Metamorphoses by Ovid – 2

‘The heavens and everything which lies below them change their shape, as does the earth and all that it contains.’
(Pythagoras in his great discourse about mutability in book 15 of the Metamorphoses)

(This is the second of two notes-and-summaries of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, specifically of books 8 to 15. Read my previous blog post for notes on the first seven books of the poem.)

Book 8

King Minos of Crete arrives on the Greek mainland and attacks the town of Algathous whose king is Nisus. The town’s security is guaranteed by a purple lock in his hair. His daughter, Scylla, falls hopelessly in love with manly, handsome Minos as she watches him fighting from the town’s battlements. She wants to marry him. Eventually her crush leads her to betray her father and town by cutting off the purple lock while he’s asleep, then taking it through the enemy ranks to present to Minos. Minos accepts it and the fall of the town but recoils at Scylla’s treachery, sacks the town and sails away without her. Enraged, Scylla throws herself off the cliffs into the sea but half way down is transformed into a bird called a shearer; so it is another ‘etymological myth’, working back from a name which happens to be cognate with a meaningful word to invent a story to explain it.

What’s interesting is how much Ovid enters Scylla’s thought process, giving us full access to the series of arguments leading up to her decision to betray her father. Very much like the extended soliloquy of Medea deciding to betray her father for handsome Jason. Both very like the extended argumentation of the Heroides, and a new thing – not present in the first 7 or so books.

Minor returns to Crete and Ovid spends far less time (half a page) dealing with the entire story of the Minotaur, Daedelus constructing the labyrinth in which to hide it, and how Theseus killed it and found his way out using the thread provided by Ariadne (another maiden who betrays her father out of love for a handsome warrior).

Ovid goes into more detail about Daedalus making the wings of feathers for himself and his son and flying away from Crete. I’d forgotten that Ovid includes a passage which anticipates the opening of Auden’s famous poem about Daedalus, not the precise details, but the idea that it was observed by ordinary peasants. Ovid 6 AD:

Some fisher, perhaps, plying his quivering rod, some shepherd leaning on his staff, or a peasant bent over his plough handle caught sight of them as they flew past and stood stock still in astonishment…(book 8, p.185)

Auden 1938 AD:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure;

Icarus crashes and dies, his father recovers his body from the sea, builds a tomb, settles in Sicily. What struck me about this long-ish account is it isn’t really a metamorphosis at all. Clipping on fake wings is not changing your essential nature.

Back in Athens Theseus is greeted as a hero, having killed the Minotaur. He then gets involved in the great hunt of the Calydonian Boar. This beast was loosed on Calydon after King Oeneus made the bad mistake of giving offerings to all the other gods except Diana – who plagued his land with a giant boar.

An immense troop of heroes assembles, led by Meleager and featuring a rare female warrior, Atalanta. Many are injured, some killed as they corner the boar, but Atalanta draws first blood then Meleager finishes it off. Smitten, he hands Atalanta the spoils, being the head and skin. But his uncles, Plexippus, and Toxeus, are outraged at giving spoils to a woman and overrule him. Blind with anger Meleager kills both his uncles. When his mother (and their sister) Althaea hears of this she fills the city with her weeping and wailing etc, then takes out the old log which soothsayers said would match Meleager’s life and throws it on the fire. Back in the forest Meleager feels a burning sensation and, inexplicably finds himself consumed to ashes. Althaea then kills herself.

Two things: once again, this isn’t a metamorphosis at all and b) Ovid, once again, devotes his creative energy to Althaea’s soliloquy in which she agonises over whether to avenge her brothers and kill her own son. These anguished moral debates by female figures obviously fascinate him.

Meleager’s sisters bemoan his death and in pity Diana gives them feathers and transforms them into birds (guinea fowl).

On the way back to Athens Theseus and his companions are blocked by a swollen river, the River Acheloüs, which advises them to wait till his waters have dropped. He invites them to a feast then tells the story of how he turned nymphs who didn’t worship him into islands, especially the nymph he seduced (or raped?), Perimele, whose outraged father threw her into the sea but Achelous persuaded Neptune to change into an island.

A very rare heart-warming story: Philemon and Baucis. As part of the same scene after the meal given by River Acheloüs, Ixion’s son Pirithoüs mocks the notion of the gods intervening in mortal lives. Which prompts Lelexto tell the story of how Jupiter and Mercury toured a region of Phrygia looking for good people to take them in. They were spurned by all the households until they came to the poorest of all, owned by Philemon and Baucis who took them in and shared all their food. Impressed by their goodness, the god makes them climb a hill and watch the area be flooded and everyone drowned and their own house turned into a temple. Then Jupiter offers them a wish, and they decide they want to tend his temple for as long as they may, and then both die at the same time. And so it comes to pass and when their time comes they are transformed into an oak tree and a lime tree.

The river then mentions Proteus, capable of changing into any number of shapes. And goes on to tell the story of Erysichthon. This was an impious man who got his men to chop down a huge oak tree sacred to Ceres. As they chop it they hear the voice of the dying dryad inside prophesying that he will be punished.

The other dryads beg Ceres to take revenge so Ceres sends an oread (mountain spirit) in her chariot all the way to the Caucasus to meet Hunger in her lair and order her to haunt Erysichthon. Sure enough Hunger comes by night and embraces him, breathing her spirit into his soul. As soon as he wakes he calls for feast after feast but can never slake his hunger. He eats his way through his entire fortune then sells his daughter, Mestra, for more money for food.

Mestra, sold into slavery, begs help and Neptune takes pity. As she is walking along the shore before her master, Neptune changed her into a fisherman. When the master asks whether she/he has seen a girl she denies it and he goes off puzzled – at which Neptune changes her back.

This ability to change at will is now permanently hers and her father sells her again and again to different masters and she assumes a shape and escapes. But eventually even the money brought in from selling and reselling his daughter isn’t enough to slake his invincible hunger and Erysichthon ends up eating himself!

Book 9

Achelous tells his guests about the time he wrestled with Hercules for the hand of Deianira, transforming himself into a snake then a bull. Hercules rips off one of his horns, thus mutilating his forehead permanently, but otherwise unscathed and now river nymphs decorate his head with willow leaves so that no one notices. Next morning Theseus and companions leave his cave.

Segue to the story of Hercules, Nessus, and Deianira i.e. Nessus the centaur offers to carry Deianira over a flooded river but then goes to carry her off so Hercules downs him with a single arrow. As he dies Nessus soaks his blood into his shirt and tells Deianira, standing nearby in horror, that his blood is a love potion (lying, as he knows it is a fierce poison). Hercules rescues Deianira and takes her off. Some time later Deianira hears that Hercules is having an affair with Iole (daughter of Eurytus) and is going to being her back to their house. She agonises about how to win back her husband, remembers the shirt soaked in Nessus’s dried blood and gets a servant, Lichas, to take it to Hercules as a token of her love. He puts it on and the toxic blood immediately starts burning him. He tries to tear it off but it rips his skin, bellowing in agony. He throws the cowering servant, Lichas, into the sea, who is turned to stone so that a stone in human sometimes appears in the Euboean Gulf at low tide and sailors call it Lichas to this day.

Eventually Jupiter takes pity on his son, sloughs off his human part and translates his immortal part into the heavens.

Cut to Hercules’s mother, Alcmena, telling Iole about the hero’s birth, namely how Juno, hating Hercules even before his birth, orders the goddess of birth Lucina to squat outside Alcmena’s house with her arms and legs crossed which, magically, effected Alcmena’s womb and prevented the child’s birth. Until Alcmena’s loyal servant Galanthis fools Lucina by telling her the baby’s already been born. Surprised, Lucina uncrosses her legs and the baby Hercules then can be born. Furious, Lucina grabbed Galanthis by the hair and dragged her head down to the ground and the loyal servant was changed into a weasel.

Continuing this conversation, Iole then tells a story to Alcmena, about her half sister, Dryope. She ‘suffered the assault’ of Apollo i.e. was raped, but then respectably married off to a mortal man. One day she came to a lovely pool with her one-year-old son and innocently picked some flowers from a lotus tree, only for it to bleed. She learned the tree was the nymph Lotis fleeing the sexual advances of Priapus (sometimes the narrative feels like one rape after another). At which point Dryope is transformed into a tree. She pleads she has done nothing to justify such a sad fate, and her sister (Iole, the narrator the tale) tries to intervene, but nothing can prevent her sad fate.

They are surprised by the arrival of Iolaüs, Hercules’s nephew and companion, who has been rejuvenated, made young again. At this all the gods complain and demand similar rejuvenation for their mortal partners, lovers or children.

Even the gods are subordinate to Fate

However, Jupiter replies with an important statement about the limits of his powers, about his own subservience to the unseeable dictates of Fate, which echoes the same thought found in the Aeneid.

l Jupiter opened his mouth and said: ‘O, if you have any respect for me, where do you think all this talk is heading? Do any of you think you can overcome fate as well? Through fate Iolaüs’s past years were restored. Through fate Callirhoë’s children must prematurely become men, not through ambition or warfare. Even you, and I, too, fate rules, if that also makes you feel better. If I had power to alter fate, these late years would not bow down my pious Aeacus. Just Rhadamanthus would always possess youth’s flower, and my Minos, who is scorned because of the bitter weight of old age, and no longer orders the kingdom in the way he did before.’

‘You and I, too, fate rules.’ A profound vision of the world, where even the gods are, in the end, subservient, to darker powers.

Mention of Minos links to his rival Miletus who left their kingdom and founded his own city on the shore of Asia Minor, married Cyanee, and fathered twins, Byblis and her brother Caunus. This story is about Cyanee, the daughter of Maeander, whose stream so often curves back on itself, when she was Byblis’s incestuous love for her brother Caunus. As with Medea and Scylla, Ovid gives us another long soliloquy by a female character agonising about what to do in light of her passionate love. In the end she sets down her thoughts in a long letter declaring her love for her brother which she gets a slave to deliver. Alas, he doesn’t reciprocate but is shocked and then furious, throwing away the tablets the letter is written on.

But Byblis continues her suit, becoming more passionate, until Caunus flees, setting up his own city in Asia Minor. Byblis goes mad, roaming the hills and plains, until she falls to the ground endlessly weeping, and the naiads turn her into a fountain.

But another miraculous transformation happened around that time in Crete. Ligdus was married to Telethusa. When she gets pregnant he tells her it had better be a boy child; if a girl, they’ll expose it to die. In a dream the goddess Isis comes to Telethusa and says she will protect her. In the event she gives birth to a girl but swears all the servants to pretend it is a boy. And so Iphis is raised as a boy.

When Iphis turns 13 her father betroths her to the 13-year-old daughter of a neighbour. Iphis loves this other girl, but as a lesbian. Ovid gives another prolonged female soliloquy, this time of Iphis begging the gods for a way out of her dilemma. Telethusa prays some more and, the night before the wedding is due, Isis changes Iphis into a boy.

Book 10

Orpheus and Eurydice are married. She steps on a poisonous snake, dies and goes to the underworld. Orpheus follows her and sings a lament to Dis and Persephone which moves them to release Eurydice, on the condition Orpheus doesn’t look back at her on their long walk back to earth. Of course he does and she slips through his fingers back into the underworld, for good this time.

Devastated, Orpheus shuns the company of women and prefers to love boys, during the brief period of their first flowering.

On a flat hilltop there is a gathering of all the trees who come to listen to Orpheus’s wonderful songs (another List). The cypress tree was made when the fair youth Cyparissus accidentally speared a noble stag he had long loved. He wept and pined and was turned into the cypress.

Amid this assembly of trees Orpheus sings tales of transformation. All the rest of book 10 is Orpheus’s songs:

  • Ganymede: Jupiter temporarily turns himself into an eagle to abduct this boy
  • Hyacinth: Apollo went everywhere with this young man till one time they were having a competition to throw the discus, Apollo threw it a mighty distance, Hyacinthus ran forward to collect it but it bounded up into his face and killed him and the boy was turned into the purple flower
  • The Cerustae men murder all who stay with them as guests. For this impiety Venus turned them into bullocks.
  • The Propoetides denied Venus and were the first women to prostitute themselves in public. So Venus turned them into flints.
  • Pygmalion shuns women and makes a statue of one which he falls in love with until, during the festival of Venus, he asks the god to make his beloved statue real and she does.
  • longer than all the other stories put together is the story of Myrrha who conceives an illegal love for her own father, Cinyras. She tries to hang herself, her nurse interrupts, saves her, learns her shameful secret, and then helps disguise her so she can sleep with her father which she does, repeatedly, until he discovers the scandal, runs to get his sword, she fled the palace and wandered in the wild, until the compassionate gods changed her into the myrrh tree.
  • She was pregnant when she transformed and the boy is born of her tree trunk and raised by nymphs to become gorgeous Adonis. Venus is pricked by her son, Cupid’s, arrow and falls in love with him.
    • Story within a story within a story: Orpheus tells the story of Venus who one day, as they are lying in a glade, tells Adonis the story of Atalanta who refused to marry, challenging all her suitors to a running race and the losers are put to death. Hippomenes asks Venus for her help and the goddess gives him three apples. During the race he throws each of them to the side of the track and each time Atalanta detours to pick them up, so that Hippomenes wins. But when the victorious young man fails to thank and praise her the fickle goddess turns against him. She puts it in their minds to make love in a sacred cave, thus defiling it and Juno, offended, turns them into lions. In time Cybele tamed them and now they pull her chariot.
  • Back up a level, Orpheus goes on to describe how Adonis foolishly hunts a fierce boar which gores and kills him. Mourning Venus institutes an annual festival in his name and turns him into the anemone.

Book 11

The frenzied Ciconian women aka the Bacchantes aka the Maenads, kill Orpheus and tear his body to pieces which they throw in a river which carries it to the sea. His soul goes down to Hades and is reunited with his beloved Eurydice. Bacchus turns the Maenads who killed Orpheus into oak trees.

Bacchus’s tutor, Silenus, is captured by the Lydians and taken to King Midas. After ten days of partying the kind returns the drunk old man to Bacchus who grants him a wish and Midas chooses the golden touch. Then the standard account of how his delight turns to horror as even his food and wine turn to gold. In this version, he doesn’t touch his daughter and turn her to gold; he begs Bacchus to take back the gift, so Bacchus tells him to go bathe in the river by great Sardis.

Pan challenges Apollo to a competition as to who is best musician. They choose the god of the mountain of Tmolus as judge. Both play and Tmolus judges Apollo the better performer. Since his misfortune with the gold, Midas has wandered the fields and mountains. He happens to be at this competition and demurs, saying Pan was better. Apollo gives him ass’s ears.

Apollo flies over to watch the first building of Troy, by Laomedon and Neptune. When the king refused the promised payment Neptune flooded the land.

Jupiter gives Thetis to Peleus after Proteus predicts she will give birth to a son greater than her father. In fact Peleus comes across Thetis naked on the seashore and tries to rape her but she transforms through a series of shapes. Proteus advises holding her tight till she gives in so Peleus seizes her in her seashore cave and holds her through even more transformations till she gives in at which point he inseminates her with Achilles.

Earlier in his life Peleus had been expelled from his homeland for killing his brother and fetched up in the kingdom of Trachis whose king, Ceyx, tells him the story of Daedalion. This starts with the gods Apollo and Mercury both seeing and falling love with the Chione, the 14-year-old daughter of Daedalion. Both cast magic spells on her and raped her, Mercury by day, Apollo by night.

Nine months later this daughter gave birth to twins, Autolycus, crafty and Philammon, skilled the with lyre. Unfortunately, Chione boasted about this achievement, vaunting herself above the goddess Diana who promptly shot her dead with an arrow. Her distraught father Daedalion tried to hurl himself onto her funeral pyre, was restrained, but later threw himself off a cliff. Taking pity, Apollo turned him into a hawk who takes out his savage anger on other birds and small animals.

Ceyx has only just finished telling this story when Peleus’s herdsman comes running up and tells him a huge wolf is devastating his herd. Peleus realises it’s punishment for him killing his half-brother and prays the half-brother’s mother, Psamathe, to relent. Thetis intercedes on his behalf and the goddess changes the wolf to marble.

Despite the warnings of his loving wife, Alcyone, Ceyx goes on a journey by sea to consult the oracle of Apollo, at Claros. There is a bravura passage giving a terrific description of a storm at sea. He drowns. Not knowing this Alcyone goes daily to Juno’s shrine to pray for his safety. Taking pity, Juno sends Iris to the House of Sleep which is given a full and brilliant description. In the Kline translation:

There is a deeply cut cave, a hollow mountain, near the Cimmerian country, the house and sanctuary of drowsy Sleep. Phoebus can never reach it with his dawn, mid-day or sunset rays. Clouds mixed with fog, and shadows of the half-light, are exhaled from the ground. No waking cockerel summons Aurora with his crowing: no dog disturbs the silence with its anxious barking, or goose, cackling, more alert than a dog. No beasts, or cattle, or branches in the breeze, no clamour of human tongues. There still silence dwells. But out of the stony depths flows Lethe’s stream, whose waves, sliding over the loose pebbles, with their murmur, induce drowsiness. In front of the cave mouth a wealth of poppies flourish, and innumerable herbs, from whose juices dew-wet Night gathers sleep, and scatters it over the darkened earth. There are no doors in the palace, lest a turning hinge lets out a creak, and no guard at the threshold. But in the cave’s centre there is a tall bed made of ebony, downy, black-hued, spread with a dark-grey sheet, where the god himself lies, his limbs relaxed in slumber. Around him, here and there, lie uncertain dreams, taking different forms, as many as the ears of corn at harvest, as the trees bear leaves, or grains of sand are thrown onshore.

Juno has tasked Iris with asking Sleep to send one of his shape-shifting sons in a dream to tell Alcyone the bad news. Sleep despatches Morpheus, expert at assuming people’s likenesses, who appears to Alcyone in a dream as her husband and tells her he is dead. Next day she goes down to the seashore to mourn and Ceyx’s corpse is washed ashore. Alcyone jumps up onto a breakwater to see better and keeps on flying, her arms turning into wings her mouth into a beak. In fact both wife and dead husband are transformed into ‘halcyons’. It is said that they mate once a year and make a nest on the sea and after she has laid the eggs, Aeolus god of the winds delivers 7 days of complete calm on the sea. Hence the expression halcyon days.

In a breath-takingly casual link, Ovid says an old man was standing nearby who added another story, telling the ill-fated love of Aesacus, Hector’s half-brother, for the nymph Hesperie. One day, chasing her (as men chase all women in these stories) she trod on a snake, was bitten and died. Despairing, Aesacus threw himself off a cliff but Tethys caught him and transformed him into the long-necked bird which repeatedly dives into the sea, and is called a ‘diver’ (the genus Mergus).

Book 12 The Trojan War

In book 12 Ovid retells the stories of the Greek siege of Troy, but focusing on moments of transformation.

The House of Rumour

Rumour of them precedes the coming Greeks and Ovid has another page-long description of an allegorical figure, Rumour (compare previous extended descriptions of the Houses of Hunger and of Sleep).

Iphigenia and Cycnus

As to the transformations:

  • when Agamemnon is about to sacrifice his own daughter, Iphigenia, she is replaced by a deer
  • Achilles fiercely attacks Cycnus who, at the moment of death, is changed into a swan

Nestor’s tales

An extended sequence is devoted to tales told by Nestor one evening after the Greek leaders have feasted.

1. Nestor tells the story of Caenis, a young woman walking the seashore who is raped by Neptune. Afterwards he asks if she wants any gift and she asks to be turned into a man so she can never be raped again, and so Neptune turns her into the man Caeneus and makes him invulnerable to weapons.

2. Nestor gives an extended description of the battle of the Lapiths and Centaurs at the marriage of Pirithous to Hippodame (pages 273 to 282). The Lapiths are a group of legendary people in Greek mythology, whose home was in Thessaly. They held a wedding feast and invited the centaurs who proceeded to get drunk and attempt to abduct the Lapiths’ women. The resulting battle is one of the most enduring of Greek legends.

Maybe placing it here is Ovid’s way of showing he can do anatomically detailed and gory descriptions of fighting in the approved epic manner, but without infringing on the actual fighting at Troy which Homer and Virgil (among many others) had already done so well.

In Ovid’s account the battles leads up the centaurs fighting the invulnerable human, Caeneus and, since no weapons can harm him, deciding to pile trees on top of him. Thus buried under torn-up trees, No one knows what happened to Caeneus in the end but some saw a bird with tawny wings fly out from the middle of the pile.

3. Tlepolemus asks Nestor why he hasn’t mentioned Hercules and Nestor explains that he loathes the man because he killed 11 of his brothers, even Periclymenus who Neptune gave the gift of being able to change shape, and who changes into an eagle to escape the massacre but Hercules kills him, nonetheless, with bow and arrow. And that is the end of Nestor’s storytelling.

The death of Achilles

Jump forward ten years to the climax of the siege of Troy. Ovid deals with the death of Achilles in an odd way. He starts by describing how Neptune, who helped to build Troy and fought on the Trojan side, resented the success of Achilles but is forbidden to confront him directly, and so goes to his nephew, Apollo, also fighting on the Trojan side, and asks whether he is not angry at man-killing Achilles and whether he’ll use his mighty bow and arrow to stop him. Apollo agrees and so seeks out Paris fighting ineffectually in the middle of the day’s battle, tells him to shoot at Achilles and he will guide his arrow. Which he does, and that is the death of Achilles.

It’s odd that Ovid doesn’t even mention the central aspect of Achilles’ death which is the vulnerability of his heel, which is where Paris’s poisoned arrow is said to have struck him. And there’s no transformation involved to justify its inclusion in the poem at all. But then his treatment of the entire war is odd, digressing into the battle of the Lapiths and avoiding describing all the famous incidents of the war itself.

Instead Ovid skips to immediately after the funeral of Achilles when argument arises about which of the surviving heroes will inherit the mighty shield of Achilles. The Greek leaders agree to hold a formal debate which begins in book 13.

Book 13

Debate between Ajax and Ulysses

Again, Ovid takes an odd, peripheral approach to the great subject. He describes in detail the set-piece debate about who should claim the arms of dead Achilles. Ajax, arguably the Greeks’ biggest strongest warrior, argues for a full 4 pages, describing his own merits (grandson of Jupiter, only Greek who can stand up to Hector) but mainly rubbishing Ulysses, describing him as a coward and a sneak who never fights in the light of day but cooks up secret midnight tricks. Then Ulysses speaks for 7 pages, defending himself.

The whole extended passage is a bravura demonstration of Ovid’s skill at staging a debate, reminding us that his parents and the emperor himself originally expected him to make a career in public life.

Anyway, Ulysses wins the debate, is awarded the arms of Achilles, and Ajax kills himself out of rage and chagrin. Ovid points out that out of his blood grew the hyacinth but it’s a pretty tangential reference to the poem’s theme. Any reaction by the other leaders is ignored.

Ulysses fetches Philoctetes

Instead Ulysses sails off to the isle of Lemnos to see Philoctetes, without whose bow and arrow, prophets said, Troy could not fall. There are umpteen versions of this story; Ovid short circuits all of them, says Philoctetes returned and Troy fell boom boom.

The deaths of Polyxena, Polydorus and transformation of Hecuba

King Priam sends his youngest son Polydorus away from Troy when the war begins, to the court of king Polymestor. But he sent a load of gold with him, too, and impious Polymestor stabbed the boy to death and threw him over a cliff into the sea.

Troy is captured, sacked, all the men killed and all the women dragged off into captivity including miserable Hecuba who tries to grab the ashes of her beloved son, Hector. The ghost of Achilles appears before the Greek leaders and tells them they will get no favourable wind for their ships unless they sacrifice one of Hecuba’s daughters, Polyxena, so the Greeks agree to do this.

Polyxena makes a noble speech, another one of the long closely-reasoned speeches Ovid writes for his female characters, then offers her breast to the priest at the altar. Like everyone else he is moved to tears by her speech but stabs her to death anyway.

Hecuba witnesses all this, herself making an extended soliloquy of misery, then goes running along the seashore mad with grief, but trying to console herself that at least she has her son to console her. That’s when she sees the corpse of Polydorus floating across the waves towards her, his wounds bleached and gaping.

Somehow, with the logic of a fairy tale not history, Hecuba with her attendants makes her way to the court of the treacherous King Polymestor, and asks for a private audience where she will tell him about more treasure. Polymestor agrees and when they are alone, swears he’ll hand the treasure on to his ward. Hecuba, knows he has murdered his ward and so knows he is swearing lying oaths. She stabs him in the eyes with her sharp fingernails and then smashes his eye sockets.

Then the Thracian people try to stone Hecuba and her Trojan women but she chases the stones, snapping at them and is turned into a dog. Even vengeful Juno is moved to say Hecuba didn’t deserve this fate but then that is the overwhelming moral of these stores: life is howlingly, outrageously cruel and unfair.

Memnon

During the war Memon had been killed by Achilles. His mother, Aurora, goddess of the dawn, goes to be Jupiter for some recognition of her grief and his achievement. Jupiter arranges for his body on the funeral pyre to give rise to a flight of birds which divide into two parties, fight each other and all die. They are called the Memnonides and celebrated at an annual feast. Meanwhile, every morning the dawn weeps tears for her dead son, what we mortals call the dew.

The pilgrimage of Aeneas

Aeneas flees Troy with his father, son, followers and household gods. First stop is Delos where king Anius tells the sad story of how his daughters, who had magic gifts for turning everything they touched into food and wine, were kidnapped by Greek forces but pleaded with the god Bacchus who gave them their skills and were transformed into white doves.

Next day they attend the oracle of Apollo for Anius is not only king but high priest, and the god tells them to seek the bones of their mother which Aeneas, falsely, takes to mean Crete. They exchange gifts with king Anius including a cup engraved with the story of Orion’s daughters, and set sail.

What follows is a very brief summary of Aeneas’s journeys i.e. he rejects Crete and heads north towards Italy, landed in the harbour of the Strophades, were terrified by the harpy, Aëllo, and a shopping list of other ancient islands and cities they sailed past on their way to Sicily, stopping at Epirus to have their futures read by Helenus, through the straits of Messina past the perils of Scylla and Charybdis.

Obviously this was all dealt with in detail in Virgil’s masterpiece the Aeneid. Presumably Ovid had to mention Aeneas as a kind of link between the Trojan War and later myths/history, but did he also feel obliged to namecheck it so as to incorporate/supersede Virgil in his own, eccentric epic?

Acis and Galatea

Back before Scylla was turned into a grotesque monster she combs Galatea the sea nymph ‘s hair (underwater) while the latter tells her about her love for 16-year-old mortal boy, Acis. Unfortunately, the Cyclops Polyphemus is in love with her and Ovid devotes a couple hundred lines to a rather moving love song he sings to her, like so many of these soliloquies making a case, in this instance all the reasons Galatea ought to love him e.g. he’s big, he owns lots of sheep and so on.

Then Polyphemus spots the lovers lying in each other’s arms and comes storming towards them. Galatea dives into the sea leaving Acis to run but not fast enough. Polyphemus throws a huge chunk of mountainside which crushes the boy. Galatea changes Acis into a river (and accompanying river god).

Scylla and Glaucus

After this tale Scylla returns to the land where she roams naked. She is startled by the attentions of Glaucus who used to be mortal but was turned into a merman. Glaucus tells the story of how he was transformed (by eating magic grass) but Scylla slips off, leaving him frustrated.

Book 14

Scylla and Glaucus continued

Glaucus swims across the sea to the land of Circe and begs her to concoct a potion to make Scylla fall in love with him. Circe advises him to forget Scylla and fall in love with her. Glaucus rejects her and swims off. This infuriates Circe with Scylla and so she concocts an evil potion, swims over to Scylla’s island and pours it into the pool where Scylla loves to bathe. When Scylla slips in up to her waits the region below is transformed into barking monster dogs. Glaucus is distraught. Scylla becomes curdled with hatred and takes to living on one side of the Strait, reaching out and capturing sailors of ships passing by e.g. Ulysses in his wandering or Aeneas, a little later.

More Aeneas

Which brings us back to Aeneas. Ovid briefly describes the storm which blows his fleet onto the north African coast where he, of course, encounters Dido. Their love affair barely rates a sentence before Aeneas is off again, sailing north, back to Sicily then past the isle of the Sirens, the loss of Palinurus. It’s like the Aeneid on fast forward.

A super-brief reference to the fact that Jupiter, hating the lying and deceit of the Cercopes, turned them into monkeys.

A very rushed account of Aeneas anchoring at Cumae, seeing the Sybil, plucking the golden bough and going to the underworld where he meets the spirit of his dead father, Anchises.

The Sibyl’s story

On the way back up from the underworld Aeneas offers to build a temple to the Sibyl but she corrects him; she is no god but a mortal woman. Apollo fancied her and offered her eternal life if she would sleep with him. She said no but he gave her eternal life and the gift of prophecy – but not eternal youth; in the years to come she will shrivel and shrink with age.

Macareus and Achaemenides

In a rather contorted segue Ovid says a Greek had settled in Cumae, named Macareus. This Macareus now recognises among the Trojans a fellow Greek named Achaemenides who had got left behind on Sicily in the realm of Polyphemus. Achaemenides describes the Cyclops rage at being blinded and tricked and how he threw whole mountains after Ulysses’s departing ship.

Then Macareus tells Achaemenides what happened after they escaped Sicily, namely: a) how they used the winds put into a bag by Aeolus, b) how they docked at the city of Lamus, of the Laestrygonians, whose treacherous king Antiphates led an attack on them and killed and ate some of their shipmates before they could escape.

The island of Circe

How they next arrived the island of Circe and Macareus drew a lot to go to the palace. Pushing through flocks of wild animals (a thousand wolves, and mixed with the wolves, she-bears and lionesses) they entered the chamber where Circe’s servants were separating out her herbs and medicines. She offered them food and win then touched them with her wand and turned them into pigs. One of the party makes it back to Ulysses, tells him what happened. Ulysses has the herb moly which protects him from Circe’s magic, so when he goes up to her palace he pushes aside her wand and master her, taking her as wife. In bed he demands that his men are turned back from animals to men.

They stayed on Circe’s island for a year. Macareus tells some stories about things he saw there:

Picus and Canens and Circe

Picus, the son of Saturn, was king in the land of Ausonia and a very handsome man. All the nymphs and nerieds threw themselves at him but he wooed and wed Canens who sang beautifully. One day he went hunting in the countryside and was seen by Circe who fell madly in love with him. She conjured a phantom boar for him to chase into the depths of the forest where the cast spells and confronted him and offered him her love. But Picus rejected Circe, saying he was loyal to his wife Canens. So Circe changed him into a woodpecker. When his fellow hunters confront her, she changes them into wild beasts, too. Canens waits in vain for her husband to return, lies down beside the river Tiber and turns into nothing. The place is called Canens to this day.

Now, this story of forests and magic feels much more like Ovid’s speciality and much more like the subject of this poem than either the Troy or the Aeneas subject matter. They both feel too historical. They lack real magic. They lack the strange and unexpected. It doesn’t make chronological sense to say this, but the best of his tales have a kind of medieval feel, feel like the strange fables and magical happenings which fill Boccaccio or Chaucer.

Aeneas reaches Latium, war with Turnus

Macareus ends his tale by saying that after a year Aeneas rounded up his crew and they left Circe’s island. Again, Ovid gives a super-compressed account of Aeneas’s arrival in Latium and the war with Turnus which follows, all for the hand of Lavinia.

How Diomede lost his men

Looking for allies, Turnus sends Venulus to Diomede, a Greek in exile. Diomede can spare no men because, after long suffering, troubled journey back from Troy, one of his men, Acmon, insulted the goddess Venus who turned them all into birds a bit like swans.

En route back to Turnus Venulus passes a spot where a rude shepherd once terrorised some nymphs. He was changed into the bitter olive tree.

The Trojan ships are turned to dolphins

Turnus storms the Trojan ships and sets them alight. But the goddess Cybele remembers they’re made from trees which grew on Mount Ida which is sacred to her so she sent a thunderstorm to extinguish the fires, but then snapped their cables and sank them. Underwater, the ships were turned into dolphins.

Eventually Turnus is killed in battle and his army defeated. The city of Ardea was conquered and burned and from its midst rose a heron.

Venus asks Jupiter for permission to make Aeneas a god. His body is washed and purified by the river Numicius, then she touches his lips with nectar and ambrosia, and he becomes a god with temples where he’s worshipped.

Ovid then lists the succession of kings following Aeneas, starting with his son Ascanius and briefly describing a dozen or so until he comes to the story of Pomona.

Pomona and Vertumnis

Pomona is a skilful wood nymph wooed by many men, by Pan and Silenus. She hides herself away. But she is desperately loved by Vertumnus, god of the seasons and their produce. He disguises himself as an old woman to gain entrance to her sanctuary and there speaks eloquently in favour of Vertumnus. This pretend old lady then tells Pomona the story of Iphis, a commoner, who falls in love with the princess Anaxerete. But she is hard-hearted, refuses and mocks him. Iphis hangs around outside her locked door, sleeping on the step, hanging garlands on it (as does the stock figure of the lover in the elegiac poems, the Amores). Eventually he hangs himself from the lintel. The servants take him down and carry his body to his mother who organises his funeral procession. Anaxerete hurries up to the top floor room and leans out to watch the procession and is turned to stone as hard as her heart.

Frustrated, Vertumnus reveals himself in his glory as a handsome young man and, luckily, Pomona falls in love at first sight.

Romulus

What happens next is odd: Ovid introduces the character of Romulus but without mentioning any of the usual stuff, about the vestal virgin Ilia being impregnated by Mars, bearing twins Romulus and Remus, their being abandoned but suckled by a she-wolf, their agreeing to found settlements but Remus laughing at Romulus and the latter angrily killing his brother.

None of that at all. Ovid cuts to war with the Sabine tribe which ends in a peace whereby the Sabines’ king Tatius co-rules with Romulus. In the next sentence Tatius is dead, Romulus is ruling alone and then Mars goes to see Jupiter and asks for his son to be turned into a god (exactly as per Aeneas). And so Mars spirits Romulus – completely alive and in the middle of administering justice – into the sky.

His widow, Hersilie, receives a visit from Iris, female messenger of the gods, is told to go to the Quirinal hill, where a shooting star falls from heaven, sets fire to her hair, and she is whirled up into heaven to be reunited with Romulus. He renames her Hora, the name under which she has a temple on the Quirinal Hill.

Book 15

Cut to the figure of Numa, the second king of Rome (after Romulus) who is ambitious to understand the universe who travels to Crotona and there hears the legend of its foundation i.e. how Myscelus, the son of Alemon of Argos, was ordered in a dream to leave his home town, travel over the seas to found it.

The doctrines of Pythagoras

Turns out we’ve come to Crotona because this is where Pythagoras lived and, unexpectedly, Ovid now describes in some detail the teachings of Pythagoras.

‘I delight in journeying among the distant stars: I delight in leaving earth and its dull spaces, to ride the clouds; to stand on the shoulders of mighty Atlas, looking down from far off on men, wandering here and there, devoid of knowledge, anxious, fearing death; to read the book of fate, and to give them this encouragement!’

He has Pythagoras deliver a speech of 404 lines, roughly half the length of the book, touching on a set of Pythagorean concerns:

Polemical vegetarianism – in the Golden Age there was no hunting and killing of animals. ‘When you place the flesh of slaughtered cattle in your mouths, know and feel, that you are devouring your fellow-creature.’

Metempsychosis – be not afraid of death for no soul dies: ‘Everything changes, nothing dies: the spirit wanders, arriving here or there, and occupying whatever body it pleases, passing from a wild beast into a human being, from our body into a beast, but is never destroyed. As pliable wax, stamped with new designs, is no longer what it was; does not keep the same form; but is still one and the same; I teach that the soul is always the same, but migrates into different forms.’

Is this why this long Pythagoras section is included? Because the belief in metempsychosis is a kind of belief in universal metamorphosis, posits a world of continual metamorphoses?

Eternal Flux – of nature, of all life forms, of human beings which grow from the womb, ever-changing.

The Four Ages of Man – in the womb, helpless baby, playful toddler, young man, mature man, ageing man etc.

The four elements – being earth, water, air and fire, endlessly intermingling, changing combinations.

Geologic changes – seashells are found on mountaintops, deserts were once pasture, islands become joined to the mainland, parts of the mainland slip under the sea. The magic properties of many rivers, some of them turn you to stone, some into birds. If the earth is an animal, volcanoes like Etna are outlets for her fires.

Animals – brief references to well-known folk stories, like buried dead bulls give rise to bees, frogs are born from mud. A buried war horse gives rise to hornets. Bury a dead crab and it will change into a scorpion. Twaddle. The legend of the phoenix. Lynxes can change their sex. Coral is wavy below water but becomes stone on contact with the air. Twaddle.

Cities rise and fall: Thebes, Mycenae, Sparta. Troy was once mighty and is now ruins. This allows Pythagoras/Ovid to mention rumours of a new city, Rome, rising by Tiber’s banks. Pythagoras recalls Helenus’s prophecy for Rome:

Helenus, son of Priam, said to a weeping Aeneas, who was unsure of his future: “Son of the goddess, if you take careful heed, of what my mind prophesies, Troy will not wholly perish while you live! Fire and sword will give way before you: you will go, as one man, catching up, and bearing away Pergama, till you find a foreign land, kinder to you and Troy, than your fatherland. I see, even now, a city, destined for Phrygian descendants, than which none is greater, or shall be, or has been, in past ages. Other leaders will make her powerful, through the long centuries, but one, born of the blood of Iülus, will make her mistress of the world. When earth has benefited from him, the celestial regions will enjoy him, and heaven will be his goal.”

Surely this is all hugely channelling Virgil and his vision of the rise of Rome portrayed in the Aeneid.

Most odd. It’s a crashing example of Ovid’s love of tricks and games and poetic tours de force to include a big passage of philosophy in a supposedly epic poem, or poem about love and transformations. It’s almost a deliberate provocation, to rank alongside his odd jumping over big aspects of the Trojan War and of the life of Romulus. Is it intended to be a serious exposition of Pythagoras’s teachings on the lines of Lucretius’s vast exposition of Epicurus’s philosophy in De Rerum Natura? Or is it an elaborate joke? Was he just constitutionally incapable of taking anything seriously?

Numa listens to this great discourse and takes Pythagoras’s teachings back to Rome where he spreads them before dying of old age. His wife, Egeria, goes lamenting through the country but is confronted by Hippolytus, son of Theseus. He tells his story, namely how his father’s wife, Phaedra, fell in love and tried to seduce him. When he rejected her, she accused him of trying to rape her to her husband, Hippolytus’s father. He was sent into exile but when crossing the Gulf of Corinth a vast wave filled with the roars of bulls spooked his horses who galloped off dragging him behind them till he was flayed. He goes down to the Underworld but is healed by Asclepius and given a disguise by Diana.

But Egeria continues lamenting her husband til Diana turns her into a pool of water. Romulus is amazed to see his spear turn into a tree. Cipus acquires horns.

The long-winded story of how Asclepius in the form of a snake saved Rome from a plague.

Caesar and Augustus

Then the poem reaches its climax with unstinting praise of the emperor Augustus:

Caesar is a god in his own city. Outstanding in war or peace, it was not so much his wars that ended in great victories, or his actions at home, or his swiftly won fame, that set him among the stars, a fiery comet, as his descendant. There is no greater achievement among Caesar’s actions than that he stood father to our emperor. Is it a greater thing to have conquered the sea-going Britons; to have led his victorious ships up the seven-mouthed flood of the papyrus-bearing Nile; to have brought the rebellious Numidians, under Juba of Cinyps, and Pontus, swollen with the name of Mithridates, under the people of Quirinus; to have earned many triumphs and celebrated few; than to have sponsored such a man, with whom, as ruler of all, you gods have richly favoured the human race?

Venus warns all the gods of the conspiracy she can see against her descendant, Julius Caesar, but in another important statement of the limits of the gods powers:

It was in vain that Venus anxiously voiced these complaints all over the sky, trying to stir the sympathies of the gods. They could not break the iron decrees of the ancient sisters. (p.355)

Still Ovid enjoys devoting half a page to all the signs and portents which anticipated the assassination of Julius Caesar, as lovingly reproduced in Shakespeare’s play on the subject. And Jupiter delivers another, longer lecture on the unavoidability of fate.

Then Jupiter, the father, spoke: ‘Alone, do you think you will move the immoveable fates, daughter? You are allowed yourself to enter the house of the three: there you will see all things written, a vast labour, in bronze and solid iron, that, eternal and secure, does not fear the clashing of the skies, the lightning’s anger, or any forces of destruction. There you will find the fate of your descendants cut in everlasting adamant.

