BMCR 2020.06.11

The battle between the frogs and the mice: a tiny homeric epic

, The battle between the frogs and the mice: a tiny homeric epic. . Philadelphia: Paul Dry Books, 2019. viii, 94 p.. ISBN 9781589881426 $19.95 (pb).

Contributors: Illustrated by Grant Silverstein.

Two Italian translations of the Batrachomyomachia were in circulation even before the publication of the editio princeps of its Greek text (perhaps in 1474),[1] — one by Aurelio Simmaco de Iacobiti,[2] the other by Giorgio Summariva. In subsequent years, be it as a preparation for the much more demanding translation of Homer, or as an amusing coda to it, or even as an independent enterprise, many scholars and poets undertook the task. In fact, by 1744 Antonio Lavagnoli could already state[3] that the number of translators of this short mock epic was almost equal to the number of its verses — which, if true, would amount to more than one translator per year.

In the last few decades, after a hiatus of about two centuries of limited interest, the Batrachomyomachia has gained renewed attention from scholars and poets alike, and a new edition and/or translation of it has been printed every two or three years. In Portuguese alone, at least four fresh translations and editions have appeared since 2001.[4] As a matter of fact, however, few of the new renderings preserve the poetic aspect of the original (even if a number of them respect a line-by-line textual correspondence), and in this aspect A. E. Stallings’ work is a delightful surprise.

It must first be said that this edition is not aimed at the academy, but at a young public (which does not preclude an older readership). It presents itself as a light, humorous introduction to this “diminutive, though not ridiculous, epic” (p. 10). Scholars will find in its pages no new information on the poem or on the theories involving its composition, dating, genre, etc., but I nonetheless recommend the reading of it as a pleasant antidote to the excess of seriousness that affects some academic minds. Adapting G. K. Chesterton’s opinion on Alice in Wonderland, the Batrachomyomachia is becoming “cold and monumental like a classic tomb”[5] in the hands of scholars, who tend to forget that it was composed to be funny, and it “is a delightful but difficult enterprise to liberate [it] from the custody” of the academy, “to try to recapture the first fresh careless rapture of the days when” it was composed.[6]

The book opens with an apparent lampoon of Umberto Eco’s prologue to The Name of the Rose:[7] examining a rare 1513 edition of the poem printed in Germany by fellow poet Thielemann Conradi, A. E. Stallings noticed “some tiny, tiny marginalia”  written in pencil on its pages, and “some pencil marks scratched on” (p. 1) some metro tickets used as bookmarks, by an at first anonymous earlier reader soon discovered to be a mouse(!) conveniently called A. Nony Mouse. Transcribed by Stallings, the found marginalia and pencil marks form the introduction and translation presented here.

Agreeing with G. K. Chesterton that Alice should not be taken “too seriously,” Martin Gardener nevertheless says that “no joke is funny unless you see the point of it, and sometimes a point has to be explained.”[8] Thus, and keeping in mind its young readership, the introduction presents many learned pieces of information unexpected (by me, at least) in such an edition, but in a light, at times playful tone. It deals with narrative parallels in fable and epic, adds a short history of mice, weasels, and cats in Greek, Egyptian, and European art and literature, discusses the authorship and dating of the poem, analyses its verses (vocabulary and metrics), and enumerates some of its editions and English translations. All in all, it is a fitting and clear introduction to the Batrachomyomachia. The only regret is the disappearance of the promised “notes to the poem itself” (p. 11), which would discuss “more detailed parallels” (ibid.) with Homer. Undoubtedly those notes, written by A. Nony Mouse on the metro tickets, were lost before transcription.

E. Stallings decided, in a declared “nod to” George Chapman’s 1624 translation, to format her verses in rhymed pentameter couplets.[9] This, of course, leads to some adaptation of content (and to an increase in the number of verses to 374), but she never distances herself too much from the original, and the reader may be assured of finding intact all the glorious gore of the final combat.

Ὑγραῖον δ’ ἀρ’ ἔπεφνεν ἀμύμων Ἐμβασίχυτρος,
χερμαδίωι πλήξας κατὰ βρέγματος· ἐγκέφαλος δέ
ἐκ ῥινῶν ἔσταξε, παλάσσετο δ’ αἵματι γαῖα. (vv. 226, 228-9)[10]

While Waterman, cold-blooded, grew yet colder—
Potcreeper dashed his head in with a boulder
So that his brains went oozing out his nose
Staining the earth around him shades of rose. (p. 65)

Adding to the humour already presented in the original (like the names of the creatures, all adapted into English), clever puns and plays-on-words punctuate the translation and the introduction, some derived from a centuries-old tradition (like the distinction between pathos and bathos, borrowed from Alexander Pope[11]). There is something Carrollian in Stallings’ taste for puns and in the lightness of her translation as a whole, and although many rats and frogs die bloody, messy deaths her Batrachomyomachia serves as a perfect companion to another humorous epic in which, however, deaths are much cleaner — The Hunting of the Snark. I can already imagine A. Nony Mouse arguing that there was at least a rodent Odysseus in the crew led by the Bellman (the Butcher, perhaps?), hoping to use the Snark against the army of crabs.[12]

Grant Silverstein’s gracious etchings of animals and gods evoke well-known drawings by Renaissance artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, and provide a lively visual counterpart to the narrative.

