules, Croesus, Cambyses and Xerxes. The condition they suffer from – the Greek word is hybris – is depressingly modern and familiar.

Jacques Louis David’s painting of the Spartan king Leonidas at Thermopylae – an event described by Herodotus.
Wikimedia Commons

The Histories are a compilation of stories packed into each other like nesting Russian dolls. Successive stories share with each other – and the larger historical narrative of which they are part – the same insights, themes and patterns.

Once you can read one, you can read them all. New insights emerge from the way individual stories play with the formula, highlighting different aspects of the theme.

As tales of the nature of human power, the “digressions” speak directly to Herodotus’ core theme: the rise and fall of all empires, in particular the Persian Empire and its spectacular defeat by the much smaller Greek contingents in the Persian Wars.

Yet the Histories are not merely a historical source for the Persian Wars. Herodotus dwells extensively on the pre-history of the conflict and touches on the cultural and ideological issues at stake.

All this is set on the broader stage of the ancient world and includes geographical references, climatic observations, flora and fauna as well as notes on differences in the customs and lifestyle of Greeks, Persians and other peoples.

Thanks to this broad focus, it is not hyperbole to say that, in a profound sense, the Histories are about the entire world as it came to be understood and mapped out towards the end of the fifth century BCE.

Wonder and discovery

The Histories stand at the transition from an older, mythical worldview – that of the heroic or archaic age as represented in Homeric epic – to a new, classical outlook that manifested in the exacting mode of enquiry into the workings of the world.

The name for this form of investigation – historia – did not yet mean “history” as we know it; it simply meant, in a general sense, “critical enquiry”. Herodotus occasionally mentions consulting written sources, but he does so mainly to distance himself, his method, and information from other authors, notably Homer and the poets.

The most subtle feature of the Histories, perhaps, is the profound sense of balance that pervades all aspects of the cosmos. In the world of Herodotus, any excess is ultimately corrected: what goes up must come down. This applies to individuals, to empires and to peoples.

The divine is central to Herodotus’ view of the world: the gods guarantee a perpetual historical cycle. This dynamic ensures that imbalances of power or greed – the too-much and the too-little – ultimately level each other out.

The traditional gods of the ancient Greek pantheon are still very much alive in the Histories. Yet in contrast to Homeric poetry, they no longer intervene directly in the world. They have receded to a transcendental distance from which they oversee and steer the workings of the world.

We may no longer share Herodotus’ view of the past, yet we delight in the richness of the world he sketched. Its stories, landscapes, characters, and insights into human nature linger long after the reading. What makes the work stand out above all is the Histories’ sense of wonder and discovery. Herodotus’ Histories remain a classic testament to the pleasures of researching and learning.


All translations are from: Marincola, J. (1996) Herodotus: The Histories. Revised edition. London. Penguin Books.

The Conversation

Julia Kindt, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Classics and Ancient History, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Guide to the classics: Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville


Sascha Morrell, University of New England

Pick up Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (1851) expecting the story of a mad one-legged captain chasing a white whale and you’ll get more than you bargained for. This is a novel that announces itself as the tale of a whaling voyage, and expands from there as if to encompass the whole of existence. Its narrator, Ishmael, admits he is overwhelmed:

Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint with their out-reaching comprehensiveness of sweep, as if to include the whole circle of the sciences, and all the generations of whales, and men, and mastodons, past, present, and to come, with all the revolving panoramas of empire on earth, and throughout the whole universe, not excluding its suburbs.

For Ishmael, everything is connected and “there is no staying in any one place; for at one and the same time everything has to be done everywhere”.

Herman Melville. By Joseph O. Eaton and an unknown etcher – Library of Congress.
Wikimedia Commons

The forward progress of “what there may be of a narrative in this book” is constantly hampered by Ishmael’s need to consider his subject from all angles, addressing the viewpoints of different characters as well as the perspectives of different cultures and branches of learning, together with historical and mythic parallels, technical details, workplace practices and the philosophical questions these give rise to.

Even in the midst of the final chase that drives the novel to a close with extraordinary momentum, Ishmael cannot resist inserting a footnote to clarify his use of the term “pitchpoling”.