Which turns into Jupiter praising Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus, worth quoting in full seeing as what happened to Ovid soon after:

‘This descendant of yours you suffer over, Cytherean, has fulfilled his time, and the years he owes to earth are done. You, and Augustus, his ‘son’, will ensure that he ascends to heaven as a god, and is worshipped in the temples. Augustus, as heir to his name, will carry the burden placed upon him alone, and will have us with him, in battle, as the most courageous avenger of his father’s murder. Under his command, the conquered walls of besieged Mutina will sue for peace; Pharsalia will know him; Macedonian Philippi twice flow with blood; and the one who holds Pompey’s great name, will be defeated in Sicilian waters; and a Roman general’s Egyptian consort, trusting, to her cost, in their marriage, will fall, her threat that our Capitol would bow to her city of Canopus, proved vain.

‘Why enumerate foreign countries, for you or the nations living on either ocean shore? Wherever earth contains habitable land, it will be his: and even the sea will serve him!

‘When the world is at peace, he will turn his mind to the civil code, and, as the most just of legislators, make law. He will direct morality by his own example, and, looking to the future ages and coming generations, he will order a son, Tiberius, born of his virtuous wife, to take his name, and his responsibilities. He will not attain his heavenly home, and the stars, his kindred, until he is old, and his years equal his merits.’

Julius looks down on his son who has superseded his achievements and the poem ends with a prolonged and serious vow, invoking all the gods, that Augustus live to a ripe old age.

You gods, the friends of Aeneas, to whom fire and sword gave way; you deities of Italy; and Romulus, founder of our city; and Mars, father of Romulus; Vesta, Diana, sacred among Caesar’s ancestral gods, and you, Phoebus, sharing the temple with Caesar’s Vesta; you, Jupiter who hold the high Tarpeian citadel; and all you other gods, whom it is fitting and holy for a poet to invoke, I beg that the day be slow to arrive, and beyond our own lifetimes, when Augustus shall rise to heaven, leaving the world he rules, and there, far off, shall listen, with favour, to our prayers!

It could hardly be more fulsome.

In a sense the entire theme of miraculous transformation can be seen as a kind of artistic validation or evidence base or literary justification for the belief that Julius Caesar really was transformed into a god at his death and that his adopted son will follow in his path. The poem dramatises the ideology which underpins Augustus’s power. In their way – a subtle, playful, colourful way – the Metamorphoses suck up to Augustus just as much as Virgil’s Aeneid does, until the sucking up becomes as overt as it could possibly be in the last few pages.

Long female soliloquies about love

As mentioned, some passages are very similar to the Heroides in that women are given long soliloquies in which they make a case, argue and discuss issues with themselves (always about illicit love).

  • Medea (book 7)
  • Scylla (book 8)
  • Byblis (book 9)
  • Myrrha (book 10)
  • Iphigeneia (book 12)
  • Hecuba (book 13)

Allegorical figures

Mostly the narrative concerns itself with mortals and gods whose attributes and abilities are only briefly mentioned, as it’s relevant to the story. But a couple of times the narrative introduces grand allegorical figures who are given the full treatment, with a description of their dwelling place, physical appearance, accoutrements and so on. Although I know they’re common in medieval literature and later, they remind me of the allegorical figures found in Spenser’s Faerie Queene and, later, in Paradise Lost (I’m thinking of Sin and Death who Satan encounters in book 2).

  • Hunger (book 8)
  • Sleep (book 11)
  • Rumour (book 12)

Credit

Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

Metamorphoses by Ovid – 1

My design leads me to speak of forms changed into new bodies.
Ye Gods (for you it was who changed them) favour my attempts,
And bring my narrative from the very beginning of the world, even to my own times.
(Opening lines of the Metamorphoses in 1851 translation)

My purpose is to tell of bodies which have been transformed into shapes of a different kind. You heavenly powers, since you are responsible for those changes, as for all else, look favourably on my attempts, and spin an unbroken thread of verse, from the earliest beginnings of the world, down to my own times.
(First sentence, in Mary M. Inne’s 1955 prose translation)

I want to speak about bodies changed into new forms. You, gods, since you are the ones who alter these, and all other things, inspire my attempt, and spin out a continuous thread of words, from the world’s first origins to my own time.
(A.S. Kline’s 2000 translation)

(This is the first of two summaries and reviews of Ovid’s Metamorphoses.)

Ovid’s other books are good but the Metamorphoses stands head and shoulders above them. It is the length of an epic poem but instead of telling one story is a vast compendium of Greek myths and legends, starting at the creation of the universe and continuing all the way through to the deification of Julius Caesar, and all the stories in between are linked by one underlying theme – the physical change and transformation of their protagonists. It brings together myths and legends which describe the transformation of human beings into all kinds of other forms including animals, trees, rocks, birds, constellations, flowers, springs and so on.

Thus in book 1 the mischievous god of love, Cupid, shoots Apollo with a golden dart to inflame him with uncontrollable love for the maiden Daphne, who Cupid shoots with one of his arrows tipped with lead, which have the opposite effect, making the victim shun and flee love. Thus Apollo chases Daphne who does everything to evade him and finally, in pity of her distress, Jupiter transforms her into a laurel tree. In a very moving line Apollo places his hand on the bark of the tree and feels her heart beating through it.

The Metamorphoses consists of 15 books and retells over 250 myths. At 11,995 lines it is significantly longer than the 9,896 lines and twelve books of Virgil’s Aeneid, though not nearly matching the 24 books and 15,693 lines of the Iliad. It is composed in dactylic hexameter, the heroic meter of both the ancient Iliad and Odyssey, and the more contemporary epic Aeneid.

The Metamorphoses are important because, as other sources of information were lost in the Dark Ages, it preserved detailed versions of classic myths in one handy repository. It acted as a sort of handbook of myths and was a huge influence on Western culture as a whole, inspiring writers such as Dante, Boccaccio, Chaucer and Shakespeare (the story of Venus and Adonis becoming the subject of one of his two long narrative poems, the tragedy of Pyramus and Thisbe burlesqued in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and a thousand other references). Numerous episodes from the poem have been depicted in  countless works of sculpture, painting, and music.

The poem itself metamorphoses

The text is not only about gods tormented by love and humans changing into animals or objects, the text itself works by changes and transformations. What I mean is the text isn’t as clear and logical as you might expect but one tale leads on to another in a semi-random way, some tales are suspended while others are completed, many take the shape of tales within tales i.e. one story is part-way through being told when a character embarks on telling a completely different story and you have to wait for this second one to finish before you go back to hearing the end of the first one (for example the story within a story about the Muses’ competition in book 5).

Although it’s as long as an epic poem, the Metamorphoses not only has no unity of narrative – hopping all over the place from story to story – it also is very uneven in genre and tone. It handles a range of themes which you might expect to find in numerous ancient genres of literature, from descriptions of fighting you would expect in epic; to passages of profound lament such as you’d find in elegy; to scenes of profound and searing tragedy; and then plenty of scenes which start out as idyllic pastoral. At some points a lengthy speech sounds like the kind of rhetorical argumentation you might find being made in a court of law.

As if reflecting the ever-changing, transforming narrative, which describes endless transformations, the tone and genre of the poem are themselves continually changing as they move among these different genres and ranges.

Three types of metamorphosis

I’d suggest three types of transformation in what follows, using the two vectors of mortal/immortal and temporary/permanent:

  1. a god disguises themself – a god temporarily disguises themselves as someone or something else, remaining essentially the same beneath, male gods generally for the purposes of seduction, female goddesses generally for the purpose of revenge (the story of Philemon and Baucis in book 8 is a rare instance of benevolent, charitable disguising) – it is a temporary change
  2. a god transforms themself – a god transforms themselves into something else completely: Jupiter transforming himself into a bull to abduct Europa or a shower of gold to inseminate Danae, and so on – it is temporary; some lower divinities can also transform themselves, for example Proteus or the river Acheloüs (book 9)
  3. a god transforms a mortal – by far the most numerous category, where a god or the fates or some higher power transforms a mortal (or a lower divinity like a nymph or dryad) permanently, unalterably, often tragically

Contents

Book 1

The Creation of the universe by the orderly transformation of chaotic elements into the world we see around us. The evolution of human society through the four Ages of Mankind, Gold, Silver, Bronze, Iron.

The great flood exterminates most of mankind. Animated beings are produced by heat and moisture out of the resulting mud. Among them is the serpent Python. Phoebus kills the Python and institutes the Pythian games as a memorial.

Survivors of the flood, Deucalion and Pyrrha, throw stones behind them which, to their amazement, turn into humans to repopulate the earth.

Cupid punishes Apollo for mocking him, by making him fall madly in love with Daphne and pursuing her through the woods till Daphne is turned into a laurel tree. Henceforward, laurels are Apollo’s symbol.

Jupiter seduces Io then hides her from his jealous wife, Juno, by changing her into a cow. Juno admires the white heifer so Jupiter finds himself giving her as a present to Juno. Juno entrusts the cow to the care of Argus, who has a hundred eyes and never sleeps. Io wanders pastures as a cow, miserably unhappy, till she is reunited with her father Peneus who laments her fate, till Argus arrives and drives her on. Jupiter takes pity and has Mercury rescue her. First Mercury tells Argus the story about the transformation of the nymph Syrinx into reeds to lull him to sleep; then chops his head off and rescues Io. Juno takes Argus’s eyes and embeds them in the tail feather of her favourite bird, the peacock. Enraged, Juno sends a Fury to torment Io, who adopts the shape of a gadfly, driving her madly through Europe and into Egypt. Here Jupiter begs Juno to forgive her rival, the latter relents, and Io is finally reverted back to a woman.

A long account of how Phaëton, son of Phoebus god of the sun, persuades his father to let him drive the great chariot of the sun, which he proves unable to control, veering the sun all over the sky and causing catastrophic damage on earth.

Book 2

The story of Phaëton continued, ending with him being zapped with a thunderbolt by Jupiter. His four sisters – Phaethusa, Lampetie plus two unnamed ones – mourn him and are turned into trees. Cygnus, a relative of Phaëton’s, mourns him and is turned into a swan.

Jupiter repairs the walls of heaven, spots Callisto, woos her and when she resists, rapes her. Callisto’s ‘shame’ is revealed when she bathes with Diana and her nymphs. She gives birth to a son, Arcas. Juno tracks her down and attacks her but she turns into a bear. Fifteen years later Arcas has grown into a lusty lad who loves hunting and one day encounters his own mother as a bear and is about to kill her when Jupiter stays his hand. Jupiter whirls both son and mother into the sky and makes them constellations.

How the crow was made, namely she was a beautiful maiden, the god of the sea fell in love and pursued her, she threw up her hands in entreaty to heaven and was turned into crow.

The maid Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus, a king of Lesbos. She flees into the woods in shame, refusing to let herself be seen. The goddess of wisdom, Minerva, takes pity on her and turns her into an owl, the bird which famously only comes out at night and becomes Minerva’s companion and symbol.

The raven had been a sleek, silvery bird but when Phoebus fell in love with the maid Coronis of Larissa, the raven spied her being unfaithful to the god with a young Thessalian mortal. In a moment of fury Phoebus shot Coronis dead with an arrow, then immediately repented his folly as she died in his arms: a) he took revenge on the snitching crow by turning it black b) he took their unborn child, Aesculapius, from Coronis’s womb and entrusted him to the care of Chiron the centaur.

Chiron has a daughter named Ocyrhoe. She starts to prophesy Chiron’s terrible death to him but the fates forestall her and turn her into a mare.

Mercury steals the cattle of Apollo but their location is noticed by the cowherd Battus. Mercury makes Battus swear not to reveal their location but then returns in disguise and offers him a reward for the secret and Battus promptly reveals their location, breaking his promise, and so Mercury turns his heart to hard flint, the kind called ‘touchstone’.

Aglauros had crossed the goddess Minerva by revealing secrets about her. Minerva visits the wretched hovel of the slimy goddess Envy and tells her to poison Aglauros’s heart, which she does, making her tormented with envy that her sister, Herse, has caught the heart of Mercury. When Mercury comes to the sister’s house to visit Herse, Aglauros refuses to budge out the doorway so Mercury turns her into a statue.

Jupiter transforms himself into a bull in order to mingle with the herd of cattle which regularly browse near Sidon. He orders Mercury to gently drive the cattle down to the shore where the beautiful maiden, Europa, daughter of king Agenor, daily plays with her attendants. The maidens play with this new bull (i.e. Jupiter in disguise), garland his horns, he lies down, tempts Europa to climb on his back, and then makes off into the sea, carrying her, terrified, away from the shore and her friends and over the sea to Crete.

Book 3

King Agenor commands his son Cadmus to seek his lost sister Europa. In Boeotia Cadmus slays a dragon (‘the serpent of Mars’) and is told to plant its teeth in the soil which he is then astonished to see sprout and grow into warriors. These tooth warriors then fight each other to the death, leaving just five who become Cadmus’s companions in founding the new city of Thebes.

The young mortal, Actaeon, stumbles across the goddess Diana bathing naked with her nymphs and she punishes him by transforming him into a stag which is then torn to shreds by his own hounds.

Juno discovers Jupiter is sleeping with Semele. She disguises herself as Semele’s old nurse, pops down to see her and they get chatting. Juno plants a seed of doubt in the girl’s mind by saying many a man claims to be a god to bed a girl; she (Semele) should insist to Jupiter, the next time she sees him, that he reveal himself in all his glory. So next time Jupiter calls, Semele makes him promise to give her anything she wants and, when he agrees, says she wants to see his true nature. Jupiter is now constrained to keep his word and so sorrowfully gathers his entire might together and, revealing himself to Semele in his blistering glory, incinerates her to ashes. Sad Jupiter takes the child in her womb and sows it in his own calf for 9 months and, when it is born, hands it over to nymphs for safekeeping. This will be Bacchus who is known as ‘the twice-born’.

Jupiter and Juno argue over who enjoys sex most, men or women. They agree to the arbitration of Tiresias who was born a man but lived 7 years as a woman before being restored to maleness i.e. has experienced sex as a man and a woman. Tiresias confirms that women get more pleasure from sex. Juno is so furious at losing the argument that she strikes him blind. Jupiter gives him the gift of prophecy as compensation.

Narcissus and Echo. The river-god Cephisus ‘ravishes’ Liriope, the Naiad, taking her by force under his waves and impregnating her. She gives birth to a beautiful boy, Narcissus. By age 16 he is a beautiful youth but cares nothing for suitors, male or female. One day the nymph Echo saw him, driving frightened deer into his nets. Juno had already punished Echo: for on many occasions when Jupiter was having sex with this or that nymph, Echo kept Juno chatting interminably to cover for him. When Juno realised this she struck her with two afflictions ) reducing her speech to the minimum b) giving her no power over it but making her merely ‘echo’ what others said to her.

So when Echo sees the beautiful Narcissus she is struck with love and adoration and follows him round everywhere, but can never initiate a conversation, having to wait for him to say something and then feebly echoing the last phrases. When she comes forward to face him she can only echo his words of astonishment and then of repulsion, for Narcissus loves no-one and runs off, abandoning her. Since then Echo haunts caves and dells and lonely places and slowly her body wasted away till she became an invisible voice, wanly repeating what anyone who wanders into places like that happen to say.

Meanwhile Narcissus continues to scorn all lovers, male or female and one of them lifts their hands to the gods, asking for him to suffer the same unrequited passion he causes in others. The goddess Nemesis hears and makes it so. Narcissus comes to a pool and rests and looks into it and falls in love with his own reflection. He is struck by fierce unrequitable love and beats his own chest drawing blood, laments, droops and is turned into a flower, the narcissus, with white petals (his ivory skin) surrounding a yellow heart (his blonde hair) with flecks of red (the blood he drew when he struck his own chest in the agony of love).

Pentheus mocks Bacchus and is torn to pieces by the god’s devotees including his own mother.

Book 4

While the festival of Bacchus goes on outside, the daughters of Minyas high-mindedly refuse to join in but sit inside spinning and telling stories. The story of Pyramus and Thisbe whose parents forbade their love so they made a midnight rendezvous at an old tomb but Thisbe, arriving first, saw a lioness fresh from a kill coming to the pool to drink. She safely hid but the lioness found her veil and tore it to shreds before leaving. Pyramus arriving a little later found the blood-stained veil, concluded his beloved had been killed and dragged away and so stabbed himself with his sword. At which point Thisbe came out of hiding to discover her beloved dying and, in turn, fell on his sword. The gods took pity and turned the berries of the mulberry tree under which the lovers took their lives, the colours of their blood.

Venus is unfaithful to her husband, Vulcan, with Mars. Helios the sun god sees this and tells Vulcan. Vulcan makes a new of metal and catches Venus and Mars in the act, then invites all the gods to come and see them, caught in this humiliating position.

As revenge, Venus makes Helios fall in love with Leucothoe and ignore another young woman, Clyties, who is desperately in love with him. Helios disguises himself as Leucothoe’s mother, Eurynome, to gain entrance to her chambers and reveals himself to Leucothoe, seduces and has sex with her.

But Clytie, consumed with jealousy, reports Leucothoe’s affair to her father Orchamus, who punishes his daughter by burying her alive. Helios sees this and comes to her rescue but Leucothoe is dead before he can save her. Helios sprinkles her body with fragrant nectar and turns her into a frankincense tree.

Clytie meanwhile, scorned by Helios for her involvement in Leucothoe’s death, sat pining away, constantly turning her face to the sun until she turns into the heliotrope, whose flowers follow the sun.

Salmacis falls in love with Hermaphroditus and their bodies are combined.

All these stories have been told by the daughters of Minyas as night fell and they worked their looms, ignoring the festival of Bacchus outside. Now Bacchus takes magic revenge, turns their looms into trees and the three daughters are transformed into gibbering bats.

Juno drives Athamas and Ino mad. Athamas dashes out the brains of his son, Ino jumps into the sea clutching her baby daughter, but they are transformed into gods out of pity. Ino’s attendants on the clifftop hold out their hands in lamentation, but are themselves turned to stone.

Cadmus and his wife flee the city where their children have come to such bad ends, and he is transformed into a snake and she entwines with him. Bacchus triumphs everywhere and is worshiped as a god in India

Cut to the adventures of Perseus. Alongside Cadmus and Bellerophon, Perseus was the greatest Greek hero and slayer of monsters before the days of Heracles. He was the son of Jupiter and the mortal woman Danaë who Jupiter came to as a shower of gold (she had been locked up in a tower by her parents).

The Gorgon was a snake-headed monster and anything that looked at her directly was turned into stone. Perseus kills the Gorgon by fighting the reflection of it he sees in his shield. Then he flies back to Europe. As he passes over Libya, drops of blood fall on the desert and change into snakes, which is why Libya is notoriously infested with snakes.

He encounters Atlas, who holds the whole sky on his shoulders, and asks if he can rest for a bit in his gardens. But Atlas is paranoid about his golden tree with golden leaves and golden fruit so he refuses Perseus rest. They get into an argument, then a fight, which Perseus is starting to lose so he pulls out the Gorgon’s head and Atlas is transformed into the huge Atlas mountain.

Perseus rescues Andromeda who has been chained to a rock by the coast, from a sea monster. Before he fights, Perseus places the Gorgon’s head on a bed of leaves and the head’s stone-making influence spreads into the sea where it creates coral.

Book 5

Perseus is attacked by Andromeda’s fiance and his followers, which turns into an epic fight described in the manner of Homer or Virgil. Perseus turns most of the attackers into stone.

The nine daughters of Pierus challenge the Muses to a singing competition. For their impiety they are turned into chattering magpies, ‘the scandalmongers of the woods’. There follows a story within a story within a story; for (level 1) Ovid tells us that (level 2) one of the Muses relates to Ceres how they engaged in a singing competition with the daughters of Pierus, and (level 3) chose Calliope to sing for them: so what follows are the stories which Calliope sang in that competition:

“In Sicily, the abduction of Proserpina by Pluto, who takes her to his kingdom in the Underworld and makes her his queen. (Her mother, Ceres, searches the earth for her; when a boy taunts her, she changes him into a ladybird.) Ceres goes up to heaven to plead with Jupiter (who is both her father, and had sex with her – incest – to sire Proserpina). Jupiter says Proserpina can return to earth so long as she hasn’t eaten anything. Alas she had eaten seven seeds from a pomegranate, an act witnessed by Ascalaphus who tells Pluto, thus sealing Proserpina’s fate. For this treachery Ceres transforms him into a screech owl.

“The daughters of Achelous, Proserpina’s companions, wanted to search the earth for her, so the gods turn them into birds, but with human faces so they can continue singing sweetly.

“Arethusa was in the retinue of Diana, goddess of the hunt. She stripped off to bathe in a poo, and was promptly assaulted by the river god Alpheus who pursues her over hill and dale till she is changed into a spring which plunges into the earth to resurface on Orygia.

(I wonder if someone somewhere has created a map of where all the incidents in the Metamorphoses took place, all around the Mediterranean and North Africa.)

“Ceres hands her chariot and seeds to Triptolemus, telling him to fly across the land and sow them. He seeks accommodation with king Lyncus of Scythia, who treacherously attacks him in the night but is turned into a lynx.”

Only at this point does the narrative of the Muse to Ceres end.

Book 6

Arachne unwisely takes on Minerva in a weaving competition. The idea of tapestries gives Ovid yet another opportunity to show off his inventiveness and showcase the many different ways he can frame a narrative; in that each of the tapestries the two women weaves themselves display classical stories. Minerva’s tapestry shows permanent transformations of mortals:

  • Haemon and Rhodope transformed into snowy mountains
  • the queen of the Pygmies transformed into a crane
  • Antigone changes into a shining white stork
  • Cinyras’s daughter turned into a temple

For a summary of the incidents depicted on Arachne’s tapestry, see the section on ‘Rape culture’, below.

Furious, Minerva tears Arachne’s tapestry to shreds, the miserable woman tries to hang herself, at which pint Minerva condemns her to permanently dangling and changes her into a spider.

Niobe boasts to everyone in her city how blessed and happy she is, perfect husband, huge palace, 14 perfect children and calls on her people to worship her and not these ‘gods’ who nobody’s ever seen, specifically to drop the foolish worship of the god they all call Leto. She says the most foolish thing anyone can say in the ancient world: ‘ I am beyond the reach of Fortune’s blows’. Leto complains to her twin children, Phoebus Apollo and Diana, and Apollo promptly kills all seven of the sons by bow and arrow. Niobe still boats she has more children than Leto, so Apollo proceeds to kill all seven of her daughters. Niobe’s husband hangs himself form grief and she is turned to stone but which still weeps ceaselessly.

Then the people of Thebes tell among themselves other stories of similar transformations. For example, the peasants of Lycia who refused a drink from their lake for Leto when she was wandering thirsty carrying Phoebus and Diana as suckling babes. As punishment for refusing her water, Leto turned them into bickering, croaking animals condemned to live in their wretched lake i.e. frogs.

A very truncated version of the story of Marsyas who challenged Apollo to a competition playing the reed pipes. For his presumption, Apollo flays the poor man, stripping him of his skin but leaving him alive.

The harrowing story of Tereus king of Thrace, who marries fair Procne and takes her back to his kingdom. After a few years she asks if she can see her sister, Philomela, so Tereus sails back to her kingdom, greets her father, and makes the case for Philomela coming with him to visit Procne. Unfortunately Philomela is stunningly beautiful and the second Tereus sees her, he begins to lust after her. He makes pious promises to her father, Pandion, that he’ll look after the girl and Pandion waves her farewell at the harbour amid many tears. Once the ship docks back in Thrace, Tereus abducts a horrified Philomela and locks her up in a remote keep. Here he rapes her. When she reproaches him, he ties her up and cuts out her tongue. He then goes home and tells Procris her sister died on the trip back and pretends grief. Procris erects an empty tomb to her sister.

Tereus frequently returns to rape Philomela over a one-year period. Finally Philomela makes a tapestry depicting the events, folds it and gets a servant to deliver it to Procris. Reading it Procris is consumed with rage. The festival of Bacchus comes and Procris uses it as a pretext to find out the keep where Philomela is hidden, break into it along with a drunken mob, disguise her sister in reveller’s costume and bring her safe back to the castle.

When she sees her sister’s state and that her tongue has been cut out her rage knows no limits and she and Philomela murder her little son, Itys, cook him and serve him to Tereus at a grand feast. At the climax, after he’s eaten his fill of his own son, Procris tells Tereus what they’ve done and brings in mute Philomela holding Itys’s head. Tereus pushes the table away and goes to attack the women but all three are magically transformed into birds, Tereus became a hoopoe, Procne became the swallow who sings a mourning song for her child and Philomela became the nightingale.

The story of Boreas, the cold north wind, carrying off Orithyia against her will, to become his wife.

Book 7

A tenuous link carries us into the heart of the Jason and the Argonauts story, specifically when they arrive at the court of King Aeëtes of Colchis, and the king’s daughter, Medea, falls passionately in love with Jason. There follows a two-page soliloquy in which Medea argues with herself whether she should betray her father and homeland in order to aid Jason. Does love justify filial betrayal? This is very reminiscent of the closely-argued reasoning which fills Ovid’s early work, the verse letters from legendary figures, known as the Heroides.

It’s an unusually extended passage, for Ovid, which describes her seduction of Jason, then great detail about the magic medicine she creates to restore Jason’s father, Aeson, to youthfulness. Then she tricks the daughters of Jason’s father’s rival, Pelias, into cutting their own father’s throat, the idea being you drain the old blood from the person you intend to rejuvenate and replace it with magic potion: it worked for Aeson because Medea infused his veins with potion, but once his daughters have mercilessly slashed and drained Pelias of his lifeblood, Medea simply leaves them with the father they’ve murdered, flying off in a chariot pulled by dragons (she is a powerful witch).

Her flight over Greece allows Ovid to make quick passing references to half a dozen other stories about strange legendary transformations – Cerambus given wings, the woman of Coa growing horns, Cygnus hanging into a swan, the lamenting of his mother Hyrie who is turned into a pool, the transformation of the king and queen of Calaurea into birds, Cephisus’s grandson changed by Apollo into a seal, the transformation of Eumelus’s son into a bird, Alcyone changed into a bird.

Her arrival in Corinth allows Ovid the brief aside about an ancient legend that mortals were first created from fungi. But the super-striking thing about the Medea passage is that Ovid only refers in a sentence, in quite a cryptic and obscure throwaway, to the central fact about Medea that, after Jason abandoned her for a new bride she a) murdered her own children by Jason b) cast a curse on the new bride. This is thrown away in just half a sentence.

Was this because Ovid had already written one of the Heroides about Medea? Or because she was the subject of his only full-length play (widely praised by ancient critics but now, unhappily, lost)?

Anyway, on to Theseus. The people of Athens sing him a song of praise which allows Ovid to cram in all the hero’s great achievements. The narrative focuses in on King Minos of Crete’s aim to wage war against Athens. Minos sails to Oenopia to recruit the young men of king Aeacus, who refuses, saying he has ancient ties of alliance with Athens.

Then a deputation from Athens arrives and the king tells them about the plague which has devastated his land. Juno sent it because the island was named after one of Jupiter’s many lovers. (She is an awesome agent of destruction, Juno; the entire narrative of the Aeneid is driven by her venomous hatred of the Trojans.)

Ovid describes this at surprising length, evoking memories of the description of the plague in Thucydides, which was copied by Lucretius to end his long poem, De Rerum Natura, and also echoes Virgil’s description of the great cattle plague in Noricum, in the finale to the third Eclogue (3.478–566).

‘Wherever I turned my eyes, bodies lay strewn on the ground, like overripe apples that fall from the trees when the boughs are shaken, or like acorns beneath a storm-tossed oak. (7.580, page 171)

So king Aeacus tells his guests at length about the devastation of the plague but then goes on to describe a strange dream in which he saw a file of ants heading for an old oak said to date from Jupiter’s time, and how they transformed into big strong, dogged men and then he woke and his people came running into his bedchamber to tell him it was true: and this is the origin of the race of men he named Myrmidons. This is a so-called ‘etiological myth’ based on an (incorrect) interpretation of the name, because the name Myrmidon is close to the ancient Greek for ant, murmekes.

One of the envoys from Athens, Cephalus, bears a wooden javelin. He tells its story: Cephalus married Procris, daughter of Erechtheus but is then abducted by Aurora goddess of the dawn. He complains so much that Aurora lets him return to his wife. But he is soured, adopts a disguise, returns to his home in disguise and tries to woo and seduce his sad wife. When she finally hesitates in face of his barrage of offers, he throws his clothes and bitterly accuses her of betrayal. Distraught at his trick, Procris runs off into the hills and becomes a devotee of the huntress god Diana. He pleaded and begged and eventually she returned, bearing a special magic gift, a javelin which never misses its mark.

Part two of the story is Cephalus loved to go a-hunting every day, throwing the javelin which never missed its prey. As the day got hot he’d lie under a tree and ask for a light breeze to refresh him, addressing ‘zephyr’ as the generic name for refreshing breezes. Someone overheard him and snitched back to his wife, accusing him of having taken a nymph or suchlike as a lover. So next day he goes hunting, Procris tailed him. He killed a load of wild animals then lay in the shade, as was his wont, idly calling on a zephyr to cool his brow, but Procris, hidden nearby, overheard, groaned a little and tremored some bushes. Thinking it a wild animal, Cephalus lets fly with the magic javelin which never misses its mark and pierces Procris through. He runs over and cradles her in his arms as she dies, explaining her mistake i.e. there was no nymph Zephyr, it was all a misunderstanding. Too late.

By the time he has finished telling his tale, Cephalus and his listeners are in tears. No transformation, just reinforcement of the ancient Greek tragic view of life.

The psychology of metamorphoses

In two senses:

1. It is a fundamental fact of human nature that we anthropomorphise everything; we attribute agency and intent to all aspects of the world around us, starting, of course, with other people, but often extending it to animals and other life forms (trees and plants and crops), to the weather, to everything. Our language reflects the way our minds place us at the centre of a world of meaning and intention. People routinely think their pets are saying this or that to them, that the weather is against them, that their car won’t start on purpose, that their pen won’t work in order to irritate them, and so on. It takes a high degree of intelligent scepticism to fully, emotionally accept the fact that the universe and all it contains is sublimely indifferent to our lives and moods and opinions. Stuff happens all the time and humans have evolved to attribute it a wild array of meanings when, in fact, it has none.

These marvellous transformation stories in a sense give in to the instinct to humanise nature, dramatises and takes to the max this inborn tendency in all of us. I’ve always felt that trees are people. In an earlier, more poetic iteration, I developed the notion that the trees are talking to us but are speaking veeeeeery veeeeeeeeery slowly, so slowly that we can’t perceive what they are saying. It is terribly important, the message of the trees, but, alas, we are all in too much of a hurry, zooming round in thrall to our petty human concerns, to hear it.

2. Ovid’s sources in ancient literature, and his later, medieval and Renaissance imitators, tend to allegorise the myths they inherited and give them moralising meaning, but Ovid is more sophisticated than that. Rather than draw neat moral lessons from the fates of his protagonists, Ovid is far more interested in putting us directly in the shoes (or claws or hooves) of his poor unfortunate mortals. Again and again, he vividly conveys the distress of people as they are being changed into something else, or the terror or anger which drives them towards the change. Forget moralising or allegory: what makes the poem so memorable is the power with which Ovid makes you feel the experience of changing into a tree or a bird.

‘We took the cup offered by Circe’s sacred hand. As soon as we had drained it, thirstily, with parched lips, the dread goddess touched the top of our hair with her wand, and then (I am ashamed, but I will tell you) I began to bristle with hair, unable to speak now, giving out hoarse grunts instead of words, and to fall forward, completely facing the ground. I felt my mouth stiffening into a long snout, my neck swelling with brawn, and I made tracks on the ground, with the parts that had just now lifted the cup to my mouth.’
(Macareus describing what it feels like to be turned into a pig, book 14)

Storytelling skill

The Metamorphoses are, above all, an awesome feat of storytelling. Some passages of the Penguin prose translation by Mary M. Innes read like a modern children’s book, a modern retelling of these stories; you have to keep reminding yourself that this is not some modern retelling by Alan Garner or Michael Morpurgo but the original version from two thousand years ago. Again and again Ovid comes to a new story and sets the scene with the swift skill of a seasoned storyteller:

There was a valley thickly overgrown with pitchpine and with sharp-needled cypress trees. It was called Gargaphie and was sacred to Diana, the goddess of the hunt. Far in its depths lay a woodland cave which no hand of man had wrought… (Book 3, page 78)

God, I’m hooked! Tell me more! Where Ovid notably differs from a modern storyteller is in (maybe) three distinctive features of ancient literature, namely the length of the speeches, the lists of names and the epic similes.

1. Length of the speeches

I won’t quote one because, by definition, they’re long but the ancients liked to hear people speak and were educated about and so savoured the art of oratory in a way nobody nowadays is capable of. Schools of oratory divided the subject into the ability to find the right topic and then the ability to deploy any number of carefully named and defined rhetorical techniques. This applied to poetry – which in the ancient world was often performed and read aloud to appreciative audiences – as much as to speeches in law courts or political speeches in the Senate or at electoral hustings.

We enjoy the descriptive passages in the poem and the psychological description of the characters’ emotions but we’ve lost the taste for extended speeches showing off rhetorical skills, which were an important part of the literary experience for its original author and audience.

2. Lists of names

In Tristram Shandy Laurence Sterne says: ‘There is nothing so lovely as a list’. We have largely lost this taste for lists of exotic names, especially place-names, but the ancients obviously loved them.

As he hesitated his hounds caught sight of him. Melampus and the wise Ichnobates were the first to give tongue, Ichnobates of the Cretan breed and Melampus of the Spartan. Then fhe others rushed to the chase, swifter than the wind, Pamphagus and Dorceus and Oribasus, all Arcadians, and strong Nebrophonus, fierce Theron and Laelaps too. Pteralas, the swift runner, was there, and keen-scented Agre, Hylaeus who had lately been gored by a wild boar, Nape, offspring of a wolf, Poemenis, the shepherd dog, Harpyia with her two pups, Ladon from Sicyon, slender-flanked, and Dromas and Canace, Sticte and Tigris, Alce, white-coated Leucon, and black-haired Asbolus; with them was Lacon, a dog of outstanding strength, Aello the stout runner, Thous and swift Lycisce with her brother Cyprius, Harpalus, who had a white spot in the middle of his black forehead, and Melaneus and shaggy Lachne, Lebros and Agriodus, both cross-bred of a Cretan mother and a Spartan father, shrill-barking Hylactor, and others whom it would take long to name… (p.79)

I suppose the length of this list indicates the wealth or status of Actaeon, but it also indicates a society which has a strong interest in hunting dogs and their pedigree which none of us moderns share. There is something relentless or excessive about these lists, which go on for a reasonable length of time, then a bit too much, then a lot too much, but just keep on going. It adds lustre to any story but in a way alien to our sensibilities. Take this list of the heroes involved in the Great Calydonian Boar Hunt:

At last Meleager and a handpicked group of men gather, longing for glory: Castor and Polydeuces, the Dioscuri, twin sons of Tyndareus and Leda, one son famous for boxing, the other for horsemanship: Jason who built the first ship: Theseus and Pirithoüs, fortunate in friendship: Plexippus and Toxeus, the two sons of Thestius, uncles of Meleager: Lynceus and swift Idas, sons of Aphareus: Caeneus, once a woman: warlike Leucippus: Acastus, famed for his javelin: Hippothoüs: Dryas: Phoenix, Amyntor’s son: Eurytus and Cleatus, the sons of Actor: and Phyleus, sent by Elis. Telamon was there, and Peleus, father of the great Achilles: with Admetus, the son of Pheres, and Iolaüs from Boeotia were Eurytion, energetic in action, and Echion unbeaten at running: and Lelex from Locria, Panopeus, Hyleus, and daring Hippasus: Nestor, still in the prime of life: and those that Hippocoön sent, with Enaesimus, from ancient Amyclae: Laërtes, Penelope’s father-in-law with Ancaeus of Arcady: Mopsus, the shrewd son of Ampyx: and Amphiaraüs, son of Oecleus, not yet betrayed by his wife, Eriphyle. (Book 8)

More than that, maybe this fondness for very long lists indicates a kind of earlier stage of writing when just naming something – a person or place, heroes or hounds – was a kind of magical act which conjured them into existence. First there is nothing, then I say a name and lo! I have conjured up an image and a memory; that the act of naming something evoked a far more powerful psychological effect in the minds of people 2,000 years ago than it possibly can in our over-media-saturated modern minds, an incantatory effect more akin to reciting a religious liturgy or spell.

3. Epic similes

Ovid’s similes are not as long as Homer’s similes, but it’s part of the epic style to use extended similes and Ovid frequently does. Thus the figures of warriors sprouting from the soil where Cadmus sowed them.

Then Pallas…told [Cadmus] to plough up the earth and to sow the serpent’s teeth, as seeds from which his people would spring. He obeyed and, after opening up the furrows with his deep-cutting plough, scattered the teeth on the ground as he had been bidden, seeds to produce men. What followed was beyond belief: the sods began to stir; then, first of all a crop of spearheads pushed up from the furrows, and after them came helmets with plumes nodding on their painted crests. Then shoulders and breasts and arms appeared, weighed down with weapons, and the crop of armoured heroes rose into the air. Even so, when the curtains are pulled up at the end of a show in the theatre, the figures embroidered on them rise into view, drawn smoothly upwards to reveal first their faces, and then the rest of their bodies, bit by bit, till finally they are seen complete and stand with their feet resting on the bottom hem. (3.110, p.77)

Or the insatiable hunger of Erysichthon’:

As the sea receives the rivers from all over the earth and yet has always room for more and drinks up the waters from distant lands, or as greedy flames never refuse nourishment but burn up countless faggots, made hungrier by the very abundance of supplies and requiring more, the more they are given, so the jaws of the scoundrel Erysichthon welcomed all the provisions that were offered and at the same time asked for more. (8.840, page 201)

Love and sex

Ovid is often depicted as mocking the earnest attempts to reform and rebuild Roman society carried out by the first emperor, Augustus – indeed, the immoral tendency of his handbook of seduction, The Art of Love, was cited by Augustus as one reason for the poet’s abrupt exile in 8 AD to the remotest borders of the Roman Empire.

And it’s true that many of the Greek myths turn out to be overwhelmingly about love and sex and Ovid tells them in the same swashbuckling, full-on style we became familiar with in the Amores and Art of Love. The king of the gods, Jupiter, in particular, is portrayed as a shameless philanderer, to the eternal fury of his exasperated wife, Juno, who is destined to endlessly discover more mortal women her husband has had an affair or one-night stand with, condemned to endless acts of furious vengeance.

But Ovid can’t be blamed for any of this; it’s in his source material, it’s intrinsic to the source material. The Greeks were obsessed with the terrible, mad behaviour which love and lust led both gods and mortals into.

Sex is central. Men chase women and want to have sex with them; women resist and don’t want to have sex. Men pursue women, trap them, have sex with them, then dump them, abandoning them to their fates. Human nature doesn’t change, at least not in the blink of an evolutionary eye which is 2,000 years.

Sex is made to mirror, reflect, rhyme or match the metaphor of the hunt. Hunting was a peculiarly aristocratic activity (as it has been through most of history right up to modern fox hunting) and it seemed natural to Ovid, as for generations afterwards, to compare chasing reluctant women for sex with hunting animals. Again and again the same set of hunting similes is deployed.

On the male side, Jupiter is portrayed as an insatiable pursuer of women, a fantastically susceptible male who falls in love with every pretty woman he sees and will go to any lengths to have sex with them, prepared to transform himself into the most outlandish animals or shapes to get his end away – triggering the wrath of his long-suffering wife, Juno, again and again.

However, in story after story it is the relatively innocent mortal woman who falls victim to Jupiter’s attentions who ends up being punished. A classic early example is poor Io who Jupiter transforms into a cow in order to hide her from Juno, but the latter sees through the disguise and relentlessly pursues Io, sending a gadfly to torment her half way across Europe and on into Africa.

In other words, in myth after myth, it’s the victim who gets blamed.

Jupiter’s narrative function

To some extent I realised the ‘character’ of Jupiter is a kind of functional product. Reading about Perseus and the generation of heroes, and how they were followed by Hercules, I realised that if your aim is to maximise the glory of a hero, giving him maximum kudos, then you will, of course, want him to have been fathered by the king of the gods.

If you have a large number of heroes fathered by Jupiter then, by definition, you must have a large number of mortal women who Jupiter inseminated. So the ‘character’ of Jupiter as sex machine is really more of a kind of narrative function of the fact that the Greeks had so many Great Heroes and they all needed to have been fathered by the top god. QED.

Juno’s narrative function

In the same way, reading this narrative led me to think of Juno as a kind of principle of opposition.

At a narrative or manifest level, she is a kind of spirit of revenge, seeking out and punishing the women who’ve had sex with her husband. But at a deeper, structural level, she is a principle of blockage and opposition which, in a sense, enables the narratives.

I hadn’t quite grasped that Juno had a lifelong enmity against Hercules. It was Juno who induced a madness in him that made him kill his wife and children, for which he was ordered to serve Eurystheus, king of Mycenae, for ten years. It was during this time that he performed the famous 12 labours. So no opposition from Juno, no labours, no myth.

