Started in February 2013, 17 poets, 15 months, creating 1 contemporary reworking of Ovid‘s Metamorphoses
See the Transformations Page For More Details
Here we are in the middle of December with our deadline of Book 11 poetry being Thursday 26th December.
This post sets out to provide an overview of Book 12 with a deadline for the poems inspired by this book being Thursday 30th January.
The second poetic batch of Book 10 poems went out this Tuesday featuring NAT HALL and RICHARD BIDDLE (here). The other great Book 10 poems will be posted out during the rest of December and January.
Overview of Book 12:
In this book Ovid focuses on the telling of the Trojan War. He consciously transforms this well known epic story and stretches his reworking across two books : books 12 (often known as Ovid’s ‘little Iliad’ (Lively:119) and book 13 (often known as Ovid’s ‘little Aeneid’ (119).
In book 11 Ovid gave us a sequence of stories focusing on married love. In book 12 he follows on with this theme of love BUT within the context of the epic, Trojan war. Rather than starting at the beginning he throws the reader right into the middle of the war through the re-telling of the story of Paris and his stolen wife Helen.
The classic theme of the moral dilemma between duty and family is also dealt within Book 11. In the story ‘The Greeks of Aulis’ Agamemnon (the son of King Altreus) is faced with a choice between is responsibilities as a father and his responsibilities as a king. In this book too Ovid directly challenges the past narrative heritage of the telling of the trojan war. For instance he overtly parodies Homer and Virgil and rather focusing on the male warriors as victims of war, puts a focus on the impact of war on the females in the stories. This is in direct contrast to tradition. Ovid also engages with a representation of the dynamic between civilisation and barbarismvia the story of ‘The Battle of Lapiths‘.
Summary of the Tales in Book 12
In the broad ring that with his frightful horns
Charges the scarlet cloak that baits his wrath
And finds his wounds eluded. The iron point
Perhaps was loose and lost; but no, he found
It fixed fast to the shaft. ‘Then is my hand
‘So weak’, he said
The Myths and Key Characters: The Greeks at Aulis, Rumour, Cycnus, Caeneus, The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs, The Death of Achilles.
The Greeks at Aulis
Ovid begins by tacking the tale of Helen and Paris (son of King Priam of Troy) onto the tale of Aesacus (another son of King Priam). We see Priam is holding a funeral for Aesacus unaware that he is still alive but in the form of a bird. All of Priam’s sons are attending the funeral apart from Paris (who is busy off somewhere seducing Menelaus’ wife Helen).
Ovid draws our attention to Aulis (a greek port town) where a massive fleet of ships is about to set sail to find the adulterous couple (Paris and Helen). Amidst this setting instead of focusing on the war aspect of the story in the traditional way (like Homer) Ovid homes in on the sacrifice of Agamemnon’s daughter Iphigenia to appease Diana (the Goddess of the Hunt). Agamemnon attempts to make this sacrifice so that Diana calms the tumultuous sea which is impeding the search for Aesacus. Agamemnon is completely torn between the duty of a father and the duty of a king. Diana recognises this and substitutes the soon to be sacrificed Iphigenia for a deer. This story is traditionaly told with lightness but Ovid, in contrast, focuses on the darker side: on the real intentions of Diana’s intervention. Ovid’s highlighting of Iphigenia as the centre of this story exposes his real intention of focusing on the female victims of war. This is in direct contrast to tradition which focuses on male heroes and epic narratives.
In this section of the book Ovid directly challenges Virgil ‘s narrative version of the Trojan war by completely re-staging (in every sense) the battle. In so doing, Ovid makes the re-telling of the war a narrative battle as well. As the fleet of ships crosses the sea Ovid establishes a personification of Rumour which is entirely based on Virgil’s Book 4 of The Aeneid. However, directly in contrast to Virgil, ‘the cave of sleep’ is consistently noisy. ‘The House of rumour’, as Lively puts it, ‘becomes a good representations of Ovid’s approach to the retelling of his stories’:
‘ a flimsy throng of a thousand rumours, true and fictitious/wandering far and wide in a turbulent tangle of language’ (121).
‘Rumour’ not only makes sure everybody is ready to commence battle but also acts as a springboard for Ovid to launch into the scenes of war. Uniquely and challengingly instead of foregrounding the exploits of Achilles (Son of Peleus) he initially highlights the exploits of Cycnus (Neptune’s son) who is also known to be a great fighter.
In the original story it is Achilles who has been looking for Hector (favourite son of King Priam) but Ovid, in direct contrast, replaces the figure of Hector with Cycnus. And instead of giving Cycnus an epic fight (like a Homeric hero) he lets Cycnus tease Achillies by taking off his armour and in so doing Achilles is unable to harm him. Achilles is furious at the fact he can’t hurt Cycnus and he becomes overwhelmingly angry. He jumps down from his chariot and eventually manages to kill him by strangulation with his helmet straps. This form of death is most definitely not a heroic. To top this off Achilles goes to claim Cycnus’ armour only to find that Cycnus has been transformed into a white swan. He shares his name with the swan.
Ovid challenges epic narration and the usual tropes attached to heroism by transforming Homeric anger into a temper fit. After the death of Cycnus a truce is forged between the Greeks . They tell stories to each other. Achilles is foregrounded in the telling of these stories initially, but the narrative ignores the bravery attached to his exploits. Nestor then takes over and becomes the internal narrator and tells a series of strange stories which fill the rest of book 12.
