A month of mythology

As I write this, I have just started my final revisions for my last paper for the Mythology and Literature class I’ve been spending the last month taking, discovering the process I really shouldn’t be taking classes over the summer, especially ones late at night.  But it did cause me to read more the Homeric Hymns than I did at Sweet Briar, reread the Aeneid and part of the Metamorphoses, as well as The Lightning Thief, and read for the first time David Malouf’s Ransom, Rita Dove’s Mother Love, Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief, and Ursula Le Guin’s Lavinia, though I found myself smarting while reading through the last just after hearing the author forbids the writing of fanfic and insults those who don’t use their own characters; a talented author, I’ll grant her that, but also, it seems, a blatant hypocrite who thinks fanficcing the Aeneid is allowable, probably because she can publish it.

Rereading the assigned sections the Metamorphoses over, the main thing I thought was that it was a much darker poem that I remembered, full of helpless mortals and/or nymphs coming to bad endings, ones which more often than not were not their fault.  Likewise the Aeneid has Rome founded at the cost of many lives, and ends with Aeneas turning brutal, not only killing Turnus, but also speaking of demanding Latium’s complete surrender, even though he’d just vowed he wouldn’t do that.  To the modern reader it also carries nasty implications of colonialism, the Roman Empire when it was at its worst.  The professor declares that when we are much older, we should read again and we will understand the poem much better, but I have now read it, I believe three times(not counting translating the first two books from the original Latin), and have never liked it, but on this third riding dislike it even more.

Reading the Homeric Hymns were interesting, as they proved the origin of many of the stories I read in sanitized form in my childhood mythology books, particularly the Hymn to Hermes, which actually wasn’t too altered.  The Hymn to Demeter, on the other hand, is much more complicated than the retellings usually made it, even including a little suggestion that Persephone deliberately ate the pomegranate seed because she wanted to return to Hades, and lied to her mother about it.  The poem’s portrayal of her Stockholm Syndrome, of course, is now recognized as offensive, but it is explored further in Rita Dove’s Mother Love, a group of poems covering three mothers: Demeter, a minority woman whose child disappears, an upper-class mother whose daughter goes on an exchange program to Paris and gets involved with a French jerk who is comparable to Hades.  The second two provide some of the most effective poems; the second seems to have less poems about her, but those that there are prove the anthology’s most potent.   For the third, on the other hand, there are among other poems two sections of the book telling the story from the point of view of all three characters involved, forming a clear and effective narrative.

In contrast to Virgil, my opinion of The Lightning Thief improved considerably my second time reading it; his Americentrism still annoys, but is made up for by the development of his characters, Annabeth especially,  the humor with which the story is told, the way his plot is fit together, and the imagination with which he brings the Greek mythos into the modern world.  Likewise the highlight of The Thief was the worldbuilding, with the trickster Gen that you can’t help but trust even when you really shouldn’t, and the twist at the end that I noticed later was pretty well set up, once you can recognize the various pieces of foreshadowing.  But the best work with characterization might be done by Malouf, who deconstructs Priam to an extent most don’t think to, taking a moment with his driver to get a look into the kind of average joe myths tend not to pay attention to, and even managed to make Achilles sympathetic to the modern reader without changing him beyond recognition.

I’m currently undecided whether I’m going to look at the sequels to The Lightning Thief or to The Thief.  But first I need to get my writing pace back up; thanks to this class its suffered terribly.

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One thought on “A month of mythology

  1. I liked this very much. It reminded me of a course I once took with Lilian Feder where we read modern literature influenced by the classics. Today we’d call it “Rewriting the Greeks and Romans.” She probably didn’t mean it this way but this is a lovely way to show how this older world is alive in us. Ellen

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