Ditto Aeneas. At a basic level the Aeneid only exists because of Juno’s endless implacable opposition to Aeneas which, as far as I could tell, stemmed purely from anger at the way Paris, prince of Troy, rejected her in favour of Venus during the famous Judgement of the three goddesses to see which was most beautiful. But the motive doesn’t really matter, what matters for the narrative structure of the Aeneid is that every time Aeneas gets close to fulfilling her destiny, Juno throws a spanner in the works. In fact the entire second half of the Aeneid only exists because Juno sends a Fury to stir up Turnus’s anger at the way King Latinus takes his fiancée, Lavinia, away from him and gives her to the newcomer, Aeneas, and to enrage Lavinia’s mother for the same reason – and it is their allied anger which triggers the war which fill the last six books of the poem. No angry resentful Juno, no Aeneid.

Rape culture

Apparently the term ‘rape culture’ was coined as long ago as 1975. My impression is it’s only become reasonably common usage in the last five years or so, especially since the #metoo movement of 2017. Looking it up online, I find this definition:

Rape culture is a culture where sexual violence and abuse is normalised and played down. Where it is accepted, excused, laughed off or not challenged enough by society as a whole. (Rape Crisis)

Ovid’s Metamorphoses without a shadow of a doubt portrays a rape culture, a culture in which the forcible rape of women is a) widespread and b) accepted as the norm. It does not go unremarked; the narrator occasionally laments and disapproves this or that act of rape, as do the relatives of the woman who’s been raped. Rape is judged by most mortals in the poem to be a crime. But there is no denying its widespread presence as the central event in scores of these stories. All you have to do is translate the weasel word ‘ravish’ into ‘rape’ to get a sense of its ubiquity.

One of the Muses, the daughters of Mnemosyne, makes this theme completely explicit:

‘There is no limit to what wicked men may do, and so unprotected women have all manner of cause for fear.’ (5.270, page 123)

Example rape stories i.e. where aggressive men force sex on unwilling women, or try to:

  • Apollo’s pursuit of Daphne
  • Jupiter rapes Callisto
  • Jupiter’s abduction of Europa
  • Nyctimene is raped by her father, Epopeus,
  • Pluto’s abduction of Proserpina
  • Alpheus’s pursuit of Arethusa
  • Dryope is raped by Apollo (book 9)
  • Priapus pursues the nymph Lotis who is changed into a flower (book 9)

In book 6 Arachne weaves a tapestry depicting a rather staggering list of the lengths male gods have gone to in order to abduct and ‘ravish’ mortal women:

  • Jupiter turned into a bull to seduce Europa
  • Jupiter turned into an eagle to abduct Asterie
  • Jupiter turned into a swan in order to seduce Leda
  • Jupiter turned into a satyr to impregnate Antiope
  • Jupiter impersonating Amphitryon in order to have sex with his wife
  • Jupiter turned into a shower of gold to impregnate Danae
  • Jupiter turned into flame in order to seduce Asopus’s daughter
  • Neptune turned into a bull to seduce Aeolus’ daughter
  • Neptune deceiving Bisaltis as a ram
  • Neptune becoming a stallion to seduce Ceres
  • Neptune becoming a dolphin to seduce Melantho
  • Phoebus disguised as a shepherd to seduce Isse
  • Bacchus tricking Erigone in the guise of a bunch of grapes
  • Saturn in the shape of a horse fathering the centaur Chiron on Philyra

Quite a stunning list. You’d be forgiven for concluding that using every trick in the book to finagle women into sex was the main activity of the male Greek gods, leaving the female ones to actually get on with running things, like agriculture, justice, childbirth and rearing, and wisdom.

Rape culture might have been ‘normative’ in the world of the legends themselves, but is not entirely so in the narrative. It’s worth noting that Ovid rounds off this Arachne passage by describing all of these events as ‘crimes’ (bottom of p.137).

‘Crimes’. Ovid is perfectly clear that this is not good or acceptable behaviour and can be criticised. If it is ‘accepted’ it is because it is the way of these myths and legends, it is the often brutal tragic way of the world; but it is not quite ‘normalised’ i.e. passing uncriticised.

Possibly, purely in terms of categorising events and attitudes within the poem, a distinction can be made between a mortal and an immortal rapist: mortal men tend to be criticised for rape, whereas when it comes to gods, the narrator shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘What can you do?’ It is accepted as a fact of life, along with all the other violent injustices that mortal life is prey to.

‘The gods have their own laws: what is the use of trying to relate human conduct to the ways of heaven, when they are governed by different rules?’
(Byblis, book 9)

Tragic worldview

The gross unfairness of the rape culture aspect of the stories merges into the general unfairness of life which runs through the poem. You might start out by criticising or judging some of the characters’ behaviour, but after a while trying to regard the stories from a ‘moral’ point of view comes to feel inadequate. It’s more accurate to say all its protagonists are caught in a tragic world. Terrible, inhuman suffering is described on every page.

Ovid goes out of his way to say it wasn’t Actaeon’s fault that curiosity led him to stumble across the cave where Diana was bathing naked with her attendant nymphs. When she splashes pond water into his face and transforms him into a deer it’s not clear she does this to prompt his terrible fate, but more to silence his human ability to tell tales, to tell anyone else what Diana naked looks like. But this sequence of events then has the horrible outcome that Actaeon is torn to shreds by his own hunting hounds.

It is as if humans, with their petty system of morality, are continually blundering into the higher order of the gods which is (paradoxically) dominated by gross injustice and horrifying violence, a place where there’s no point complaining about Juno or Apollo or Diana’s horrifying violence; that’s just the gods for you.

The healing power of stories

There’s not very much of conventional ‘morality’ about the Actaeon story or most of the other tales but it obviously says a lot about the terror of the world – that our lives are prey, at any moment, to powerful forces way beyond our control which lead to terrible violence and howling injustice. Like a family in Kiev who have led worthy, blameless lives until one of Vladimir Putin’s missiles lands on their house and tears them to shreds. There is no justice. The world is prey to random acts of unspeakable violence. And the purpose of these myths is to shape that anxious apprehension into narratives we can accept and assimilate and which, in the act of being shaped, acquire a terrible kind of beauty and grim consolation. Just about…

This is why the stories, weird and wonderful though they almost all are, at the same time seem to be telling us something important about the world and human existence. To describe a beautiful girl turning into a tree with a beating heart may seem fantastically irrelevant to modern citizens of the UK in 2022. But modern people have strokes, car accidents, catastrophic injuries which put them into comas, render them paraplegic, incapable of movement, wired up to life support. But if you put your hand against their chest, just as Apollo puts his hand against Daphne’s bark, you can still hear the human heart beating within.

After the extreme suffering, terror or anguish of the humans caught in terrible events, the metamorphoses offer a weird kind of redemption or consolation. Nothing redeems Philomela’s terrible ordeal (being kidnapped, having her tongue cut out, and repeatedly raped); but her transformation into a nightingale suggests the remote possibility that in some unfathomable, surreal, barely graspable kind of way, such experiences and, by extension, the miserable human condition, may, just about, be capable of some kind of redemption – a terrible kind of wonder.

Mary Innes’s translation

Innes’s prose translation is clear and plain, eschewing fancy effects and, dating as it does from the 1950s, avoids slang or any modern locutions. It feels clear and effective. However, comparing it to the online translation by A.S. Kline, one very important fact comes out.

Ovid employs circumlocution. Very, very often Ovid does not directly name a character but indicates who they are via their family relationships, most often via their parents. Thus we read about ‘the son of Mars’, ‘Ixion’s son’, ‘the son of great Peleus’ and so on. Or, characters, especially the gods, are referred to by alternative names: for example, I had no idea that Juno could be referred to as ‘Saturnia’. Or they’re referred to by the place of their birth, for example ‘the Idalian god’.

Often an entire story goes by in a welter of periphrases, without the character ever being directly named and this makes it difficult for the modern reader to know what’s going on or who’s being talked about.

Innes reproduces this periphrasis with complete fidelity with the result that it is often very difficult to make out who is being talked about, and this is the one big flaw with her translation. By contrast, Kline does the sensible thing and names names. Instead of saying ‘Ixion’s son’ he comes right out and says ‘Pirithous’. This is ten thousand types of helpful. In addition Kline’s version has a super-useful online glossary, with precisely these kinds of periphrases, secondary names and so on all boldened and hyperlinked to it. So even where he retains a periphrastic phrase, you only have to click to get to a clear and useful explanation of who’s who.

Innes’s translation is readable and definitive but her fidelity to the original on this one point is a big flaw and meant that, to begin with, I kept having to look the stories up on Wikipedia to be completely clear who was who. All it needed was to insert the names of the people so often referred to as ‘son of…’, as Kline does, and the reading experience would have been immeasurably improved. About half way through I abandoned Innes and switched over to reading Kline solely for this reason.

(For summary and notes on the second half of the Metamorphoses, see my next blog post.)


Credit

Mary M. Innes’ prose translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses was published by Penguin books in 1955.

Related links

Roman reviews

Heroides by Ovid translated by Harold Isbell (1990)

Like devout incense thrown on smoking altars
like waxed torches tipped with sulphur, I
am burning with love…
(Dido to Aeneas, Letter 7)

This turns out to be an excellent and compelling translation of Ovid’s brilliantly original poems, despite the rather poor quality of some of the introductory matter.

Harold Isbell

In 1990 Penguin published this translation of Ovid’s Heroides by Harold Isbell. Isbell was a) American b) Associate Professor at Notra Dame University and c) from 1972 to 1983 director of the Continental Bank and Trust Company in Salt Lake City. His little biography proudly tells us that he also sat on the board of directors of a school, two ballet companies, and a publishing house. What’s he doing translating Ovid, then?

Doubts about his qualifications are quickly confirmed by Isbell’s introduction, 13 pages long and often very weak. The reader is continually pulled up short by his trite and banal observations:

The experience of love is a very complex emotional phenomenon. Love exists in many forms and it can be both rational and irrational.

I would suggest that it is a personality which exhibits both good and evil that is most interesting for an audience and most typical of the people with whom we, the readers, live and work.

Isbell’s often orotund prose style sounds like a banker pleased with his own importance:

It seems, however, that a critical comment more germane to the fact at hand…

Or a senior barrister’s preening presentation to a high court, rather than scholarly description and analysis. Most of his introduction is like this and very disappointing. Compared to the brisk, factual and immensely insightful introduction to Tibullus by A.M. Juster, this is very poor stuff.

Key facts

Nonetheless, a handful of hard facts emerge:

  • the Heroides are an early work by Ovid
  • they consist of 21 verse letters written by figures from ancient Greek legend
  • all the poems are about 5 or 6 Penguin pages long i.e. not brief lyrics (not like Propertius’s elegies which are mostly just a page long) but not very long either
  • the first 15 are all written by wives or female beloveds, generally in a tone of grievance at having been abandoned by the addressees of the letters, absent men whose side of the story we never hear
  • the last 6 letters – the so-called ‘double letters’ – consist of 3 sets of letters, the first in each set written by the male figure to his beloved, the second being a reply by the beloved woman to the man’s letter; they are generally agreed to be in a significantly different style from the first 15 poems and some scholars think they aren’t by Ovid at all
  • were the second set of 6 written as part of a second work, or a second book, then tacked onto the original 15? were they written by a different author and tacked on to Ovid’s 15, either explicitly or by subterfuge? nobody knows

In his later writings Ovid is very proud of having created an entirely new genre: the verse love letter.

Dramatic irony

Isbell points out that the pervasive mood of the Heroides is irony because the women (mostly) are writing to their distant menfolk a) wondering where they are and b) hoping they will return and so provide a happy ending for the letter writer. But the letter’s audience –Ovid’s contemporary readers and educated readers ever since – unlike its writer, know just what is delaying the man’s return (which is generally his infidelity or that he’s just gone off and abandoned her for good) and so, contrary to the hopes of the letter writer, knows the loved man will never return.

An aspect of this is that the letters are written at a particular moment in a narrative which contemporaries and educated audiences since know all about. The letter writer is trapped in that moment like a fly in amber: Laodamia begs Protesilaus to be careful but we know he won’t and he will die because of it; Ariadne pleads for Theseus to return to her but we know he won’t, ditto Dido to Aeneas; furiously angry Medea makes wild threats that the reader knows will eventually lead to her murdering her own children by the feckless Jason. The letters are dramatic in the sense that the reader supplies the rest of the drama.

Elegiac metre

Isbell briefly tells us he has decided to translate all the poems into the same strict metre. Ovid wrote his poems in couplets so Isbell does the same, translating all the letters into couplets which do not rhyme but in which the first line has 11 syllables and the second 9. But, weirdly, he nowhere explains why he’s chosen this form. It was only from reading the Wikipedia article about the Heroides that I learned that Isbell is copying, with his metre, the ‘elegiac metre’ used by Ovid, a metre of couplets, the first a hexameter (six ‘feet’) the second a pentameter (five ‘feet’).

Isbell doesn’t explain this basic fact or give the history of the elegiac metre, unlike the excellent introductions of A.M. Juster and Ronald Musker to their editions of Tibullus and Propertius, respectively. Those are model introductions; this one very much is not.

Mythological references

Isbell’s edition prefaces each of the letters with a 2 or 3 page introduction and follows it with 2 or 3 pages of notes. Thus the first letter, from Penelope to her husband Ulysses, is 4 pages long (there is no line numbering; why not?), is preceded by 2 pages of introduction and followed by two and a half pages of notes. So each poem is accompanied by as much or more editorial matter.

You quickly realise Isbell’s introductions to each of the letters is as weak as his general introduction. What the reader obviously needs is an explanation of the setup to each poem – who the character writing it is, who they’re writing it to, a summary of their relationship or the story up to that point i.e. the writer’s motivation for writing it – and then what happened after the moment of writing.

Having established the basic facts, then maybe the ideal editor would add a page or so considering how the poet treats their character and story, its leading themes, anything noteworthy about it.

Instead Isbell’s mini introductions go straight into the second part, not explaining the story behind the letter at all, instead going straight into commenting on the treatment and themes, all sprinkled with the kind of fatuous comments we met in the general introduction.

For example, after giving a sketchy introduction to the story of Phyllis to Demophoon, he concludes:

Yet as Phyllis here presents herself as a simple woman swept off her feet by an experienced man of the world, the reader cannot help remembering that love is blind. (p.11)

‘The reader cannot help remembering that love is blind.’ Good grief! I found this kind of trite editorialising very frustrating. All I wanted was a clear explanation of the basic facts behind each letter.

The notes following each poem are a lot better than the introductions; they do stick to the facts and explain who the umpteen different mythological and legendary figures referred to in each poem are – and there are a lot of them. To say the poems are full of myth and legend references is an understatement: it’s what the poems are made of. You have to really know the stories, in great detail, to appreciate the depth with which Ovid has dramatised them and the nuances included in almost every line.

You have to know not only who the letter writer is and the addressee is, but who their mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are because a) they are often referred to in the poem b) they often play a key role in the events being described.

A particularly complicated example is poem 8. The letter writer, Hermione, was betrothed as a child to her cousin, Orestes, and grew to love him but now, a decade later, her father, Menelaus, off at the Trojan War, has abruptly decided she’s to be married off to the son of Achilles, Pyrrhus, in order to keep him motivated fighting in the Trojan War.

So Hermione’s grievance isn’t simply with one man, as in most of the other poems, but with her own mother and father and her uncle and aunt. To understand her feelings towards all these people you first have to get a good grasp on the family relationships and how they’ve all behaved towards her.

In this respect I should point out that the Penguin volume does have another layer of help, for at the back is a glossary of Principal Characters devoted to the really central figures in the poems, giving a page each on Achilles, Hercules, Helen, two pages on Jason and Medea, and so on.

Thus you come to realise, as you work your way through the book, that for each new letter you need to a) go to this glossary and see if the letter writer (or addressee) features in it b) read their entry c) identify the part of their biography which relates to the particular moment in their lives dramatised by the letter, d) really grasp what has happened to them up to this point and what their current feelings must be, before e) going back to the short introduction which prefaces each poem and reading that to see how the letter treats their situation (ignoring Isbell’s fatuous comments) – all this before f) you finally start reading the actual poem. Quite a lot of work.

As usual with Greek mythology, the stories have an appeal of their own and its quite easy to get lost in the notes and glossary, with their repetitions of key elements of each legend and their beguiling interconnections, so lost you almost forget about the poems. In this respect it feels like you’re not just reading a collection of poems but entering an entire world, the world of Greek mythology.

Isbell’s translations

Putting criticism of Isbell’s feeble comments to one side – his actual translations are very enjoyable. They’re good. I think it’s for a combination of two reasons:

  1. Ovid’s letters are themselves brilliant – deeply imagined, dramatic in construction, and often very moving. In effect, they’re like extended soliloquies by wounded and hurt lovers pouring their hearts out. They’re reminiscent of the soliloquies of Shakespeare characters, taking right into the hearts and souls of these poor, wronged women. Maybe a better comparison would be with the brilliantly imagined poems about characters from history by the Victorian poet, Robert Browning.
  2. The metre Isbell has chosen – a line of 11 syllables followed by one of 9 – is very precise and tight and this forces him to cut his use of language right back: the flabby platitudes of his introductions are just not present; instead we have very concentrated essence of Ovid.

Also, the result of Isbell’s choice of syllables to measure his lines by, is that the number of beats in the lines – which is what English readers tend to notice ore than syllable count – varies quite a bit: although a line can have exactly 11 syllables it might have 5, sometimes 4, sometimes 3 beats. This has the result of keeping the rhythm of the poems unpredictable, varied and fresh.

I’ll give excerpts from each of the poems to demonstrate how effective this approach is. Isbell’s poems are very good; his introductions are poor. Maybe Penguin should have adopted the same strategy they’ve done with some other classical translations I’ve read, namely have got the translator to do the translations and gotten a scholar to write a separate introduction.

The 15 single letters

1. Penelope to Odysseus

Penelope writes asking why, now the Trojan War has ended and so many other heroes have returned to their homelands, her husband Odysseus still hasn’t come home to her? Has he been waylaid by some foreign lover?

In this excerpt anyone can see that the syllable count is fixed and regular (11 syllables then 9), but I’m not at all sure that I’ve put the stresses in the right place; someone else might easily read the lines in a different way. And that’s the point. Using syllabic count gives the verse regularity of length but allows considerable freedom of emphasis.

Fields of grain grow on the site of Troy, the soil (11 syllables, 5 beats?)
has been sweetened by Phrygian blood (9 syllables, 3 beats?)
while ploughs drawn peacefully by captive oxen (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
turn up the bones of buried heroes (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
and ruined palaces are covered by vines. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)
You are a victor but I am here (9 syllables, 4 beats?)
alone while you loiter in some foreign place. (11 syllables, 4 beats?)

2. Phyllis to Demophoon

Phyllis is a princess of Thrace. After she found Demophoon (son of Theseus, king of Athens) shipwrecked on her shores on the way back from the Trojan War, she gave him everything, had her men rebuild his ships, believed his wooing and went to bed with him and gave him her virginity. He eventually said he had to sail home to tell his parents he was still living and he sailed off promising to return within a month and then…nothing…and slowly she realises she has been duped.

You swore by the gods to come back to me
but even they have not brought you back.
it is quite clear to me now, not even love
will move your ship, you delay too long.
When you left this port you unfurled your white sails
and the wind blew your promise away.

Isn’t that a beautiful image? ‘The wind blew your promise away.’ Isbell’s phrasing in his translations is confident and smooth.

3. Briseis to Achilles

Early in the Trojan War the Greeks sacked all the small cities in the neighbourhood of Troy. Achilles led an attack on the city of Lyrnessus where the Greeks killed the king, all his sons, his one daughter, along with Briseis’s husband, leaving her orphaned and widowed. Achilles then took Briseis as his concubine.

Some time later, Agamemnon, being deprived of one of his own concubines, seized Briseis from Achilles. Book 1 of the Iliad describes the furious argument which ensued and ended with Achilles stomping off to his tent and refusing to come out and fight. After the Greeks are badly defeated in a series of battles, the other Greek leaders force Agamemnon to change his tune, to offer Achilles not only Briseis but a bevy of other captured women, plus various treasures to make up for the initial offence, but Achilles is obstinate, refuses to return to the fight, and even lets it be known he plans to sail home to Greece, find a well-born princess and settle down.

It’s at this point that Briseis writes her letter to Achilles, referring at various points to all these events and begging him to accept Agamemnon’s offer and take her back. Having seen her father and brothers murdered and her home destroyed, what motivates Briseis is less love than a longing for security and safety. She knows Achilles will marry a high-born princess and she, Briseis, will just be a slave, but still she wants him to take her.

Your brave men levelled the walls of Lyrnessus.
I who was part of my father’s land
have seen my dearest relatives lying dead:
the sons of my mother, three brothers,
comrades in life, are today comrades in death;
my husband writhed in the bloody dirt…

I fear nothing so much as the fear
that I will be left here behind when you sail.

Rather than be deserted again, she prefers to die:

Why should I wait for you to tell me to die?
Draw your sword, plunge it into my flesh…

Briseis’s grief and loneliness and fear are viscerally conveyed.

4. Phaedra to Hippolytus

Phaedra is the middle-aged wife of Theseus. She was daughter of King Minos of Crete (and so sister of Ariadne and half-sister of the Minotaur). After Theseus had killed the Minotaur and sailed back to Athens, he took her as wife. Here she slowly tired of Theseus’s love and watched the maturing of Theseus’s son by an earlier wife, Hyppolita. This fine young man, Hippolytus, grows up disgusted by sex, devotes his life to the virgin huntress Diana, and so refuses to take part in ceremonies to Aphrodite. In revenge, Aphrodite casts a spell on Phaedra to make her fall madly in love with Hippolytus who, as we’ve seen, is revolted by love and so spurns her.

It is at the point, high on her bewitched infatuation for her young stepson, that she writes this letter to him, confessing her semi-incestuous and illicit love for him. Ovid persuasively dwells on the way it is not a youthful love but one which has seized a mature heart and is all the deeper for it.

Because it has come late, love has come deeper.
I am on fire with love within me;
My breast is burned by an invisible wound…

When the art is learned in youth, a first
love is simple; but the love that comes after youth
always burns with a harsher passion…

There’s a passage describing how Phaedra admires Hippolytus’s physique and strength, how he reins in his high-spirited horses, the flex of his arm when he hurls a lance or grasps a hunting spear, which really do convey the force of sexual obsession.

5. Oenone to Paris

Paris was one of the many sons of Priam, king of Troy. Before he was born his mother, Hecuba, dreamed she gave birth to a firebrand which set fire to all of Troy. Soothsayers told her this meant the boy would be the ruin of Troy and so she and Priam ordered the baby to be given to a shepherd, Agelaus, to take into the mountains and abandon to his fate. The shepherd did so but when he went back a few days later found the helpless baby being suckled by a bear, which he took to be an omen, so he took the baby in and raised it as his own. Obviously the young prince grew up strong and tall etc and the mountain nymph Oenone fell in love with him, they married according to simple rustic rites and she bore a son, Corythus.

However, Paris went to take part in competitive games at Troy and, being of princely blood, won everything, much to the anger of his brothers, before finally being recognised as the long-abandoned son and taken back into the royal family. At some point (the chronology is vague) Paris had, quite separately, been asked to judge which of the three major goddesses – Juno, Minerva or Venus – was most beautiful and chose Venus because she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world.

So, under her guidance, he built a small fleet and embarked on a tour of friendly Greek states which brought him to Sparta where he met and seduced Helen, wife of King Menelaus, abducted her and brought her back to Troy.

It is at this point that Oenone writes her letter, lamenting that Paris has abandoned her, with much execration of Helen:

You were a nobody when you married me;
I was the daughter of a great stream…
When you were only a poor shepherd you were
content with no one but me, your wife…

Your tears fell when you left, do not deny them.
Victims of grief, we wept together;
your arms held me closer than a clinging vine
holds the elm.

And of Helen:

I tore my clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament:
I took my grief to the barren rocks.
So may Helen grieve and so may she lament
when she is deserted by her love.
The pain I endure was brought by her and she
should suffer then as I suffer now.

And then criticism of the immense mistake he has made in stealing another man’s wife, and another beautiful metaphor:

Happy Andromache, Hector is faithful.
Why could you not be like your brother?
But you are lighter than dry leaves drifting on
a fitful breeze, you are even less
than the smallest tip of a spear of grain dried
in the insistent warmth of the sun.

6. Hypsipyle to Jason

Hypsipyle was queen of Lemnos, the granddaughter of Dionysus and Ariadne. In an exceptional event, the women of Lemnos killed all the males on the island, though Hypsipyle saved her father Thoas. So she was ruling Lemnos as queen when the Argonauts visited the island. She was wooed by Jason, who stayed on Lemnos for two years and had two sons by him.

However, he told her he had to sail off on his quest for the Golden Fleece and so off he went, promising to return. Now, some time later, she has learned that Jason went on to take up with the witch Medea (‘some barbarian poisoner’, ‘a barbarian slut’) before sailing on to Colchis, winning the golden fleece, and then sailing back to his home city of Iolchus, in Thessaly, with Medea as his partner. This is the moment of maximum bitterness at which the poem is written.

Where is your promised fidelity? Where are
the marriage oath, the torches that might
better be used now to light my funeral pyre?

Her long description of Medea’s witchly practices is wonderful, her contempt for her rival, magnificent.

7. Dido to Aeneas

For the plot, see my review of the Aeneid books 4 to 6. Dido’s letter is written at the dramatic moment when Aeneas has packed his men into their ships but they have not yet actually departed Carthage’s harbour, waiting for a favourable wind.

Dido very shrewdly asks Aeneas why he is pursuing his quest when she offers him everything a prince could want, a devoted queen, a new-built city and a people to rule as his own? When he arrives in Italy he will have to set about doing it all over again. Why?

If all your wishes were granted now,
without any further delay, could you find
a wife who will love you as I have loved you?

Ovid depicts her piteous pleading with moving insight:

By your former kindness to me, by that debt
which I will owe you after marriage,
give me just a little time until the sea
and my love for you have both grown calm.

8. Hermione to Orestes

Hermione is the victim of a double betrothal arranged by the menfolk in her life. Old King Tyndareius had two sons, Agamemnon and Menelaus. Hermione was the daughter of Menelaus, king of Sparta, and his wife, Helen of Troy. Prior to the Trojan War, Hermione had been betrothed by her grandfather, Tyndareus, to her cousin Orestes, son of her uncle, Agamemnon. She was just nine years old when Paris, son of the Trojan King Priam, arrived to abduct her mother, Helen.

During the Trojan war, Menelaus, desperate to curry favour with the greatest Greek fighter, Achilles and – apparently – ignorant of his father, Tyndareus’s plan for the cousins, promised Hermione to Achilles’ son, sometimes named Neoptolemus, in this poem called Pyrrhus.

After the war ended – and Achilles’ death – Menelaus sent Hermione to the city of Phthia (the home of Peleus and Achilles), where Pyrrhus was staying and the two were married. Meanwhile, Orestes has been involved in bloody adventures. His mother, Clytemnestra, had conspired with her lover Aegisthus, to murder his father, Agamemnon on his return from the war. In revenge, Orestes had murdered Aegisthus and his own mother, Clytemnestra, with the result that he is now being pursued by the Furies in punishment for his sacrilege (the sequence of events which is the subject of Aeschylus’s trilogy of plays, the Oresteia).

Hermione writes her letter to Orestes after being married off to Pyrrhus, telling Orestes she still loves him and begging him to save her from marriage to Pyrrhus.

Ovid vividly imagines what Hermione’s life must have been like: at a young age her mother was abducted (by Paris) and soon afterwards her father and all the young men of the city disappeared off to war. Therefore, he nominal engagement to Orestes was the one certain point in her young life and then even that was torn away from her. Hence the excessiveness of her please for him to come and rescue her.

My childhood knew neither father nor mother;
one was away, the other at war.
Oh my mother, you did not hear your daughter’s
childish words, you neither felt her arms
around your neck nor felt her weight on your lap;
when I was married no one prepared the bed.
When I returned I went to meet you –
I tell the truth – but I did not know fyour face.
You were the most beautiful woman
I had ever seen, you had to be Helen,
but you asked which one was your daughter.

I don’t know why, but that passage made me cry.

9. Deianira to Hercules

Deianira was Hercules’s first wife. She has learned that he has begun an affair with Iole, the daughter of Eurytus, king of Oechalia. She writes to upbraid him and ask him back. All educated audiences know that her keenness to have him back leads directly to Hercules’s death. Wikipedia:

Travelling to Tiryns, a centaur, Nessus, offers to help Deianira across a fast-flowing river while Hercules swims it. However, Nessus is true to the archetype of the mischievous centaur and tries to steal Deianira away while Hercules is still in the water. Angry, Hercules shoots him with his arrows dipped in the poisonous blood of the Lernaean Hydra. Thinking of revenge, Nessus gives Deianira his blood-soaked tunic before he dies, telling her it will ‘excite the love of her husband’.

Several years later, rumour tells Deianira that she has a rival for the love of Hercules. Deianira, remembering Nessus’ words, gives Hercules the bloodstained shirt. Lichas, the herald, delivers the shirt to Hercules. However, it is still covered in the Hydra’s blood from Hercules’ arrows, and this poisons him, tearing his skin and exposing his bones. Before he dies, Hercules throws Lichas into the sea, thinking he was the one who poisoned him (according to several versions, Lichas turns to stone, becoming a rock standing in the sea, named for him). Hercules then uproots several trees and builds a funeral pyre on Mount Oeta, which Poeas, father of Philoctetes, lights. As his body burns, only his immortal side is left. Through Zeus’ apotheosis, Hercules rises to Olympus as he dies.

Ovid, with his gift for getting to the heart of a character, imagines that the wife of Hercules would be constantly terrified that his next great challenge, that the next monster he has to fight will be his doom.

I so rarely see my lord that he is more
a guest in our house than my husband;
he is always away, pursuing wild beasts
and horrible monsters. I busy
myself, widowed and chaste, with praying at home,
tortured by my relentless fear that
some vicious foe will bring him down; my mind’s eye
is filled with snakes and boars and lions,
with three-throated hounds pursuing their quarry…

10. Ariadne to Theseus

Theseus volunteers to go on the latest shipment of 14 young Athenian men and women who are sent every nine years to be sacrificed to the Minotaur on Crete. He falls in love with the daughter of King Minos, Ariadne, and she has the bright idea of using a ball of thread to help them escape the labyrinth after Theseus has killed the half-man half-bull. He pledges his love to her and she departs in the ships of the rejoicing young Athenians back to their home city. But somewhere along the way (accounts differ) he abandons her on an unpopulated island.

So she has not only lost her love, but for him had given up all the rights and perquisites pertaining to a royal princess (of Crete). So she is double bereft.

Ovid, as usual, captures the intensity of the experience, to be abandoned, the entire fleet to sail off without her, leaving her abandoned on a desert island. How terrible!

Often I go to the couch where once we slept,
a couch that would not see us again,
and I touch the hollow left by your body –
it is all that remains – and the clothes
that once were warmed around your flesh. I lie down
on the bed wet with my tears, and I cry…

11. Canace to Macareus

Canace was the daughter of Aeolus, the lord of the winds. Canace fell in love with her own brother, Macareus, and committed incest with him, which resulted in her getting pregnant. Macareus promised to marry Canace but never did. When their child was born, Canace’s nurse tried to take the baby out of the palace in a basket, pretending to be carrying a sacrificial offering, but the baby cried out and revealed itself. Aeolus was outraged and compelled Canace to commit suicide, sending her a sword with which to stab herself. He also exposed the newborn child to its death.

The letter is written just before Canace kills herself, she holds the quill in her right hand and the sword in her left. She describes how she and her nurse used a variety of herbs to try and induce an abortion but failed. She describes how, during labour, she was close to death but Macareus brought her back, swearing to marry her. Then how her nurse tried to smuggle the baby out in a basket of fruit but it started crying, arousing Aeolus’s suspicions who rummaged in the basket and produced the baby, showing it to the assembled courtiers with howls of outrage.

As the ocean trembles at the passage of
a little breeze, as the ash tree shakes
in a warm breeze from the south, you might have seen
my whitening flesh shiver.

She describes how Aeolus ordered the screaming baby to be taken and exposed in the wild and then sends a servant with the sword and the order to kill herself. Through all this she retains a strange kind of innocence and barely reproaches Macareus, mainly reproaching Aeolus for his mad rage, but above all feeling pity for her baby son, barely a day old and condemned to die a horrible death.

My son, pitiful pledge of unholy love,
this day is both your first and your last.
I was not allowed to let my tears – the tears
that are owed to you – fall upon you;
I was not allowed to clip a lock of hair
that I might carry it to your tomb;
I was not allowed to bend over your flesh
and take a last kiss from your cold lips.

12. Medea to Jason

Jason and the Argonauts came to Medea in desperate need of her help. Venus made Medea fall in love with Jason and join the expedition. Her help was invaluable in winning the golden fleece. Jason returned and settled in Corinth but here, in a peaceful civilised state, Medea’s sorcery – and the fact she was a non-Greek ‘barbarian’ – becomes a liability. When Jason is offered the hand of Creusa, princess of Corinth and daughter of King Creon, in marriage, he takes it as she is a civilised woman, a princess, and a useful alliance. It is this betrayal that drives Medea into a frenzy of jealous rage. Wikipedia:

When Medea confronted Jason about the engagement and cited all the help she had given him, he retorted that it was not she that he should thank, but Aphrodite who made Medea fall in love with him. Infuriated with Jason for breaking his vow that he would be hers forever, Medea took her revenge by presenting to Creusa a cursed dress, as a wedding gift, that stuck to her body and burned her to death as soon as she put it on. Creusa’s father, Creon, burned to death with his daughter as he tried to save her. Then Medea killed the two boys that she bore to Jason, fearing that they would be murdered or enslaved as a result of their mother’s actions. When Jason learned of this, Medea was already gone. She fled to Athens in a chariot of dragons sent by her grandfather, the sun-god Helios.

A hymn of vengeance:

Let her laugh now and be merry at my faults
while she reclines on Tyrian purple,
soon enough she will weep as she is consumed
in a blaze that is hotter than mine.
So long as I have poison, fire and weapons
Medea’s foes will all be punished.

13. Laodamia to Protesilaus

Unlike most of the other writers, Laodamia has no grudge or grievance against her man – they are loyally married and still in love. He has simply been swept up and off to the Trojan war and her letter worries about him. The audience knows that an oracle had prophesied that the first Greek to from the invading force to set foot on Trojan land was fated to die and Protesilaus couldn’t control his enthusiasm so, as his ship beached, leapt from it and, sure enough, was cut down by the mighty Hector in the first battle, though Laodamia, as she writes her letter, doesn’t know this. Instead she pours ridicule on the whole idea of an army being raised because one man’s wife has been abducted: what an absurd over-reaction to put so many thousands of lives at risk for ‘a common slut’. Laodamia doesn’t care about ‘honour’ and ‘war’. All she wants is her beloved husband back.

How long until I hold you, safely returned;
how long until I am lost in joy?
How long before we are joined together, here
on my couch and you tell me of your deeds?

14. Hypermnestra to Lynceus

In ancient times Hypermnestra was one of the 50 daughters of Danaus. Danaus took his daughters and settled in Argos. Now Danaus had a brother, Aegyptus, who had 50 sons. Aegyptus ordered his sons to follow the Danaids to Argos and there press their suits to each marry one of the 50 daughters. Danaus strongly suspected Aegyptus’s motivation was less family solidarity than a wish to take over all Danaus’s land.

Anyway, a huge wedding party was held at which all the suitors got royally drunk, then Danaus handed out daggers to all his daughters and told them to stab to death the 50 cousins as they came to claim their conjugal rights. All the daughters did so except for Hypermnestra who spared her spouse, Lynceus. She either did this because she found herself unexpectedly in genuine love with Lynceus or maybe because Lynceus was charitable enough to spare her virginity.

Either way Hypermnestra helped Lynceus escape the palace full of his brothers’ bodies before dawn but her subterfuge was discovered, the was arrested and imprisoned. This is the moment when the letter begins. She doesn’t regret behaving ‘morally’; it is her murderous father and her sisters who are the real criminals. If she is to be punished, so be it.

Then she launches into a vivid description, told in the present tense, of the events of that bloody night. The poem is less about grievance than most of the others, it is more about presenting the moral case for her actions in defying her father. She says her family has already seen enough of bloodshed, why add more?

Only right at the end does she ask Lynceus to come and save her, but cuts the poem short saying the weight of the manacles on her wrists prevents her from writing more!

What happened next? Danaus had her brought before a court but Aphrodite intervened and saved Hypermnestra. Lynceus later killed Danaus as revenge for the death of his brothers. Hypermnestra and Lynceus’ son, Abas, would be the first king of the Danaid Dynasty.

15. Sappho to Phaon

This is an exception in the series because it is the only poem relating to an actual historical personage. Sappho is the famous archaic Greek poetess who lived from about 630 to 570 BC. She was prolific and within a few centuries came to be treated as a classic. Unfortunately, only fragments of her copious works survive. In the same kind of way her life story was subjected to speculation and invention by later generations. A particularly enduring legend was that she killed herself by leaping from the Leucadian cliffs due to her love for the ferryman, Phaon. And so this last of the 15 poems is a fictional letter from Sappho to this ferryman.

Another striking departure from the previous 14 is that neither character came of aristocratic let alone royal family. Phaon really was just a ferryman and no more.

But the poem does have in common with the others is its tone of grievance. Sappho was a lot older than Phaon. She appears to have conceived a pash for the handsome young labourer, they had a torrid affair, now he’s legged it.

What makes it quite a bit different from other poems on the same subject is that, in leaving, Phaon has not just ‘betrayed’ her yaddah yaddah yaddah – he has taken her poetic inspiration. Her identity, her sense of self, her achievement, her reputation in her society, is based on the numerous brilliant love poems she has written to young women in her circle. Hence our modern word ‘lesbian’ from the island of her birth and where this circle of gay women lived.

But now, to her dismay, Sappho discovers that, in his absence, Phaon has become an obsession. She has erotic dreams about him at night and erotic thoughts during the day and these have a) destroyed the calm and equilibrium which were once so important to her inspiration as a poet b) destroyed her feelings for other women.

I do not make songs now for a well-tuned string,
for songs are the work of carefree minds…
Yours is now the love these maids once had,
yours the face that astonished my eyes…
I wish that eloquence were mine now, but grief
kills my art and woe stops my genius.
The gift of song I enjoyed will not answer
my call; lyre and plectrum are silent.

The double letters

There are six double letters, divided into three pairs. They present several differences from the 15 single letters which precede them. For a start they’re all about twice the length.

But they’re still written by the same kind of Homeric hero as the first series, exemplified by the first pair, the letter of Paris to Helen, then Helen’s reply to Paris.

16. Paris to Helen (13 pages)

As mentioned, this poem is twice the length of previous letters. But something else, which happened a bit in previous poems, really comes to the fore in this one: which is that the moment of writing, the moment the letter is written, seems to change as it progresses.

On the first page it seems as if Paris is writing before he’s even set off for Greece, imagining the great beauty of Helen he’s heard so much about and addressing the oddity of him being in love with her without ever seeing her:

But let it not seem odd that I am in love
from so far off. With a bow so strong
the arrows of love were able to find me.
So said the Fates. You must not refuse…

But on the second page Paris describes building the ships and setting sail; on the third page he describes arriving in Sparta and being graciously hosted by Menelaus; then he describes in great detail being overwhelmed by the reality of Helen’s beauty, at successive dinners being unable to look at her without choking with love; then he describes how Menelaus has chosen this moment to leave to supervise his estates in Crete and so, how the gods are conspiring for them to run off together; and it ends with Paris using an array of arguments to beg Helen to elope with him.

So the end of the poem seems to be composed at a drastically later moment than the beginning, and the precise time of writing seems to continually shift through the course of the poem. This makes it feel very dramatic and, as it reaches the climax of begging her to run away with him, quite exciting and immediate.

17. Helen to Paris (9 and a half pages)

In the medieval courts attended by Geoffrey Chaucer, among many other literary games, there was one in which the courtiers divided up into two teams and staged a formal debate, one team proposing the merits of the flour (beautiful but transient), the other, of the leaf (dull but enduring). It was a sophisticated courtly entertainment.

I can’t help feeling a sort of echo of that here: in Paris’s letter to Helen Ovid provides the Trojan with a series of arguments for why Helen should run away with him:

  • the Fates decree it
  • Venus orders it
  • the gods are immoral and break marriage vows
  • their ancestors on both sides broke marriage vows
  • her mother, Leda, let herself be ravished (by Zeus in the form of a swan)
  • Menelaus is unworthy of her
  • his own record of bravery and his descent from gods
  • Troy is much richer than Sparta so she will be adorned with beautiful things
  • the Greeks won’t seek her back and even if they do, he is strong and he has his mighty brother Hector to fight alongside him etc.

