“Transformations” in Classic Western Literature
I write of the past and of the changes between it and now. I write of Virgil, the poet who filled the cup of Aeneis, a cup that Homer had crafted. Aeneis, who did not perish in the works of Homer but rather fled Ilium’s fall and journeyed into the works of Virgil, carrying with him the divine seed that would give birth to Ancient Rome. I write of Ovid, who, in “Metamorphoses”, crafted a tale of the beginning of all things, ending with the godhood of Julius Caesar and the legacy of his divine offspring. Before these writers there was the telling of the last days and consequences of the Trojan War itself with all the tragedies that surrounded it spanning many of the Western World’s oldest tomes – works by the likes of Homer, Aeschylus and Herodotus. Before Homer there were merely fluid tales and songs and the fires around which they were sung.
Virgil and Ovid inherited the works that came before them. Homer and many others, some of whom we, here, now, will never know even existed. There is so little certainty of who Homer even was, much less what source materials he may have used to compile “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey”, that we can only guess at what he inherited and how. Virgil and Ovid were not only different on a line of time from their predecessors, but were of a different culture and sensibility. Part of why that culture and sensibility was different was because of the access to the literature that had come before it. Why else, for instance, would Virgil need to portray the Romans (of which he was one) as more moral and civilized than the Greeks? Ilioneus, speaking to Dido for the Trojans says, “we do not come to devastate
your homes and with the sword to loot
the household gods of Lybia or to drive down stolen
booty to the beaches” [Aeneid Book 1, line 738]. This harsh imagery is just what they, as survivors, had observed the Greeks do to their beloved Ilium
. Making this separation between the moral identity of the present versus the past was important not just because they lived in different lands from those who came before but because a change had come over mankind, fueled by, among other things, those ancient Greek works – change of identity.
When I was 15 years old, I was big enough to wear my father’s green coat from his service in the Marines. Faded though it was at the cuffs it had a patch on the lower breast that looked like it might cover some war story . It did not fit me right, but well enough, and I wore it greedily because it was full of potential tales [Iliad, Book 1, line1]. When I was 17 I no longer wanted to wear my father’s coat. I wanted to grow into my own identity [Metamorphoses Book 1, line 3] and to make clothing choices that established me as an individual separate from that which came before <“I sing”> [Aeneid p1, line 1]. By moving on from my father’s coat, the coat did not change – the coat remained… remained frozen with its stories, in a closet full of other remnants, while I moved on. Virgil and Ovid, inheritors of the fabrics of old tales, grew from them and through them weaving new myths and tales. They took that which they inherited and rather than merely repeating it, they changed it and made it their own.
A good example of this reworking is Homer and the myth of Scylla and Charybdis [The Odyssey, Book 12, line 73-125]. Scylla and Charybdis were monstrous yet sentient perils to be navigated by the hero Odysseus. Scylla “has six necks grown to great length, and on each neck is a horrible head, with teeth in it, set in three rows, close together and stiff and full of black death”[The Odyssey, Book 12, line 90-95]. For Ovid, Scylla could not simply remain a one-dimensional (albeit terrifying) half of some monstrous threatening duo, rather, Scylla needed to be fleshed out as the author expressed his new vision of how things came to be. He writes, “(Scylla’s) face is a girl’s and, assuming the stories that poets have left are not completely untrue she had been a girl who was courted by numerous wooers…” [Metamorphoses Book 13, line 733]. He takes a thing of Homer’s and makes it his own, altering it from many headed beast, to a scorned woman with a girdle of dogs. Virgil also re-treats Scylla: “Her upper parts are human, down to the pubes, she seems a lovely-breasted virgin, but underneath she is a monster come from the sea” [Aeneid Book 3, line 555]. Both treatments are significant transformations from the six-headed, 12-footed beast from the Odyssey.
|Bernini’s “Apollo and Daphne”
As much as Virgil and Ovid had changed the image of Scylla, it is the relationship between the writer and the audience that called for the change. As the audience became more comfortable with the established themes of the past they craved new themes – deeper, more relatable, but not wholly unfamiliar. Virgil takes calculated steps, for instance, by still making nature subject to the will of the gods [Aeneid Book 4, line 217], yet he uses this familiar and divine vehicle to create a complex love affair between Aeneis and Dido – something new. Ultimately when Aeneis leaves Dido so that he can fulfill his destiny, Dido, in a bitter despair, commits suicide. Virgil adds great depth and complexity to this tale while Ovid says conspicuously little about her at all, focusing instead on Scylla’s origins, as seen in the story of when Glaucus meets Circe. “To banish all doubt and distrust you may have in your power to attract, look into my eyes. I may be a goddess…but I pray I may be yours” [Metamorphoses, Book 14, line 32]. Circe uses very seductive language to make herself clear to Glaucus, but when she gets scorned by him (he is preoccupied seeking out his love, Scylla) she uses her divine powers to mix a poison, travel across the surface of the sea to then pollute the pool that Scylla is known to bathe in. This becomes the tale of how Scylla is transformed into the beastly menace the audience would be familiar with.
