Sunday, June 7, 2015

Spotlight on the Classics: The Aeneid by Virgil

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[Warning: Minor Spoilers Ahead]

Goodreads Summary:

Fleeing the ashes of Troy, Aeneas, Achilles’ mighty foe in the Iliad, begins an incredible journey to fulfill his destiny as the founder of Rome. His voyage will take him through stormy seas, entangle him in a tragic love affair, and lure him into the world of the dead itself--all the way tormented by the vengeful Juno, Queen of the Gods. Ultimately, he reaches the promised land of Italy where, after bloody battles and with high hopes, he founds what will become the Roman empire. An unsparing portrait of a man caught between love, duty, and fate, the Aeneid redefines passion, nobility, and courage for our times.

Classics have a certain stigma in our day. As Mark Twain once said, "'Classic'--a book which people praise and don't read." Nowadays, most people view classic novels only as unpleasant homework assignments and not beautiful stories that can be enjoyed just as much as the hottest new publication. My mission is to change that stigma by reviewing classics that I enjoyed exactly as I would any other novel.
Pros:

In some ways, The Aeneid reads like an Iliad fanfiction. Virgil takes Aeneas, a relatively minor character in Homer's Iliad and makes up an entire story about what happened to him after his home, Troy, was destroyed by the Greeks. Aeneas also experiences many similar events to those found in Homer's epics. It could also be considered an imitation of Homer's writing style. Virgil certainly does use similar mannerisms to Homer. But ironically, I enjoyed the lesser-known Aeneid much more than I did The Iliad or The Odyssey.

The plot was beautifully paced. The book opens with Aeneas being shipwrecked, not knowing whether any of his shipmates had survived. This immediately drew me into the story, as I began to wonder exactly what had led Aeneas to be in this horrible situation. Soon afterwards, Aeneas gives some back-story by explaining how he escaped from the burning Troy with his son and father. Not only does this fill in the gap between The Iliad and The Odyssey, but it also made me feel sorry for Aeneas, who had gone through so many struggles. Then, Virgil reveals that Aeneas is trying to get to Italy, where his son will establish what will become the Roman Empire. But first he has to experience a million hardships. Even when he finally gets to Italy (and believe me, it's not easy), he still fights a huge battle against the native Latins. The constant excitement kept my attention throughout the entire story. The journey was just long and difficult enough to keep me always uncertain as to the outcome, but not long enough to be boring.

Not only that, but I felt that Aeneas was a much more likable character than either Achilles in The Iliad or Odysseus in The Odyssey. (Well, maybe Achilles wasn't meant to be a likable character, but still...) Achilles has extreme anger management issues and was too prideful to elicit anything but disgust on my part. Odysseus seems nice enough at first, especially in The Iliad, but after seeing how many times he lied in The Odyssey (and honestly, his treatment of the serving girls at the end *shudders*), I just found myself somewhat disappointed in him. But Aeneas maintained his integrity throughout the book. He was deeply devoted to his aging father Anchises, and his clear despair when [his wife disappears] made me want to cry. (Highlight between the brackets for a spoiler.) He is selfless, kind, and loyal--the ideal hero.

Also, the writing style is beautiful and quite lyrical, really evoking the feeling of age and mystery that should come with a piece of writing from the ancient Greeks. Granted, since this is a translation, credit for this must be given to Robert Fagles, who translated my edition, but it felt very authentic. I really felt like I could imagine Virgil writing it during Roman times.

Cons:

There really aren't any cons to speak of except that some people might find the writing style difficult to read, as is common with classic literature. Again, this is really more of a critique of Robert Fagles as a translator, not the story itself, but I felt it was worth mentioning. It certainly is not written in modern-day spoken English (it's no Shakespeare, but it's also no Percy Jackson and the Olympians). So if this kind of writing turns you off, you might not enjoy The Aeneid like I did. Personally, I feel like the soul of the writing would not have been there without the more lofty writing style.

Truth is, the writing really lends itself to reading out loud. After all, the original story was a poem, meant to be recited or sung during, say, a feast. There is a performance aspect to this novel that can be missed out upon by simply reading this quietly. I read almost the entire thing out loud to myself (well, I often whispered because there were other people around) and just feeling how the words were formed on my tongue, the rhythmic quality to it, really enhanced the reading experience. Definitely try reading it out loud if the writing style bothers you--you might find yourself able to look past it and understand the heart of the story.

I can't recommend this book enough. Even if you don't particularly enjoy reading Homer, try picking up The Aeneid, because although it's quite similar, it definitely feels like an entity of its own.

Now I’m going to do a breakdown of each element of the series, judging it on different criteria. I’ll rate each element on a scale of 1-5, 1 being bad, and 5 being amazing.

Plot: 4
Complexity: 5
Creativity: 3
Believability: 5
Surprise: 4

Characters: 5

Depth: 5
Personality: 5
Believability: 5

Writing Style: 5
Description: 5
Tension: 5
Readability: 4

Overall Score: 5

Happy Reading!

Sarah
 

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