And then Helen, in this letter, refutes Paris’s arguments and proposes her own counter-arguments.

You can imagine Ovid’s sophisticated audience enjoying not just the dramatisation of the characters, but savouring the argumentation they articulate. Roman poetry is, as I’ve pointed out half a dozen times, very argumentative. Even the love elegists – Tibullus, Propertius – make a case in each of their poems; each poem takes a proposition (women look best without makeup, women are fickle etc) and then marshals a sequence of arguments to make the case.

Anyway, Helen concedes that Paris is very beautiful (making the two of them sound like Vogue models: ‘beauty attracts you to me as me to you’). She admits that if she were unwed she would be tempted by him as a suitor. But she makes a shrewd hit when she simply refuses to believe his cock and bull story about the three most powerful goddesses in the world presenting themselves to him on some hillside! What an absurd story!

She says she us unused to the ways of adultery. She sees him writing her name in wine on the dining table and thinks he is silly. She knows she is watched. It was she who advised Menelaus to go on his journey to Crete, telling him to hurry back. Now she agrees with Paris, this has presented her an opportunity for illicit love but she hesitates, she is in two minds, she is fearful.

She’s been doing her research about Paris and knows he was married to Oenone and abandoned her. Won’t he do the same to Helen? And, the final worry of all hesitant women, what will people say? What will Sparta and all Achaia (i.e. Greece) and the people of Asia and of Troy think of her if she abandons her husband for him? And Priam? And his wife? And all his brothers?

If she abandons her legal husband and kin and adopted homeland she will have nothing, nothing. She will be entirely at the mercy of his moods and his kinfolk who, chances are, will bitterly resent her.

If he and his family become fearful of Greek revenge then every new ship coming over the horizon will trigger their paranoia and she knows men: eventually she’ll get all the blame, everyone will blame her womanly weakness instead of his insistent lechery. She knows war would follow in her footsteps.

And what about the two goddesses he didn’t choose, in his absurd story? They won’t support him, will they? They will be against him, and her. And for all his boasts that he is a warrior, he is not: he is a sensualist; his body was made for love, not war.

The letter concludes by reminding him (and the reader) that Paris has begged for a secret meeting so he can plead his cause face to face. She refuses and says she is sending this letter now, by her servants, and let that be an end. Leaving the reader to speculate about what came next: did they meet up? Did Paris finally overcome her doubts and persuade her to elope with him? Or, as some accounts say, did he drug and abduct her?

18. Leander to Hero (7 pages)

Hero (despite the name, a woman) was a priestess of Venus who lived in a tower in Sestos on the European side of the Hellespont (now generally known as the Dardanelles), and Leander was a young man from Abydos, on the opposite side of the strait. Leander fell in love with Hero and every night swam across the Hellespont to spend time with her. Hero lit a lamp at the top of her tower to guide him.

Hero wanted to remain a virgin but Leander wore her down with lover’s pleading until she gave in and they made love. Their secret love affair lasted through one long summer. They had agreed to part during winter and resume in the spring due to the turbulent nature of the strait between them.

One stormy winter night, Leander saw the torch at the top of Hero’s tower, thought it must be important and so set out to swim to her. But the winter wind blew out Hero’s light and Leander lost his way in the strong waters and drowned. When Hero saw his dead body, she threw herself over the edge of the tower to her death to be with him. Their bodies washed up on shore together in an embrace and they were buried in a lover’s tomb on the shore.

Leander’s letter is written towards the end of the summer, as autumn is coming on, as the seas are growing rougher. He is writing it to give to a ferryman to pass on to Hero. He’d come in person but everyone would see him getting into the boat and start gossiping and the pair, in their young innocence, want to keep their love a secret.

It is extremely sensuous, the text of a very young man experiencing the first thrill of sexuality. Unlike the 15 single letters, this isn’t a letter of reproach or grievance but of intoxicated young love. Brilliant description of the joy and ardour and fatigue of swimming, but his delight of seeing the light atop Hero’s tower, stepping out of the water exhausted and dripping to be greeted by his love who wraps him in a towel and dried his hair and takes him tom her chamber for a night of sensual delight.

Now, with the autumn storms coming on, Leander can sense the difficulty of the crossing and, in the final passage, imagines his own death as a sensual pleasure, imagines his beloved caressing his smooth corpse on the seashore, splashing his body with tears, all very young and idealistic and sentimental.

19. Hero to Leander (7 pages)

Hero, in her reply, begs Leander to come, inadvertently luring him to his death which, in turn, will trigger her suicide.

Hero reproaches him for spending his days and nights in manly activity while she, a woman, is unfree, confined to her room, working her spindle, with only her nurse for company. She knows the sea is becoming rough, she knows the excuses he will make – but at the same time wants him so badly. She is consumed with jealousy, wondering if he doesn’t come because he has found another woman; then acknowledges that she is being silly. There is something of Juliet’s innocent passionateness about her.

It has tremendous immediacy: Hero describes the lamp she is writing by, the way it flares up then dies down, and how she interprets that as a good omen. Come to me, swim to me, let us enfold ourselves in each other once again, she writes. Hard for any man to resist.

20. Acontius to Cydippe (9 pages)

The maiden Cydippe had gone to the temple of Diana at Delos and here a young man, Acontius, rolled an apple across the pavement in front of her with an inscription written on it. Curious, she stooped, picked it up and read the inscription aloud. It was a trap. It read: ‘I swear by this place that is sacred to Diana that I will marry Acontius.’ Before she could stop herself she had made a binding oath, which is the basis of the next two letters.

This pair of letters feel like the most complicated of the set, in the way the invoke, explore, play with ideas of oath, promise-making, faith, bonds and legal concepts. If someone makes an inadvertent promise is it still binding? Because he tricked her into it, is the oath Acontius made her read invalid? But if it was uttered in the presence of then god, does Cydippe’s assent matter? Acontius goes on to scare Cydippe with legends of the bad ends people have come to who scorned Diana.

This is the creepiest of the letters: Paris sort of had the force of destiny behind him but Acontius is just a creep bullying a helpless young woman. He jealously speculates that someone else might be kissing and holding her and becomes creepily jealous. He hangs round her closed door and buttonholes her servants. He is talking her.

It emerges that she was betrothed to another man and their wedding day is approaching, but she is incessantly ill. Acontius says this is because she is breaking her vow to him and the goddess is punishing her. The only way for her to get better is to ditch her fiancée.

Jacques Derrida would have a field day with the multi-levelled complexity of argumentation going on: the way the spoken word is meant to bind, but Acontius tells Cydippe about the primacy of the spoken word using the written word. In his writing he tries to impose a permanent meaning to words spoken by accident and ephemerally. The text goes on to create a complex web of meanings around pledges, oaths, promises and bonds.

Acontius then complexifies things even more by claiming the goddess came to him in a dream and told him to write those words on the apple: a spoken order to inscribe an oath which, when read aloud, becomes legally binding, as he is insisting, in another written text.

By what authority do promised things written come to pass? Does the mere act of writing make them happen? What extra is needed then? It feels dense with assumptions and ideas about language, speech and writing, which could have supplied Plato with an entire dialogue.

21. Cydippe to Acontius (8 and a half pages)

Cydippe’s reply rejects the idea that a trick oath has validity. But as her letter proceeds we realise that she is not utterly disgusted by Acontius’s subterfuge; in fact, she is intrigued by a man who would go to such lengths to win her, and now finds herself torn between the fiancé her father and family have chosen for her and this adventurer. Maybe he represents freedom. Certainly she enjoys having, even if only briefly, the choice.

She begins by confirming that she is ill, weak and weary, and her nurse and family all speculate why. She thinks it’s these two men fighting over her have made her ill. If this is his love, making her ill, she’d prefer his hate!

She gives a long description of the journey she, her mother and nurse made to the island of Delos where the apple incident took place.

She makes the key argument that even though the words of an oath may be read out, they are meaningless without informed consent. It is

the mind that makes an oath; and no oath ever
has been uttered by me to benefit you.
Only intention gives form to words.
Only counsel and the soul’s careful reason
can shape an oath…

Words without will mean nothing. So why is she being punished? Why is she ill? Has she offended against Diana without realising it?

She describes the unhappiness of her fiancé who visits her but she turns away, she removes his hand from her skin, he knows something is wrong. If he, Acontius, could see her now, lying sick and pale in bed, he would hurriedly take back his oath and try to drop her.

Then she comes to the point: her family have sent to the oracle at Delphi which has declared the gods are unhappy with Cydippe because some pledge has not been carried out. So it seems as if the oath she read out is binding in the eyes of the gods. At which point she stops fighting fate. She has told her mother about reading out the oath. She gives in. She will come to him. And so the letter ends.


Violence

The poems are quite varied but the cumulative impression is of the extremity of these legends, the extreme violence of the world they inhabit and the anguish and hysteria of much of the tone. So many of the women writers have had fathers, brothers, families murdered.

  • Briseis’s entire family massacred by the Achaians
  • Agamemnon murdered by Aegisthus who is murdered by Orestes
  • Patroclus killed by Hector, swathes of Trojans massacred by Achilles, Achilles killed by Paris, Paris killed by the rival archer Philoctetes
  • Hippolytus killed by his horses
  • Hercules killed by the cloak sent by his wife
  • the Minotaur killed by Theseus
  • the women of Lemnos killed all the men on the island
  • the daughters of Danaus stabbed to death 49 of the sons of Aegyptus

And that’s just the close relatives of characters writing the letters; behind them, their backstories contain scads of other gods and mortals who met very grisly ends.

Emotional extremity

Many of the writers threaten to kill themselves or the addressee or the woman he’s gone off with (or she’s guessing he’s gone off with). In several cases we know these dire threats come true – Dido piteously kills herself while Medea kills her children by Jason then disappears. It’s a paradox that the Greek philosophers have such a reputation for calm reflection while the imaginative world they inhabited reeked of emotional and physical extremity.

I long for poison, I wish that I could plunge
a sword in my heart so that my blood
could be poured out and my life would be finished.
Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now.
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

You should see my face while I write this letter:
a Trojan knife nestles in my lap;
tears fall from my cheeks on its hammered steel blade
and soon it will be stained with my blood.
How fitting that this knife was your gift to me,
for death will not diminish my wealth.
My heart has already been torn by your love,
Another wound will hardly matter.
(Dido to Aeneas)

Now vicious beasts are tearing into pieces
the child’s body that my flesh produced.
I too will follow the shade of this infant,
I too will give myself the blade so that
not for long will I be known to all the world
as both grief-stricken and a mother.
(Canace to Macareus)

I admit the awful truth – I put
to your throat the blade my father gave. But dread
and piety stayed the brutal stroke…
(Hypermnestra to Lynceus)

There is a terrible, heart-tightening, stricken quality to so many of the women’s complaints that makes them genuinely moving.

Necks and breasts

Breasts are for beating

When the women are stricken and distraught they tear their robes and beat their exposed breasts.

I tore the clothes away from my breasts
and beat my hands against my flesh; my long nails
tore at my tear-stained cheeks and my cries
filled Ida’s holy land with their sad lament.
(Oenone to Paris)

Terrified, I rose from the abandoned bed,
my hands beat my breasts and tore my hair,
dishevelled as it was from my night of sleep…

Those were my words. When my voice became weak I
beat my breast and mixed my words with blows…
(Ariadne to Theseus)

my enemy rushed [my] child away from me
to the dark forests, that the fruit of my flesh
be consumed by wolves. He left my room.
I could beat at my breasts and score my poor cheeks
with my sharp nails…
(Canace to Macareus)

…I tore my cloak and beat
my breasts; I cried out and my nails tore my cheeks…
(Medea to Jason)

When I recovered grief, I beat my breast and
tore my hair and without shame I shrieked
like that loving mother who lifts to the high
funeral pyre her son’s empty body…
(Sappho to Phaon)

A discreet veil is drawn over the act of sex…

The act of sex is nowhere described. When Hero refers to making love with Leander she draws back, draws a veil, stops.

I could say more, but a modest tongue stops and
says nothing while memory delights;
words spoken now would bring a blush to my face…

Ditto Sappho to Phaon, describing the feeling but not the detail of her vivid erotic dreams:

It seems I fondle you while uttering words
that are near the truth of wakefulness
and my sensation is guarded by my lips.
I blush to say more…

…which is instead symbolised by arms round necks

Instead, when they remember making love, all the letter writers use the image of arms round the neck as a synecdoche, this one gesture standing for all the entanglements of the act of love. It seems that a man only puts his arms round a woman’s neck as a gesture of the utmost intimacy.

Since you placed your arms about my neck
I should gladly tie a noose about it now…
(Phyllis to Demophoon)

So often, it seems, I press the weight
of my neck against your arms and so often
do I place my arms beneath your neck.
I know the kisses, the tongue’s caresses which
once you enjoyed giving and getting…
(Sappho to Phaon)

Many times my arms are wearied by
the endless stroke and can hardly go on through
the endless waters. When I tell them,
‘You reward will not be poor, for you will have
the neck of my lady to embrace,’
they find strength and reach for the prize…
(Leander to Hero)

It seems that you swim nearer to me, and now
it seems your wet arms have touched my neck…
You must come to me, throwing about my neck
those arms weakened by the pounding sea.
(Hero to Leander)

Beating breasts symbolises emotional torment; arms round necks symbolise physical bliss.

Rape

A lot of women are raped in these stories or desperately flee would-be rapists. This is accepted by the characters, the narrator, the author and, presumably, his audience. But not by modern readers.

Faithful Tros, Troy’s builder, once loved me
and the secrets of his gifts ran through my hands.
We wrestled together for the prize
of my virginity, I pulled at his hair
and scratched his face with my fingernails…
(Oenone to Paris)

Has some fate come to us, pursuing our house
down the years even to my time so
that we, mothers of the line of Tantalus,
are easy prey to any rapist.
(Hermione to Orestes)

It’s a toss-up who was the biggest rapist, Jupiter or Neptune but pretty much all the male Greek gods are rapists.

Familiarity and pleasure

It’s inevitable that I enjoyed the letters by the characters I’m most familiar with because I knew enough about the ‘setup’ or backstory to the poem to really appreciate the emotional and psychological nuances, the train of thought, how Ovid has his character develop their argument. These would be:

  • Penelope to Odysseus
  • Briseis to Achilles
  • Oenone to Paris
  • Dido to Aeneas

Reflecting on that choice I realise it’s because these are characters from the epic poems, the Iliad and the Aeneid which I have known since childhood. I know about, but am less familiar with, the secondary stories of, for example, Phaedra or Deianira; and I know nothing about Phyllis, Hypsipyle, Laodamia, Hypermnestra or Sappho. For these characters I was relying on the introductions to tell me who they were, what their dramatic situation was, what their grievance was and what the outcome would be – making it very frustrating that Isbell’s introductions do such a poor or patchy job.

To be fair, if you look up characters in the glossary at the back of the book, this does give the complete biographies of key players such as Helen, Paris, Jason, Medea and so on. But it requires quite a lot of juggling to read those biographies, then the wobbly introductions, and then the footnotes to each poem. It felt a lot like hard work before you could get round to the actual pleasure of reading the poems themselves.


Credit

Heroides by Ovid, translated by Harold Isbell, was published by Penguin books in 1990. All references are to the revised 2004 paperback edition.

Roman reviews

Eunuchus (The Eunuch) by Terence (161 BC)

‘Whatever’s happened here, it wasn’t my fault.’
(The cowardly servant Parmeno to his master Demea, page 212)

In her introduction, the editor and translator of the Penguin edition, Betty Radice, observes that The Eunuch was Terence’s most popular play and is also the most Plautine of his plays, as if these are coincidental facts. When I opened the The Ghost by Plautus I was laughing by the end of the first page. By contrast, wading through Terence’s play, The Self-Tormentor, made me want to stop reading Terence altogether, it was so contrived, impenetrably complex, and without a single laugh in the entire text. Plautus is my man.

Fortunately, The Eunuch is a lot clearer and a lot funnier than The Self-Tormentor. According to Suetonius’s life of Terence, it was performed twice in one day at the Megalensian Games in 161 BC and won its author 8,000 sesterces, ‘the highest fee ever paid for a comedy’. Like all Plautus and Terence’s plays, it is based on a Greek original, in this case by the Greek playwright Menander.

Incidentally, this play is apparently the earliest surviving Latin text to use the word ‘eunuch’, making it an important resource for academic histories of the (very varied roles played by) ‘the eunuch’ in the ancient world.

The plot

As usual, the scene consists of a street and two houses, showing the front doors of Demea, father of two errant sons, and Thais, a courtesan. As usual, the worthy father, Demea, is struggling to cope with two sons who have made inappropriate love matches: Phaedria is in love with a courtesan, Chaerea is in love with a slave girl.

Phaedria and Parmeno

Parmeno is the elderly family servant. When Phaedria tells him he is mad with love for Thais, Parmeno tells him to grow up, pay up and get rid of her.

Enter Thais

Phaedria goes weak at the knees. Thais apologises to him for locking him out of her house the day before but then goes on to give some key exposition. Thais says her mother came from Samos and lived on Rhodes. A merchant made her a present of a little girl stolen from the area where the play is set, Attica. The little girl knew her father and mother’s name but not where she came from or whether she was free or slave. The merchant had bought her off pirates who claimed to have stolen her from Sunium. This kidnapped girl was brought up alongside Thais as her sister. Then Thais found a ‘protector’, a soldier, Thraso, who brought her here to Athens (where the play is set) and set her up as his courtesan. is soldier, Thraso, then went off to Caria and Thais has found a new protector/sponsor/lover in Phaedria. And that brings the backstory up to date.

But there’s more. Recently Thais’s mother died, leaving the house and goods to her brother, including the foster sister. Since the latter was pretty and could play the lyre, Thais’s brother put her up for sale and, in a spectacular coincidence, she was bought by Thais’s very same protector, the soldier Thraso. He has recently returned to Athens, intending to give Thais the girl as a servant but, when he found out that Thais has been seeing another man (i.e. Phaedria) Thraso changed his mind. He won’t come to see her or hand over the slave girl while Phaedria is on the scene.

So now she gets to the point: will Phaedria agree to lie low for several days so that Thraso can resume his position as her lover, and give her the gift of the slave girl – so that Phaedria can then do a good deed and track down the girl’s family and return her to them?

Phaedria is angry. He thinks it’s all a story to cover wanting to go back to the soldier. Hasn’t he bought her everything? Only yesterday he paid 2,000 drachmas for an Ethiopian slave girl and a eunuch Thais said she wanted. Doesn’t he buy her whatever she wants?

Thais begs, pleads and wears him down and eventually Phaedria promises to leave town for a couple of days so the soldier can return and give Thais the slave girl. But he begs her to remain loyal in her heart. Then Phaedria turns and walks back into his father’s house. Nothing especially funny about this, is there?

Thais tells the audience one further fact, which is that she thinks she’s already identified and contacted the slave girl’s brother and he’s coming to meet her (Thais) today to discuss the matter. Then she goes into her house.

Re-enter Phaedria and Parmeno

Phaedria weeps and wails but we aren’t to take his anguish seriously; he is played for a figure of fun. He instructs Parmeno to fetch the eunuch and Ethiopian slave girl and give them to Thais and to keep an eye on his rival. Then he shoulders his bag and walks offstage, planning to stay out of town for the two days he agreed with Thais.

Enter Gnatho

Gnatho is the bumptious servant of the soldier Thraso. He is bringing the slave girl Pamphila to give to Thais. Parmeno is impressed and says the slave girl is even more beautiful than Thais.

Gnatho soliloquises, saying how proud he is of his status and profession of sponger and hanger-on. He gives a little explanation of the key requirements of the trade, namely to agree shamelessly with whatever your patron says.

The old servant Parmeno overhears all this, then cocky Gnatho spots him and likes the way he looks glum, indicating that he and his master (Phaedria) are not doing well with Thais. Good. Gnatho shows off the slave girl to Parmeno and teases him and then goes into Thais’s house. Having delivered the slave girl, he makes a few choice comments to Parmeno then exits.

Enter Chaerea

Chaerea is Demea’s other son, younger brother to Phaedria. He is a very young man in a frenzy about his new love. Parmeno overhears him talking, rolls his eyes, and pities his poor master (Demea) for having two such lovestruck puppies for sons. Chaerea announces he’s in love with a plump and juicy girl. Parmeno asks how old. 16. Parmeno rolls his eyes. As Chaerea goes on to describe falling in love with her in the street, and that she was accompanied by one of those spongers, Parmeno realises he’s talking about Pamphila, the slave girl who Gnatho has just delivered to Thais.

Parmeno explains all this and that she’s been given as a present to Thais by her soldier lover. ‘What, the rival to his brother?’ says Chaerea. ‘Yes,’ replies Parmeno. Parmeno goes on to explain that Phaedria is giving Thais the old eunuch he brought home yesterday. Not that smelly old man, Chaerea says. How unfair it is that he’ll get to be under the same roof with the fair Pamphila etc.

At which Parmeno jokes that maybe he, Chaerea, could pretend to be a eunuch and gain access to Thais’s house. YES, shouts Chaerea, yes, he can wear a eunuch outfit and pretend to be the gift from Phaedria to Thais. That way he can be close to his new beloved all day long, yes, YES! And he bundles Parmeno into Demea’s house to help dress him up as a eunuch, despite all the latter’s protestations that it was only a joke, he didn’t mean it seriously, he’ll be the one to suffer when it’s all found out etc.

Enter Thraso

Thraso is the middle-aged soldier and lover of Thais. He is a version of that well-established type, the miles gloriosus, full of sound and fury about his brave military exploits, while in fact being a pompous coward and bore.

Thraso enters accompanied by his sponger, Gnatho. Parmeno hears them arrive and opens Demea’s front door to spy on them. He watches while Gnatho shamelessly sucks up to Thraso, laughing at all his bad jokes and nodding at his stories about being the favourite of the king of Caria.

GNATHO: Heavens above, what wisdom! Every minute spent with you is something learned. (p.202)

Thraso asks Gnatho whether Thais loves him and the sponger, of course, insists that she is devoted to him i.e. reassuring Thraso’s delicate ego, as spongers are paid to do.

Enter Thais

Thais enters from her house and encounters Thraso and Gnatho. The soldier says he hopes she likes the slave girl Gnatho gave to her a bit earlier on and invites her for dinner. Parmeno takes the opportunity to present Phaedria’s gifts to Thais. He calls for the Ethiopian slave girl to be brought out, and Thraso and Gnatho make comedy insults about how relatively cheap she looks. Then Parmeno has Chaerea dressed as a eunuch brought out and presented to Thais. She is struck by how handsome Chaerea is, as are Thraso and Gnatho. I think Thraso makes a joke to the effect that, given half a chance, he’d have sex with this handsome eunuch (p.186).

Thais takes her new properties into her house while Thraso tries to mock Parmeno for having a poor master, but Parmeno easily gets the better of him, and strolls away. Gnatho quietly laughs at Thraso being mocked but hurriedly adopts a straight face when Thraso turns to him.

Thais re-enters with an elderly woman slave, Pythia. Thais tells Pythia to take good care of the new acquisitions and that, if Chremes turns up, to tell him to wait. Then she goes off to dine with Thraso and Gnatho, leaving the stage empty.

Enter Chremes

Chremes is the young man who Thais thinks is the next of kin of the slave girl she grew up with and who Thraso has just given to her, Pamphila. He enters and delivers a long speech explaining he’s puzzled why Thais contacted him, asked him a load of questions about a long lost sister, and then asked him to come see her today. He wonders whether Thais is going to pretend that she’s the long lost sister, but Chremes knows the sister would only be about 16, and Thais is much older, so it can’t be her.

Chremes knocks on the door, Pythia opens it and asks Chremes to wait for her mistress but he, suspicious and irritated, says no, so Pythia calls for another servant to take Chremes to see Thais at Thraso’s dinner, and they exit.

Enter Antipho

Antipho is a friend of Chaerea’s. A bunch of the lads had decided to club together for dinner and Chaerea’s meant to be organising it but he’s disappeared, so the lads chose Antipho to find him and ask what’s going on. At just this moment Chaerea emerges from Thais’s house but dressed as a eunuch so Antipho is understandably astonished. But Chaerea explains to him the whole scam, how he’s madly in love with the young slave who’s just been given to Thais as a present, how Parmeno suggested he pretend to be the eunuch Phaedria planned to give to Thais, how it’s worked like a dream, how he’s even been tasked with looking after her, how she’s had a bath and emerged fragrant and beautiful.

Chaerea goes on to explain how all the other serving girls left them to go off and bathe so he…locked the door and…apparently had sex with Pamphila!

This is quickly skipped over as Antipho is interested in the dinner. Chaerea says he rearranged it to take place at Discus’s house. Antipho invites Chaerea to come to his place and change out of the eunuch’s clothes first, and off they both go.

Enter Dorias

Dorias is a maid of Thais’s. She’s just come back from the dinner party where things turned sour. When Chremes turned up, Thais insisted he be brought in. But Thraso thought he was a rival for Thais’s affections, got very angry and insisted that Pamphila be brought in, in retaliation. Thais insisted that a slave girl should not be invited to a dinner and so they had a big argument.

Enter Phaedria

Phaedria should, of course, be at the family farm in the country, as he’d promised Thais. But he couldn’t keep away and has come all the way back to town, casual-like, just to catch a glimpse of his beloved.

Enter Pythias

Which is the exact moment when Pythias, Thais’s head slave, comes bursting out of her house, livid with anger. She explains to an astonished Phaedria that the eunuch who he, Phaedria, recently gave to Thais was no eunuch at all but has raped Pamphila, tearing her clothes and messing her hair. She’s inside now, in floods of tears. Pythias blames Phaedria but Phaedria disavows any knowledge that the eunuch was not a eunuch, and says he’ll go look for the eunuch straightaway. Maybe he’s in the family home, so he goes into Demea’s house to see.

Re-enter Phaedria

Phaedria almost immediately re-enters dragging the real eunuch, Dorus, out of his house. Dorus is wearing Chaerea’s clothes (Chaerea having insisted they do a swap) so Phaedria mistakenly accuses him of stealing his brother’s clothes and making ready to flee. But when he presents Dorus to Pythia and Dorias, Thais’s servants, they both claim never to have seen him before. This is not the rapist!

They all cross-question the eunuch who quickly explains that Parmeno and Chaerea came and ordered him to swap clothes with Chaerea, then they both left. Now they all understand. Chaerea impersonated the eunuch in order to be near Pamphila and then raped her.

Phaedria is terribly embarrassed. It looks like he might be in on the scam, and it certainly reflects badly on his family. So in an aside he tells Dorus to reverse his story and deny everything he’s just said. When the bewildered man does so, Phaedria says the man is an obvious liar and he’ll take him into his house to ‘torture’ him to find out the truth

Re-enter Chremes

Pythias and Dorias are just wondering whether to tell Thais about all this when Chremes re-enters. He’d got drunk at Thraso’s dinner party and now he makes a bit of a pass at Pythias (Thais’s female head slave) who primly fends him off. Instead she extracts from Chremes the fact that there was a big argument at Thrasos’s dinner party.

Enter Thais

Thais is still angry from the argument at Thrasos’s dinner party. She warns her servants that Thraso is on his way to reclaim Pamphila but that he’ll do so over her dead body. She’ll have him horsewhipped first.

First of all she briskly tells Chremes that Pamphila is his long lost sister. Not only that, but Thais hereby gives her to him, free, gratis. Chremes is immensely grateful though not quite as surprised or emotional as you might expect.

Then Thais tells Pythias to hurry inside and fetch the box of ‘proofs’ which prove Pamphila’s identity. But just then Thraso approaches.

Thraso is, of course, a seasoned soldier, albeit a bullshitting braggart. Thais instructs Chremes to stand up to him and hands him the proofs of Pamphila’s identity that Pythias has just fetched out of the house. There is comedy in the way Chremes is a complete milksop, refuses to face Thraso and wants to run off to the market to fetch help, but Thais physically restrains him and tells him to be a man.

THAIS: My dear man, you’re not afraid are you?
CHREMES: [visibly alarmed]: Nonsense. Who’s afraid? Not me. (p.200)

Thais and all her people go into her house.

Enter Thraso and followers

Enter Thraso and Gnatho with six followers. There is quite a funny parody of a military campaign, with Thraso bombastically issuing complex orders for storming Thais’s house to his motley crew of incompetent ‘soldiers’. Thais and Chremes appear at a window overlooking the action. Chremes is fearful while Thais gives a fearless and comic commentary on Thraso’s cowardly and ineffectual ‘military’ orders.

Thraso now parleys with Thais at her window. He reminds her that she promised him the next couple of days, no? And has gone back on her word? So that’s why he wants Pamphila back.

Now Chremes steps forward and confronts Thraso with the new facts: Pamphila is a) a free-born citizen b) of this region, Attica and c) Chremes’ sister. Therefore she cannot be anyone’s property. Thraso thinks he’s lying, but Chremes sends for the box of proof documents.

This is sort of funny if we buy into the play’s premises, but it is also a fascinating slice of social history on a huge subject, namely the definition and rights of free citizens and slaves in the ancient world.

Disheartened Thraso hesitates about what to do next. At which point his parasite, Gnatho, suggests they make a tactical withdrawal on the basis that women are well known for being perverse and so, if Thraso stops asking for something (which is making Thais obstinate), if he changes his approach, maybe Thais will change hers and come round. Rather doubtfully, Thraso calls off the ‘assault’ and he and his men all leave.

Enter Thais and Pythias

With Thraso gone, Thais turns her thoughts to Pamphila who she has discovered in her house with torn clothes and inconsolably weeping i.e. having been raped. Thais is furious with Pythias for letting it happen but Pythias explains that they’ve established it wasn’t the eunuch Phaedria gave her who raped Pamphila, it was Phaedria’s younger brother impersonating the eunuch who did it. At which point the culprit, Chaerea himself, strolls onstage, wearing the eunuch’s clothes.

Enter Chaerea

Chaerea had gone along to Antipho’s house to change for the lads’ party, but Antipho’s parents were home so he was scared to go in and has returned to Thais’s house by backstreets in case anyone recognises him. Now he sees Thais standing in her doorway and momentarily hesitates but decides to brazen it out and continue in character as the eunuch Dorus, so he steps forward.

But after a few exchanges of him pretending to be Dorus, Thais drops all pretences and calls him by his real name, Chaerea. About this point it began to dawn on me that Thais is the real ‘hero’ of this play, easily the most manly, resolute, strong and decisive character on the stage – and that, by the same token, all the men (Thraso, Chremes, Chaerea) are weaker and feebler and morally flawed than she is.

Thais and Chaerea come to an arrangement. Chaerea insists he meant no disrespect to Thais and that he genuinely loves Pamphila. Grudgingly, Thais accepts his apology, despite the scorn of her aggrieved servant, Pythias. In fact, Chaerea grovellingly offers to put himself completely under Thais’ guidance. She is a strong woman.

At this point they both see Pamphila’s brother Chremes approaching and Chaerea begs to be let inside so he can change out of his shameful costume. Thais laughingly agrees and they all go into her house.

Enter Chremes and Sophrona

Sophrona was Chremes’ and Pamphila’s nurse when they were small. Chremes has shown her the tokens Pamphila had and the nurse recognised them all. Now he’s brought the nurse along for the final ‘recognition scene’. The servant Pythias welcomes them and tells them to go into Thais’ house.

Enter Parmeno

As mentioned, Thais has emerged as the main driver of the plot. Usually it’s the cunning slave, in this case Parmeno, but in this play he has been totally overshadowed by Thais’ control of the narrative.

There follows a carefully staged and prepared scene in which Parmeno gets his comeuppance. He had swaggered onstage feeling very pleased with himself because his ruse (disguising Chaerea as the eunuch) had secured Chaerea his beloved, and he had also educated the young man in the ways of courtesans and their wicked ways (by which he is casting a slur on the house of Thais who is, we are reminded, a courtesan by trade).

Pythias, the angry housekeeper overhears all this, including the slur on her mistress and household, and decides to take Parmeno down a peg or two. She comes onstage pretending not to see Parmeno and lamenting and bewailing. When Parmeno asks her what the matter is, Pythias tells him that the young man he introduced into Thais’s household, Chaerea, assaulted Pamphila but now it has emerged that the latter is a free citizen, and has a well-born brother, and the brother has found out and had Chaerea tied up and is about to administer the traditional punishment for adultery and rape – castration!!!

Parmeno is devastated and thrown into a complete panic about what to do, specially when Pythias goes on to tell him that everyone blames him for what’s happened, and are looking to punish him, too. At this moment they both see the two errant sons’ father and Parmeno’s master, Demea, coming up the street. Pythias advises Parmeno to tell Demea everything, before disappearing back onto Thais’ house.

Enter Demea

Parmeno greets his old master and tells him everything (one son in love with Thais, the other in love with a slave woman who’s in Thais’s house, impersonated a eunuch to gain admission, was caught in a rape and is tied and bound and about to be punished). Suitably appalled, Demea rushes into Thais’ house to rescue his son.

Enter Pythias

Re-enter Pythias crying with laughter. Oh, she tells the audience, the comedy of misunderstandings she has just seen! And only she understood why Demea was in a panic about his son being castrated (because she’d just invented it). Hardly able to speak for laughing, she tells Parmeno she properly took him in and made him look a right fool. Now both son and master are furious with him, Parmeno, blaming him for everything. She stumbles back into the house, helpless with laughter.

Enter Thraso and Gnathos

The braggart soldier and his parasite. Thraso has decided to throw himself on Thais’ mercy but they haven’t gone far before Chaerea bursts out of Thais’ house, delirious with happiness. He rushes up to a surprised Parmeno and hugs him and calls him the ‘author and instigator and perfecter’ of all his joys. Obviously the ‘recognition scene’ has just taken place and Pamphila has been confirmed as a free citizen of Attica and therefore an entirely eligible woman for Chaerea to marry. Also, Thais has agreed to marry Phaedria, and thus put herself and her household under Demea’s protection and patronage. It is an entirely happy ending for both sons and the father.

Parmeno dashes into Demea’s house and returns with Phaedria who they tell the good news: he is going to be married to his beloved Thais!

Thraso and Gnatho have overheard all this and Thraso drily remarks that it looks like all his hopes of winning Thais have been dashed. For once Gnatho can’t find words of sycophantic support. But Thraso asks him to make one last sally and see if he can remain in Thais’s good books, if only as a friend. Gnatho extracts a promise from Thraso that, if he pulls this off, Thraso’s house and table will be open to him (Gnatho) for evermore, which Thraso agrees to. Then Gnatho goes up to the two happy brothers.

Phaedria’s first response of Thraso’s offer of friendship is to tell Thraso to clear out and if he ever sees him in this street again, he’ll kill him (!).

Gnatho asks him to calm down, ushers Thraso aside, and speaks confidentially to Phaedria. He proposes a very cynical offer. He suggests that Phaedria accepts Thraso as his rival i.e. a sort of official lover for Thais. ‘What? Why?’ Phaedria asks.

Because Thraso is such a dimwit he presents no threat whatsoever to Thais and Phaedria’s love, but he is very prodigal with gifts and money. These he will lavish on Thais and thus keep her in the manner to which she is accustomed and which, let’s face it, Phaedria can’t afford. Hmm. The brothers confer. It is quite a tidy plan and they agree on it.

Lastly, Gnatho asks if he can be accepted into their circle of friends. Again the brothers agree, and with that, Gnatho mockingly presents them with Thraso! ‘For the laughs and everything else you can get out of him’ (p.218).

Gnatho calls Thraso over and announces that the deal has been struck. Thraso recovers his composure and starts to strut and swank, and the two brothers laugh at his pompousness and foresee years of milking him for his money and mocking his pretensions.

And that is the end. Phaedria abruptly turns to the audience, asks for their applause and they all go into Thais’s house.

*******

Dark thoughts

The Eunuch has plenty of genuinely funny moments, the increasingly funny role of the bombastic soldier Thraso, the comedy swapping of the eunuch’s identity, Chremes’ cowardice, Pythias’s humiliation of Parmeno and so on.

But at the same time, I struggled to get past the ‘otherness’ of Roman society. I can’t really get past the way the entire story rest on the buying and selling of slaves and giving and receiving them as gifts.

Then, when Chaerea rapes the sleeping Pamphila, the entire tone changed for me, and I found it difficult to find anything after that very funny.

And the casual way Phaedria remarks that the only thing which will extract the truth from Dorus is ‘torture’, the casual way Pythias declares that Chaerea is about to be castrated, and the casual references to the way slaves are routinely whipped as punishment – once again I found myself being brought up short and the smile being wiped right off my face by the casual references to hyper violence (torture, whipping, chains, even crucifixion) in these Roman plays.

Sunny thoughts

If you can manage to put those dark thoughts aside then, yes, this is a funny play, by far the funniest of the three I’ve read so far. I think this is because, even though the plot is quite convoluted, of two things:

  1. Once the backstory of the abandoned slave girl and the two brothers in love with two girls is established, everything follows reasonably logically from those premises.
  2. Second reason is that the scenes are quite long and leisurely meaning that – crucially, for me at any rate – the characters thoroughly explain what is going on, what is happening and what they intend to do. For example, the idea for Chaerea to dress up as a eunuch develops quite naturally out of Parmeno’s joke suggestion which then, as it were, gets out of hand. This scene has great psychological and/or comic realism, in the sense that all of us know the experience of making a jokey, off-hand remark which our interlocutor picks up and takes far more seriously than we’d intended, and which we then regret ever mentioning. 2,200 years ago the same experience was common enough to be a comic gag in onstage.

Compare and contrast these two attributes with Terence’s play The Self-tormentor where the plot very much does not follow from the basic premise, but is 1. the result of a whole series of ad lib schemes dreamed up by the naughty slave Syrus and 2. which he keeps to himself; which he does not explain; which may well keep the characters comically in the dark about what he’s up to, but also had the result that I couldn’t follow what was happening half the time and so gave up on the play and almost gave up on Terence as a whole.

The Eunuch restored my faith in Terence as a comic playwright and confirmed my determination to continue and read all six of his plays.


Credit

Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition of Terence: The Comedies, edited and translated by Betty Radice.

Roman reviews

Hecyra (The Mother-in-Law) by Terence (165 BC)

As usual the set consists of a street in Athens showing the front doors of two houses belonging to the two old geezers of the story, Laches and Phidippus. Rather than a tale of two young men, this story concerns only one, Pamphilus, son of Laches. He has married Philumena, the daughter of his neighbour Phidippus, but his real love is a courtesan named Bacchis.

The plot

Enter Philotis and Syra

Syra is an old bawd and Philotis is a pretty young courtesan. They enter complaining about men. Philotis remarks that men are all the same, making promises then breaking them. Take young Pamphilus who swore again and again he’d remain true to his courtesan Bacchis, but then got married. Syra replies that the only thing to do is make sure you fleece them for every penny they’ve got, before they dump you and move on.

This studied cynicism reminds me very much of the attitudes expressed by characters throughout English Restoration comedy.

Enter Parmeno

An old servant, Parmeno, comes out of Laches’ house. Pamphilus is Laches’ son. When he sees the ladies, Parmeno politely asks how they are. It emerges that Philotis was taken off to Corinth for two years by ‘a brute of a soldier’ and had a thoroughly miserable time. She’s only just returned to Athens and is looking up the old gang. She’s just been to see Bacchis and can’t believe that Pamphilus has gone and got married.

Parmeno settles down to tell them the story. Pamphilus has always loved Bacchis but his father was getting on and started nagging him to marry and settle down. In the end he gave in and agreed to be married to the daughter of their next door neighbour, Phidippus. It was only as the reality began to sink in that he became increasingly upset and would take Parmeno for long walks and pour his heart out.

Long story short: they got married but Pamphilus didn’t touch her that night or any other. The marriage was unconsummated. Pamphilus began thinking about how he could return the girl to her family, without shame on all sides. He continued to see Bacchis but she, learning about his wife, became more demanding and naggy. Slowly Pamphilus began to compare the two women and realise that his wife, though less sexy and exciting, was ‘modest and retiring, as a lady ought to be.’

At this point an elderly relative died in Imbros, leaving the family his heirs and Pamphilus was packed off there, protesting at having to leave his wife. The wife passed into the care of his mother, Sostrata.

Philotis, by this stage, is bored of this long exposition. Get to the point! What of the marriage?

Well, the wife, Philumena, began to conceive a dislike of the mother in law. When she came into a room, the other went out. She didn’t talk to her. After a few weeks she said she had to go and see her own mother but never returned. Sostrata issued repeated requests for her to return which have been ignored.

Just yesterday old Laches went to see Philumena’s father to have it out, and Parmeno hasn’t heard the outcome. That’s all the gossip he knows. And so they bid goodbye to each other and leave on opposite sides of the stage. In other words, this opening scene has been one long exposition of the backstory.

Enter Laches and Sosastra

Laches is furious with his wife, spouting a stream of anti-women propaganda, saying they’re all the same and blaming her for driving his daughter-in-law from their house.