As the copy reviewed by me is an “advance uncorrected proof,” I shall be silent about the few printing errors found here and there, none of them serious anyway.[13]

Post scriptum (September 2020): In the final printing of Stallings’ book the translation is printed twice: first, on pages 19-91, together with Silverstein’s illustrations; then again on pages 95-105, text only in an Appendix that also contains A. Nony Mouse’s recovered notes to the poem on pages 105-108. In this Appendix, absent in the “advance uncorrected proof” reviewed, the lines are numbered, and because verses 107 and 347 are printed as two hemistichs each, the 374 verses of the translation are counted as 376 lines. The thirty-three notes cover a wide variety of aspects of the text and its context with the same light and informative verve of the rest of the book, and are a pleasant read on their own. The final book has got a total of 109 numbered pages, preceded by eight pages of front matter and followed by a blank page. — J.L.S. Buzelli


[1] In Brescia, by the typographer Thomas Ferrandus, with a Latin translation by Carlo Marsuppini. There is, however, some doubt about this information, since this edition actually reveals neither its date nor its city of publication, nor the name of the press or of Ferrandus, and some prefer to consider as the princeps an edition published in Venice, in 1486, by Leonicus Cretensis.

[2] On Aurelio Simmaco de Iacobiti’s Italian translation, see Federico Condello’s review of Marcello Marinucci’s Batracomiomachia. Volgarizzamento del 1456 di Aurelio Simmaco de Iacobiti (BMCR 2004.10.13)

[3] La Batracomiomachia di Omero: Greca, Latina, e Italiana. Italian transl. and intro. by Antonio Lavagnoli; Latin transl. by Carlo Aretino, revised by Mario di Nigris. Venice: stampata da Gio. Batista Albrizzi Q. Gir., 1744, third page of the dedication (“quasi piu traduttori, che versi”). Lavagnoli’s own elegant translation is in terza rima.

[4] Prior to that, there were three different translations into Portuguese: by António Maria do Couto (Lisbon, 1835), an anonymous one published in the magazine A Illustração Brazileira (Rio de Janeiro, 1912), and an extremely free prose translation by Father Manuel Alves Correia (Lisbon, 1947). Flávio Moreira da Costa’s indirect prose translation, published in his anthology of comic short stories (Rio de Janeiro, 2001), was soon followed by the first academic bilingual edition of the Batrachomyomachia in Portuguese, by Fabrício Possebon (São Paulo, 2003). By the end of the same decade Rodolfo Pais Nunes Lopes’ translation appeared (Coimbra, 2008). Finally, my own bilingual translation came out recently in an edition of fragments of ancient Greek epic and comic poetry (São Paulo, 2019).

[5] G. K. Chesterton, “Lewis Carroll,” in On Lying in Bed and Other Essays, selection with an introduction by Alberto Manguel. Alberta (Canada): Bayeux Arts, 2000, p. 235.

[6] Id., ibid., p.236.

[7] Cf. Umberto Eco, Il nome della rosa. Milan: Bompiani, 1980.

[8] Martin Gardner, “Introduction to The Annotated Alice, in Lewis Carroll, The Annotated Alice: the definitive edition, edited by Martin Gardner. London: Penguin Books, 2001, p. xiii.

[9] There are two exceptions: one verse on page 70 (“Spilled out onto the ground as he withdrew”) fails to rhyme, and the very last one rhymes with the two previous verses.

[10] Martin L. West (ed.), Homeric Hymns, Homeric Apocrypha, Lives of Homer. Cambridge (MA); London: Harvard University Press, 2003, p. 284. The book does not contain the Greek text, but Stallings informs us that she has “made some minor modifications to the translation (sc. of A. Nony Mouse) to reflect the Greek text in Martin L. West’s 2003 Loeb edition” (p. 2).

[11] See Alexander Pope, The Art of Sinking in Poetry [1727]. Richmond (UK): OneWorld Classics, 2009.

[12] Although in many (many!) aspects unfaithful to the Greek original, Father Alves Correia’s prose translation nevertheless also preserves much of the humoristic freshness of it. He also incorporates at the end of the text an “epilogue by an anonymous scholiast,” whose Greek text is nowhere to be found. But since it offers a funny coda to the Batrachomyomachia, I translate it here as a curiosity:
«The big spoil of the battle consisted in the immensity of snapped-off tails. The tails were laced in bundles, and the bundles disposed in high stacks. They were later ordered with express freight, and one hundred wagons of the Pharaoh came from Egypt. Many bundles of tails were sent in great shipments to China, were they were sold as ponytails to the mandarins. The rest were bought for their weight in gold by the Tartars to be used as moustaches. It is said that Zeus himself conducted the business, and that it was he who profited from the gains. Later, after deducting his expenses, he bought a very precious dress for his daughter. In this way Zeus compensated Athena for the sacrileges endured, and for the damages once caused by the rats in her temple and wardrobe.»
(Homero, Poemetos e Fragmentos, tradução do grego, introdução e notas de Pe M. Alves Correia. Lisboa: Livraria Sá da Costa Editora, 1947, p. 44.)

[13] I must thank my good friend Sue Taylor, who kindly read and corrected this text, and Bob Lamberton for his reading and for his enthusiasm.