Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Reading Challenge Week 38 - An epic poem

The word "epic" is used in many situations and has a variety of meanings, but when it's paired with the word "poem", then we're talking about one thing, really:

A really long poem that tells a story.

Oh, sure, there are other definitions of "epic poetry" - but quite frankly they're all a bit too restrictive for our liking. And, essentially, the all boil down to one thing:

A really long poem that tells a story.

So here are some long story-telling poems we read for this week's challenge.

Brenda Carter read The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope

Many years ago I enjoyed reading The Rape of the Lock by Alexander Pope (820 POP 1C RAP/CUN) at university and decided to revisit it for this week’s theme. The Rape of the Lock is an 18th century  mock-epic poem that uses the traditional high stature of classical epics to satirise a trivial social occurrence:
"What dire offense from amorous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things, / I sing [...]" ( I.1-3)
The story is based on a true incident, in which an aristocrat cut a lock of hair from a lady he admired without her permission, creating a breach between the two families. The humour of the poem is based on the portrayal of this incident as though it had the importance of classical tragedy – the abduction of Helen of Troy becomes the theft of a lock of hair; the description of Archilles’ shield is replaced by musings on the heroine’s petticoat, while the structure and language of the poem mirrors that of epic poems such as The Illiad. The power of caffeine empowers our villain to do the deed, in spite of possible retribution from the gods:
Coffee, (which makes the Politician wise,
And see thro' all things with his half shut Eyes)
Sent up in Vapours to the Baron's Brain
New Stratagems, the radiant Lock to gain.
Ah cease rash Youth! desist e'er 'tis too late,
Fear the just Gods, and think of Scylla's Fate! (III.117–122)
The Rape of the Lock an easy and entertaining introduction to the epic poem genre, and an interesting glimpse into the social history of the period. 


Sharon Bryan read The Rime of the Modern Mariner, by Nick Hayes.

I wasn’t sure if I should tackle this book for this week’s challenge, or leave it for Week 45, which is “A Graphic Novel”. You see, this book is a very good graphic novel, with some seriously brilliant artwork, but it also happens to be an epic poem. Okay, it's a bit short for a "true" epic poem, even though it's a sizeable doorstop of a book, as it’s more art than poem. But I’m sure we can forgive it for that.

Nick Hayes took Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner as his starting point, and his poem follows the movements of Coleridge’s reasonably closely, but with a fair amount of variation. Hayes’ Modern version stands on its own, and you can read it and enjoy it if you have never read Coleridge’s original, but if you have read the Ancient Mariner you notice a lot of little touches in the Modern version that add something to the story.

In Coleridge’s original poem, a haggard looking old man stops a wedding guest on his way to the church and proceeds to tell a harrowing story about ghost ships, angel-possessed corpses and slimy things with legs. The mariner shot an albatross for the heck of it, and the whole ship was then cursed by the spirit who loved the bird. A lot of things go very, very wrong, with a lot of it involving supernatural forces of a less-than-benevolent nature. He survives (none of his shipmates do), but is then driven to tell his story on a regular basis.

In Hayes’ version, the mariner delays a recent divorcee and tells him about his adventure. In this tale, the mariner started with little respect for the natural world (he wanted to get some whalebone in Japan for dominoes), and again shoots an albatross for the heck of it. Again, a curse falls upon the boat he is travelling on, and they are stalled in the middle of a calm ocean. Only this is a modern tale, and the calm ocean is brimming with plastic, polystyrene, discarded fishing nets and other detritus of a wasteful human society.

Hayne’s brilliantly illustrated version has less to do with the angels-and-demons-and-ghosts supernatural elements, and more to do with the spirits of the earth and the old gods, who take the mariner to task and drag him through a watery hell of oil slicks and plastic. Eventually, he comes to land and is found by a fisherman who lives with the natural world. He is given the chance to rest in an unpolluted natural space, and comes to realise that the earth can heal us, if we would only stop choking it to death.

The divorcee doesn’t hear the message though. Will we?

Samantha Baxter read The epic of Gilgamesh: the Babylonian epic poem and other texts in Akkadian and Sumerian, translated and with an introduction by Andrew George.

The original bromance, this is not always easy to read being over 4000 years old. But it is well translated and the story and events are easily followed: the battle between two men who afterwards become friends, the quest to kill a beast, the parting of friends, the fear of death. It is interesting in many ways to realise how easy it is to understand this ancient tale, although some of that may be bias on the part of the translator.

The story has been pieced together from a number of ancient tablets and I read just one of many translations.

My favourite part I must admit is when the goddess of love and war, Ishtar, threatens to start a zombie apocalypse if her father, Anu, doesn't help her get revenge on Gilgamesh:

'If you do not give me the Bull of Heaven, I shall smash the gates of the Netherworld right down to its dwelling, to the world below I shall grant manumission I shall bring up the dead to consume the living, I shall make the dead outnumber the living."

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