Enter Phidippus

So Philumena has left Laches’ house and returned to the house of her parents, which just so happens to be right next door. Her father emerges from his house, as so often at the start of these plays, still talking to someone within. [Maybe this convention was to establish the fact that there is a within, in what was probably a very basic ‘set’. Or maybe it was a quick way of establishing which characters are where as the play begins.] He is calling inside to his daughter (Philumena) and saying he’d really rather that she obeyed his orders and that he’s too kind-hearted to her.

Laches confronts him and asks him to explain why his daughter refuses to return to Laches’ house. Is she ill? Is it because she claims to be mistreated? He takes it as a personal insult.

Phidippus for his part says he doesn’t know why, Philumena refuses to tell him. She just swore on oath she can’t bear to be in the house when Pamphilus is away. Impasse. Well, so be it, Laches says he’ll accompany Phidippus into town on business and they exit.

Sosastra is still distraught that she’s getting the blame for all this. It’s so unfair of men to label all women the same, when she knows she’s gone out of her way to treat Philumena like her own daughter. She goes back into her house.

Enter Pamphilus and Parmeno

Pamphilus is wretched. He hates coming home to find his affairs in this state. Parmeno tries to encourage him by telling him his return will bring things to a head and resolve them. Pamphilus is the first to admit his wife had a lot to put up with from him (presumably, his ongoing infidelity with Bacchis) and he came to respect and love her for it. And now he wonders what on earth can have prompted such enmity between daughter and mother-in-law.

Parmeno thinks it might all be a fuss about nothing, given that women are like children, have no self-control and squabble over trifles.

They are interrupted by the sound of cries and kerfuffle from inside Phidippus’s house. Can Philumena be ill, having a fit? Now he mentions it, Parmeno is reminded that she did say she’d been having shivering fits of some kind. Beside himself with worry Pamphilus rushes into the house proclaiming his love for his wife.

Enter Sostrata

Sostrata has heard all the rumpus and is genuinely concerned for her daughter-in-law’s health. She prays to the gods that she stays well. She sees Parmeno who mentions that a) her son Pamphilus is returned b) he’s just run into the Phidippus house to find out what’s happening. Best leave him to it.

Enter Pamphilus

Pamphilus is shocked and upset. When his mother asks him whether it’s fever or fits he agrees with whatever she says to get her to shut up, then asks her to go into their house. She does. Then Pormeno starts to question him and he angrily tells the old servant to go down to the docks to help the lads with his (Pamphilus’s) luggage.

Now alone, Pamphilus shares with the audience what he’s just seen. He rushed in and discovered that – Philumena is heavily pregnant. That’s why she fled his house, that’s why she won’t go back, that’s why she refuses to see the mother-in-law. Pamphilus shouted something at her for her wickedness, turned and ran but her mother ran after him and fell at his knees begging him to listen.

She explained that Philumena was raped before she became engaged to Pamphilus. She and her mother were too ashamed to tell anyone. Now she begs him to keep it a secret and promises that, as soon as the baby is born, she will go expose it to die somewhere. So Pamphilus gave her his word and here he is back out on the street two minutes later, dazed and confused.

Much as he loves his wife he won’t be able to live with her after she’s had the baby and so he weeps tears at the thought of his long lonely life to comer. Self-pitying, melodramatic wimp that he is.

Re-enter Parmeno

Parmeno enters with some other slaves carrying Pamphilus’s luggage. He needs to get Parmeno out the way in case he hears Philumena’s brith cries and realises what is going on.

Parmeno chats with Sosia who accompanied Pamphilus on the voyage and tells him they had terrible weather.

Parmeno says hello to Pamphilus who promptly tells him he wants to run up to the acropolis and find a man he stayed with on Mykonos. Parmeno is cheesed off with having to run all these errands. Off he goes very sulkily.

Pamphilus is worrying what to do when he sees the two fathers coming along.

Enter Laches and Phidippus

They greet each other. First Laches asks after the dead relative, did he leave much? No. Then they move onto the subject of the wife, Laches explaining she’s been staying with her family, but Phidippus is going to send her back soon, nudging him and saying aren’t you, Phidippus?

Pamphilus delivers a speech in which he says he loves and respects is wife and her decision to leave is no fault of his, and some antagonism has sprung up between daughter and mother-in-law and that, if he has to make a choice, filial duty says he must choose his mother.

The fathers both ask Pamphilus to reconsider and take his wife back. Pamphilus says he loves her but no. He hopes she will be happy with a husband who is more worthy of her. And with that Pamphilus goes into his father’s house, leaving the two old men to marvel at his obstinacy.

They quarrel. Phidippus insists Laches’ son should either take his daughter back or, if he refuses, return her dowry and they’ll marry her to someone else, and with that he disappears into his house, leaving Laches alone on stage.

Laches laments that neither his friend Phidippus not his son take any notice of him. He’ll go into his house and vent his spleen on his poor wife, and he goes inside.

Enter Myrrina

Enter Phidippus’s wife and the mother of Philumena, swiftly followed by Phidippus himself. He heard a baby cry, went in to see his daughter, and instantly saw the truth. She’s just borne a child. Now Phidippus confronts his wife: he is puzzled why she tried to hide it from him.

Suddenly he comes up with the fantastical theory that Myrrina hid the baby from him as it would strengthen the tie between the two houses and she disapproves of her daughter’s marriage to Pamphilus. She means to dispose of the baby in order to weaken those ties because she never approved of the marriage in the first place because they knew their new son-in-law was having an ongoing affair with a courtesan…

This is, of course, completely untrue and makes Myrrina burst into tears because she has to put up with this abuse, because it’s better than revealing the shameful truth, which is that their daughter was raped.

Phidippus rabbits on, enumerating the reasons why he himself forgave Pamphilus for having a mistress, including: 1. it’s only natural in a young man, and 2. if Pamphilus had abruptly dumped his mistress, Phidippus would have worried that he might end up showing the same lack of commitment to their daughter.

Anyway, Phidippus blames Myrrina for everything and this, of course, makes her miserable because she can’t defend herself. He goes into her house leaving Myrrina to lament 1. that she doesn’t want to bring up a strange man’s baby and 2. her concern that Pamphilus won’t stick to his promise but will broadcast Philumena’s shame.

But, during this little soliloquy Myrrina reveals a KEY FACT. It was too dark the night she was raped for Philumena to see her assailant, and she wasn’t strong enough to seize anything of his. But he pulled a ring off her finger and took it away with her.

(Aha. The plot device of The Token. The Token which will identify her attacker and resolve the plot.)

With that Myrrina goes back into her house to confront her angry husband.

Enter Sostrata and Pamphilus

Because she appears to be the stumbling block to Philumena returning, Sostrata nobly offers to Pamphilus to leave their house in the city and go live with her husband (who prefers living at their country farm).

Pamphilus (knowing the true reason Philumena has absented herself) tells her not to be so silly. He won’t have her missing out on her friends and family in the city just because some silly girl has run away. Plus it reflects badly on him. Still, he tells her he is lucky to have such a caring mother who would make such a sacrifice for him.

During their conversation Laches has come out the house and hears her loving offer. He says he’ll welcome her at the farm and they’ll learn to live with each other. Sostrata goes in to pack, leaving father and son on stage.

Pamphilus is agonising because he does love his wife and he does want her back and yet he feels he mustn’t deceive everyone by bringing up another man’s child. Thus he puzzles Laches by continuing to insist he won’t take her back.

Enter Phidippus

As so often, a character comes on stage through a door, while still talking to someone back inside the house. In this case Phidippus is talking back to Philumena, telling her he is very cross with her about her behaviour, and with her mother, too.

Now Pamphilus is presented with a ‘comic’ dilemma, trying to talk on the same subject to two men, one of whom is in on the secret and the other (his father) who knows nothing about it.

Laches makes a start by telling Phidippus that his wife, Sostrata, is leaving for the country and so will no longer be a stumbling block to Philumena coming home. Phidippus replies that it’s not Laches’ wife’s fault, but his own wife’s.

Phidippus then tells Pamphilus he wants their family tie to remain but even if it’s broken and he won’t have Philumena back, he at least hopes he’ll take the child. a) Pamphilus is startled to learn that Phidippus has found out about the baby and b) Laches is mystified by this.

Phidippus tells Laches straight out that Philumena has just had a baby. Laches is delighted to become a grandfather but says he thinks it was very bad form for Philumena to keep it a secret from him and his wife. They both round on Pamphilus and tell him that even if he won’t take his wife back, he must take the child. Pamphilus is still surly and reluctant.

Laches totally misinterprets his son’s attitude. He thinks he is still devoted to his mistress, Bacchis and that’s why he is against his own wife and son. Laches delivers a lecture saying he was indulgent of his son’s passion for the courtesan and even prepared to pay the high bills she ran up (!) but now it’s time for him to grow up and assume his responsibilities.

Pamphilus angrily denies all of this, so Laches asks him what the real reason is. Reasonable request. But Pamphilus has reached a kind of hysterical crisis. He feels backed into a corner and so walks away from the two fathers.

The two men make plans. Laches tells Phidippus to hand over the baby, Laches will gladly raise his grandson. He’ll also see Pamphilus’s mistress and tell her to drop her hold over him. He calls inside his house for a servant to run and fetch her. Phidippus asks whether Laches needs him to assist at this interview. Um, probably not, thank you. So Phidippus exits to find a nurse for the baby and Laches goes into his house. Empty stage.

Enter Bacchis

Bacchis is a dignified mature woman of the world. Laches comes out of his house to see her. There follows a very dignified conversation between these two people of the world. Laches apologises in advance, for he doesn’t mean to cause offence. He recaps that he knows all about the long affair his son has had with her. But now it is spoiling his marriage. Because of Pamphilus love for her, his wife has left the house and his mother-in-law was planning to destroy the baby.

So Laches asks Bacchis to find another lover. Bacchis swears on oath that she hasn’t had relations with his son since he got married. Laches solemnly accepts this and asks her to go into Phidippus’s house and make the same statement to the womenfolk within. Bacchis swears she has only Pamphilus’s best interests at heart. A woman like her wouldn’t usually confront the wife she has been wronging but she is prepared to do this for Pamphilus. Laches is very impressed by her dignity and fine sentiments. He offers her the friendship of his house.

At this point Phidippus returns with a wetnurse for the baby. Laches calls him over and introduces him to Bacchis. When Laches tells him of her promise that she has not had relations with Pamphilus since he married, Phidippus is at first dismissive of her because she is a courtesan. But Bacchis says they can interrogate he servants under torture and will find what she says is true. Then she nerves herself to her task of going to face her lover’s wife and goes into Phidippus’s house.

(Under torture!)

Once again, a Terence play is devolving its focus onto a dignified and strong female character, true and honest where all the male characters have shown themselves to be weak and error-prone.

Laches delivers a little homily about how Bacchis’s good deed will rehabilitate her with his family and society at large, then goes into his house leaving the stage empty.

Enter Parmeno

I’d forgotten about this old retainer. Early in the play Pamphilus had sent him all the way to the acropolis on a wild goose chase to find some fellow from Myconos, solely, as we know, to get him away from the crying of the baby. Things have moved on a lot since then. Now he comes wearily back onstage and delivers a long complaint about spending the whole day hanging round looking for this supposed person.

Enter Bacchis

He’s barely arrived before Bacchis comes running out of the Phidippus’s house all excited. She tells him to go and fetch Pamphilus. Parmeno is comically reluctant to go on another wild goose chase and asks why. Bacchis excitedly tells him that Philumena’s mother, Myrrina, has recognised the ring she, Bacchis, is wearing. It’s the ring the rapist took off Philumena and which Pamphilus, sometime later, gave to Bacchis as a gift. It is The Token! So Parmeno goes off to get Pamphilus, leaving Bacchis alone on stage for a long soliloquy.

The recognition scene!

Bacchis explains the whole story, supplying all the missing links in the chain. She describes how one night nine months ago Pamphilus came to her house, a bit drunk, dishevelled and excited, and told her he had assaulted a woman in the street and torn this ring off her finger, and proceeded to give it to her as a gift. She still wears it.

And it is this ring which Myrrina has just recognised on Bacchis’s finger. When she asked about it Bacchis told her the whole story of the night Pamphilus gave her the ring. So Myrrina and Philumena now know the truth.

She enumerates the blessings she has just conferred with the recognition of the ring:

  • she’s saved Pamphilus’s son, who risked being exposed
  • she’s restored his wife to Pamphilus
  • she’s removed the suspicions of Laches and Phidippus about Pamphilus being a bad husband (for refusing to take back either his wife or son)

Bacchis says she is happy to have brought him happiness. She has acted unlike ‘other women of her sort’. She could, possibly, use the situation to her advantage, but won’t. Even though Pamphilus’s marriage hurt her, he was always a kind and respectful lover, so she is happy to do him so much good.

Altogether a very noble, moving speech. As so often the play feels mistitled. It should have been called ‘Bacchis’ or ‘The Courtesan’ since she plays this swing, pivotal role.

Enter Pamphilus

Enter Pamphilus with Parmeno, pestering him that he is quite sure of this message from Bacchis. If so, he is the luckiest man alive, and Pamphilus says he’ll give Parmeno anything he wants in gratitude for this fabulous news!

They finally arrive where Bacchis is standing and Pamphilus pours out his profuse gratitude. Bacchis calmly accepts it. It was a a pleasure. Pamphilus is polite to Bacchis, saying she is as beautiful and charming as ever. And Bacchis replies as gracefully, saying he is lovely.

But then she switches tone to announce that he was right to get married. His wife is ‘a true lady’. Pamphilus then asks a big favour. He asks her not to tell anyone. There’s no need for Laches or his father or mother to know. He makes a knowingly ironic comment:

PAMPHILUS: I’d rather this weren’t like the comedies, where everyone ends by knowing everything. In our case, the ones who ought to know, know already; and the others who don’t need to know shan’t be told or know a thing. (p.329)

This isn’t funny, exactly, but must have prompted a knowing smile from the audience. And indeed the entire comedy is like this, warm and mature and knowing. It deals very well with the relations of the two married couples and peaks in the dignity and kindness of the courtesan Bacchis. As so often, the nominal ‘hero’, the young man Pamphilus, seems like a small thing beside Bacchis’ grandeur.

Bacchis adds that the Phidippus family now also believe what Bacchis assured them, that he Pamphilus never slept with her after he was married. So he is cleared on all accounts.

Parmeno

The play ends wryly with Parmeno attracting Pamphilus’s attention and so Pamphilus goes over to him and doesn’t notice the real ‘hero’ of the story, Bacchis, walk quietly offstage, pausing to look back affectionately at her former lover.

Instead the play ends with Parmeno preening himself at how he saved Pamphilus from hell, the latter’s own words. Pamphilus assures him he did more than he can imagine, and leaves Parmeno thinking he was the instrument of the happy ending, though he doesn’t quite understand why.

This is a wry inversion of the convention whereby clever slaves really do sort everything out, as in Andria, Phormio or The Self-tormentor. Parmeno asks the audience to applaud and goes along with Pamphilus into Laches’ house.

THE END.

Thoughts

Editor and translator Betty Radice spends the two pages of her introduction saying The Mother-in-law has a case for being the warmest and most mature of Terence’s plays, with beautiful insights into married life, touching scenes, and the noble behaviour of Bacchis, a wise woman who trumps all the men.

What she doesn’t mention is that the central incident in the intrigue is a rape, and that the central figure of the play, who everyone cheers and claps to see redeemed and live happily ever after…is a rapist.

Compared to this central fact, all the other subtleties and niceties…well, they’re there, I registered them, I enjoyed them locally, but…


Credit

Page references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition of Terence: The Comedies edited and translated by Betty Radice.

Roman reviews

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass (1845)

I have found that, to make a contented slave, it is necessary to make a thoughtless one. It is necessary to darken his moral and mental vision, and, as far as possible, to annihilate the power of reason. He must be able to detect no inconsistencies in slavery; he must be made to feel that slavery is right; and he can be brought to that only when he ceases to be a man.
(Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, chapter X)

Brief bio

Frederick Douglass was born Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey to Harriet Bailey, a slave woman, and an unknown white father, probably in February 1818. He speculated that his father was the plantation master, but he never had any proof.

Fred Bailey, as everyone called him, was about seven years old when his mother died, and soon after that he was given to Lucretia Auld, who sent him to serve her brother-in-law, Hugh Auld in Baltimore and his wife, Sophia, who was the first to teach him to start to read and write, until her husband forbade her.

After seven years of relative good treatment as a domestic slave in Baltimore, Bailey was sent to a plantation to work in the fields and subjected to brutal treatment. He made good comrades among the other male slaves and helped organise a group escape of about 6 slaves in April 1836, but the conspiracy was discovered and Bailey was severely punished.

Two years later, in September 1838, aged 20, he finally managed to escape to the free North. In 1837, Bailey had met and fallen in love with Anna Murray, a free black woman in Baltimore about five years his senior. She encouraged his aspirations to be free, lent him money and helped his escape. The escape was quite elaborate, requiring Bailey to take a train north, then a steam ferry across the Susquehanna River, and then resume the train journey, to arrive at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, an anti-slavery stronghold.

To do this he required a sailor’s uniform provided to him by Murray, who also gave him part of her savings to cover his travel costs and he needed to carry identification and protection papers certifying that he was free, which he had obtained from a free black seaman. Full details of the thrilling escape are given in the Wikipedia article.

Three points about this:

  1. Anna’s help was absolutely central to Bailey’s escape.
  2. Bailey gives no details whatsoever of the escape in this book: in this narrative he says that even hints about how he did it would close the escape route for any who wanted to follow him.
  3. It reads like one of the accounts of Allied airman escaping Nazi-occupied France, what with the need for a disguise and false papers. They are two very similar genres.

Bailey moved on from Philadelphia to New York where he was married to Anna Murray then, to be safe, they moved further north, to New Bedford, Massachusetts. Here he was welcomed by a network of  abolitionists who helped freed slaves. He wanted to change his name to establish a new identity and one of these white supporters suggested the name Douglass, the name of a character in Walter Scott’s novel The Lady of the Lake, which the supporter happened to be reading at the time (explained in chapter XI).

After the newly named Frederick Douglass made a speech at an anti-slavery meeting in Nantucket he was hired by the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society to lecture about his life as a slave. He was so eloquent that auditors doubted such an articulate man could ever have been a slave and that was the spur for him to write this autobiography, the Narrative, which became an international bestseller.

The publicity the Narrative brought made him made Douglass fear he might be tracked down and recaptured by his previous owner, so he fled to England. Here he became a free man when a group of supporters purchased his liberty for $700. In spring 1847 Douglass returned to America and launched his own newspaper. He published a second autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom, in 1855.

Following the outbreak of the civil war in April 1861, Douglass lobbied President Lincoln to allow black men to enlist as soldiers in the Union cause and lobbied for the emancipation of slaves to become a Union war aim and so his joy when Lincoln finally makes the Emancipation Proclamation on 1 January 1863 is often quoted by historians. After the war he campaigned for the swift passage of the Fifteenth Amendment granting suffrage to freed slaves. It was finally ratified in 1870.

Douglass rose to hold a series of official positions, serving the US government as a Federal Marshall in the District of Columbia, as consul to Haiti and chargé d’affaires to the Dominican Republic. These experiences form the basis for his third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, published in 1881.

Douglass died in 1895 shortly after delivering a speech about women’s rights.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

It’s a short text. In the Oxford University Press edition, it’s 92 pages. But a little like another short book, One Day In The Life of Ivan Denisovich, it manages to convey an entire world of suffering and humiliation in a short span.

The text is packed with examples of the wickedness and evil of slavery which appal and disgust the reader. But what really strikes home is the universal perversion of normal human relationships which slavery brings. He never knew his birthday, no-one told him. He was separated from his mother when he was months old; she was sent off to slave from dawn to dusk at another of his master’s holdings. On a handful of occasions, when her day’s work was done, she walked miles to see him and bed down with him for a few hours but she was always gone in the morning. When he was seven he learned, some time after the fact, that she had died.

He explains how frequent it is that a master impregnates one of his female slaves and goes on to raise the child, his own child, as another slave. On the one hand it is ‘cheaper’ than buying new slaves. But on the other, it leads to terrible perversions of human relations. Think about it: a man makes his own child a slave. If he shows any partiality for the child, his white children or wife and even the other slaves will resent it. And he looks on while overseers whip his own child, or watches his half-brothers whip his own child.

The slave narrative genre and its conventions

The notes in the OUP version I read mention the 1839 book, American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. This was an anthology of documents assembled by the American abolitionist Theodore Dwight Weld, his wife Angelina Grimké, and her sister Sarah Grimké. They bought thousands of old newspapers from libraries and scoured them for all references to slavery, personal accounts, letters, articles and hundreds of adverts, especially for runaway slaves, written by slavers themselves.

When cut and pasted together the book formed a harrowing testimony to the brutality of the slave regime which completely contradicted the lying speeches of southern politicians and commentators.

But from a literary point of view, the important thing about American Slavery As It Is is how influential it was. Harriet Beecher Stowe used it as the direct inspiration for her novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which itself influenced millions. Charles Dickens’s American Notes quotes whole ads from American Slavery. And  also Frederick Douglass quoted extensively from the book in the many speeches he gave.

My point is that the recycling and formatting of descriptions meant that anti-slavery books quickly became a genre with its own conventions and formats. Certain topics were expected. Certain arguments were repeated. As I read through the Narrative I was certainly horrified by Douglass’s experiences of the systematic heartlessness, cruelty and brutality of the American slave system. But I also began to notice that the narrative is artfully arranged to press its readers’ buttons.

Consider his audience. It was the educated, bien-pensant, North American nineteenth-century middle-classes, the same high-minded New England abolitionists who attended his lectures. What were their values? They believed in family, in home, in chastity and fidelity. They believed in religion, the ten commandments, we should love our neighbour as ourselves. They believed in the sanctity of the Sabbath, that men should use chaste and dignified language and refrain from swearing. They had a sentimental post-romantic ideology of fine feelings and romantic attachments. They disapproved of alcohol and many advocated complete abstention.

As I read Douglass’s Narrative it almost felt like he had a checklist of these Victorian values in front of him and went out of his way to show how slavery, slave owners and their overseers were the exact opposite of everything the Victorians held precious, and embodied the diabolical anti-type of every single Victorian value.

Chastity

Many male slave owners had sex with their female slaves. Female slaves were unable to maintain their chastity and there was no-one to protect them. All those fair damsels being rescued from dragons in sentimental Victorian art and literature were mocked by the reality of the systematic raping of millions of helpless black women.

Family values

Rape

Male slave owners completely inverted the idea of family values by siring multiple mulatto children with numerous slave women, obviously out of wedlock. Douglass himself thought his father was probably the white owner of the plantation he was born on. It is doubtful if his mother gave anything like what we mean by ‘consent’ to him raping her. Douglass must have gone through his life knowing he was the result of white master rape.

Destroying families

Not only that, but slave owners thought nothing of breaking up families, dividing husband and wife or parents from children, at the drop of a hat, with no warning, and forever. After Colonel Lloyd hears criticism of himself from a slave who didn’t even realise Lloyd was his master (Lloyd had some 1,000 slaves), he acts decisively and cruelly.

The poor man was then informed by his overseer that, for having found fault with his master, he was now to be sold to a Georgia trader. He was immediately chained and handcuffed; and thus, without a moment’s warning, he was snatched away, and forever sundered, from his family and friends, by a hand more unrelenting than death.

Douglass being separated from his mother while still a baby was no accident; it was an intrinsic part of a system which went out of its way to destroy all natural family feeling.

My mother and I were separated when I was but an infant—before I knew her as my mother. It is a common custom, in the part of Maryland from which I ran away, to part children from their mothers at a very early age. Frequently, before the child has reached its twelfth month, its mother is taken from it, and hired out on some farm a considerable distance off, and the child is placed under the care of an old woman, too old for field labour. For what this separation is done, I do not know, unless it be to hinder the development of the child’s affection toward its mother, and to blunt and destroy the natural affection of the mother for the child. This is the inevitable result.

Anti-fathers

The fathers of these half-breed slave children were happy to watch them be degraded, worked to death, punished and whipped to shreds. Pretty much the exact opposite of what the ideal, caring and loving Victorian paterfamilias ought to be. A diabolical inversion.

Truth telling and lies

Colonel Lloyd had met the slave about an errand on a road, asked him who he belonged to, was told ‘Colonel Lloyd’ and when he asked what kind of owner Lloyd was, the slave (not realising he was talking to the man himself) replied that he wasn’t treated well. Tearing him away from his family was the slave’s punishment.

OK, upsetting story: but, as is his way, Douglass then goes on to make a much wider sociological point, which is that it was this kind of event which taught all slaves never to tell the truth. Again, for the Victorians this was a much more important issue than it is to us today. Douglass was addressing the Victorian value which goes something like ‘a gentleman always tells the truth’. All Victorian mummies told their little boys and girls to always tell the truth. Well here, Douglass shows his reader, is a vast system which indoctrinates millions of slaves into never telling the truth, into hesitating to reply to any enquiry, of being afraid to tell the truth to anyone, in any situation, in case they are a spy for their owner trying to catch them out (which does, Douglass assures us, frequently happen).

Slavery was not only based on multiple lies about human nature but it created a culture of systematic lying. For God-fearing Victorian evangelists this was horrifying for who is the Father of Lies in the Bible? The Devil. Slavery does the Devil’s work by turning its wretched subjects into sinners.

Chivalry towards the fairer sex

As we all know Victorian ladies fainted at the sight of a grand piano’s legs and Victoria chaps were aroused by an exposed ankle. Slave culture drove a coach and horses through these fancy pretensions with slave women regularly stripped naked and degraded.

I have often been awakened at the dawn of day by the most heart-rending shrieks of an own aunt of mine, whom he used to tie up to a joist, and whip upon her naked back till she was literally covered with blood. No words, no tears, no prayers, from his gory victim, seemed to move his iron heart from its bloody purpose. The louder she screamed, the harder he whipped; and where the blood ran fastest, there he whipped longest. He would whip her to make her scream, and whip her to make her hush; and not until overcome by fatigue, would he cease to swing the blood-clotted cowskin.

Male slave owners could have sex with any slave they wanted to. Apart from anything else the system institutionalised rape on an industrial scale. He tells the story of his Aunt Hester, a good looking woman who he now realises his master was raping. When his master catches her in the company of a male slave from another property:

Before he commenced whipping Aunt Hester, he took her into the kitchen, and stripped her from neck to waist, leaving her neck, shoulders, and back, entirely naked. He then told her to cross her hands, calling her at the same time a d——d b——h. After crossing her hands, he tied them with a strong rope, and led her to a stool under a large hook in the joist, put in for the purpose. He made her get upon the stool, and tied her hands to the hook. She now stood fair for his infernal purpose. Her arms were stretched up at their full length, so that she stood upon the ends of her toes. He then said to her, ‘Now, you d——d b——h, I’ll learn you how to disobey my orders!’ and after rolling up his sleeves, he commenced to lay on the heavy cowskin, and soon the warm, red blood (amid heart-rending shrieks from her, and horrid oaths from him) came dripping to the floor.

If chivalry means something like respect towards and consideration for ‘the fairer sex’, then slavery was its diabolical antitype, combining systematic rape, stripping naked and degradation, along with the most violent and cruel physical punishment imaginable.

Decency

Not only were the women regularly raped and/or stripped and whipped, but most slaves had very few clothes to cover their bodies with, to maintain what the Victorians thought of as their ‘decency’, and then only of the poorest quality. These often degenerated to rags. Where Douglass grew up, the children weren’t given any underclothes or garments to his their privates, just one long shirt.

The children unable to work in the field had neither shoes, stockings, jackets, nor trousers, given to them; their clothing consisted of two coarse linen shirts per year. When these failed them, they went naked until the next allowance-day. Children from seven to ten years old, of both sexes, almost naked, might be seen at all seasons of the year.

This indecency would have scandalised Douglass’s high-minded, religious readers.

Christian values

Slave owners simply deny that slaves are human and therefore ineligible for the rights and respect preached by Christianity (see below). By direct contradiction, Douglass makes plain at various points in the narrative that he is a practising Christian who believes the series of incidents which led to his eventual freeing were the results of a special Providence. In fact he devotes the final section of the text, the Appendix, to making an unambiguous extended declaration of his profound Christian faith.

As to whether religion had a positive effect on slave owners, the answer is No. In 1832 Douglass was transferred to the ownership of young Master Thomas Auld who turns out to be a mean and cruel owner. In August 1832 his master attends a Methodist camp meeting and is converted to the new religion, and yet it in no way moderates his behaviour. He continues to whip and punish Douglass for  numerous infringements of his petty rules. In fact, Douglass states that conversion to more active Christian belief made his master’s behaviour worse:

I indulged a faint hope that his conversion would lead him to emancipate his slaves, and that, if he did not do this, it would, at any rate, make him more kind and humane. I was disappointed in both these respects. It neither made him to be humane to his slaves, nor to emancipate them. If it had any effect on his character, it made him more cruel and hateful in all his ways; for I believe him to have been a much worse man after his conversion than before. Prior to his conversion, he relied upon his own depravity to shield and sustain him in his savage barbarity; but after his conversion, he found religious sanction and support for his slaveholding cruelty.

Douglass routinely watches Auld whip a helpless young slave woman, Henny, and piously quote scripture to justify doing so: ‘“He that knoweth his master’s will, and doeth it not, shall be beaten with many stripes’ (Luke 12:47).

Not really up to managing slaves, Auld loans Douglass out to a Mr Covey, a notorious ‘nigger breaker’, even though he was a professor of religion—a pious soul—a member and a class-leader in the Methodist church. Once again this Mr Covey manages to be super-pious and extremely violent to his slaves. Covey whipped Douglass more than any other master. Later on Douglass is totally explicit on this issue:

I assert most unhesitatingly, that the religion of the south is a mere covering for the most horrid crimes,—a justifier of the most appalling barbarity,—a sanctifier of the most hateful frauds,—and a dark shelter under, which the darkest, foulest, grossest, and most infernal deeds of slaveholders find the strongest protection.

Were I to be again reduced to the chains of slavery, next to that enslavement, I should regard being the slave of a religious master the greatest calamity that could befall me. For of all slaveholders with whom I have ever met, religious slaveholders are the worst. I have ever found them the meanest and basest, the most cruel and cowardly, of all others.

It was my unhappy lot not only to belong to a religious slaveholder, but to live in a community of such religionists. Very near Mr. Freeland lived the Rev. Daniel Weeden, and in the same neighbourhood lived the Rev. Rigby Hopkins. These were members and ministers in the Reformed Methodist Church. Mr. Weeden owned, among others, a woman slave, whose name I have forgotten. This woman’s back, for weeks, was kept literally raw, made so by the lash of this merciless, ‘religious’ wretch.

For pious, religious Northern readers, what could be more horrifying than this hypocrisy and the devilish quoting of scripture to justify cruelty and sadism?

Bad language

The Victorians disapproved of bad language. D—n and b——h are spelled with the central letters omitted so as not to offend the gentle reader. By contrast, the overseers who managed their slaves on the owners behalves are consistently depicted as swearing their heads off and uttering all the worst oaths available.

This ‘profanity’ was far more offensive to Victorian readers than it is to us today. The height of this sin was blasphemy, to take the Lord’s name in vain, to use the name of God or Jesus in angry outbursts instead of contexts of veneration. Profanity had been a serious crime in early modern (Elizabethan and Restoration) times and was still highly frowned on in polite society in the nineteenth century. Whereas:

Mr. Severe [the overseer] was rightly named: he was a cruel man. I have seen him whip a woman, causing the blood to run half an hour at the time; and this, too, in the midst of her crying children, pleading for their mother’s release. He seemed to take pleasure in manifesting his fiendish barbarity. Added to his cruelty, he was a profane swearer. It was enough to chill the blood and stiffen the hair of an ordinary man to hear him talk. Scarce a sentence escaped him but that was commenced or concluded by some horrid oath. The field was the place to witness his cruelty and profanity. His presence made it both the field of blood and of blasphemy.

Mr. Plummer was a miserable drunkard, a profane swearer, and a savage monster. He always went armed with a cowskin and a heavy cudgel. I have known him to cut and slash the women’s heads so horribly, that even master would be enraged at his cruelty, and would threaten to whip him if he did not mind himself.

Drunkenness

Same with alcohol. Overseers are often depicted as the worse for wear, another value whose transgression meant much more to Victorians than to us. Drunkenness was seen as a vice, and one which degraded its practitioner.

In this respect, as so many others, Douglass goes out of his way to show how Southern slaveowner behaviour was the exact antitype of ‘true’ religion and civilised values.

Whipping and blows

So much for Douglass’s enumeration of the way the institution of slavery mocked and inverted traditional Christian and Victorian values.

At a kind of higher level, slavery mocked the very idea of a civilised society. The most obvious way is that, in a civilised society, men show respect and courtesy to each other, whereas slave society was drenched in wanton cruelty and, in particular, the universality of whipping.

It would astonish one, unaccustomed to a slaveholding life, to see with what wonderful ease a slaveholder can find things, of which to make occasion to whip a slave. A mere look, word, or motion,—a mistake, accident, or want of power,—are all matters for which a slave may be whipped at any time. Does a slave look dissatisfied? It is said, he has the devil in him, and it must be whipped out. Does he speak loudly when spoken to by his master? Then he is getting high-minded, and should be taken down a button-hole lower. Does he forget to pull off his hat at the approach of a white person? Then he is wanting in reverence, and should be whipped for it. Does he ever venture to vindicate his conduct, when censured for it? Then he is guilty of impudence,—one of the greatest crimes of which a slave can be guilty. Does he ever venture to suggest a different mode of doing things from that pointed out by his master? He is indeed presumptuous, and getting above himself; and nothing less than a flogging will do for him. Does he, while ploughing, break a plough,—or, while hoeing, break a hoe? It is owing to his carelessness, and for it a slave must always be whipped.

Douglass shows that pretty much all slaves are whipped, some to a hair-raising degree, whipped for half an hour solid till the overseer is exhausted and strips of skin hang off the slaves’ bloody backs.

I have seen Colonel Lloyd make old Barney, a man between fifty and sixty years of age, uncover his bald head, kneel down upon the cold, damp ground, and receive upon his naked and toil-worn shoulders more than thirty lashes at the time. Colonel Lloyd had three sons—Edward, Murray, and Daniel,—and three sons-in-law, Mr. Winder, Mr. Nicholson, and Mr. Lowndes. All of these lived at the Great House Farm, and enjoyed the luxury of whipping the servants when they pleased, from old Barney down to William Wilkes, the coach-driver. I have seen Winder make one of the house-servants stand off from him a suitable distance to be touched with the end of his whip, and at every stroke raise great ridges upon his back.

At the other end of the spectrum, less devastatingly violent but just as demoralising, are the frequent blows and cuffs and beatings which some slave owners handed out to their chattel, sometimes on a constant level, for almost all a slave’s waking hours. He evidences the household of Mrs Hamilton in Baltimore, who sat in the middle of her living room with a bullwhip by her side and:

Scarce an hour passed during the day but was marked by the blood of one of these slaves. The girls seldom passed her without her saying, ‘Move faster, you black gip!’ at the same time giving them a blow with the cowskin over the head or shoulders, often drawing the blood.

Compare and contrast with all those Victorian novels where the weak and fey female politely accepts the visitation of a charming young gentleman and they politely discourse over tea and cakes. The reality of slave society’s continual, constant violence makes a mockery of those scenes.

Injustice and murder

Obviously slavery was a vast system of injustice which gave rise to countless millions of daily instances of injustice. But Douglass is careful to include some instances of what he regards as murder, where a slave overseer simply murders a slave dead. Now entire mid-Victorian novels could rotate around just one murder, the newspapers went mad every time a salacious murder was committed and there were outcries against the heartless perpetrators or such heinous crimes. As long as the victims were white.

Douglass goes out of his way to describe the murders of several slaves, namely when the grave and serious overseer Mr Gore shoots dead Demby, a slave, for running away during a whipping and hiding in a creek. Mr Gore tells him to come out of the creek, says he’ll count to three, counts to three then shoots Demby through the head.

Or Mr Thomas Lanman of St Michael’s who murders two of his slaves, one of them by knocking his brains out with a hatchet.

The individual stories are upsetting, but the point Douglass is making is that both times the overseers got away with it. They were never charged or ‘brought to justice’. Even if the white ‘justice’ system made a few cursory attempts at an investigation it soon fizzled out, the whole thing was hushed up, and the overseers continued on their career of whipping and occasionally killing their slaves.

Slavery was a system which literally got away with murder, thus undermining the fundamental basis of all civilised society, which is the sanctity of human life.

Suicide

Nowadays we think of suicide as the result of mental illness or mental problems to which we must be sympathetic and supportive. But for the Victorians it was first and foremost a terrible sin which automatically condemned its practitioner to hell.

Which is the relevance of Douglass’s admission that it was only when he could read and began to read abolitionist tracts against slavery that the full force of the horrific iniquitous system in which he found himself became clear and he began to have suicidal thoughts. Reading had shown him the hellhole he was in but offered no escape. Anyone who has had suicidal feelings will recognise that mental condition, the feeling that you are trapped, in a box, in a cell, in a hole, with no way out except to do away with yourself.

Thus Douglass’s admission of his own suicidal ideas is an example of the double-sidedness of the narrative: it is a true and accurate first person description of his feelings. But at the same time makes a massive general point about the effect of the system on its victims, creating widespread feelings of hopelessness and despair, so frowned on by Victorians, and which often led to the actual act of suicide, which was an unambiguous sin which condemned its practitioner to hell.

In its way, suicide was more iniquitous and evil than murder, in which the victim, according to Victorian theology, at least stood the chance of going to heaven. Douglass shows that slavery was not just a system of universal violence, rape and sadistic punishment, but also spread the sin of suicidal thoughts and actions.

Are slaves human?

The fundamental crux of the issue was whether slaves were fully human. Southerners said no. They used a wide variety of arguments to support this position, but sooner or later all the arguments boil down to claiming slaves are a difference race, a different species: they were cursed to slavery in the Bible, they enjoy slavery, they were animals so they couldn’t be reasoned with and needed the firm discipline of slavery, they were congenitally unfit for freedom, and so on.

Whereas abolitionists argued that, yes, slaves are human, as human as all other humans, with the full set of human feelings, emotions, perceptions, thoughts and intellect, they are creatures of God like you and me, and so are due the entire panoply of human rights, freedom under the law, equal access to justice and so on.

It is to address the slaver accusation that slaves are somehow not fully human in their a) intellect and b) feelings that Douglass goes out of his way to prove the opposite.

Feelings

This motivation (to prove that slaves are capable of all the human emotions) underlies the passages in the first few chapters about his mother, Harriet Bailey, how they were separated when he was a baby but how she still made long pilgrimages to see her son. These passages are not only heart-breaking in their own right but are making a fundamental point: slaves have feelings, too. They are capable of just the same fine family sentiments as the most dignified of white people.

This is not a trivial issue. A key plank in the defence of slavery was that slaves were incapable of finer feelings and emotions. You could split up their family units as if they were livestock because they were incapable of feelings, you could whip them like you whipped a donkey because they didn’t feel it. Passages like the ones about his mother are at pains to utterly discredit this argument.

Intellect

As to intellect, slavers were able to use the circular argument that their slaves were ignorant, illiterate and stupid and so it was pointless trying to educate them. Douglass singles out the key moment in his escape from slavery as coming when his mistress in Baltimore, Mrs Sophia Auld, naively offered to teach him to read and write. In fact she didn’t get very far before her husband learned what she is doing and delivers a key speech:

‘If you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell. A nigger should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning would spoil the best nigger in the world. Now,’ said he, ‘if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.’

Hearing this was like a thunderbolt to Douglass’s mind. It lay bare in a flash the key to the white man’s domination over the black. Education. Literacy. Those were the sources of the white man’s power:

These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought. It was a new and special revelation, explaining dark and mysterious things, with which my youthful understanding had struggled, but struggled in vain. I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty—to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man…From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.

And although his mistress obeyed her husband and abruptly stopped teaching him his letters, the next few chapters give a moving account of how Douglass picked it up on the streets, doing favours for white boys and getting them to identify the different letters for him, picking them out in the dirt or on brick walls, slowly learning to spell out the words in adverts and shop signs, painfully teaching himself to read. Also his master’s son, Master Thomas, was attending junior school and so Douglass was able to sneak looks at his schoolbooks and even swipe his old ‘copy books’ and use them to teach himself to write out letters. And once he could read, it opened up the vast treasure house of knowledge, law and power.

So Douglass’s narrative not only describes the author’s slow, painful self-education and the path to empowerment which he undertook – but the narrative itself, its sheer existence, is a massive rebuttal and disproof of a central plank of the slaver argument that blacks are somehow intrinsically incapable of thought and intellect.

This book at a stroke demolished that argument forever. Give a black child the same education as a white one and he or she can go on to become easily the equal of any white person, arguably their superior because they have had to overcome so many obstacles in a white persons’ society.