The result is a radically discontinuous, multi-stranded text which insists on its own incompleteness as “but a draft of a draft”. In The Modern Epic (1996), the great literary scholar Franco Moretti contends that novels such as Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick and James Joyce’s Ulysses have become like:

sacred texts that the modern West has subjected to a lengthy scrutiny, searching in them for its own secret.

But whereas the ancient epic presents the world as a unified and coherent totality, the modern world can only hope to express itself through fragmentation, dialogue, digression and collage.

Moby-Dick’s explosion of narrative conventions was so revolutionary in its time that it perplexed Melville’s contemporaries and passed quickly into obscurity.

“There are evidently two if not three books in Moby Dick, rolled into one”, Melville’s mentor Evert Duykinck marveled. Readers wanted more of the relatively straightforward sea-faring adventure that Melville had delivered in his early novels Typee (1846) and Omoo (1847).

And at first, Moby-Dick seems to offer just that.

Although the famous invitation that opens the novel – “Call me Ishmael” – suggests an assumed or even an arbitrary identity, Ishmael initially presents as a more-or-less conventional first-person protagonist, telling how he packed his bag and “started for Cape Horn and the Pacific”.

But through the unlikely bond he forms with a Pacific Islander, Queequeg, Ishmael is liberated from the bounds of his individual perspective, and his cultural and racial biases.

He escapes the prison of interiority, “melting” into Queequeg through a same-sex, mixed-race “marriage” that sets the precedent for the more radical dissolution of Ishmael’s persona that takes place when he joins the Pequod’s crew.

For once the whaling cruise is underway, Ishmael tends to recede from his own narrative, declining to detail his own part in events while impossibly gaining access to a range of viewpoints far exceeding his own, including the private soliloquies of Captain Ahab.

Illustration of Queequeg and his harpoon. IW Taber – Moby-Dick – edition: Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1902.
Wikimedia Commons

Ishmael turns out to be less a character than a conduit for other voices and perspectives. This is either a daring experiment in omniscient first-person narration, or a sign that Ishmael is utterly unreliable.

Other voices take over whole chapters, especially that of Ahab as he thumps the ship’s boards like a Lear or Richard III on the Elizabethan stage. As “one in a whole nation’s census […] formed for noble tragedies”, Ahab exerts a strong pull on the narrative, but Ishmael is eager to celebrate the “democratic dignity” of the Pequod’s multiethnic crew of “mongrel renegades and castaways and cannibals”.

The dramatic dialogue form of “Midnight—Forecastle” (Chapter 40) gives space to the voices of different crewmen, singly and in chorus, framed only by minimal “stage directions”. Generally, Ishmael declines to distinguish himself from the collective; he is merely “one of that crew” whose “shouts [go] up with the rest”.

Title page of the first edition of Moby-Dick, 1851. Source: Beinecke Library, Yale University.
Wikimedia Commons

He is also democratic in his levelling of all cultures, crediting the Hindu tradition of Vishnu’s “ten earthly incarnations”, consulting the views of “the highly enlightened Turks” alongside those of Western authorities, and beginning his history of Nantucket not with European but with American-Indian sources.

But there are limits to the novel’s inclusiveness, not least in that women are almost wholly absent. Two very minor female characters briefly appear: a chowder-making landlady and Charity, the prudish sister of one of the ship’s owners.

On the other hand, the novel makes numerous appeals to the maternal forces in nature. It also breaks down gender norms and boundaries, from Ishmael’s surrender to Queequeg’s “bridegroom clasp” to Ahab boasting of his “queenly personality” to the ambiguous mingling of “milk and sperm” in the infamously erotic chapter A Squeeze of the Hand.

Illustration from an early edition of Moby-Dick. A. Burnham Shute – Moby-Dick edition – C. H. Simonds Co. 1892.
Wikimedia Commons

Though he recedes as a character, Ishmael’s voice remains distinct in meditative passages and in his extended inquiries into the lore and science of whales and whaling. In a series of parodically “encyclopaedic” chapters that coincide with the cutting up of a whale by the ship’s crew, Ishmael presents a breakdown of the whale’s body so comprehensive that it not only separates the “skin of the creature” but even “the skin of the skin”.

