Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.40 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.40

Stephen Ridd, Communication, Love, and Death in Homer and Virgil: An Introduction. Oklahoma Series in Classical Culture, 54.   Norman, OK:  University of Oklahoma Press, 2017.  Pp. 258.  ISBN 9780806157290.  $29.95 (pb).  


Reviewed by Katherine R. De Boer, Indiana University (ktdeboer@gmail.com)

Preview

Ridd’s intention in this book is to offer a series of translations and close readings of passages from the Iliad, the Aeneid, and the Odyssey that treat the themes of communication, love, and death. These subjects were chosen because, as the author states, they “respond to three deeply ingrained human needs: the need to create and share a narrative, the need to love and be loved by another, and the need to come to terms with the death of loved ones and ultimately with one’s own death” (6). These are certainly all prominent and important themes of the poems, and Ridd’s choice of focus allows him to range widely over all three epics and to offer engaging readings of some of the poems’ best-known episodes, as well as less prominent ones.

Ridd’s aim is not to provide a sustained scholarly argument or interpretation of any of these poems. The book seems designed for students—all quotations are given in English translation, with no corresponding Latin or Greek, and many of the points raised will be familiar even to graduate students. I doubt, however, that many non-majors or students reading the poems for the first time will have the knowledge or the motivation to follow some of Ridd’s more complex references. For example, the discussion of Demodocus’ song in Odyssey 8 concludes, “After the moment of bad temper on the sports field, the outcome of Demodokos’s story can be felt to have a special relish for Odysseus. Shown here is the victory of cunning (Odyssey 8.276, 281-282, 317) over speed of foot (Odyssey 8.329-32), the victory of the defining characteristic of Odysseus himself (Odyssey 9.19-20) over that of the other superhero, swift-footed Achilleus, with whom Demodokos earlier couples him (Odyssey 8.75)” (30-31). The athletic competitions earlier in Book 8 have not been quoted or described, so the novice reader must be willing to trace these various references back to the original text. The paragraph continues with references to the story of Aegisthus and Clytemnestra, the commentary of the gods in the Ares-Aphrodite story, and Odysseus’ interactions with Medon during the mnēsterephonia. It is difficult to see how an introductory student could easily follow this wide-ranging discussion, which requires a fairly high level of familiarity with the poem. The book will probably be of most use to students with some knowledge of Latin or Greek, but little experience in the interpretative debates surrounding these poems—a fairly narrow readership.

Ridd interweaves the book’s three stated themes, but the first three chapters are focused on communication, particularly in song (Singing with the Aid of the Muse(s), Singing and Celebration, and Supernatural Singing), the next three chapters are focused on love and relationships (Sons and Mothers, Helen and the Men in Her Life, and Parting), and the final two chapters are focused on death (Communicating with the Dead, and Deaths and Endings). The chapters on song seemed to me the least compelling, and the connections drawn between passages here often seemed more superficial than those proposed in the latter half of the book. For example, the Sirens of the Odyssey (Od. 12.39-46) are treated alongside the singing and dancing of the dead in Vergil’s Elysium (Aen. 6.644-47) as instances of “supernatural singing.” Ridd attempts to link the two passages with the conclusion that “the mortal travelers’ experience of the beauty of these supernatural sounds is a part of their journey rather than an obstacle to its completion” (60). This association feels forced, and I did not find the comparison drawn between these experiences of “supernatural singing” to illuminate either. Nonetheless, Ridd’s comments are generally engaging and his choice of passages generally interesting. Of course, as Ridd acknowledges, this choice is largely based on personal interest (6), and some readers will have different preferences—I for one would have liked to see Euryalus mentioned in the chapter on “Sons and Mothers.” Yet Ridd’s selections are broadly useful in directing the reader’s attention to the presence of major themes even in more minor episodes.

The exclusive focus on the Iliad, the Odyssey, and the Aeneid leaves some comparative lacunae. For example, the author includes, in his first section on “Three Openings and a Re-Opening,” discussion of the invocation to Erato in Aeneid 7.37-45. Ridd writes “Neither the Iliad nor the Odyssey has a clearly marked halfway point in its narrative, but the Aeneid, devised from the start in the form of twelve distinct books, does contain such a structural break: a reopening…. By her presence at this carefully controlled turning point in the narrative, Erato suggests a different nuance in the presentation of what is the traditional, Iliadic subject matter of ‘kings, fighting, death, and proud spirits” (12-13). There is no mention of the Apollonian source of this second invocation, nor of the dissonance created by Vergil’s transference of the motif from a clearly “erotic” context in Apollonius’ version (Μηδείης ὑπ᾽ ἔρωτι, Arg. 3.3) to the realm of horrida bella (Aen. 7.40). Perhaps Ridd does not want to confuse students with an endless series of pre-texts and intertexts. Yet by omitting Apollonius, he implies that Vergil’s invocation to Erato is his own innovation and departure from Homeric tradition, and this implication is simply false.

Similarly, the author’s references to previous scholarship are idiosyncratic to say the least. Ridd states in the introduction that he includes some suggestions for further reading, but refers only to works in English and in book form (4). He therefore includes chapters appearing in edited volumes, but not journal articles, a choice that seems arbitrary and excludes much excellent work on all three poems. Even within these restrictions, however, there are some odd omissions. For example, Marilyn Arthur Katz, Gian Biagio Conte, Nicholas Horsfall, Alison Keith, Douglas Olson, Michael Putnam, Richard Martin, Ruth Scodel, and W. Gregory Thalmann appear nowhere in the bibliography. Despite Ridd’s chapter on “Helen and the Men in Her Life,” Ruby Blondell’s 2013 study of Helen is not referenced, an unfortunate absence given that it is particularly accessible to non-specialists. Ridd does not suggest that his citations are meant to be exhaustive, but the omission of some very prominent recent scholarship on these poems will hamper students wishing to explore further. It should also be noted that the citation style may be confusing: titles are listed according to the dates of their most recent appearance (whether in new editions or collected volumes) with no indication that some are reprints. So for example, Sheila Murnaghan’s Disguise and Recognition in the Odyssey (first edition 1987) is cited throughout as Murnaghan 2011 (and appears to have been omitted from the bibliography) while Helene Foley’s 1978 article “Reverse Similes and Sex Roles in the Odyssey” is cited only as Foley 2009, the publication year of the Oxford Readings in Classical Studies volume in which it was reprinted.. This may have been an editorial rather than an authorial choice, but the effect is misleading, especially for students unfamiliar with the scholarly history on these poems.

One final issue: the book does not include an index locorum, a major oversight in a work of this kind, and one that will certainly inconvenience readers trying to track down particular passages.

Overall, this book offers engaging and accessible comparative readings of Homer and Vergil. It is not designed for specialists, but will be useful to students who are new to intertextual and narratological approaches to ancient literature. It may also be helpful for high school Latin teachers who are less familiar with the Homeric epics but wish to introduce their students to some of the Greek passages that have been adopted and adapted by Vergil. The tone is not overtly didactic; indeed, Ridd describes his readings as “personal” (6) and his appreciation for the poems is evident on every page. I cannot recommend the book either to novices or to experts, but intermediate students of the epic tradition, particularly those with some knowledge of Latin or Greek and a desire to explore these texts in more detail, will find this a valuable introduction to comparative readings of ancient epic.

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