A treasury of arguments and examples

Douglass’s narrative became such a central text in abolitionist literature not only because it is a vividly written, easily accessible and heart-breaking first-hand testimony to an evil system; but also because it was a cannily assembled series of counter-arguments to all the slavers’ justifications for their system.

It can be plundered for scenes which graphically depict the stomach-churning violence or the subtly corrupting effect of slave-owning on initially ‘good’ people. But it was also a goldmine of anti-slavery arguments which could, and would, be quoted extensively in abolitionist lectures, articles and speeches for decades to come.

P.S.

I had included some photos of slaves taken for Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz in 1850 for a study in which he tried to prove that black people constituted a different and inferior race to whites. The ownership and purpose of these images is now highly contested, as is Agassiz’s reputation. I had included the photos as visual evidence of the abjection and humiliation to which slaves were subjected. But, on reflection, I think a) I was perpetuating that very objectification and humiliation by including them, and b) the people in the photos have living descendants who have complained to Harvard about the ownership and use of the images, and, to be blunt, how would I like to see photos of my great-great-great grandparents stripped naked and humiliated? So I’ve removed them.


Related links

Other posts about slavery and racism

Origins

Slavery

The civil war

20th century racism

Art

Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen (1999)

Florida:

  • a state owned and operated by banks, builders and real estate developers… (p.262)
  • where developers and bankers bought the politicians who ran the government. The state was urbanising itself faster than any other place on the planet, faster than any other place in the history of man. Each day 450 acres of wild forest disappeared beneath bulldozers across Florida… (p.281)

I think the scale of the corruption and greed which characterises American economic, financial and political life is difficult for English people to really grasp. Just as the state communism of the Soviet bloc penetrated every level of society and deep into people’s souls, so America’s hyper-developed consumer capitalism shapes and colours every aspect of American lives. They are surrounded by branding and products and bombarded via every conceivable medium with messages ramming home the idea that the only values which count are commercial values.

This is an ostensibly comic novel, and it is often very funny, savagely, sometimes brutally funny; but its depiction of corruption and philistine greed at every level of American society is worked out in great detail and is terrifyingly plausible. Nothing happens which isn’t motivated by power, money or lust.

Pork was the essential nutrient of politics. Somebody always made money, even from the most noble-sounding of tax-supported endeavours. (p.50)

The Toad Island property development

At the heart of this novel, as of so many of the other Hiaasen stories, is a crooked property deal: on the north-west coast of Florida is an unspoilt island named Toad Island because of the proliferation of tiny, orange-backed toads which swarm over it. As always, the plot is complicated, falling into half a dozen distinct but complexly inter-related storylines, which follow the tangled activities of about 15 or so characters:

Robert Clapley

Robert Clapley is a crooked property developer. Aged 35, he has ‘Yuppie ex-smuggler written all over him’ (p.39). He has bought up Toad Island and plans to turn it into yet another shiny resort development, complete with 16-story condos, a golf course, beachfront restaurants etc. He wants to Americanise i.e. ruin it. It will be renamed Shearwater Island.

Ordinarily Clapley would fund a development with laundered drug money from cocaine and marijuana imports, which is what he did with his previous project, laundering the money through a Dutch holding company (p.313). But the Shearwater Island development is his most ambitious and so he’s been forced to seek funding from legitimate sources (well, banks, if you consider most international banks legitimate businesses, instead of fronts for money laundering activities of drug cartels, Russian billionaires, Arab sheikhs and African dictators).

In order to enforce his interests and persuade people to do what he wants, Clapley employs Mr Gash, a stocky sadist who wears a houndstooth suit and has spiky English punk hair. At one stage he ties up someone Mr Clapley isn’t happy with and forces a live rat into their mouth. Later on, he tries to murder the hero and rape the heroine. He is not a nice man.

Because almost everyone in a Hiaasen novel is a grotesque, a caricature, an extreme, Mr Gash is given a grotesque hobby. He has used underworld connections to get hold of bootleg tapes of 911 emergency calls, i.e. the phone calls people make at extreme moments just before they die. So far, so sick, but, being Hiaasen, Mr Gash has taken this much further and mashed up the tapes with classical music. Thus he enjoys driving round with his sound system cranked up full, listening to the screams down the phone of a man whose wife tied him to a bed then set his hair on fire, then rang 911 so his last minutes of agony could be recorded — all set to elegant Mozart music.

Speaking of the grotesque and extreme, Robert Clapley, the yuppie, ex-drug smuggling property developer is not only a crook, he has a bizarre kink. Sure, he takes drugs and screws hookers, that comes as standard; but recently he was introduced to two statuesque dolly birds from Eastern Europe, Katya and Tish, and has personally arranged their visas so they can stay on in the Land of the Free and enjoy his seafront apartment, jacuzzi and cocaine. But Clapley has a secret passion: when he was a boy he played with his sisters’ Barbie dolls and developed a sexual fetish for them. He carries Barbies round in his pockets, even when he’s terrorising customers. Now he has conceived the idea of surgically altering the two Slav girls so that they both end up looking like Barbies. If they want to stay in the US of A, the girls have to agree. As Clapley reasonably explains:

‘How often in a guy’s lifetime does he have a chance to get sucked off by two semi-identical six-foot dolls?’ (p.137)

Governor Artemus

Clapley has for many years made donations to the funds of Florida’s governor, handsome former-Toyota car salesman, Dick Artemus, which is why, in exchange for a promise of more donations, Artemus has included the $27.7 million cost of replacing the rackety old wooden bridge from the mainland to Toad Island with a 4-lane modern concrete bridge, in his latest budget (p.58). It is one among many items in the annual budget which he can present as ‘modernising’ and ‘developing’ the state, but which are being undertaken entirely to benefit donors, in this case his good friend and political supporter, Robert Capley.

The Toad Island development is being constructed by the prestigious engineering firm of Roothaus and Son (p.40). They’re employing as project supervisor Karl Krimmler. All Hiaasen’s characters are given extensive backstories which are carefully interspersed throughout the text to give the narratives pace and variety. Thus, later in the novel we are told that Krimmler has hated nature ever since his kid brother popped an angry chipmunk down his pants. Ever since, he has wanted to take revenge on the natural world and nothing pleases him more than watching huge earth-moving machinery chopping down forests and filling in ponds and massacring thousands of pesky little orange toads.

So Krimmler doesn’t get on very well with Dr Stephen Brinkman, a biologist fresh out of Cornell Graduate School, who’s taken a $41,000-a-year job with Roothaus as their ‘environmental specialist’ (p.41) which basically means he has to ensure the site of any development is clear of any endangered species or other critters on the various state or federal lists of protected species or habitats, so that Krimmler’s land-razing teams can crack on. Later in the novel, the hitman Mr Gash will shoot dead Brinkman and bury him with a digger.

Willie Vasquez-Washington

But getting the funding of the Toad Island bridge onto Dick Artemus’s budget is only the first step. The budget itself has to be passed by the state legislature and in particular the influential House Appropriations Committee. Chair of this vital committee is Willie Vasquez-Washington, who keeps colleagues unsure whether he has black, Hispanic or native American blood (in order to intimidate them  with his minority credentials and/or secure a rake-off from state funding supposedly targeted at ‘minorities’).

Willie will only pass the governor’s budget through the committee if he receives a slice of the action. To be precise, he demands that $9 million be found from somewhere to build a community centre in part of his electoral district. It will be called the Willie Vasquez-Washington Memorial Outreach Centre. It will get him good coverage in the local press and secure votes from genuinely grateful families. But also:

  • Willie will get himself appointed executive director at an annual salary of $49,500 plus medical benefits and free car
  • the company of a good friend of his will secure the $200,000 dry-walling contract
  • the company run by the husband of his campaign manager will get the contract to supply 24-hour security guards
  • and Willie’s deadbeat brother just happens to own a rundown grocery store in part of the buildings which will need to be demolished to make way for the centre and which will be bought by the developers for 5 or 6 times its actual value

Thus Hiaasen builds up a detailed and persuasive picture of the graft, corruption and pork barrel politicking which surround every property development in Florida and whose ongoing net result is the devastation of the natural environment.

Nils Fishback

Meanwhile, there are some people living on Toad Island, 207 in all. They are sort of led by Nils Fishback, himself a failed architect and developer, who lost a lot of money buying up Toad Island real estate the last time someone promised to develop it 8 or so years ago. When that project went bankrupt, Fishback was stuck with numerous lots of unwanted land and adopted a man-of-the-people environmentalist pose, barefoot, brown as a nut and bandanna-ed.

It is Fishback who constitutes himself unofficial mayor of the island’s thin population and leads a half-hearted environmental opposition to the development. But of course he, like everyone else, has his price. Fishback demands from Clapley $510,000 based on an inflated valuation of the bum lots he bought years ago and in exchange he’ll use his influence to make sure the other inhabitants of the island acquiesce in the development (p.56).

See how it works? Pork for everyone. Everyone taking a cut, everyone spending all their time considering all the angles and how to maximise their revenue.

Palmer Stoat

And sitting at the centre of this complex web of financial and political matrices is a man named Palmer Stoat for Stoat is one of the two or three most important, influential and rich political fixers in the state of Florida (p.6) or, as Hiaasen puts it, in ‘the swamp of teeming greed known as Florida’ (p.380).

In this swamp, Stoat is a ‘big time lobbyist’, ‘adept at smoothing over problems among self-important shitheads’ (p.380).

It is Stoat who holds series of unofficial meetings with the governor, with Clapley, with Willie Vasquez-Washington, on golf courses or in strip clubs, and conveys the terms and conditions of the various deals which are required, the pay-offs, the back-handers, advises how to manage the press, the politicians, guides all parties through the paths of corruption, and so on.

More than any of Hiaasen’s previous novels, this one goes deep into the actual mechanics of back-handers, with detailed lists of how other elements in the governor’s budget sound and look good but are, in every case, designed to benefit party donors or members of the families of key players in local politics and business. Nothing is innocent. Nothing is pure.

And this obsessive centrality of money poisons not only politics and business but every aspect of human psychology and relations. The novel goes to great lengths to show how almost all personal relationships and almost every single conversation is based on The Deal. Even marriage, long, long ago in America, became a deal, between a woman wanting money and security and a man wanting a trophy wife, a bimbo on his arm to attend all those important social functions. Even casual relationships between men and women are shown to be full of calculation. When we hear about Twilly’s former relationships or Desie Stoat former partners, they are all couched in the language of The Deal: in this relationship he got this and she got that, then they discovered the deal wasn’t working out so they went to lawyers to annul the contract.

Lawyers infest American civic life partly because people regard other people instrumentally, as means to an end, like the pair of lowlifes in the previous novel, Lucky You, who spent 450 pages continually assessing whether it was worth carrying on being partnered with the other one or whether, what the hell, it was more cost effective just to shoot their partner and have done with it. There is no remnant of what used, laughably, to be called ‘humanity’ in any of them.

In novels (and movies) like this it feels like Americans have long, long ago lost the ability to think of other Americans as people. Everyone is a connection to be exploited, a partner to be used, until a better contact, job opportunity or ‘mark’ to be conned comes along.

The trigger

So that’s the setup, that’s the background. Factually dense and complicated, isn’t it, like most Hiaasen novels. You can tell he was a journalist because a) he has an awesome insight into the precise mechanisms of corruption in all these different spheres and b) he conveys it with tremendous brevity and precision. And you can tell he’s American because it’s all done in zippy, slangy, swearword-ridden prose.

You want to know about the actual plot? OK, well, it starts casually enough. Into this complex nexus of relationships comes Twilly Spree. Twilly is an unemployed 26-year-old college dropout who’s inherited enough money not to have to work and has long-standing anger management issues, not least regarding littering and despoiling the environment (anger issues which derive from his own father’s job as a property developer, systematically spoiling the coastline of Florida with property developments, pp.31 to 34).

This is why when Twilly’s driving behind a swish Land Rover and observes a load of MacDonalds wrappers being chucked out of its window, he sees red and tails the Rover back to an impressive luxury home, the home of none other than… Palmer Stoat.

Twilly watches from outside while Stoat gets changed and his wife – the stunningly good-looking 32-and-a-half-year-old Desie (p.327) – dress up for a meal at an Italian restaurant. They drive there in the wife’s convertible BMW, tailed at a distance by Twilly. Once they’re safely inside Twilly approaches the crew of a garbage truck working nearby and asks if he can borrow it for an hour for $3,000. They instantly agree and go off to a topless dancing joint (to chat up an ‘exotic dancer’ named Tia) while Twilly drives the truck to the posh Italian restaurant and dumps the garbage truck’s entire contents over Desie’s BMW, leaving it buried under several tonnes of stinking waste.

This is just the beginning, the opening salvo in the long farrago of farcical mayhem and comic complications which unravel across the next 500 pages (Sick Puppy is Hiaasen’s longest novel).

Plot highlights

Turns out Stoat has a big black friendly labrador he names Boodle (apparently American slang for ‘bribe’). Twilly breaks into Stoat’s house and kidnaps the dog. When he discovers Boodle is on medication, he goes back to burglarise Stoat’s house the following night (waiting till Stoat’s driven off accompanied by a woman) but finds Mrs Stoat waiting for him with a gun (the woman in the car was the maid).

After a moment or two of tension Twilly easily takes the gun off Desie and then, to his amazement, Desie announces that she wants to go with him, insists on going with him (to the motel where’s he’s keeping the happy doggy), and they slowly, over the next hundred pages or so they become an item.

(Many of Hiaasen’s central love affairs start this way, with one or other partner kidnapping the other or holding them up or generally breaking the law, in the same way that, after a while, I realised a lot of them feature one or more kidnapping.)

At this point Twilly simply wants Stoat to stop being a litterbug and chucking rubbish out his car. It’s only when Desie moves in with him that Twilly discovers the much bigger story about Stoat’s role in the upcoming devastation of a pretty, unspoilt island up on the coast. At that point Twilly broadens his horizons into blackmailing Stoat to use his connections to cancel the project: the blackmail is, cancel the project or I kill your dog.

Such is Stoat’s attachment to his big labrador that he sets out to do just that, leading to a raft of complications. Robert Clapley really doesn’t like the news of the cancellation, which is why he comes round with Mr Gash who ties up Stoat in his own house and inserts a live rat in his mouth. After a few uncomfortable moments Gash lets Stoat and he is at pains to clarify to Clapley that the project isn’t cancelled, merely delayed till his dog is returned, then it will all be revived again.

It explains why Clapley, once he understands that a dognapping is behind the complications, commissions Mr Gash to track down and kill the dognapper. This quest takes Mr Gash some time. In its early phase it leads him to the suspended workings on Toad Island where Gash encounters a very drunk Dr Brinkman. Drunk enough to think he can take out the stranger with a gun but when he takes a swing at Gash with a storm lantern, Gash calmly shoots him dead.

Shootout on the beach

And it’s here, on the island, several hundred pages of complicated discussions, meetings, and plot twists later, that there takes place probably the climactic scene. For it is here that Mr Gash finally discovers Twilly and Desie who’ve driven up to it in a big ranch wagon, with the dog (who Twilly, incidentally, early on insisted on renaming ‘McGuinn’). Mr Gash shoots Twilly who falls to the sand (the wagon is parked on the island’s beach) then forces Desie to strip at gunpoint and tries to rape her. His rape attempt is interrupted when the big labrador throws himself on Mr Gash’s naked back and calmly takes his neck in his teeth which leads to a bizarre, macabre and comical tableau.

The return of Skink

Anyway, all this is to ignore what might, to many Hiaasen fans, be the most significant thing about the book which is The Return of Skink! For the current governor, Dick Artemus, decides he needs the help of the legendary former governor of Florida, one of its most famous (fictional) sons, Clinton Tyree, who quit politics back in the 1980s to become a back-to-nature eco-vigilante. True to the basic principle that all human interactions in the book are exploitative, Artemus blackmails Skink into using his special skills to track down the damn dognapper and get the Toad Island project back on track.

Just to recap a bit: In order to explain why the project needs to be suspended, Stoat has had to tell both Clapley and the governor that his dog has been kidnapped and given as many details as he can about the kid who’s done it, and who he’s glimpsed a couple of times.

As mentioned, Clapley’s response is to commission Mr Gash to find and kill Twilly, but the governor’s is to blackmail Skink into coming out of the backwoods, find Twilly and bring him to the law.

Skink’s brother

But how does Artemus blackmail Skink? Well, for the first time in the series we are told that Skink has a brother; for while Clinton Tyree was being a hero in Vietnam, his brother Doyle was also serving in Nam but had a drunk idea to go fishing one night in enemy-occupied territory, and the sergeant driving the jeep managed to crash it and was killed outright while Doyle was badly injured.

Doyle was invalided out of the army but then had a nervous breakdown because of the guilt (pp.258 to 260). When he became governor, Clint used his position to swing a sinecure for his brother, to get him a job as ‘keeper’ of a fully automated lighthouse where he could hide himself away. (See? Everyone, absolutely everyone, even idealist Skink, uses their position and power to benefit themselves or friends and family. That’s what power is for in America.)

How does governor Artemus find the legendarily elusive Skink? He summons Jim Tile, the black state trooper everyone knows is Skink’s friend, and gets him to deliver a letter explaining to Skink that he has to find Twilly before the bad guys, or the current governor will expel Doyle from his safe lighthouse crib.

(Governor Artemus discovered the story of Skink and Doyle thanks to the diligent researches of his super-efficient personal assistant, Lisa June Peterson, the only one of his PAs who he doesn’t try to screw because she’s so damn good at her job and who, despite having given away the secret of Doyle’s existence, is in fact a keen fan of Skink. When Skink finally arrives at the governor’s mansion, Lisa June gets on well with Skink and, after a few conversations tells him she’s planning to write his biography. Hmm. I wonder whether she’ll become a recurring character.)

Anyway, this explains why, in parallel to Mr Gash’s attempts to track down Twilly, Desie and McGuinn, Skink is carrying out his own researches and how the two plotlines lead up to the climactic scene on the beach on Toad Island.

As you recall, Mr Gash follows the station wagon, sneaks up on it and when Twilly makes a move on him, shoots him, then tries to rape Desie, then has to fight off the bloody labrador which has jumped on his back because he thinks it’s all a boisterous game.

At which point Skink walks out of the undergrowth and interrupts proceedings, himself toting a gun. When Mr Gash goes to draw on him, Skink shoots his kneecap off and then fires another bullet through Mr Gash’s cheek, severing his tongue. While Desie is putting her clothes back on, Skink carries Mr Gash to the half-begun construction site, fires up an earth mover, and drives it forward till its caterpillar tracks have rolled over Mr Gash’s bottom half, pinning him in the mud. Mr Gash is still alive, though, and able to scream tongueless abuse while Skink turns and walks away, leaving him to die.

(In one last, gruesome touch, Mr Gash has just enough energy to get his cell phone out of his pocket and calls 911, only to be unable to communicate his situation because his tongue has been shot away. But his call will be recorded, just like the calls of all the other dying people he used to so enjoy listening to.)

Rhino horn and a wildlife park

There’s more, though, quite a lot more. Hiaasen has given Stoat a number of florid hobbies or interests. The simplest one is a taste for fine cigars, so that the novel repeatedly finds him in an expensive cigar store-cum-bar, puffing on a $300 dollar Havana. (There’s also a running gag that Stoat keeps quoting classic rock song titles but getting them slightly wrong, for example telling his wife he’s had ‘a tough day’s night,’ quoting that old Beach Boys’s song, ‘Wouldn’t it be great’, and so on.)

Much more lurid is Stoat’s hobby of shooting African wildlife at a semi-legal private zoo, the Wilderness Veldt Plantation. The grotesque comedy derives from the way most of the animals in this so-called safari park are at the bitter end of their lives and can barely stand up, let alone bound anywhere. In fact the novel actually opens with the scene of Stoat at the Plantation and shooting a rhinoceros which is so knackered it is utterly stationary.

Stoat wants the rhino’s head professionally stuffed so it can join all the other stuffed animal heads on the wall of his snug. (In a scene near the start of the book, Twilly sneaks into Stoat’s empty house and prises the glass eyes out of all the stuffed heads hanging on the wall of his snug and arranges them in a pentangle on his desk, in order to freak him out.)

But Stoat discovers from the sleazeball, Durgess, who runs the Plantation and organises these corporate ‘shoots’, that rhino’s horn is extremely valuable because of its supposed aphrodisiac qualities. To be precise, its abilities to give men rock-hard erections.

So Stoat sends away for the dead rhino’s horn to be converted to powder. The idea is that you sprinkle the horn powder into your drink on the evening you plan a big sex session. Thus Stoat becomes ever-more excited at the prospect of giving himself impressive erections with which to impale the florid array of mistresses and call girls he is routinely unfaithful to his wife with. (This helps explain why, faced with an idealistic and obviously nice young man in her kitchen, Desie on impulse decides she wants to run away from lying, thieving, cheating scumbag Stoat.)

When Clapley is livid that the Toad Island project is being put on hold till Stoat can pay off the dognapper and get his damn dog back, Stoat tries to appease him by offering him some of the recently arrived rhino horn powder. It helps appease Clapley and forestalls any further insertions of live rats into Stoat’s mouth.

But foolishly, instead of taking a light dusting of it in his drink, as he’s supposed to, Clapley gives the horn dust to the Barbie girls, who snort it like coke and go bananas, leading to a 24-hour orgy which trashes his bedroom. Next thing he knows, Clapley is on the phone to Stoat saying the girls refuse to have sex with him unless he can supply more magic rhino dust. Where can he get some more? Now?

So this pressure from Clapley forces Stoat to call up the wildlife guy, Durgess, and demand that he set up another big game shoot. We then follow Durgess as he and his ‘Supervisor of Game’, Asa Lando (p.337), scour the crappier wildlife parks of America and beyond in a bid to rustle up some half-decent ‘wild animals’. Like everything else in Hiaasen’s Florida, the Plantation is a scam, built on multiple other scams.

Eventually Durgess and Lando manage to buy an ancient and decrepit rhino which can barely stand, and have it flown to their park in readiness for a visit by Stoat and Clapley. Stoat has decided to make the event into a Big Day Out and bring together all the interested parties in the Toad Island ‘development’. So he’s invited along governor Dick Artemus and the corrupt vice chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Willie Vasquez-Washington – and this will provide the farcically violent climax of the novel.

(In a telling detail, Hiaasen tells us the land on which the park is now sited used to be owned by genuine citrus farmers, who sold it to the Plantation which is, in fact, co-owned by a Tokyo-based fish cartel and a Miami swimsuit designer named Minton Tweeze [p.446]. It is yet another example of the way some kind of ancient agricultural authenticity has given way to the modern corporate world characterised by a) international finance and b) shallow lifestyle emptiness. The Plantation pretends to recreate big game Africa while in fact being an abandoned citrus plantation on which its crooked owners tie down decrepit zoo-bred animals so they can be shot at by overpaid executives and drug dealers who take seven shots to hit an inanimate animal tied to a stake twenty yards in front of them. It is beyond pitiful.)

So as the novel approaches its climax, Stoat and Clapley and the governor and Willie stay up late the  night before ‘the hunt’ in the Plantation’s hunting lodge, getting drunk and telling ‘pussy stories’.

But unbeknown to them, Skink and Twilly have tailed them. Oops. This won’t end well. That night, at the other end of the park, Skink and Twilly break in through the plantation’s barbed wire fence, bringing with them binoculars, guns and camouflage outfits. They’re here to try and sabotage the Toad Island deal although, as they smoke a joint round a small campfire and roast roadkill (Skink’s habitual diet), neither of them knows exactly how.

The big game shoot fiasco

In the event, the farcical climax works out like this: next day dawns and the hunting party of Stoat and Clapley and governor Dick Artemus and Willie Vasquez-Washington head out, led by Durgess, accompanied by Asa, and with two of governor Dick’s bodyguards in tow towards the pitifully decrepit old rhino, which Durgess and Asa have carefully tied down to metal stakes to render as utterly undangerous as possible. Of course they are all armed to the teeth with all kinds of heavy duty rifles, and are watched through binoculars by Skink and Twilly, hiding at a distance.

What nobody expects to happen is that, when the wind blows the scent of the rhino towards Skink and Twilly’s hiding place, it over-excites the big, friendly labrador, Boodle/MacGuinn, who breaks free from his lead and goes running down the hill towards the fantastic smells emitted by the necrotic rhinoceros, which it bounds and leaps around.

At first the rhino ignores the barking labrador, right up till the moment MacGuinn bites the rhino’s tail. At that point it lumbers to its feet and sets off in a charge towards the most open piece of terrain – which is precisely where the four hunters, 2 bodyguards and two guides are standing.

In its first pass, while the other six men run away, Stoat and Clapley line up either side of the rhino’s path and, as it goes to run between them, they both fire simultaneously: Stoat manages to miss the rhino at point blank range, but Clapley’s bullet hits and smashes Stoat’s rifle, whose wooden butt explodes, mashing up most of the shoulder it was resting against (p.470). But that’s only part one.

For the enraged rhino then returns and spears Clapley on the horn he so wants, and then crushes Stoat to death. It is a scene of mayhem and catastrophe. Once the rhino has vacated the scene, Skink calmly strolls down from his hiding place in the nearby hill and reclaims MacGuin.

Tying up loose ends

And that is the gruesome and farcical climax of the novel. In the last 15 or so pages various loose ends are tied up:

Skink visits his brother holed up in the lighthouse. Doyle really is a basket case and can’t bring himself to open the door despite Skink banging on it and begging. All Skink wants to tell him is his position there is assured for all time. Skink now has enough on governor Artemus to end his career. (Threat, exploitation, power.)

Stoat is buried and we are shown the very mixed feelings of Desie who feels guilty about in some way triggering the sequence of events which led to his death.

To keep him quiet about what he’s seen (and photographed) Governor Artemus accepts Vasquez-Washington’s demand for the funds and so a new high school is built and named in his Willie’s honour.

Clapley’s two girls had already abandoned him when he couldn’t supply any more rhino powder and are now making careers in porn movies.

The novel ends with Twilly giving Skink a lift across the state back towards the outback, before intending to head back home, a chastened young man. But on the way they find themselves behind a car containing a foursome of young drunk litter louts chucking beer bottles and lit cigarettes out the window, and Skink looks at Twilly and Twilly looks at Skink, and they decide to take these young people need a lesson in environmental awareness! I.e. Skink emerges triumphant.

Dog’s eye view

In all this summary I haven’t found space to mention that a lot of the book is devoted to seeing events through the dog’s eyes. We don’t get doggy stream of consciousness, but the dog’s perceptions and ‘thought processes’ are described in detail at countless points throughout the story. Admittedly, these amount to about three ideas: going for a walk, fascinating smells, and food, but Hiaasen conveys very effectively the fun of owning a big, bounding healthy dog. Rather like the love of fishing which resonates through his novels, the reader assumes the vividness of the descriptions of McGuinn’s tail-wagging energy and liveliness reflect Hiaasen’s own interests and sympathies. The doggy passages go a long way to redeeming the sex mania and addiction and greed and corruption which characterise almost all of the human characters.

One-line summary

Possibly, I’m not quite sure – it would be fun to argue its merits vis-a-vis all the others in the series – but possibly this is the best Carl Hiaasen novel up to this point. It certainly feels like the most complex, combining gruesome violence with really in-depth analysis of American corruption, along with moments of real feeling, like Desie’s complex emotions at wanting to leave her scumbag husband and the genuinely moving scene where Skink reassures his profoundly disturbed brother that he’s going to be alright, and the recurring descriptions of the labrador’s boundless doggy enthusiasm and excitement.

It’s an astonishing achievement to combine so many different affects, from journalistic insight, to outrageous gruesomeness, to genuinely touching moments, along with hundreds of cynically hilarious scenes and plot developments, all in the covers of one novel. It’s like eating a box of fireworks.

Jaded sayings

‘Tract homes and shopping malls and trailer parks as far as the eye can see. More people, more homes, more roads, more houses. More, more, more, more, more, more, more…’ (p.414)

‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of real estate commissions.’ (p.442)


Credit

Sick Puppy by Carl Hiaasen was published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1999. All references are to the 2001 Pan paperback edition.

Carl Hiaasen reviews

  1. Tourist Season (1986)
  2. Double Whammy (1987)
  3. Skin Tight (1989)
  4. Native Tongue (1991)
  5. Strip Tease (1993)
  6. Stormy Weather (1995)
  7. Lucky You (1997)
  8. Sick Puppy (2000)
  9. Basket Case (2002)
  10. Skinny Dip (2004)
  11. Nature Girl (2006)
  12. Star Island (2010)
  13. Bad Monkey (2013)
  14. Razor Girl (2016)
  15. Squeeze Me (2020)

A Wrinkle In The Skin by John Christopher (1965)

Christopher Samuel Youd

John Christopher was just one of the half dozen noms de plume of Christopher Samuel Youd (1922 to 2012), who was a prolific English writer of science fiction novels for adults and children, as well as writing in other genres under his numerous other noms de plume, including several cricketing novels. In all Youd wrote a staggering 57 books. His breakthrough came with his second science fiction novel, The Death of Grass in 1956, after which he published two or three novels a year for decades.

Probably a) his sheer volume of output and b) the fact that he wrote under so many names and c) that he wrote both adult and teen fiction, explain why he never establishing a clear brand and became a ‘big name’, unlike his better-known drinking buddies at the White Horse pub off Fleet Street, John Wyndham and Arthur C. Clarke.

A Wrinkle In The Skin

A Wrinkle In The Skin was Youd’s ninth novel writing as John Christopher and follows the same narrative pattern as two of his most popular previous novels, 1956’s Death of Grass and 1962’s The World In Winter, in that he imagines a massive worldwide disaster and then works through its impact on a small group of middle-class English people.

The disaster in this case is an epidemic of earthquakes which ripple right round the planet, from New Zealand to California, China, Russia and Europe.

As in the other novels, the opening scenes depict some characteristically nice, middle-class characters enjoying a fine dinner washed down with classic wine and discussing the latest quakes which have been reported in some remote part of the world. Just as in The Death Of Grass, they think it could never happen here. One character describes the catastrophic quakes which have hit the Far East as like the small wrinkles on the skin of an orange, to which another character replies:

‘Well, as long as our bit of orange doesn’t wrinkle. It would be awful if it did.’
(Sylvia Carwardine, page 11)

Matthew Cotter

Notable among the middle-class characters is Matthew Cotter who grows tomatoes under greenhouses on Guernsey. Matthew used to be a journalist which explains his middle-class education and inquisitive and factual frame of mind. He is divorced from his wife, Felicity (page 13) and his grown-up daughter Jane has gone to study at university on the mainland.

Matthew’s friends, the Carwardines, are always trying to fix him up with eligible widows or divorcees, as, indeed, they do on the evening of the pleasant dinner party which opens the novel. At the end of the evening Matthew drives home and goes to bed in his comfortable tomato-grower’s farmhouse. In the middle of the night he’s woken by squawking from his chicken run and goes outside armed with his shotgun to frighten off the dog or fox or whatever is worrying his chickens.

He’s half way down the garden path when a massive earthquake strikes. More than one quake, it is a series of vast convulsions and the earth doesn’t just shift, it rises, buckles, shakes and throws him into the air and across the garden. He manages to brace himself in the structure of canes which support his tomatoes and is flexible enough, now, in the chaos of the endless quaking, to act as a kind of shock absorber. In the middle of yet another huge shock he is aware of a vast roaring sound nearby and assumes it is the blood in his ears or impending death.

Survivor

When he regains consciousness, Matthew is greeted with a scene of utter devastation. His house is a pile of rubble from which it is difficult to extract any of his former belongings. He sets off to find other survivors but for quite a while it seems as if there are none. The earth has been lifted and reshaped, familiar landmarks no longer exist and every human dwelling has been razed to the ground. He sees plenty of dead people mashed to bits in heaps of masonry before he discovers a donkey up at the old donkey sanctuary kept by Miss Lucie (page 24) which is still alive by virtue of having been flung into the branches of a tree. Lonely and stricken by sympathy for another living being, Matthew labours hard to rescue the donkey, before continuing his trek across the ruined landscape.

These first chapters establish the sense of utter ruination and Matthew’s complete isolation and loneliness as the scale of the disaster starts to sink in, as he wanders across the ruined landscape in search of survivors and finds only dead bodies mangled in destroyed buildings.

The English Channel has become a drained dry stretch of land

He comes to a clifftop and experiences one of the great shocks of the book – the English Channel has disappeared. That roar he heard amid the huge earth-shaking? The entire land level has been lifted and the sound he heard was a vast tsunami as all the water in the entire English Channel poured westward, decanting off the raised land and leaving the seabed high and dry in the daylight, a vast expanse of seaweed, sand and shingle and deep dark slime.

Billy Tullis aged 11

Still processing this stunning revelation, Matthew eventually hears a voice coming from a wrecked house and digs a boy out of rubble, going on to establish that his parents and sister have all been crushed to death. The boy tells him his name is Billy Tullis (page 34) and he will become Matthew’s inseparable companion until the end of the novel.

Billy has broken his arm. Matthew remembers enough from the army to set it and make splints from sections of wood he cuts from a tree and then ties to Billy’s arm with ripped fabric. He feeds and waters Billy, they reclaim such tinned food as they can find in ruined shops and houses, then make their way into open country and make the best shelter they can against the elements. This is the first of many, many, many descriptions of what it is like to sleep rough, in the open, in England, where it rains and the cold wind blows and the temperature drops at night.

Living through these bleak, shelterless experiences with the book’s characters makes you appreciate why civilisation arose in hot climates around the Mediterranean and what a lot of energy – coal, gas and oil – it takes to make our rainy windswept islands inhabitable.

St Peter Port has been utterly swept away by the tsunami

Next day Matthew takes them to St Peter Port hoping to find rich pickings for the foragers they have become but is staggered to discover that the entire town was washed away by the Channel tsunami. The land has been swept clean leaving roads going down into an empty canyon. He looks over what was once the sea and is now drying seabed, gazing out across the rocky outcrops of what were once the islands of Herm and Sark, while he tries to get his head round the scale of the destruction.

They meet a survivor, a man who has been utterly traumatised and quotes bits of the Bible because he sees the entire thing as a result of God’s anger. Initially heartened at finding another survivor, Matthew and Billy quickly want to get rid of him.

Joe Miller’s gang

Then they meet a small gang of survivors who quickly become the focus of this first part of the novel. Three females (mad Mother Lutron in her 60s, 20-something blonde slattern Shirley, and an 11 or so year old girl) and four men (Harry, de Porthos, Andy with a broken leg and ‘simple’ Ashton). This little band is led by Joe Miller (page 52).

Miller is educated up to a point. He’s smart enough to grasp the new situation, to have established himself as leader, he can see the need for planning. But Christopher carefully distinguishes Miller from Matthew –a very decent middle-class chap – by his accent, his selfishness and, above all, by his attitude towards women. Miller makes it crystal clear that the slatternly blonde young woman, Shirley, is his. Matthew says, fine, fine and finds himself being assimilated into the gang. Makes sense to stick together.

Over the next few days there is a lot more foraging and we get to know the other characters in Miller’s gang and to explore his hold over them. He treats the shambling men in his gang harshly, punching and kicking them if they fall short, and slaps Shirley if she doesn’t do what he says. But he is practical and clear-headed, he has a plan and clear priorities – create a new community, find as much food and drink as possible, establish a base and assert his unquestioned authority.

The reader is invited to assess, along with Matthew, whether Miller is a brute or a shrewd man who has fully grasped the nature of the new situation they’re all going to have to survive in.

They find a youngish woman in a wrecked building, screaming and dying in agony. They find some aspirin to grind up and feed her mixed into gin until she dies. They find another middle-aged man named Mullivant standing stupidly outside the utter wreckage of his house which contains the bodies of his wife and two children (page 58). In other words we meet a selection of the types of survivor you might expect from a disaster like this.

The dynamic between Miller and Matthew is explored. Miller immediately knows Matthew is intelligent and an asset to the group, is open to frank discussion with him but makes sure his say prevails. The two men have quiet conversations in the evenings about what must have happened on the mainland – if no rescue planes have flown over or helicopters come, it must mean it’s as bad there as here on Guernsey. Matthew realises Miller is being lining him up as his lieutenant and confidante, a role he is happy to acquiesce in, for the time being.

Irene and Hilda are added to Miller’s gang

They find a cow that needs to be milked. They realise the madman for St Peter Port is following them. They find two young women who had been sleeping in a basement flat. The women need digging out but are essentially alright. Matthew immediately sees that Irene will look very attractive once she’s cleaned up, and indeed she is.

Irene was a very good-looking girl…Shirley was a very ordinary little slut against either of them… (page 76)

This creates tensions immediately among the menfolk and it is fascinating to see this described through a 1960s mentality. Miller asks Irene to come with him for a chat – she refuses and so he asks Matthew to come along too – but his point is not to rape her (as, we discover later, many men have been simply raping the women they encounter), it is to discuss arrangements in the camp.

Basically, he tells Irene that he is going to tell the other men that she is now his woman. It doesn’t matter whether she is or not, but they must believe she is. This will make her off-limits and prevent competition over her developing into fights. This is what he’s worried about; that the group will be weakened if the men fall to fighting over the most attractive women. He explains all this to Irene and that it doesn’t mean she has to be ‘his woman’, but it will also offer her protection from unwanted attentions.

Matthew, as ever, is impressed by Miller’s shrewdness, but he also realises Irene is no pushover. She is educated and clever too. After pausing to consider it, Irene agrees. Miller is visibly relieved. He isn’t in control of the situation, but he is definitely the nearest thing the little gang have to a leader.

Five days after the quake the weather breaks and it starts to rain, giving us plentiful descriptions of how utterly miserable it is spending nights out in the cold and the wind and the rain. One night at the campfire a stranger appears. He is named Le Perré and has walked the nine miles across the ocean floor to Guernsey. Later Matthew takes him aside and asks him what the ocean floor is like to walk on. Patchy, is the answer, some sand, some shingle, some weeds, some gloopy mud. But he made it.

Throughout all the preceding passages Matthew has periodically thought of his daughter, Jane, at uni in Sussex, hoping longingly that she is alive. When he mentions his intention of walking across the sea floor to the mainland, Matty thinks he’s mad then becomes threatening. Their little band needs every good worker they can get. He refuses to let Matthew leave. From now onwards Matthew starts making a secret stash of provisions.

Walking across the dry seabed

A few days later Matthew is woken by one of the countless minor tremors and shocks they are continuing to experience, in the makeshift ‘tent’ he shares with Billy. He quickly dresses, slips on his shoes, takes his shotgun, takes his haversack and jerrycan filled with water and slips out of the base.

He makes his way to the coastal cliffs and by slippery paths down to the beach and across and out into what used to be the English Channel. Thus begins his surreal journey across the dry seabed. As the sun comes up and he sees the wide dry ocean floor stretching out in all directions, he discovers the worst enemy is anxiety, his sense of nagging unease, as if this is so against nature, so unnatural. His unconscious expects the sea to come rushing back at any moment.

Thus it’s a relief when Matthew hears a voice calling and returns its calls. It takes a while for him to realise that it’s Billy. His departure had woken Billy who watched him leave, then slipped into his own shoes and clothes and has followed him. Matthew knows the future can only hold uncertainty and danger and tries his best to send Billy back. But Billy was rescued, had his arm set in a splint, and fed by Matthew. He is now, in effect, his father.

Alderney is riven in two

Matthew navigates by the sun to guide them towards Alderney, hoping there might be food, a spring of freshwater and even survivors. But as it comes into view he and Billy see it has been struck by an even more severe calamity – the entire island has been lifted up and split in two, is now divided by an immense fissure starting in the ocean floor and quite splitting the island in half.

The container ship with the mad captain

Matthew knows he ought to take Billy back to the safety of Miller and the little community on Guernsey but he is driven on by his obsession with finding his daughter. After spending the night near ruined Alderney they head off north again. They see shipwrecks on the ocean floor, maybe Elizabethan galleons.

Then they are stupefied to come across a vast modern container ship, which somehow got stuck in the V of some reefs and so is sitting on the ocean bed completely upright. Mystifyingly there is a rope ladder down from the deck near the control tower. They climb it and discover the ship is in excellent condition throughout. They are staggered to find the corridors and cabins are fully lit and then discover the kitchen, which contains fresh bread and working fridges and freezers packed with food, and set about gorging themselves.

They are interrupted by a ‘short, fat, swarthy man’ in a gold-braided peak cap who introduces himself as Captain Skiopos (page 116). Skiopos is hospitality itself, forcing more food and drink on them, giving them a tour of the entire ship and explaining how it was his first command. Slowly they realise he is deranged. Every day he gets up early, shaves and dresses, makes all the beds, scrubs the floor in the kitchen and keeps the ship shipshape. When Matthew points out that eventually the oil will run out and the generator will stop working, Skiopos blinks and shakes his head to shake away the thought. ‘Nothing to worry about, everything will be fine,’ he insists.