This provides material for inquiries into disciplines as diverse as astronomy, lexicography, economics and jurisprudence. This may sound dry, but so infectious is Ishmael’s intellectual energy that chapters featuring such inauspicious titles as The Blanket, Cisterns and Buckets and Of the Less Erroneous Pictures of Whales and the True Pictures of Whaling Scenes can be some of the novel’s most engrossing.

At the same time, Ishmael undermines scientific authority by privileging forms of knowledge gained through immediate, hands-on experience:

Ere entering upon the subject of Fossil Whales, I present my credentials as a geologist, by stating that in my miscellaneous time I have been a stone-mason, and also a great digger of ditches, canals, and wells, wine-vaults, cellars, and cisterns of all sorts …

Unsatisfied with simply giving the comparative dimensions of Sperm and Right Whale’s heads, he asks us to actually enter their spaces; to see and touch their surfaces. Incidentally, Melville’s life experience had been as “miscellaneous” as Ishmael’s; aspects of his extraordinary biography are reimagined in Ron Howard’s film In the Heart of the Sea (2015).

Declaring that “there is an aesthetics in all things”, Ishmael demands that his reader take interest in such matters as work-tools and their usage, devoting whole chapters to these matters. With genial bravado, he continually advances the heroic claims of his apparently mundane industrial subject (the “whale fishery”) and appropriates a lofty epic language—as when he proposes to “sing” the “romantic proceeding of decanting off [the] oil into the casks.”

A global narrative

None of this is to say that the novel is lacking in narrative incident. There are feats of superhuman prowess; there is an encounter with a giant squid; there is a typhoon producing pyrotechnic terrors.

Fast-paced action abounds as other whales are chased and caught or lost at great peril (one of the crew, the Native American harpooneer Tashtego, nearly drowns inside a sperm whale’s head).

There is the tension between Ahab and the first mate Starbuck, who comes close to killing his captain, and the spectacle of Ahab dazzling the crew with his demagoguery.

There are encounters with other ships, including a stirring contest with a German vessel, and the tale-within-a-tale of a mutiny aboard another American whaler, the Town-Ho. And let us not forget, there is voyage round the globe.

A native New Yorker, Melville commences his story in the “isle of the Manhattoes” then takes readers in a “devious zig-zag world circle” across the Atlantic and Indian Oceans via Sumatra and the Sunda Strait, the Java and Chinese Seas, through Japanese waters to a fatal conclusion somewhere along the equator in the South Pacific.

Australia rates a mention, as “that great America on the other side of the sphere”, and Sydney as the source of the world’s most treacherous sailors (Melville himself had shipped on the Sydney whaler The Lucy-Ann in 1842). The voyage also yields political allegory, as numerous hints frame the Pequod as a symbolic “ship of state”, with running analogies between the whaling voyage and the United States’ imperial expansion, and various allusions to class conflict and slavery (especially when Ahab briefly forms a bond with the black ship’s boy Pip).

The novel conveys the wild energy of whaling life. A whaleman is “rocked to sleep between billows […] while under his very pillow rush herds of walruses and whales”. He spends so long at sea that the land starts to smell “strange[r] than the moon would to an Earthman”.

Physical and meta-physical

Melville excels in physical description, and he knows the bodily pleasures of such words as “plunge” and “suck”. He can raise us to giddying heights as Ishmael and Ahab revolve the mysteries of existence, then plunge us back to earth with bawdy humour, as in Chapter 95 when one of the crew wears the skin of a whale’s mighty penis (AKA “the Grandissimus”) as protective clothing.

Extraordinary metaphors and similes collapse the distance between disparate realms, as when Ishmael peeps into a Sperm whale’s head to find:

a really beautiful and chaste-looking mouth! from floor to ceiling, lined, or rather papered with a glistening white membrane, glossy as bridal satins.

Like the metaphysical poets, Ishmael fuses the abstract and the mechanical: “Top-heavy was the ship as a dinnerless student with all Aristotle in his head”, we read in Chapter 110.