Greater depth was given to such characters, and this is likely because the character
of the audience (infused as ever with greater and greater amounts of past,
and the literature that explores that past) changes. That past is like a cartoon
which provides a stencil of sorts for the more elaborate work to follow. This elaboration upon the myths and tales of the past serves to erode or overcome the walls we are born with that limit our understanding of self. The evolution of literature enlightens the mind giving it leave to expand greater and explore deeper what it means to be human.
Augustine in “Confessions” discusses the consequences of such a wealth of literature and the impact it had on his being. Growing up with the good fortune to have a broad education, Augustine indulged in literature in his youth. For many this would be a rewarding experience either in the moment of reading or in the broadening of the mind it facilitated over time, but not for Augustine, at least, not in his vision. Having had access to good education and thus to works like Virgil’s Aeneid, Augustine confesses, “What is more pitiable than a wretch without pity for himself who weeps over the death of Dido dying for the love of Aeneas, but not weeping over himself dying for his lack of love for (God)” [Confessions p15]. As a young man Augustine, with the ever-expanding seas of literature at hand, surrendered to fantasy; fantasy as opposed to the reality of nourishing a spiritual relationship with God. It was fantasies like “the wooden horse full of armed soldiers and the burning of Troy and the very ghost of Creusa” [Confessions p17] that enticed the young Augustine. Fiction was a great escape for his very active mind. It fed his imagination. It helped form him even though he would change again later.
When I was sixteen I had the opportunity to become a counselor at a Boy Scout camp for the entire summer. The camp was in far upstate New York, in the Adirondacks, many hours from the restless streets of The Bronx where I lived. The assistant scoutmaster who drove me there
entertained me on the hours-long journey from day to evening with his telling of J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Silmarillion
“. I was enchanted! It is fair to say that in my life at that time I was far more committed to the fantasy of fiction [Confession Book1, p17] than I was to real
schoolwork or what I would come to know as “personal development”. Like Augustine “I gave pride of place in my affections to those…fables rather than to more useful studies, or rather…I hated the one and loved the other” [Confessions Book1, p17]. That summer in the Adirondacks was a breaking out from my urban identity. It transformed me from “a kid from The Bronx” to a sort of woodsman with responsibilities over others. I still look back at that summer as one of the most amazing times of my life. All the more painful was it to learn that my scholastic negligence during the school year forced me to return home after only a single week so that I could attend mandatory summer school. This did not stop my transformation, though it changed it. It also fueled it, sped it up, because
it was being interrupted by reality. Even though the rest of that summer was spent in summer school, I still remember that one week as a counselor like it lasted all summer.
|Saint Augustine of Hippo
For Augustine, his indulgence in fantasy shaped him during his formative years. Likewise, his conversion to his new spiritual reality, altered him from his original self-loathed state. But Augustine, if bitter about fantasy, still credits literature with putting him on the path to salvation. He credits Cicero’s “Hortensius” with being the catalyst for his transformation, stating, “The book changed my feelings. It altered my prayers, Lord, to be towards you yourself. It gave me different values and priorities.” [Confessions page 39]. Augustine clearly has a complicated relationship with literature, but then, I think that is an indicator of literature’s importance and potency.
If I could send a message to Augustine so that he might not feel so guilty about the youth he enjoyed I would send this quote from the band Rush’s “Tom Sawyer”:
“Always hopeful, yet discontent
He knows changes aren’t permanent
But change is”
Formative-me and formative-Augustine used fantasy as protection from a reality we didn’t love and it led to the environment for change. It invoked passion and humor and broadened the mind, all real things, though it probably didn’t protect us as hoped. I ultimately changed into someone who could come to terms with fantasy in a world of reality, because states-of-mind are rarely permanent. Augustine’s conversion was a bit more extreme, but that just goes to show that no two metamorphosi and no two outcomes are the same…but that the metamorphosis that will occur is.
The literature I have been exposed to in my Masterpieces of Western Literature and Philosophy course is a valid sampling of Western literature as a whole
. I’ve read other great works too (Verne, Tolkien, Hawthorne, Thoreau, London to name a few favorites) and what becomes apparent is that as the works I read changed
in tone, topic, and level of controversy, so did Western literature on the average change. Literature changes in two important ways; one is as a sort of vapor trail of changes in human sensibilities, the other is as a beacon, driving those very same changes. A vital part of the definition of “literature” is that a work have lasting importance. Thinking on this reminds me of the stories of the Wolves of Yellowstone.
George Monbiot wrote a book called “Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding”
. In the mid 1990s, in response to endangerment of the Gray Wolf population, the US Fish and Wildlife Service reintroduced wolves trapped from Canada into Yellowstone National Park to see if they would thrive. In an incredibly complex cascade of events (in fact called, “trophic cascade”) the return of the wolves changed the course of rivers in the region. Trophic cascade can be simply summed up as how one thing led to another thing and so forth.
Augustine lived in a world enriched by Virgil. Virgil lived in a world enriched by Homer. Homer lived in a world enriched by the tales told from pre-literary people. The changes each generation or region or language or world-event contributes to literature is a power cell in the perpetual state of metamorphosis, where the new is built on the bones of the old, and in which the experience of being a person in the Western world is chronicled.