Nestor tells the strange story of Caeneus (formerly Caenis, a woman who was transformed into a man and then became a warrior). Like Cycnus, Caeneus lived through a merciless attack unscathed. The story is told as a tale of hearsay. According to the story Caeneus was born a girl (Caenis) renowned for her beauty. She was raped by the god Neptune who asks her what she would like in recompense. She asks to be turned into a man so she can never suffer in the same way again, and in so doing Caenis becomes Caeneus. Fuelled by his/her background the warrior Caenus emasculates all those he fights against: the attackers swords and weapons become redundant. In a similar way to Cycnus the only way Caeneus is killed is by suffocation. And this feeds into the next tale….
The Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs
Nestor, using evidence from a first-hand account, tells of Caeneus’ skills as a warrior at a wedding celebration of Pirithous (King of the Lapiths) to Hippodamia. There are a mixture of guests including Centaurs attending and the wedding guests are all reclining and enjoying themselves but chaos begins to break out. Eurytus (son of Menelaus) becomes drunk and grabs the bride and attempts to rape her. Each of the centaurs then follow suit. In so doing ‘the battle of the Lapiths’ is unleashed, as is a representation of the forces of civilisation overcoming barbarism. Order defeats chaos ‘all over a girl’, just like in the Trojan war.
Theseus (son of Aegeus) throws a bowl at Eurytus’ face causing blood and gore to ooze out; the other wedding guests follow suit and use wedding utensils as weapons. A centaur uses a chandelier to smash into a face of a Lapith; an alter is used to crush someone and a burning log is used to set someone else on fire. And there are also a number of disembowelments.
Amidst all of the mayhem and horror Nestor tells another tale of the death of two young centaur- lovers: Cyllarus and Hylonome. This brings in an elegiac feeling into the epic (as relief). The characterisation of Hylonome follows Ovid’s description of the trope of a ‘sophisticated lady’ (as he outlines in Ars Amatoria, his book on the art of love). The two lovers love equally (countering the usual behaviour of Roman lovers). The depiction also mirrors the love shown by other characters previously like Baucis and Philemon in Book 8 and Iphis and Ianthe (in book 9) (125). Cyllarus is killed by a javelin and Hylonome throws herself on the very same sword. They unite in death.
This story serves as a break for the reader from the aggression and violence of the wedding mayhem. It offers an ‘alternate world of peace and domesticity. ‘(125). Nestor, as the narrator, then questions the validity of his own narration and muses on how good his memory is. Tlepolemus (son of Hercules) asks Nestor why Hercules and his heroic acts have not been mentioned in the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs. Nestor explains and acknowledges that he hates Hercules for the murder of his brothers and the destruction of his home.
‘All narratives are unreliable it seems , subject to biases and prejudices, inventions and exclusions.’ (226)
The Death of Achilles
Just as Nestor selectively chooses what he shows of the Trojan war so does Ovid and he skips a swathe of stories crossing a number of years (unlike the Iliad). He then drops us once again straight into the story of the death of Achilles. Ovid tells of the anger of Neptune at the death of his son Cycnus. He tells how Neptune persuaded Apollo to send one of Paris’ arrows into Achilles and in so doing insured that a great warrior gets killed by the wimpy adulterer Paris (See book 12). Equally, going against tradition again, Ovid does not spend any time detailing Achilles’ funeral and just mentions that this once great hero is now merely a mound of dust (128). However,as the book concludes Achilles’ fame does live on and the other great fighters argue as to who shall have his armour.
Themes, Analysis and Relevance
In Book 12 some of the following ideas and themes are explored:
- Different Focus to Traditional Narratives: In this particular book it is apparent that Ovid is playing and re-working the usual narrative texture represented by the texts written by Homer and Virgil. By choosing to exclude certain stories, flag up others, he undermines and refreshes notions of heroism and gender and the very heritage of the narrative tradition he is re-working.
- Civilisation versus Barbarism In ‘the Battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs’ Ovid depicts the dismantling of what appears to be one of the embodiments of civilisation- marriage (which holds within it notions of love and communion). He does so by knowingly, flipping this notion of civilisation on it’s head, and turning it into a depiction of rape, blood and gore (barbarism). The two sides of the coin are represented and we can see how swiftly civility can be fractured into chaos and mayhem.
- Love versus War Within the context of the Trojan war Ovid also chooses to focus on love within war and the problematics of that. He shows us the tensions embodied by a father torn between duty and family, and the consequences of adultery in war. This serves as an interesting contrast to the bloody, physical consequences of war and creates a powerful contrast to the blood and gore and traditional, detailed battle scenes.
Things of Interest:
- BBC Documentary On The Trojan War
Christopher Hitchens on The Odyssey
The Myth of the Trojan War: The British Museum Online Tour
Optional Prompts and Verse Form
Verse Form: Lai -The syllable count in each triplet of lines is 5, 5, 2, and each triplet rhymes aab. The number of such triplets must be the same in each stanza, and at least two. It’s a version of virelai ancien, with the stanzas not linked by rhyme. In fact the virelai is just the same as the lai with a couple of extra rules:
- There must be nine lines – three triplets – per stanza.
- The short lines in one stanza rhyme with the long lines of the next. Similarly, the short lines in the last stanza rhyme with the long lines of the first.
See here for more information.
Here is an audio an audio of the tale of ‘Caenis’ in case any of you are too busy to read the book.
Watch out for more poetry inspired by Book 10 coming out throughout November and December.
To confirm: the deadline for Book 11 Poetry is Thursday 26th December.
Brunauer, Dalma H (1996) The Metamorphoses of Ovid, New Jersey Research and Education Association
Hughes, T (1997) Tales from Ovid, London: Faber and Faber
Liveley, G. (2011) Ovid’s Metamorphoses, A Reader’s Guide, London: continuum
Ovid (1986) Metamorphoses, World Classics, tr. A.D. Melville, Oxford: Oxford University Press