They are astonished to discover the ship has its own private projection room, in effect a cinema, but disconcerted when Skiopos insists on playing a succession of films regardless of our guys’ protests that they’re exhausted, and by the way the captain talks to the figures upon the screen.

Next morning Skiopos is a different man, uncommunicative, in fact he ignores them as they go about making breakfast. Billy is scared but Matthew realises he is what he defines as a ‘psychotic’. Our guys select food from the fridge (half a roast chicken etc) load it into their bags, along with drinks and exit the crew area and walk across the deck to the rope ladder.

They are disconcerted when they see Skiopos approaching it, still ignoring them. Matthew makes the big, big mistake of volunteering to tell the captain that they are taking some of his food, he hopes he doesn’t mind. Oh but he does. The captain flies into an insensate rage and insists they give it all back which Matthew, reluctantly does. Once satisfied Skiopos bundles up the chicken etc, ignores our guys and walks back towards the bridge.

Keen to get away, Matthew bundles Billy over the bulwark, down the rope ladder, onto to the ocean floor and away.

Arriving in ruined England

Four days later they sight the coast of England. Matthew figures they are where Bournemouth should be but the entire town was scoured and washed away by the Channel tsunami leaving blank rocks and mudslides. On the ocean floor they come across all kinds of seaside wreckage. They clamber ashore into ‘a wrecked and meaningless world’ (page 136). Rubble and wreckage everywhere. They find some abandoned fires, realise most of the buildings have been foraged already, so there are at least some survivors.

One misty morning they see New Forest ponies loom out of the mist. They spot two women who turn and flee when they shout to them. They carry on along a road Matthew thinks is the A31.

Lawrence and April’s group

A little later they see a different kind of woman, calm, stationary, self-possessed watching them. As with Irene and Hilda, Matthew’s first reaction is to her physical attractiveness.

She was in her middle thirties, he judged, of medium height and with a good figure… [in her face] intelligence and courage but not beauty. (page 143)

She introduces herself as April and is astonished and angry when Matthew tells her they’ve come from the Channel Islands. Quite quickly she makes clear that life on the mainland is much more dangerous. She is acting as lookout to her group who she now takes them to. This consists of Lawrence, a 50-something doctor, George, Archie and Charlie, a young girl Cathie, and Sybil. Matthew/the narrator assess Sybil in the sexualised way we’ve come to expect:

Sybil was about twenty-eight, a cowed-looking, not very attractive girl, hiding a thin figure under badly fitting blue overall trousers… (page 145)

Several things emerge. April used to live in the big house whose ruined garden the group now use as a base. Her husband and two children were killed in the quake. She dug them out and buried them herself. She is tough. She encountered Lawrence who was the local doctor and who, having grasped the scale of the apocalypse, was on the verge of killing himself with an overdose when he heard her calling. He is kindly, intelligent and weak. These are the two representatives of the ‘educated’ class; the others are working class (page 148).

April and Lawrence tell Matthew that the countryside is overrun with what they call the ‘yobbos’, the uneducated, chavs, gangs who steal whatever April’s group have foraged and found. Don’t kill them or hurt them, just steal everything. Hence April standing as lookout. They take Matthew and Billy back to their base.

Here Lawrence expounds on the kind of neat little theory the educated like to come up with, which he has called the Anthill Syndrome (page 153). This is that, if you disturb or destroy an anthill up to a certain point, the ants will rally round their queen and rebuild it, no matter what it takes. But if the destruction goes beyond a certain threshold the ants will descend into chaos, running round with no plan or goals, attacking each other and undermining the colony’s very survival.

At their ‘base’ – April’s ruined house with its formal gardens, vegetable garden and fields – they show Matthew the secret stash they’ve created in a cellar whose entrance they carefully cover with a huge heavy table and then wreckage. It contains not only the usual tins but such medicines as Lawrence has salvaged and some bottles of fine wine and brandy. They tell him they’ve spotted a bull, which would make an excellent meal. Matthew has his gun.

Next morning Matthew goes to wash at the nearby stream they’ve shown him and comes across April naked from the waist up (pages 162 to 163). He had noticed the shapeliness of her body from the first moment. Now his mouth dries out with desire. Not just that. Beauty. He’s forgotten what beauty was like in a world of ugliness and death. Eventually she notices him but doesn’t mind. Unashamedly towels herself down and walks over to talk with him.

Later that morning all the men bar Ashton set out on the bullock hunt. They succeed in cornering the bull and Matthew shoots it, blasting away half the animal’s face. Disgusted, he goes away while the others saw up the body. But on returning to the base they hear cries and screams. Sneaking up carefully they discover their base has been discovered by a small group of five yobbos, who have tied Archie up, pulled down his trousers and are torturing him with a wax taper. Those were the screams. They are torturing him to find out where the group’s stash is.

Blinded by anger Matthew leaps out from the bushes where he’d been hiding and blasts a shot at the two men holding Archie, which appears to catch both of them, and turns to get the apparent leader of the group, a tall, strong, bronzed, blonde man who makes a lunge at him but Matthew shoots him at virtually point blank range, obliterating his chest and face.

Two of the five have scarpered. Now April goes up to the other two wounded men and tells them to hop it. When they don’t she hits one with the shotgun butt and kicks the other viciously. They limp off bleeding, probably to die.

Matthew twisted his ankle turning to shoot at the leader of the yobbos. Now April bandages it calmly and professionally. She says she is proud of him. Matthew finds his heart bursting with desire and love. The others tend to poor sobbing Archie, then build a fire and begin to cook the hand-carved steaks. Billy asks Matthew if they can stay. He likes Cathie and Lawrence has promised to show him how to be a doctor. Remember Billy is only 11.

The group discuss plans.

  1. April says the yobbos had tortured Archie because they couldn’t believe they didn’t have a stash. Therefore what they should do is create a diversionary stash which they can admit to under duress and so satisfy the next band of yobbos.
  2. The shotgun cartridges will run out. Matthew notices some lengths of steel in the cellar. He speculates that they could try making bows and arrows.
  3. Most momentously, he, April and Lawrence discuss heading for the hills. It’ll be easier to create a fortified encampment, maybe farm animals have survived in the hills, it’ll be easier to pen and farm them.

Rape and rapists

Next day, with lookouts posted and no immediate threat, Matthew goes strolling and comes across April in the grounds of her ruined house. They walk across fields to an old oak tree. The sun is shining, flowers are blooming, she tells him her boys used to love climbing this old oak tree. He feels very close to her and heavy with love/lust/emotion. She puts her hand on his sleeve, he thinks he’s going to explode with desire.

However, this idyllic lovers’ walk takes a disastrous turn for the worse when they start talking about the incursion of the yobbos the day before and Matthew lets slips remarks which imply he’s relieved that nothing worse happened to the women in the group i.e. April herself, Sybil and young Cathy.

April withdraws her hand and is disbelieving, then angry. Is he so thick that he doesn’t realise that she was raped, her three times, and Sybil twice, before the menfolk arrived back. And that she has been raped again and again by gangs of yobbos since the catastrophe, and that even 11-year-old Cathy has been raped? Didn’t he realise that’s why she kicked and hit the wounded men? Because they raped her!

Matthew’s face reveals his horror and also, despite himself, his disgust, so she goes on to tell him about the man who spat in her face while he was still ‘inside’ her. How Lawrence comforted her after the first time it happened but, more practically, inserted ‘coils’ into the three women to prevent them getting pregnant, though she wonders if any of them have contracted venereal disease. And then Lawrence so obviously, pitifully wanted to have comfort sex that she let him sleep with her. And Charley too, the young man in the group.

Now it all comes tumbling out, her contempt for men, her cold fury, her disgust… and her disgust with him (pages 192 ff.)

‘Sex and motherhood are the centres of being a woman. Now they mean nothing but disgust and fear. (page 195)

The conversation has wandered right out of control and now she says she doesn’t want him to stay. If he wants to pursue his stupid, foolish fantasy quest to look for his daughter Jane, then by all means go. If he doesn’t leave, she’ll have to, he has reminded her too much of everything she lost.

It’s a brilliant passage, the reader had been lulled into the false sense of security just like Matthew, so April’s revelations are genuinely shocking. But also the way their lovers’ walk is so close to falling in love and then he wrecks it beyond repair by a small remark which reveals the gulf in understanding which separates them. Christopher’s books are problematic in many ways but he has this knack for getting inside (middle class) relationship, as witness the lengthy description of the middle class affairs which open The World In Winter.

Quest for Jane

And so Matthew and Billy load up with provisions and water and embark on the next stage of their quest, heading East along the coast to find Matthew’s daughter. There follows a long, gruelling description of their horrible trek along the ruined coast, past what used to be Portsmouth, amid ruins and detritus. At one point a man waves at them from the shore and comes bounding towards them, turning out to be a harmless religious nut who is convinced the disaster is the work of God and quotes liberally from the Bible but is genuinely kindly, takes them back to the shack he’s built, gives them hot food and shelter for the night.

After this pleasant interlude they struggle on to the East. They pass the ruins of what Matthew thinks must have been Littlehampton. Here, for a moment the narrative becomes Ballardian. They see a sports car standing upright, its bonnet gripped in the earth which had opened and clasped it, with the skeletons of two bright young things rotting in it. At the same time Christopher was writing his apocalypse novels i.e. the start of the 1960s, so was J.G. Ballard. Suffice to say the reason Ballard’s are known and Christophers’ a lot less so is because:

  1. Ballard’s books convey the real psychological damage the collapse of civilisation would cause in a brilliant and completely original way, illuminated by countless weird and disorientating tableaux.
  2. Line for line, as a writer, Ballard’s sentences are full of vivid and exciting analogies, similes and metaphors; reading them is like taking acid – Christopher’s scenarios and sights are often vivid and shocking but the prose he describes them in is very workaday and practical.

The trek goes on for days. Billy falls ill with a fever, which gets steadily worse. He goes off his food. He has feverish dreams. Matthew feels guilty for taking him away from the safety of Guernsey, or Lawrence’s happy group. He imagines he can hear April’s voice accusing him of stupid, vainglorious fantasies of finding his daughter. Billy gets more and more ill but doggedly insists on going on. They advance up a long, long, long slope towards the horizon. As they finally get to the top, expecting to look out over the Sussex landscape Matthew is stunned to find himself looking out over… the sea! So this is where the sea went. The south-east of England has sunk deep enough to drain the English Channel and create a new sea. It is all under water. Nothing could have survived.

And at this moment he hears April’s voice in his head accusing him of obsession in following his fantasy of a Happy Ending.In his feverish mind they argue. Matthew says April had the chance to bury her dead, but he hasn’t. He had to do everything he could to find her. But now the scales have fallen from his eyes. It is over.

He looked, and knew himself, and understood… He had taken his fantasy to the bitter end and seen it drown… (page 215)

The journey back

So they turn right round and go back. Billy is very ill, Matthew begins to think he’ll die. There’s no medicines and no shelter. Sometimes they sleep in blankets in the pelting rain. Matthew beds Billy down in a hay barn and goes to pick some half-ripe potatoes but when he gets back a gang of foragers have found Billy and his haversack. Matthew makes up a story on the spot about having a plague which has killed off two of their companions, but the tall Northerner leading the gang takes Matthew’s much-travelled shotgun and delivers Matthew a mighty punch into the bargain.

Matthew keeps Billy’s spirits up by telling him they’ll find the religious man with the shack around Portsmouth and then press on to reunite with Lawrence and his people and go to the hills with them. But when he finally rounds some rocks and looks for the religious man’s hut, he sees at a glance that it’s been burned down. It starts to rain and Matthew tries to make Billy comfortable in the remains of the burned and vandalised hut. He goes foraging inland and discovers the preacher man’s body. Looks like he threw himself at one of the foragers and had managed to strangle him before he was himself pole-axed by an axe (page 228).

Lawrence and April have gone

Matthew is beyond desolate now. Everything is destroyed, everyone is dying. He makes a kind of rack and straps Billy’s wasted feverish body to it and then staggers on westwards. If only he can make it back to Lawrence. Half deliriously he has conversations in his mind with April, saying he has learned his lesson, and he wants to learn more from her. His progress becomes ever more painful and slow. They cease for the night and rest in a ditch in the seabed. It rains. Billy moans and fevers. Matthew is overcome by a vast sense of loneliness and failure (page 231).

Next day he staggers on bearing the rack with Billy’s wasted body tied to it. They encounter a small group who see how wasted he is and simply ignore him, laughing at his request for condensed milk for Billy. Finally, he reaches the main road he stumbled along all those weeks before and then the mound where he first saw April, staggers through the woods and comes to the stream where he saw April bathing and then on to the wrecked house where they’d made their base.

They’re not there. No sign of April, Lawrence, Cathy, Archy et al. Silence. He tries to keep Billy’s fever down with stream water and tells him the others will soon be back. He visits the graves in the rose garden which April dug for her husband and sons and notices someone has carefully placed a rose on each one.

After an enormous effort Matthew manages to budge the huge oak dining table just enough to squeeze down into the cellar where, once his eyes become accustomed… He realises they’ve taken everything practical and portable. They’ve gone to the hills as they had discussed. He will never find them. He is doomed.

He tends to Billy who is having fever dreams all the time. He gives him aspirin crushed into milk, then later in the night Billy fights hard to get up and escape. Matthew knows he’s dying now. He cuddles the skinny, feverish boy to him for warmth and falls asleep under a ragged blanket. The reader is convinced he will die, too. Where else can it go?

When he wakes the next morning Billy is quite still and Matthew is convinced he’s dead. But he touches his pale gaunt skin and discovers he isn’t. He wakes up and talks rationally. The fever has broken and he is well. He can’t remember how he got here or any of the nightmare journey. Matthew explains the others must have headed for the hills and greater safety. He starts to prepare, resting up, eating properly, sheltering them both from the rain, gathering supplies. He tries grinding the steel rods to make arrows but gives up. He loads the rucksack with provisions.

He walks the route he took with April what seems like months earlier and hears her voice mocking him. She says his plan to head for ‘the hills’ in order to find her and Lawrence is yet another quixotic fantasy. How much longer will he drag poor Billy round with him? Till they both drop dead?

Next morning they wake and Billy asks if it’s the day they’re going to set off for the hills. No, Matthew says. They are going back to Guernsey. It will be safe. He realises now he should never have left.

Back to the Channel and a happy discovery

The last chapter cuts to them walking across the dry channel seabed. They are both much rested and recovered, Matthew had time to repair their shoes and find new clothes. They skirt the vast container ship and wonder what’s become of Captain Skiopos. They won’t head for Alderney, knowing it is ruined. They make camp for the night and Matthew holds the boy in his arms. He hears April’s voice in his head but no longer mocking him. She is distant. Her and his hopes for them are in the past. Miller will be pleased to see him back and to hear news of how lucky they are to be on Guernsey.

Next morning it is thick fog. Matthew gets Billy to climb to the top of some reefs. From there he thinks he sees water, a lot of water. For a moment I thought the sea was slowly returning. But they’ve come a different route from their outward passage and so have discovered a large salty lake. It’s three quarters of a mile across, too far to swim, and they and the food and blankets would get wet, anyway, so they have to go round it.

It is a long detour, maybe ten miles before they reach the head of the lake and round it to resume their trudge south. And there to their utter amazement, they hear a familiar voice and come across Archie, Archie from the Lawrence-April group, happily fishing. In his simple-minded way Archie tells them the group decided against the hills and, inspired by Matthew’s tales of the security of Guernsey, had set out for the islands themselves.

They had come to Alderney and, Archie tells them, the island has chickens, there are fish down in this small sea, there are no yobbos, they are enjoying a healthy diet. Matthew can’t express what he is feeling, after all this time, after the agonised imaginary relationship with April. And now here she is, along with the gentle old doctor. ‘Reckon they’ll be glad to see you,’ says Archie. Not as glad as Matthew will be to see them.

And so, after 250 gruelling pages, feeling thoroughly exhausted by the relentless physical assault of the elements, the starving, the violence and the emotional extremes, with the rest of the world in ruins, somehow, the book manages to have a happy ending.


Themes

Obviously the over-riding theme is what happens when civilised society is completely destroyed and a handful of survivors are thrown back on their own resources – which is that they resort to Dark Age barbarism, only with tinned food and shotguns. But within the overarching idea, several other themes stood out for me.

Class

One was how very clear the narrator is about the distinction between ‘the educated’ and ‘the yobbos’.

The educated, such as Lawrence the doctor, can immediately be recognised by their accent (their ‘recognition of someone who talks the same language’, page 157), and will invariably be polite, well mannered, cultured, curious and respectful.

The yobbos, on the other hand, can be expected to be stupid (although often characterised by low cunning), violent to women (key sign of yobbishness) and often rapists. The educated talk, like talking, enjoy conversation, have lots of ideas and perceptions to talk about. The yobbos look after number one, constantly tell people to shut up and obey their peremptory orders. They live in their bodies, enjoying eating, getting drunk, sex and demonstrating their violent prowess.

Repeatedly, throughout the book, you wonder how much English society, deep down, has changed from this bleak duality.

Gender

Inevitably, most of the women are converted by the collapse of civilised society into sex objects and breeders. This is how Miller regards every fertile woman who joins his band, although he at least has a plan, namely to father a new generation, which entails protecting women for their function as mothers. Pure ‘yobbos’, in line with their lack of long-term thinking and slaves to immediate physical appetites, just rape women and abandon them. This may be objectionable to most female readers, but appears to reflect the real world. As soon as war breaks out anywhere and social norms are abandoned, rape becomes common. It appears to be the basic state of Homo sapiens unless moderated by social forces, conventions and authority.

Anyway, the narrating voice uncomfortably reinforces this objectifying tendency by assessing every new female character by their attractiveness. After a while I found this a bit creepy and oppressive. Shirley, Miller’s initial girlfriend, is referred to not only by Miller but by Matthew and the narrator as a ‘slut’, content ‘in her sluttish way’, and so on and so on.

But, to balance this, it also needs to be emphasised that Christopher goes out of his way create strong female characters. Quite quickly Irene steps up to become Miller’s number two, asserting her authority without really having to, and cows Miller himself. Just as April emerges as a very strong, tough-minded woman who has survived the death of the rest of her family and repeated rapes to become an unillusioned survivor, stronger than Lawrence.

The difference between John Wyndham and John Christopher

They were friends and colleagues and both wrote apocalypse, end-of-the-world science fiction stories but their works leave a very different taste in the mouth. Basically, Christopher’s books are a lot more cynical and violent, and feature really gruelling physical trials.

I’m very influenced by reading Amy Binns’s excellent 2019 biography of John Wyndham in which she brings out the way the succession of shrewd, clever, resourceful, strong women in his novels and stories are all versions of his lifelong beloved, Oxford graduate, teacher and left-wing activist, Grace Wilson. Having read that biography I understand better why Wyndham’s novels, even at their bleakest, are nonetheless anchored or underpinned by a fundamental sense of decency. The male narrators or protagonists ultimately feel safe because there is a strong woman sharing their ordeals. This contributes to the strange sense of comfort or reassurance they have, even in the bleakest moments.

Whereas in Christopher’s novels, although there are strong female characters (Carol in World In Winter, April in Wrinkle) the relations of men and women are much more troubled. Couples get divorced, fall in love but then break up, argue, realise they are incompatible. This leaves them feeling profoundly alone and isolated. Characters in a Christopher novel fall more easily into utter despair than in any Wyndham novel, as Andrew Leedon finds himself weeping uncontrollably on a Nigerian beach for the world he has lost in World In Winter and Matthew at several points feel overwhelmed with utter despair and ‘hopeless misery’ (page 99).

He was conscious only of their wretchedness, their vulnerability. (page 108)

And the reader experiences that despair for themselves. I think it’s this much harsher emotional climate of Christopher’s novels which makes them a much grittier, often more unpleasant read, than Wyndham’s.

Triffids is easily Wyndham’s bleakest novel but even there, by a quarter of the way through the story, the protagonist has met the lovely Josella who becomes his lover, his friend and support, offering the male protagonist (and the reader) a sense of feminine consolation. And Wyndham’s other three big novels all have strong women underpinning and supporting the male protagonist (Phyllis in Kraken, Rosalind in Chrysalids, the narrator’s wife Janet and Ferrelyn Zellaby in Midwich Cuckoos). What makes Wyndham’s apocalypse novels ‘cosy’ is the warm emotional climate which suffuses them; even at their most scary and bleak there is always a strong woman there, or in the protagonist’s thoughts, to help and support him (and, by extension, the reader).

There isn’t in Christopher’s novels. There are just as many female protagonists but they are, themselves, as imperilled, as compromised, as lost, as the male leads, which contributes to his novels’ sense of cold, gritty, unforgiving brutality. Maybe this is one reason for Christopher’s lack of popularity and relative obscurity.


Credit

A Wrinkle In The Skin by John Christopher was published by Hodder and Stoughton in 1965. All references are to the 2000 First Cosmos paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

The Death of Grass by John Christopher (1956)

‘Pity always was a luxury. It’s all right if the tragedy’s a comfortable distance away – if you can watch it from a seat in the cinema. It’s different when you find it on your doorstep – on every doorstep.’
(John Custance in The Death of Grass, page 145)

This isn’t a particularly well-written novel, the prose style is starchy, the dialogue is as forced as a 1950s movie, and the major outlines of the plot often feel preposterous, BUT… by God, it has grip! Starting slowly, it picks up speed and turns into a hair-raising description of a polite, middle-class England which is utterly destroyed as the entire world falls to a devastating virus which kills all species of grass, thus plunging the entire globe into famine and bloodshed, and swiftly turning the handful of jolly middle-class chaps and chapesses we meet at the start of the book into hard-faced killers.

John Christopher

John Christopher was just one of the pen-names of the prolific English genre novelist Sam Youd (1922 to 2012). Youd left school at 16, worked as a clerk and then was drafted into the army, serving in the Royal Corps of Signals from 1941 to 1946.

He was determined on a career as a professional writer and his first ‘normal’, mainstream novel, The Winter Swan, was published under the name Christopher Youd in 1949. However, he was attracted to science fiction and wrote science fiction short stories under the different byline of John Christopher from 1951, getting them published in various specialist sci-fi magazines.

His first book as John Christopher, the science fiction novel, Year of the Comet, was published in 1955. The Death of Grass, published the following year, was his second sci-fi novel and his first major success as a writer. Youd went on to write a further ten or so sci fi novels as John Christopher – although he also wrote in a variety of other styles (detective stories, light comedy, cricket books) under no less than seven other pseudonyms. In 1966 he started writing novels for teenagers, what we nowadays call young adult fiction, producing about 20 of these, notably the Tripod and Sword of the Spirits trilogies.

The Death of Grass

The book opens by introducing us to a nice middle-class family with two brothers, John and David Custance (‘Don’t say “blimey”, David, it’s common.’)

David inherits his grandfather’s farm in a remote valley in Westmorland, while John pursues a career as a civil engineer in London. He marries Ann and has two children of his own, Davey and Mary. They often socialise with a friend of John’s from the army, Roger Buckley, and his placid wife, Olivia and son Steve. Ann dislikes Roger, who is a PR officer at the Ministry of Production, because he is so cynical and ironic (and given to quoting classic poetry, usually for ironic effect).

But Roger is the one, because of his position inside government comms, who is able to give John and David advance news that the virus affecting rice which has arisen in China, the ‘Chung-Li virus’ which has been in all the newspapers, is now heading for Europe and that even lovely old Blighty might eventually face the same kind of famine and food riots that are happening in the Far East.

And so it turns out. Hundreds of millions of Chinese are reported as dying of starvation as their entire rice harvest fails, spilling over into famine in Indochina and India, but we in the West rely on grasses and grains, not rice and so, for a season, watch with detached pity the mass starvation in the East.

When scientists eventually successfully kill off the original virus using ‘isotope 717’, there is much rejoicing around the world… until it is realised that killing off its competitors leaves the field open to a variant of the original virus which does target grasses and is more virulent than its predecessors.

In the first 4 or 5 chapters we see all this entirely through the dinner party chat and family dinners of John, Ann and their kids, of Roger and Olivia, and on a few occasions when John and his (wifeless, childless) brother David get together. John and Roger go for lunch at the latter’s club (chops and lager). Or the Buckleys and Custances enjoy their annual summer trip to stay in Roger’s caravan on the coast, while the kids play on the beach. They tut about the situation in the East, the womenfolk want the government to send more food supplies to the famine-affected areas and disapprove of Roger when he cynically says we need to keep all the food we can for ourselves.

When The Collapse comes, it comes suddenly and with no warning. Roger shows up at the building site of John’s latest building project, takes him to an empty pub and tells him the shocking news: England has only been fed by shipments from America and the Commonwealth. Now those shipments are ending. Within a week 55 million people will have no more food (p.45).

Not only that but – quite incredibly – the government has decided the only way to ensure the survival of at least half the population is to… liquidate the other half. The government has fallen, been replaced by a new hardline one which is drawing up plans to drop nuclear bombs on all the UK’s major cities! (p.48)

OK. Hard to credit, but within the swim of the narrative, it seems madly plausible. Earlier, we had a scene when John and Ann were visiting his brother Davy at the farm in the remote valley, Blind Gill, and he’d been a little shocked to learn his brother had bought a load of timber and was going to build a stockade, a fence against the one narrow entrance to the valley. Back in London, John had mentioned all this in one of his regular lunches with Roger.

Now Roger tells John to drop everything, go collect his daughter from her private school in Beckenham, and that both families must set off immediately for the North and David’s farm in Blind Gill. We are given a vivid scene of John, in a blur of panic, having to reassure his daughter’s tall, no-nonsense headmistress, Miss Errington, that everything is alright, and John’s distress as he looks round at all his daughters friends and wonders what will become of them (p.50).

But returning to his home in London, John discovers Roger has been delayed by his car having a busted gasket and having to take it to the garage. It’s 4pm before the two cars set off, loaded to the gills with all the belongings they intend to keep.

But the fateful delay means that, by the time they get clear of the North Circular Road, they are met by an army roadblock which has only been set up in the last hour or so. On the radio government announcements that nobody must leave London. The officer manning the roadblock says it’s just a manoeuvre, nothing serious, but won’t let them or anyone else through.

They turn round and Roger suggests a) taking a quiet rural side road as far as they can out of town and that b) he and John head back into the centre to a shop he knows. It is a gun shop. The two men try it on with the owner, a small, hunched, self-possessed and wordy man named Pirrie who refuses to serve them and, when John tries to jump him, pulls a revolver on them and starts to phone the police (p.60). It’s then that John tells him the full story, the imminent end of food, the famine, the collapse of society – and about his brother’s valley, Blind Gill, where they’re heading.

Pirrie phones his wife and tells her to pack their essential belongings into the car. (So that’s three cars – John and Ann and Mary in a Vauxhall; Roger and Olivia and Steve in a Ford; Pirrie and his wife, Millicent in their Citroen). Then helps our guys load up the car they came in with a small arsenal of weapons and ammunition. When a passing bobby asks them what they’re up to Pirrie calmly and confidently lies that he’s been asked to take this all over to the local police station. It is the first occasion he shows John and Roger how resourceful and calm he is under pressure.

They drive to Pirrie’s house where his wife Millicent (20 years younger, very attractive) has packed their car. Pirrie gets into it and they arrange the rendezvous at the quiet country road where they left their wives. They park and reconnoitre and see an army checkpoint a few hundred yards ahead round a corner. They wait till it’s dark and then ambush it. Roger drives forward loud and drunk, while John and Pirrie sneak up from the sides and take aim at the three soldiers as they approach Roger’s car. In the end, it is Pirrie who kills all three with just three shots. He owns a gunshop. He is a marksman. They throw the bodies in a ditch and lift the barricade. The killing has begun.

They get safely beyond the barricaded area then sleep in the cars. Next morning they drive to Davey’s boarding school (Saxon Court). Everything seems normal as they collect the boy, who insists that his friend, nicknamed Spooks, comes to.

They push on north and see bombers flying towards Leeds. The radio has stopped working. Normal authorities have ceased. Can the bombers really have been going to bomb Leeds? Madness. At another army roadblock a Yorkshire soldier advises a roundabout route north.

They come to a level crossing whose gates come down cutting John, Ann and Mary off from the cars ahead. John goes to investigate, sees a woman who’s been raped inside the station house, runs back round the house to see two men struggling with his girls and at that moment someone whacks him with a block of wood, knocking him unconscious.

When John comes round, he is being tended by Olivia. Roger and Pirrie took a while to realise his car was missing and return. In the meantime the bandits have taken John’s car and women. They could be anywhere. It is Spooks who points out a trail of oil on the road from a leaking gasket. They follow it out to the country where they ambush the three men. They have taken it in turns to gang rape John’s wife and daughter. Pirrie shoots them but not to kill. Our guys rush up to Ann and Mary who have both been raped. Ann takes John’s machine gun, stands over her rapist and rips him to pieces with a burst of machine gun fire that empties the magazine. In her biography of John Wyndham, Amy Binns points out that it was this scene which prevented Death of Grass being made into a movie, but in reality the book has this very hard, brutal edge throughout. No-one emerges as a ‘hero’.

Chapter 7 All the way through the narrative has been punctuated by the characters listening to the radio. At one point the plummy BBC voice goes off the air and is replaced by a spokesman for a new Citizens Emergency Committee (p.92) which claims to have taken over London.

Heading north they swerve into another roadblock outside the town of Masham by a self-defence force, multiple guns pointing at them and their guns are in the boots of the cars, They end up being stripped of cars, petrol, most of their food the guns and ammo. When completely finished, the dozen Masham defenders melt away leaving our crew to walk up a hillside and sleep the night atop the defensible hilltop. But Pirrie had insisted on bringing his blanket with him and reveals, now, that he kept a rifle stashed inside (he tells us he used the same tactics when with the Army in Arabia, against thieving Arabs).

Now they are a tired party, heading north and on foot, with at least three days march ahead of them (pages 97 to 105).

Chapter 8 They come across an isolated cottage with smoke coming from the chimney, and shoot dead the burly cottager who opens the door holding a shotgun, and then his wife who is inside, also with a gun. John shoots her in the face with his shotgun but she doesn’t die, instead falls to the floor screaming with pain. Pirrie eventually arrives with the rest of the party and executes her. You can see why it was a non-starter as a film adaptation.

They load up all the goods they need, and the wives cook a full English breakfast from eggs and bacon. It’s only then that they find the murdered couple’s daughter, Jane, cowering in her room upstairs. To John’s surprise, Olivia and then Rodger insist that Jane comes with them. If they leave her there, the next gang of marauders will rape and kill her. Initially Janes just wants to be left alone but Olivia eventually talks her into going along with them.

It was while in this cottage that Roger scans through the airwaves, most of which are silent, and comes across a broadcast from America saying that all Europe has plunged into barbarism. Some atom bombs have gone off. Last flights carrying European leaders or royal families have landed in the States, which still has ample food stocks but is instituting rationing (pages 116 to 117). Well, thinks John, one day the Americans might return from over the seas to the Old Continent, bearing a virus-resistant grass, but God knows what kind of savage society they’ll find if they do.

Nature is wiping the earth clean (p.125)

Pirrie’s young wife, Millicent, is a bit rougher than the others, a bit less pukka. This is indicated by her slightly ‘Cockney’ accent and by the fact that she flirts increasingly with John, as he makes more and more decisions (and becomes more and more hard of heart). She ironically calls him Big Chief.

That night, when John’s on sentry duty guarding the group who are sleeping in a dell, Millicent creeps up and tries to seduce John. She is half succeeding and manages to get him into a clinch when her husband, Pirrie, announces his presence. We learn Pirrie’s first name is Henry (p.127) as he confronts them. Then, in a striking show of brutality and the new immorality, Pirrie shoots and kills MiIlicent and John lets him. When John had begun to raise his shotgun, Pirrie immediately swung his rifle towards him. John was powerless but he doesn’t feel anything. He and Pirrie throw the body over an embankment to hide it from the others.

Chapter 9 Next day, Pirrie is confronted by the others about murdering his wife and says she had cuckolded him many times (is that an expression any living person uses nowadays, ‘cuckolding’?) so he was within his rights. He then surprises everyone by saying he is going to take Jane, the murdered cottagers’ daughter, to wife (p.134). The women object but don’t stop him repeatedly telling Jane to go to him and, eventually, she does, docilely. This is the new order of relationships. Ann confronts John about it all and John says, at that moment, Ann and Mary meant more to him than anyone else.

They cross up onto the tops of moors and it starts to rain. Down in the valley they can see the village of Sedbergh burning. The men confer and agree they need to be a larger group with more men and guns in order to see off the looters and gangs which are probably forming. A while later a group of four women, two children and a couple of weedy men approach in the rain, pushing prams loaded with belongings. Feebly these losers ask to join their group, but there’s too many of them and they have no guns.

The encounter is interesting because it highlights the very class-based aspect of the story. John’s two children were at prep school, and the narrative has taken us to both these schools where we met the head master and head mistress of each. Right at the start of the book, Ann had told her son Davey not to say the word ‘Blimey’ because it is common. Now, when the oldest man in this shabby group opens his mouth John instantly nails him for a manual labourer, knackered after a lifetime of loyal and inefficient service (p.142). Their children’s names are Bessie and Wilf. Compare and contrast the pukka, upper-middle-class Custance children, named Davey and Mary. Two nations.

Then another larger group comes along, the man carrying guns in a swaggering way. John hails them and there is some blunt talking. Pirrie says that if they’re to unite in one band they’ll all have to obey John Custance here. When their gruff Yorkshire leader, Joe Ashton, starts to demur, Pirrie raises his rifle, the other goes for his revolver and Pirrie shoots him dead. The others are so stunned it takes them a moment to recover and by then Pirrie, John and Roger are covering them.

Pirrie takes it a stage further and orders the rest of his group to line up, shake hands with Custance and identify themselves. John is acutely aware of the ritual element, as his new men line up to offer fealty to their new warlord. The manual labourer from the other group has watched all this and makes another plea to join the enlarged group. In a flash, John realises the power of the ancient feudal system and the deep pleasure it gives to be in a position of power and able to offer mercy and help to the helpless.

Chapter 10 John now leads his group of 34 souls down through the looted ruins of Sedbergh and up to a resting place high up overlooking the Lune Valley. Roger is in charge of the rearguard. Pirrie has settled into being John’s lieutenant. John has a testy dialogue with him, reluctant to completely abandon the notions of democracy and decency, while Pirrie continually reminds him of the realities of the new world.

They come across an abandoned house on the tops. Pirrie takes a party to check it’s secure – the whole thing is running like the army, now – and then the party take separate rooms while John organises a guard. In a bedroom Ann accuses him of becoming a gangster and John insists he doesn’t want to and it will all change when they finally arrive at his brother’s farm. Ann complains that all the women ask her for decisions, since she is the Chieftain’s Wife. His children are scared of him. Even cynical old Roger and Olivia are scared of him, now. In a gesture towards their old friendship, John calls Roger and Olivia up to share the main bedroom, bed for the kids, carpeted floor for the adults.

Ann and Olivia see Pirrie walking off with Jane, presumably to have sex with her in the heather. The women loathe him and despise his taking advantage of the docile farm orphan. They discuss giving Jane the sharpest knife they can find in this cottage so she can slit Pirrie’s throat, but John springs to his lieutenant’s defence, which triggers an angry debate about what he’s become. He keeps saying that, as soon as they reach his brother’s farm, he’ll abandon his duties and everything will return to normal.

In the middle of the night they are attacked by quite a large group of men and it turns into a shooting match. John is dismayed when they start throwing grenades, but when the grenadier stands up to throw, a lucky shot from our guys in the house makes him drop the grenade and set off all the others. At that the attackers withdraw. John doubles the guard for the night. In the morning they go and survey the corpses, only a couple. Some of the men in the groups our heroes have accumulated fought and killed in the war, so they’re used to it.

Chapter 11 They finally march the last few miles to the narrow entrance to the valley named Blind Gill where John’s brother, David, has his legendary farm. There’s a nice stockade built across the valley entrance and Pirrie and John are admiring it from the road when a burst of machine gun fire scatters them. Pirrie is knocked to the road but, when Jane scampers out, picks up his body and carries him to the ditch the rest are taking cover in, it turns out it’s only as graze to the head which knocked him over.

John walks back towards the stockade carrying a white flag and tells whoever’s manning the machine gun that he’s David’s brother. He hears a utility vehicle fire up behind the stockade and motor off, then return a bit later. Then he hears his brother Dave’s voice. Dave makes his people open the gate a fraction so John can squeeze in. The brothers have a joyous reunion but then Dave devastates John by telling him he can’t bring his band in, only Ann and Mary and Davey. He explains that others got there first, have helped him man the barricades, they’ve already had to turn away some of their relatives. There just isn’t enough land to support them all.

John goes back to his people hiding in the ditch and they’ve already guessed the bad news. He puts it to them straight. Roger tells him and Ann and Mary and Davey to take up the offer and for a moment John is tempted. But then glances at Pirrie watching him, tapping the side of his rifle. He realises he wouldn’t make it in alive.

He goes back for another parley with David who, this time, is surrounded by other men, who listen to the conversation, David clearly doesn’t have any room for manouevre. Desperately he suggests John leads his group off and then ducks out, and doubles back with Ann and the kids. He’ll be waiting to let them in tonight. But both men know it won’t work. They shake hands and John is let through the stockade gate again.

Chapter 12 Pirrie has a plan. That night John and Pirrie wade through the freezing cold river which flows underneath David’s stockade and, once inside, open up a fusillade on the half dozen men manning the stockade and its machine gun, killing them all. During the gunfight, Pirrie is hit, collapses into the water and is washed downstream, dead. John’s last memory, as he passes out from his own injury, is of his own people swarming over the now-undefended stockade.

Chapter 13 In a short chapter obviously intended to be unbearably moving, John regains consciousness in David’s old house, his mind full of confused memories of being a boy, of having to attend his grandfather’s funeral, of the reading of the will where it was announced that David would inherit the farm, of his mother’s clumsy attempts to reassure him he would get her money and so have a decent life – these memories interspersed with present-moment impressions of Ann his wife treating and  reassuring him.

Because in his and Pirrie’s assault from within the stockade either he or Pirrie shot dead his beloved brother, David. Now John staggers to his feet, over to where his brother’s corpse is laid out on a bed. He kisses it, then turns to leave the bedroom. Ann asks:

‘Where are you going?’
‘There’s a lot to do,’ he said. ‘A city to be built.’ (p.195)

Old army tricks

Without any song and dance it is made clear that quite a few of the male characters served in the army and fought in the war. One man they meet said all this chaos and bloodshed was fine when it was somewhere else, but is strange here in England. John remembers handling a gun in the army and we are told he shot someone, but it feels sickeningly wrong shooting one of his own people. When he takes sentry duty he cups a cigarette in his palm to hide the glow, an ‘old army trick’ (p.124). We are told one of the Yorkshire band, Will Secombe, fought in the war, and Noah Blennitt, leader of the gunless loser group.

Because the novel turns into a series of military encounters. Some straightforward fighting, some less obvious but still military-style negotiations need to be held with other parties, such as happen atop the moor when Pirrie shoots dead Joe Ashton, leader of the other group. The way so many of the characters served in the Second World War, saw dead bodies or killed during it, underpins and informs the narrative.

Viewed from a certain angle, the entire novel is actually a sort of extension of war literature.


Introduction by Robert Macfarlane

Robert Macfarlane was commissioned by Penguin to write the introduction for the new Penguin Classics edition and it made me pretty angry.

Macfarlane went to private school, then onto Cambridge, so he is well placed to lecture the rest of us about how to live, and to make a career as a writer in an industry dominated by the privately school, Oxbridge-educated elite.

Macfarlane’s sensitive books about mountains or walking ‘the old ways’ are favourably reviewed by other private school and Oxbridge-educated types – for example, The Old Ways was described as ‘a tour de force’ by William Dalrympple, himself attended Britain’s premiere Roman Catholic public school, Ampleforth, and then Cambridge – and Macfarlane has won a heap of awards judged by like-minded, pampered and deeply spiritual souls. Like calls to like. The chumocracy. Or just the narrow ruling class which runs the arts and media.

Macfarlane tries to make out The Death of Grass to be a serious and prophetic piece of literature, rather than the intense, gripping but ultimately shallow, potboiling thriller which it obviously is. Macfarlane tries to argue that the novel deals with nature’s revenge and uses the hundred year-old hackneyed Freudian term ‘the return of the repressed’. This is obvious bollocks, as you can see from my plot summary. People shoot each other. Nothing repressed about it.

And also, for anyone with even a passing interest in ecology or biology, there is precious little scientific content in the book. After scattered references to the Chung-Li virus in the first 40 or so pages and Roger’s pub chats with John about scientists’ attempts to fight it, the virus as such disappears from the story, which turns into the intense and violent adventures of a small group fighting their way across England.