Vivid violence

Be prepared for violence against nature. To the extent that Melville draws on his own whaling experience, animals were harmed in the making of this book. But though Ishmael is hardly out to “save the whales”, he can be sensitive to animal rights, contending that “the first man that ever murdered an ox” deserved to be “put on his trial by oxen” and that a cannibal is no worse than the “civilized” gourmand who tortures geese to get his pâté de foie gras.

He enters into non-human perspectives, imagining “how appalling to the wounded whale” the boats that surround it must appear, though the victim has “no voice” in its “agony of fright”.

One of the oldest known whaling paintings, by Bonaventura Peeters, at The Mariners’ Museum. 1645.
Wikimedia Commons

The whales in this novel are silent: Melville did not know about whale-song, and in any case sperm whales do not sing, though the music of the prose conveys a sense of their awesome vitality.

The impotence of humankind against the ocean’s physical force and destructive capacity is also a constant theme, and Ishmael introduces “archaeological, fossiliferous, and antideluvian points of view” that challenge anthropocentricism itself (fittingly, a recently discovered fossil whale was named albicetus – meaning “white whale” – in honour of Moby-Dick).

He even reflects on climate change, gaining “dim, shuddering glimpses into those Polar eternities; when wedged bastions of ice pressed hard upon what are now the Tropics” when contemplating a whale’s bones.

All about Ahab

While Ishmael’s digressive habits threaten to derail the narrative, Ahab’s “fixed and fearless, forward dedication” always steers things back on track. Ahab’s desire for vengeance stems from a previous encounter with the white whale in which he lost his leg.

He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

Ahab himself admits the insanity of the hunt:

All my means are sane, my motive and my object mad.

With no regard for the lives of his crew, Ahab is at once an archaic “sea-king” bent on “supernatural revenge” and a modern industry boss whose soul runs on “iron rails” and who views his men as mere “wheels” to his “cogged purpose”.

When obstacles arise, he is a master of insults and curses, coining such gems as “The black vomit wrench thee!” But his greatest vitriol is reserved for the white whale itself:

to the last I grapple with thee; from hell’s heart I stab at thee; for hate’s sake I spit my last breath at thee.

Insight into Ishmael

What about Ishmael? For him, the horror of the whale lies principally in its whiteness. In “The Whiteness of the Whale” (Chapter 42), Ishmael offers a sublime disquisition on whiteness as “the intensifying agent in things the most appalling to mankind”, a terrifying blank that “shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe”.

Illustration of the final chase of Moby-Dick. IW Taber – Moby-Dick – edition: Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York. 1902
Wikimedia Commons

Ahab shares Ishmael’s nihilistic dread: his desire to spear the white whale is partly a desire (as he says) to “strike through the mask!” of outward appearances, though there may be “naught beyond”. Literary critics have found various other meanings in the white whale, seeing it variously as an image of divinity, white supremacy, indifferent nature, a “toothed womb”, a Lacanian phallus. Ultimately, the whale is a cipher that can bear all these interpretations, and does not require us to choose between them.

Moby-Dick is a tragic, comic, eccentric and electrifying attempt to come to terms with the riddle of existence; to heal the Cartesian splitting of mind from body; to engage with the whole history of ideas and socio-political forms.

The jolting juxtaposition of disparate elements makes for a wilder ride than any linear narrative could offer—hence the annual marathon readings at the New Bedford Whaling Museum, where enthusiasts from around the globe gather to read this great world-text aloud (it takes about thirty hours).

Figures as diverse as William Faulkner and Barack Obama have named it their favourite book. Moby-Dick is not Melville’s only well-known work (his novella Bartleby the Scrivener (1853) has been described as “the original Occupy Wall Street”) but it is certainly his most celebrated, rising up like an iceberg – or the great white whale itself – from the waters of 19th-century fiction.

More than 150 years after its publication, readers continue to search for its secret.

Pitch an article idea for the Guide to the Classics series to the Arts + Culture editor.

The Conversation

Sascha Morrell, Lecturer in English, University of New England

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.