The Watcher Cat

The Watcher Cat

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Missing the Myth

First, this is even funnier in context, but stands up on its own:

Now, then, to business. I've realized that with all the scholarly reading I've been doing, I've been neglecting reading for pleasure. And I recently found at a used bookshop (Argosy in Manhattan, and well worth a visit) a nice copy of the Poetic Works of Spenser. After the glowing review of his work C.S. Lewis gives in The Discarded Image, I thought I would try Spenser. Spenser is quite readable as far as I've gotten; so far, so good--but here's an interesting bit from the prefatory Letter to Sir Walter Raleigh Spenser wrote:
The generall end therefore of all the booke, is to fashion a gentleman or noble person in vertuous and gentle discipline. Which for that I conceived shoulde be most plausible and pleasing, being coloured with an historicall fiction, the which the most part of men
delight to read, rather for varietie of matter than for profit of the ensample: I chose the historie of king Arthure, as most fit for the
excellencie of his person, beeing made famous by many mens former workes, and also furthest from the danger of envie, and suspicion of present time. In which I have followed all the antique poets historicall: first Homer, who in the persons of Agamemnon and Ulysses hath ensampled a good governor and a vertuous man, the one in his Illias, the other in his Odysseis...:
Now leave aside Spenser's use of the latinate names, but who on earth can read the Iliad and come away thinking of Agamemnon as either a "virtuous man" or as a "good governor"? Remember the whole context of the opening of the epic: Agamemnon has taken as a prize the daughter of the priest of Apollo, resulting in a curse on the Achaean army which will only be lifted by returning her. Agamemnon, prizing his captive more than his own wife (!) resists angrily, but yields upon the condition that Achilles yield his own captive to him. Achilles, angry, protests, and, in an era before patriotism, as Werner Jaeger points out,
Agamemnon can only make a despotic appeal to his own sovereign power and such an appeal is foreign to the aristocratic sentiment, which recognizes the leader only as primes inter pares. Achilles, when he is refused the honor which he has earned, feels that he is an aristocrat confronted by a despot.
So Achilles withdraws from the combat, leading to decimation of the Achaean forces, and many avoidable deaths.

So Spenser, by his romanticization of the myth--his framing it in the very different Tudor ethos--misses the entire point of the depiction of Agamemnon by Homer, just as Trenchard (in the video above) misses the point of the Master's enjoyment of "The Clangers" (a "real" alien enjoying a human depiction of aliens) by his overly literal response to it. And these two are ways we too can misapprehend the mythic truths handed down to us from the past--by cutting and shaping them to fit our own approach to truths, or, which may be even worse, reducing them to "only puppets. . . for children."

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