Like many authors asked to write an introduction to a book, Macfarlane pads out the little he has to say by giving summaries of a lot of other books which are like it. Thus in the introduction’s eight pages he manages to namecheck and summarise:

  • Greener Than You Think by Ward Moore (1947)
  • Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)
  • The Day of The Triffids by John Wyndham (1951)
  • The Genocides by Thomas Disch (1961)
  • Lord of the Flies by William Golding (1954)
  • The Road by Cormac McCarthy (2007)

So instead of describing the book he’s introducing, Macfarlane devotes a lot of effort to showing us how well-read and clever he is. Amazingly, he then lets loose a volley of characteristically upper-class criticism of British exceptionalism and the English character, which is so characteristic of modern upper-class progressives who have enjoyed all the privileges of an elite public school and Oxbridge.

He is quick to inform us that he despises ‘British exceptionalism’, the lingering thought that the British are ‘morally superior to other cultures and nations’ (for example Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, imperial Japan or Maoist China) tut tut no no. He descants on ‘the hollowness of the idea of “Englishness”‘ – which Macfarlane despises as only a superior-minded, privately educated Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge can.

Tut tut, all you stupid chavs who are patriots or love your country or thought that Britain was standing up to Hitler, Russia or the murderous Japs during the Second World War, tut tut, you should listen to superior beings like Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge Robert Macfarlane, who goes out of his way to tell readers that they ought to despise the novel’s depiction of ‘a Batsford England of bosomy downlands, sleepy seaside towns and well-fed burghers, warm beer, cricket on the green, tea on the lawn, and fair play.’

Stupid British people! Listen to Robert and learn to despise yourselves and the wretched, hypocritical country you live in!

Macfarlane goes onto completely lose all credibility by claiming J.G. Ballard as a ‘prophet’ of contemporary society a notion which, after having read Ballard’s complete works, I completely reject and devoted a blog post to:

Rather pathetically, Macfarlane says Ballard predicted reality television, the advent of ‘happy slapping’ and the decline of high-rise living:

a) as if Ballard actually did prophesy them instead of, in fact, being as aware of their development as anyone else who reads the papers and magazines (predicting the rise of ‘happy slapping’ as a major claim to fame! my God, what an idiot)

b)as if that is what Ballard’s claim to fame should rest on, on being a supposed prophet! Of course it shouldn’t, you nitwit! It isn’t on his claim to fame as a ‘prophet’ but the quality of his writing that a writer’s claim to fame should rest – otherwise he’s just an essayist or superficial cultural commentator, alongside thousands and thousands of others all lamenting the awfulness of modern society, much like Robert Macfarlane wringing his hands over anyone who could be nostalgic for an England of ‘bosomy downlands, sleepy seaside towns’.

Ballard’s claim to fame isn’t that he predicted ‘the decline of high-rise living’ – plenty of intelligent architects and sociologists objected to high-rises from the moment the first ones were built. Ballard’s claim to fame is that he wrote stunningly complex and visionary novels like The Crystal World or The Atrocity Exhibition and conveyed in all his best work a unique sense of psychosis and mental collapse in grippingly bizarre settings and scenarios.

To suggest that Ballard’s fame should rest on his ‘prediction’ of 24-hour TV and ‘happy slapping’, good God, what an obtuse, illiterate and superficial notion, and what an insult to a great writer.

Macfarlane then goes on to try and claim visionary prophet status for Christopher and this book. God, what a tired and jaded case to make for a writer, that he was a ‘great prophet’. Of course Christopher wasn’t a bleeding ‘prophet’. Thousands of science fiction writers had depicted global catastrophes and ecological collapse and global famine and the rest of it for decades before Christopher, and novels, plays, dramas, and movies on the exact same subject have carried on proliferating like all other cultural products in a world drowning in cultural product.

The simple truth is that while any number of writers, novelists, essayists or film-makers have carried on making any number of cultural products, the human population has carried on growing exponentially and we now know we are destroying the world like a species of unstoppable vermin.

That’s the truth Macfarlane is too scared to speak. It is the overpopulation of the entire human race which is killing the planet. Instead Macfarlane’s introduction takes the tired and lazy route of blaming everything bad in the world on the British and on their sense of ‘exceptionalism’. The Death of Grass is a gripping genre novel but with a lot of shocking moments and unexpected insights into human nature. Macfarlane does the unexpected subtleties and psychological disturbances of this book a disservice by pressing them into the service of his own lofty, woke, public school, snobbish progressivism.

It was precisely this kind of metropolitan urban elitism which is so dismissive of ‘British exceptionalism’ and contemptuous of ‘English values’, which mocks the English flag and loses no opportunity to slag off white people and their ‘institutional racism’, which hypocritically spews such unremitting criticism of the nation, language and history from which it has benefited so enormously, which helped deliver the 2016 Brexit vote from a huge number of ordinary people fed up of being patronised and despised and ignored and last year helped the incompetent and corrupt Conservative Party win huge swathes of the industrial north and gain a historic general election victory which will probably keep them in power for the rest of the decade.

So, far from being an apt introduction to Christopher’s sci fi classic, I take Macfarlane’s introduction to be a patronising insult.


Credit

The Death of Grass by John Christopher was published by Michael Joseph in 1956. All references are to the 2009 Penguin Classics paperback edition.

Reviews of other John Christopher novels

Other science fiction reviews

Late Victorian

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1895 The Time Machine by H.G. Wells – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau by H.G. Wells – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man by H.G. Wells – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes by H.G. Wells – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come by H.G. Wells – set in the same future London as The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth defy her wealthy family in order to marry, fall into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1900s

1901 The First Men in the Moon by H.G. Wells – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the latter’s invention, an anti-gravity material they call ‘Cavorite’, to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites, leading up to its chasteningly moralistic conclusion
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth by H.G. Wells – scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, prompting giant humans to rebel against the ‘little people’
1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1906 In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells – a comet passes through earth’s atmosphere and brings about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air by H.G. Wells – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Kent, gets caught up in the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ – until one of them rebels

1910s

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1914 The World Set Free by H.G. Wells – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1920s

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth and they rebel
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, an engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, where they discover unimaginable strangeness

1930s

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years – surely the vastest vista of any science fiction book
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Oxford academic, Ransom, and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra, as the natives call the planet Mars, where mysteries and adventures unfold

1940s

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent Satan tempting the planet’s new young inhabitants to a new Fall as he did on earth
1945 That Hideous Strength by C.S. Lewis – Ransom assembles a motley crew of heroes ancient and modern to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950s

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with vanished Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1951 The Day of the Triffids by John Wyndham – the whole world turns out to watch the flashing lights in the sky caused by a passing comet and next morning wakes up blind, except for a handful of survivors who have to rebuild human society while fighting off the rapidly growing population of the mobile, intelligent, poison sting-wielding monster plants of the title
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psycho-historian Hari Seldon as it faces attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the  Foundation Trilogy, which describes the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence, powered by ‘spindizzy’ technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them – until one fireman, Guy Montag, rebels
1953 The Demolished Man by Alfred Bester – a fast-moving novel set in a 24th century New York populated by telepaths and describing the mental collapse of corporate mogul Ben Reich who starts by murdering his rival Craye D’Courtney and becomes progressively more psychotic as he is pursued by telepathic detective, Lincoln Powell
1953 Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke one of my favourite sci-fi novels, a thrilling narrative describing the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1953 The Kraken Wakes by John Wyndham – some form of alien life invades earth in the shape of ‘fireballs’ from outer space which fall into the deepest parts of the earth’s oceans, followed by the sinking of ships passing over the ocean deeps, gruesome attacks of ‘sea tanks’ on ports and shoreline settlements around the world and then, in the final phase, the melting of the earth’s icecaps and global flooding
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley who is tasked with solving a murder mystery
1954 Jizzle by John Wyndham – 15 short stories, from the malevolent monkey of the title story to a bizarre yarn about a tube train which goes to hell, a paychiatrist who projects the same idyllic dream into the minds of hundreds of women around London, to a chapter-length dry run for The Chrysalids
1955 The Chrysalids by John Wyndham – hundreds of years after a nuclear war devastated North America, David Strorm grows up in a rural community run by God-fearing zealots obsessed with detecting mutant plants, livestock and – worst of all – human ‘blasphemies’ – caused by the lingering radiation. But as he grows up, David realises he possesses a special mutation the Guardians of Purity have never dreamed of – the power of telepathy – and he’s not the only one, but when he and his mind-melding friends are discovered, they are forced to flee to the Badlands in a race to survive
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
Some problems with Isaac Asimov’s science fiction
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention, in the near future, of i) the anti-death drugs and ii) the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1956 The Stars My Destination by Alfred Bester – a fast-paced phantasmagoria set in the 25th century where humans can teleport, a terrifying new weapon has been invented, and tattooed hard-man, Gulliver Foyle, is looking for revenge
1956 The Death of Grass by John Christopher – amid the backdrop of a worldwide famine caused by the Chung-Li virus which kills all species of grass (wheat, barley, oats etc) decent civil engineer John Custance finds himself leading his wife, two children and a small group of followers out of London and across an England collapsing into chaos and barbarism, in order to reach the safety of the remote valley where his brother owns a farm where they can plant non-grass crops and defend themselves
1956 The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham – 11 science fiction short stories, mostly humorous, satirical, even farcical, but with two or three (Survival, Dumb Martian and Time To Rest) which really cut through and linger in the memory
1957 The Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham – one night a nondescript English village is closed off by a force field, all the inhabitants within the zone losing consciousness. A day later the field disappears and the villagers all regain consciousness but two months later, all the fertile women in the place realise they are pregnant, and nine months later give birth to identical babies with platinum blonde hair and penetrating golden eyes, which soon begin exerting telepathic control over their parents and then the other villagers. Are they aliens, implanted in human wombs, and destined to supersede Homo sapiens as top species on the planet?
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding novel of Blish’s ‘Okie’ tetralogy in which mayor of New York John Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe
1959 The Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut – Winston Niles Rumfoord builds a space ship to explore the solar system where encounters a chrono-synclastic infundibula, and this is just the start of a bizarre meandering fantasy which includes the Army of Mars attacking earth and the adventures of Boaz and Unk in the caverns of Mercury
1959 The Outward Urge by John Wyndham – a relatively conventional space exploration novel in five parts which follow successive members of the Troon family over a 200-year period (1994 to 2194) as they help build the first British space station, command the British moon base, lead expeditions to Mars, to Venus, and ends with an eerie ‘ghost’ story

1960s

1960 Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham – ardent feminist and biochemist Diana Brackley discovers a substance which slows down the ageing process, with potentially revolutionary implications for human civilisation, in a novel which combines serious insights into how women are shaped and controlled by society and sociological speculation with a sentimental love story and passages of broad social satire (about the beauty industry and the newspaper trade)
1961 A Fall of Moondust by Arthur C. Clarke a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1961 Consider Her Ways and Others by John Wyndham – Six short stories dominated by the title track which depicts England a century or so hence, after a plague has wiped out all men and the surviving women have been genetically engineered into four distinct types, the brainy Doctors, the brawny Amazons, the short Servitors, and the vast whale-like Mothers into whose body a bewildered twentieth century woman doctor is unwittingly transported
1962 The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Kerans is part of a UN mission to map the lost cities of Europe which have been inundated after solar flares melted the worlds ice caps and glaciers, but finds himself and his colleagues’ minds slowly infiltrated by prehistoric memories of the last time the world was like this, complete with tropical forest and giant lizards, and slowly losing their grasp on reality.
1962 The Voices of Time and Other Stories – Eight of Ballard’s most exquisite stories including the title tale about humanity slowly falling asleep even as they discover how to listen to the voices of time radiating from the mountains and distant stars, or The Cage of Sand where a handful of outcasts hide out in the vast dunes of Martian sand brought to earth as ballast which turned out to contain fatal viruses. Really weird and visionary.
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard space-travelling New York
1962 The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick In an alternative future America lost the Second World War and has been partitioned between Japan and Nazi Germany. The narrative follows a motley crew of characters including a dealer in antique Americana, a German spy who warns a Japanese official about a looming surprise German attack, and a woman determined to track down the reclusive author of a hit book which describes an alternative future in which America won the Second World War
1962 Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut – the memoirs of American Howard W. Campbell Jr. who was raised in Germany and has adventures with Nazis and spies
1963 Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut – what starts out as an amiable picaresque as the narrator, John, tracks down the so-called ‘father of the atom bomb’, Felix Hoenniker for an interview turns into a really bleak, haunting nightmare where an alternative form of water, ice-nine, freezes all water in the world, including the water inside people, killing almost everyone and freezing all water forever
1964 The Drought by J.G. Ballard – It stops raining. Everywhere. Fresh water runs out. Society breaks down and people move en masse to the seaside, where fighting breaks out to get near the water and set up stills. In part two, ten years later, the last remnants of humanity scrape a living on the vast salt flats which rim the continents, until the male protagonist decides to venture back inland to see if any life survives
1964 The Terminal Beach by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s breakthrough collection of 12 short stories which, among more traditional fare, includes mind-blowing descriptions of obsession, hallucination and mental decay set in the present day but exploring what he famously defined as ‘inner space’
1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Peter George – a novelisation of the famous Kubrick film, notable for the prologue written as if by aliens who arrive in the distant future to find an earth utterly destroyed by the events described in the main narrative
1966 Rocannon’s World by Ursula Le Guin – Le Guin’s first novel, a ‘planetary romance’ or ‘science fantasy’ set on Fomalhaut II where ethnographer and ‘starlord’ Gaverel Rocannon rides winged tigers and meets all manner of bizarre foes in his quest to track down the aliens who destroyed his spaceship and killed his colleagues, aided by sword-wielding Lord Mogien and a telepathic Fian
1966 Planet of Exile by Ursula Le Guin – both the ‘farborn’ colonists of planet Werel, and the surrounding tribespeople, the Tevarans, must unite to fight off the marauding Gaal who are migrating south as the planet enters its deep long winter – not a good moment for the farborn leader, Jakob Agat Alterra, to fall in love with Rolery, the beautiful, golden-eyed daughter of the Tevaran chief
1966 – The Crystal World by J.G. Ballard – Dr Sanders journeys up an African river to discover that the jungle is slowly turning into crystals, as does anyone who loiters too long, and becomes enmeshed in the personal psychodramas of a cast of lunatics and obsessives
1967 The Disaster Area by J.G. Ballard – Nine short stories including memorable ones about giant birds and the man who sees the prehistoric ocean washing over his quite suburb.
1967 City of Illusions by Ursula Le Guin – an unnamed humanoid with yellow cat’s eyes stumbles out of the great Eastern Forest which covers America thousands of years in the future when the human race has been reduced to a pitiful handful of suspicious rednecks or savages living in remote settlements. He is discovered and nursed back to health by a relatively benign commune but then decides he must make his way West in an epic trek across the continent to the fabled city of Es Toch where he will discover his true identity and mankind’s true history
1966 The Anti-Death League by Kingsley Amis
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into a galactic consciousness
1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 androids are almost indistinguishable from humans except by trained bounty hunters like Rick Deckard who is paid to track down and ‘retire’ escaped ‘andys’ – earning enough to buy mechanical animals, since all real animals died long ago
1968 Chocky by John Wyndham – Matthew is the adopted son of an ordinary, middle-class couple who starts talking to a voice in his head; it takes the entire novel to persuade his parents the voice is real and belongs to a telepathic explorer from a distant planet
1969 The Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton – describes in the style of a scientific inquiry, the crisis which unfolds after a fatal virus is brought back to earth by a space probe and starts spreading uncontrollably
1969 Ubik by Philip K. Dick – in 1992 the world is threatened by mutants with psionic powers who are combated by ‘inertials’. The novel focuses on the weird alternative world experienced by a group of inertials after they are involved in an explosion on the moon
1969 The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula Le Guin – an envoy from the Ekumen or federation of advanced planets – Genly Ai – is sent to the planet Gethen to persuade its inhabitants to join the federation, but the focus of the book is a mind-expanding exploration of the hermaphroditism of Gethen’s inhabitants, as Genly is forced to undertake a gruelling trek across the planet’s frozen north with the disgraced native lord, Estraven, during which they develop a cross-species respect and, eventually, a kind of love
1969 Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s breakthrough novel in which he manages to combine his personal memories of being an American POW of the Germans and witnessing the bombing of Dresden in the character of Billy Pilgrim, with a science fiction farrago about Tralfamadorians who kidnap Billy and transport him through time and space – and introduces the catchphrase ‘so it goes’

1970s

1970 Tau Zero by Poul Anderson – spaceship Leonora Christine leaves earth with a crew of fifty to discover if humans can colonise any of the planets orbiting the star Beta Virginis, but when its deceleration engines are damaged, the crew realise they need to exit the galaxy altogether in order to find space with low enough radiation to fix the engines – and then a series of unfortunate events mean they find themselves forced to accelerate faster and faster, effectively travelling forwards through time as well as space until they witness the end of the entire universe – one of the most thrilling sci-fi books I’ve ever read
1970 The Atrocity Exhibition by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s best book, a collection of fifteen short experimental texts in stripped-down prose bringing together key obsessions like car crashes, mental breakdown, World War III, media images of atrocities and clinical sex
1971 Vermilion Sands by J.G. Ballard – nine short stories including Ballard’s first, from 1956, most of which follow the same pattern, describing the arrival of a mysterious, beguiling woman in the fictional desert resort of Vermilion Sands, the setting for extravagantly surreal tales of the glossy, lurid and bizarre
1971 The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula Le Guin – thirty years in the future (in 2002) America is an overpopulated environmental catastrophe zone where meek and unassuming George Orr discovers that his dreams can alter reality, changing history at will. He comes under the control of visionary neuro-scientist, Dr Haber, who sets about using George’s powers to alter the world for the better, with unanticipated and disastrous consequences
1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic, leading to harum scarum escapades in disaster-stricken London
1972 The Word for World Is Forest by Ursula Le Guin – novella set on the planet Athshe describing its brutal colonisation by exploitative Terrans (who call it ‘New Tahiti’) and the resistance of the metre-tall, furry, native population of Athsheans, with their culture of dreamtime and singing
1972 The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe – a mind-boggling trio of novellas set on a pair of planets 20 light years away, the stories revolve around the puzzle of whether the supposedly human colonists are, in fact, the descendants of the planets’ shape-shifting aboriginal inhabitants who murdered the first earth colonists and took their places so effectively that they have forgotten the fact and think themselves genuinely human
1973 Crash by J.G. Ballard – Ballard’s most ‘controversial’ novel, a searingly intense description of its characters’ obsession with the sexuality of car crashes, wounds and disfigurement
1973 Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke – in 2031 a 50-kilometre-long object of alien origin enters the solar system, so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it in one of the most haunting and evocative novels of this type ever written
1973 Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut – Vonnegut’s longest and most experimental novel with the barest of plots and characters allowing him to sound off about sex, race, America, environmentalism, with the appearance of his alter ego Kilgore Trout and even Vonnegut himself as a character, all enlivened by Vonnegut’s own naive illustrations and the throwaway catchphrase ‘And so on…’
1973 The Best of John Wyndham 1932 to 1949 – Six rather silly short stories dating, as the title indicates, from 1932 to 1949, with far too much interplanetary travel
1974 Concrete Island by J.G. Ballard – the short and powerful novella in which an advertising executive crashes his car onto a stretch of wasteland in the juncture of three motorways, finds he can’t get off it, and slowly adapts to life alongside its current, psychologically damaged inhabitants
1974 Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said by Philip K. Dick – America after the Second World War is a police state but the story is about popular TV host Jason Taverner who is plunged into an alternative version of this world where he is no longer a rich entertainer but down on the streets among the ‘ordinaries’ and on the run from the police. Why? And how can he get back to his storyline?
1974 The Dispossessed by Ursula Le Guin – in the future and 11 light years from earth, the physicist Shevek travels from the barren, communal, anarchist world of Anarres to its consumer capitalist cousin, Urras, with a message of brotherhood and a revolutionary new discovery which will change everything
1974 Inverted World by Christopher Priest – vivid description of a city on a distant planet which must move forwards on railway tracks constructed by the secretive ‘guilds’ in order not to fall behind the mysterious ‘optimum’ and avoid the fate of being obliterated by the planet’s bizarre lateral distorting, a vivid and disturbing narrative right up until the shock revelation of the last few pages
1975 High Rise by J.G. Ballard – an astonishingly intense and brutal vision of how the middle-class occupants of London’s newest and largest luxury, high-rise development spiral down from petty tiffs and jealousies into increasing alcohol-fuelled mayhem, disintegrating into full-blown civil war before regressing to starvation and cannibalism
1976 The Alteration by Kingsley Amis – a counterfactual narrative in which the Reformation never happened and so there was no Enlightenment, no Romantic revolution, no Industrial Revolution spearheaded by Protestant England, no political revolutions, no Victorian era when democracy and liberalism triumphed over Christian repression, with the result that England in 1976 is a peaceful medieval country ruled by officials of the all-powerful Roman Catholic Church
1976 Slapstick by Kurt Vonnegut – a madly disorientating story about twin freaks, a future dystopia, shrinking Chinese and communication with the afterlife
1979 The Unlimited Dream Company by J.G. Ballard – a strange combination of banality and visionary weirdness as an unhinged young man crashes his stolen plane in suburban Shepperton, and starts performing magical acts like converting the inhabitants into birds, conjuring up exotic foliage, convinced he is on a mission to liberate them
1979 Jailbird by Kurt Vonnegut – the satirical story of Walter F. Starbuck and the RAMJAC Corps run by Mary Kathleen O’Looney, a baglady from Grand Central Station, among other satirical notions, including the news that Kilgore Trout, a character who recurs in most of his novels, is one of the pseudonyms of a fellow prisoner at the gaol where Starbuck ends up serving a two year sentence, one Dr Robert Fender

1980s

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – set in an England of 2035 after a) the oil has run out and b) a left-wing government left NATO and England was promptly invaded by the Russians in the so-called ‘the Pacification’, who have settled down to become a ruling class and treat the native English like 19th century serfs
1980 The Venus Hunters by J.G. Ballard – seven very early and often quite cheesy sci-fi short stories, along with a visionary satire on Vietnam (1969), and then two mature stories from the 1970s which show Ballard’s approach sliding into mannerism
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the ‘Golden Era’ of the genre, basically the 1950s
1981 Hello America by J.G. Ballard – a hundred years from now an environmental catastrophe has turned America into a vast desert, except for west of the Rockies which has become a rainforest of Amazonian opulence, and it is here that a ragtag band of explorers from old Europe discover a psychopath has crowned himself ‘President Manson’, revived an old nuclear power station to light up Las Vegas and plays roulette in Caesar’s Palace to decide which American city to nuke next
1981 The Affirmation by Christopher Priest – an extraordinarily vivid description of a schizophrenic young man living in London who, to protect against the trauma of his actual life (father died, made redundant, girlfriend committed suicide) invents a fantasy world, the Dream Archipelago, and how it takes over his ‘real’ life
1982 Myths of the Near Future by J.G. Ballard – ten short stories showing Ballard’s range of subject matter from Second World War China to the rusting gantries of Cape Kennedy
1982 2010: Odyssey Two by Arthur C. Clarke – Heywood Floyd joins a Russian spaceship on a two-year journey to Jupiter to a) reclaim the abandoned Discovery and b) investigate the monolith on Japetus
1984 Empire of the Sun by J.G. Ballard – his breakthrough book, ostensibly an autobiography focusing on this 1930s boyhood in Shanghai and then incarceration in a Japanese internment camp, observing the psychological breakdown of the adults around him: made into an Oscar-winning movie by Steven Spielberg: only later did it emerge that the book was intended as a novel and is factually misleading
1984 Neuromancer by William Gibson – Gibson’s stunning debut novel which establishes the ‘Sprawl’ universe, in which burnt-out cyberspace cowboy, Case, is lured by ex-hooker Molly into a mission led by ex-army colonel Armitage to penetrate the secretive corporation, Tessier-Ashpool, at the bidding of the vast and powerful artificial intelligence, Wintermute
1986 Burning Chrome by William Gibson – ten short stories, three or four set in Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ universe, the others ranging across sci-fi possibilities, from a kind of horror story to one about a failing Russian space station
1986 Count Zero by William Gibson – second in the ‘Sprawl trilogy’: Turner is a tough expert at kidnapping scientists from one mega-tech corporation for another, until his abduction of Christopher Mitchell from Maas Biolabs goes badly wrong and he finds himself on the run, his storyline dovetailing with those of sexy young Marly Krushkhova, ‘disgraced former owner of a tiny Paris gallery’ who is commissioned by the richest man in the world to track down the source of a mysterious modern artwork, and Bobby Newmark, self-styled ‘Count Zero’ and computer hacker
1987 The Day of Creation by J.G. Ballard – strange and, in my view, profoundly unsuccessful novel in which WHO doctor John Mallory embarks on an obsessive quest to find the source of an African river accompanied by a teenage African girl and a half-blind documentary maker who films the chaotic sequence of events
1987 2061: Odyssey Three by Arthur C. Clarke – Spaceship Galaxy is hijacked and forced to land on Europa, moon of the former Jupiter, in a ‘thriller’ notable for Clarke’s descriptions of the bizarre landscapes of Halley’s Comet and Europa
1988 Memories of the Space Age Eight short stories spanning the 20 most productive years of Ballard’s career, presented in chronological order and linked by the Ballardian themes of space travel, astronauts and psychosis
1988 Running Wild by J.G. Ballard – the pampered children of a gated community of affluent professionals, near Reading, run wild and murder their parents and security guards
1988 Mona Lisa Overdrive by William Gibson – third of Gibson’s ‘Sprawl’ trilogy in which street-kid Mona is sold by her pimp to crooks who give her plastic surgery to make her look like global simstim star Angie Marshall, who they plan to kidnap; but Angie is herself on a quest to find her missing boyfriend, Bobby Newmark, one-time Count Zero; while the daughter of a Japanese gangster, who’s been sent to London for safekeeping, is abducted by Molly Millions, a lead character in Neuromancer

1990s

1990 War Fever by J.G. Ballard – 14 late short stories, some traditional science fiction, some interesting formal experiments like Answers To a Questionnaire from which you have to deduce the questions and the context
1990 The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling – in an alternative version of history, Victorian inventor Charles Babbage’s design for an early computer, instead of remaining a paper theory, was actually built, drastically changing British society, so that by 1855 it is led by a party of industrialists and scientists who use databases and secret police to keep the population suppressed
1991 The Kindness of Women by J.G. Ballard – a sequel of sorts to Empire of the Sun which reprises the Shanghai and Japanese internment camp scenes from that book, but goes on to describe the author’s post-war experiences as a medical student at Cambridge, as a pilot in Canada, his marriage, children, writing and involvement in the avant-garde art scene of the 1960s and 70s: though based on  his own experiences the book is overtly a novel focusing on a small number of recurring characters who symbolise different aspects of the post-war world
1993 Virtual Light by William Gibson – first of Gibson’s Bridge Trilogy, in which cop-with-a-heart-of-gold Berry Rydell foils an attempt by crooked property developers to rebuild post-earthquake San Francisco
1994 Rushing to Paradise by J.G. Ballard – a sort of rewrite of Lord of the Flies in which a number of unbalanced environmental activists set up a utopian community on a Pacific island, ostensibly to save the local rare breed of albatross from French nuclear tests, but end up going mad and murdering each other
1996 Cocaine Nights by J. G. Ballard – sensible, middle-class Charles Prentice flies out to a luxury resort for British ex-pats on the Spanish Riviera to find out why his brother, Frank, is in a Spanish prison charged with murder, and discovers the resort has become a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour – i.e. sex, drugs and organised violence – which has come to bind the community together
1996 Idoru by William Gibson – second novel in the ‘Bridge’ trilogy: Colin Laney has a gift for spotting nodal points in the oceans of data in cyberspace, and so is hired by the scary head of security for a pop music duo, Lo/Rez, to find out why his boss, the half-Irish singer Rez, has announced he is going to marry a virtual reality woman, an idoru; meanwhile schoolgirl Chia MacKenzie flies out to Tokyo and unwittingly gets caught up in smuggling new nanotechnology device which is the core of the plot
1999 All Tomorrow’s Parties by William Gibson – third of the Bridge Trilogy in which main characters from the two previous books are reunited on the ruined Golden Gate bridge, including tough ex-cop Rydell, sexy bike courier Chevette, digital babe Rei Toei, Fontaine the old black dude who keeps an antiques shop, as a smooth, rich corporate baddie seeks to unleash a terminal shift in the world’s dataflows and Rydell is hunted by a Taoist assassin

2000s

2000 Super-Cannes by J.G. Ballard – Paul Sinclair packs in his London job to accompany his wife, who’s landed a plum job as a paediatrician at Eden-Olympia, an elite business park just outside Cannes in the South of France; both are unnerved to discover that her predecessor, David Greenwood, one day went to work with an assault rifle, shot dead several senior executives before shooting himself; when Paul sets out to investigate, he discovers the business park is a hotbed of ‘transgressive’ behaviour i.e. designer drugs, BDSM sex, and organised vigilante violence against immigrants down in Cannes, and finds himself and his wife being sucked into its disturbing mind-set
2003 Pattern Recognition by William Gibson – first of the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set very much in the present, around the London-based advertising agency Blue Ant, founded by advertising guru Hubertus Bigend who hires Cayce Pollard, supernaturally gifted logo approver and fashion trend detector, to hunt down the maker of mysterious ‘footage’ which has started appearing on the internet, a quest that takes them from New York and London, to Tokyo, Moscow and Paris
2007 Spook Country by William Gibson – second in the ‘Blue Ant’ trilogy, set in London and featuring many of the characters from its immediate predecessor, namely Milgrim the drug addict and ex-rock singer Hollis Henry
2008 Miracles of Life by J.G. Ballard – right at the end of his life, Ballard wrote a straightforward autobiography in which he makes startling revelations about his time in the Japanese internment camp (he really enjoyed it!), insightful comments about science fiction, but the real theme is his moving expressions of love for his three children

2010s

2019 Hidden Wyndham: Life, Love, Letters by Amy Binns – sensitive and insightful biography with special emphasis on a) Wyndham’s wartime experiences first as a fire warden, then censor, then called up to serve in Normandy, and b) Wyndham’s women, the strong feminist thread which runs through all his works

Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley (1923)

And how did she spend her time?… Well, she read a lot of books; but most of the novels she got from Boots’ seemed to her rather silly. ‘Too much about the same thing. Always love.’ (chapter 12)

‘You bore me,’ said Mrs. Viveash.
‘Must I talk of love, then?’ asked Gumbril.
‘It looks like it,’ Mrs. Viveash answered, and closed her eyes. (chapter 21)

Antic Hay

Antic Hay is a contemporary comedy of manners set in 1922 (p.45) The comic hero is Theodore Gumbril Junior, B.A. Oxon., who is an intellectual young public school and Oxbridge graduate, who has taken a job as a teacher at a public school, like so many before and after him (like Evelyn Waugh did in 1924 and W.H. Auden did in 1930 and Edward Upward did, all hating it).

(After spelling it wrong, I realised that Gumbril is only one transposed letter away from being Grumbil i.e. grumble.)

Theodore Gumbril is a ‘bony starveling’. He is, in other words, yet another iteration of the over-intellectual, under-active, permanent miasma of jealousy, alienation and resentment which populates Huxley and Waugh’s satires. He hates the Head Master of his school, a man with fierce whims – he hates the music master Dr Jolly but most of all, he hates the boys.

He fantasises about living in a fine Italian villa, hosting magnificent parties, having just the right word of wit and intelligence to say to all his famous guests – of beautiful women who fall into his arms naked, of giving money to the composer Arnold Schoenberg, and discussing quantum theory i.e. he is totally up to speed with all the latest trends. And fired by this fantasy, at the end of chapter one Gumbril writes a letter of resignation to the Head.

Thus begin his efforts to ‘make a living’ out in ‘the real world’. In the school chapel, with a sore bottom from sitting on the hard benches, Gumbril conceives the idea of trousers containing an inflatable rubber pad under the bottom. Yes! He can patent it, he’ll call it his Patent Small-Clothes! He’ll make a fortune!

Theodor’s father, who lives in a shabby square in north London, bursts into laughter when his son tells him his plan. ‘Make money?’ ha ha ha. Mr Gumbril senior is a failing architect who has a spare room full of models of cathedrals which would put Brunelleschi and Wren to shame, but to earn his bread is obliged to design huts for the workers at Bletchley Park.

The book presents a series of comic types and characters who then circulate around the bars and restaurants and salons of London, bumping into each other like dodgems at a funfair. They include:

Casimir Lypiatt (40) a Titan of an Artist and Poet, always booming loudly about Art, the need for a modern Michelangelo, who laughs:

with the loud and bell-mouthed cynicism of one who sees himself as a misunderstood and embittered Prometheus

In fact it’s a running joke of the author’s that when Lypiatt laughs, all the elements of his face collapse. Lypiatt is supposedly a caricature of the Vorticist painter and self-proclaimed ‘Enemy’ of bourgeois conformity, Wyndham Lewis, who himself wrote a number of blistering satires on England’s artistic circles during the 1920s and 30s.

Mr Wyndham Lewis as a Tyro (1921) © The Estate of Mrs G A Wyndham Lewis; The Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust

Jim Shearwater, a scientist, biologist to be precise. It’s a recurring joke that Shearwater seems to take up a lot of space and always blunders into tables and cupboards. He is married to pretty young Rosie who he completely neglects.

Mr Mercaptan, a flourishing aesthete, ‘wherever he was, it was Paris’ – a great exponent of civilisation, a word which he pronounces with great care and definition; he is theatrically and amusingly appalled by all the paintings at Lypiatt’s exhibition. It is a close secret that his first name is Pasteur. He is 34.

Coleman, ‘a huge bearded Cossack of a man’, ‘a young man with a blond, fan-shaped beard stood by the table, looking down at them through a pair of bright blue eyes’ – even louder and more bombastic than Lypiatt, huge strong Coleman never misses an opportunity to mock and satirise Christianity.

Myra Viveash (25), a beautiful socialite who Gumbril hangs around like a dog and who gave herself to him for a few days, then just as quickly dumped him – a haunting memory of brief bliss which makes Gumbril permanently miserable. As the plot develops we realise at least two of the other male characters are ‘in love’ with her. But unbeknown to them, she herself had a great love, gorgeous blue-eyed Tony Lamb, who was killed in the Great War, in 1917. She has never recovered. She cultivates the pose of being an exquisite creature too good for this world, and speaks in a highly mannered style as if every sentence consisted of her final, dying words. This is a fashionable pose and yet, deep inside, she really is broken forever by the death of the only man she ever loved.

Bruin Opps top-hatted, monocled toff, Myra’s current lover.

Lypiatt also loves Myra and, when she goes to his rundown mews and studio to pose for her portrait, it becomes all too clear that 40-year-old Lypiatt loves her too, so much as to burst into tears at her knees, and next moment smash his fist into the wooden dais.

I read this and thought: Love is a boring subject. There is nothing whatever mysterious about it. It is the pre-mating behaviour of Homo sapiens. It is merely a question of how long and tortuous the negotiations will be before the inevitable act of sexual intercourse is undertaken.

In Huxley’s first two novels it takes the same form – the beautiful but unattainable, nubile young woman (Anna in Crome, Myra here) and a little cluster of men all convinced they are head over heels in love with her or that she has broken their hearts. As Anne complains in Crome, men are so boring.

Chapter 7

Lypiatt holds an exhibition of new work at the gallery of the bumptious optimistic salesman, Mr Albemarle. Lypiatt has written the catalogue which rages against everyone else in the arts who he calls ‘the modern impotents’. Numerous art critics attend, including little Mr Clew and the thin, long, skin-covered skeleton of Mr Mallard. Mrs Viveash attends accompanied by Mr Mercaptan, who amusingly poo-poohs everything he sees.

Chapter 8

As mentioned above, Gumbril is pinning his hopes of generating an income on his invention of inflatable ring inside gentlemen’s trousers. In this chapter he visits his tailor who’s been working on a prototype. Well, they look pretty clumsy. His tailor is a comically loquacious character who, the first time we met him, chatted about Lenin and revolution. Now he shares his theory on how political leaders need some kind of identifying symbols or markers.

Chapter 9

On the way home Gumbril – tired of feeling like a weak loser – drops into a costumier’s shop and orders a fan-shaped blonde beard to stick onto his face to try and look more manly. It certainly makes him look bigger, wider, stronger, and more capable of the ‘conquest’ of the fair sex (p.95).

He is transformed from the Mild and Melancholy Man into The Complete Man. As I said, a lot of literature can be reduced to biology.

With the beard on, he goes walking along the Bayswater Road, finds himself looking in the same shop windows as a mysterious slender lady and, acting the role of The Complete Man, chats her up, steers her into Hyde Park, they chat for an hour, he accompanies her back to her flat in Maida Vale.

Huxley lets us see inside her head and understand that she is just as much of a fantasist as Gumbril. She pretends it’s a rented flat and that the ghastly heavy furniture isn’t hers (though it is). She says the real furniture is at her place on the Riviera where she is, of course, used to playing hostess to soirees of poets. She tries to cultivate a Catherine the Great grandeur but, for a moment the conversation flags and they both see who they are and what they are – two sad losers in a shabby flat in Maida Vale. But then Gumbril remembers he is The Complete Man, takes her in his arms and carries her to the bed.

Lying there with her eyes shut, she did her best to pretend she was dead.

Yes. I’ve had that experience too, the young women who think of themselves as madly passionate, excitingly, daringly transgressively sexual, until you try to kiss them and they squeal and freeze. It’s difficult to know what to do next, especially if you’re young and very inexperienced. Make a cup of tea? Make your excuses and leave?

Anyway, the text simply cuts from that sentence, to Gumbril preparing to leave. It seems that they have had sex in the interim, although the censorship prevents it being in any way described. Now he is leaving. During sex (whatever that was like) he has, apparently, discovered her name is Rosie. At the door he asks her full name so he can write to her, and she hands him a card and girlishly closes the door.

On the dark stairs Gumbril peers at the card and realises – she is the wife of his friend Shearwater! She is Rosie Shearwater! He is reeling from this discovery when the front door into the hall opens and Shearwater walks in. Now luckily, he walks into the darkened, shared hallway of the flats and, also, Shearwater is in conversation with a younger man about some experiment – so that Gumbril after a moment’s panic, is able to pull his hat down over his face, rush down the stairs and blunder gruffly between the two men, who both ignore him.

That evening, for the first time in their marriage, Shearwater is happy because his wife is quiet and leaves him to his scientific thoughts, after dinner lying on the sofa quietly. Good little woman. She is of course, remembering Gumbril’s caresses of her smooth, secret, pink body. But the result of her adultery is their first evening of domestic bliss in years.

Chapter 10

Gumbril has several meetings with Mr Boldero, a boosterish business man and master of advertising. His lengthy speeches are, I imagine, intended to be a satirical description of 1920s advertising, more sophisticated and manipulative than ever before, there are paragraphs devoted to how advertisers play on modern people’s ignorance of science, wish not to be left out, wish to be up to date, enjoyment of novelty for its own sake, and the argument from economy.

Mr Boldero’s financial terms for going into partnership are initially risible. Gumbril writes a firm letter and then turns up wearing his beard and a thick greatcoat which makes him look much larger and more threatening. In the guise of The Complete Man. He says the terms are unacceptable and bangs the table. Mr Boldero is genuinely intimidated and Gumbril walks out with a check for £350 down and promise of £800 a year for taking lead responsibilities in the company, namely ‘to act as a managing director, writer of advertisements and promoter of foreign sales’.

Chapter 11

Gumbril spends the afternoon at Rosie’s i.e. having sex. I thought the situation would throw him into utter confusion, as it would have done Denis Stone from Crome Yellow but Theodore Gumbril is obviously made of tougher stuff. He is in his father’s flat composing advertising copy for the Patent Small-Clothes when who should knock at the door by Shearwater himself. For a moment he panics that the man has found out he’s having an affair with his wife, but it soon becomes clear Shearwater has been seeing Myra Viveash of all people and is coming out of his scientific shell and falling love with her. He’s come to ask Gumbril’s advice. Gumbril is jocular and tries not to burst out in hysterical laughter at the absurdity of the situation.

They are interrupted by the return of Mr Gumbril senior. He takes them upstairs to a room which is usually kept locked. Now, he unlocks it and shows them a scale model of London as it would have looked if it had been rebuilt to Christopher Wren’s designs after the Great Fire of London which e describes at some length.

Chapter 12

To our surprise we learn that Gumbril, dressed in his beard as The Complete Man, picked up two young women in the National Gallery (‘Old Masters, young mistresses,’ being the cynical advice Coleman gave him). Molly flirts and rolls her eyes but Emily is more sensitive. The novel risks becoming quite serious when she tells Theodore her story, namely that she gave in to the blandishments of a kindly older man, when she was just 17 but as soon as they married he beat her and assaulted her severely. Doctors took her to a rest home after he ruptured a blood vessel in her throat and she decided not to go back. Gumbril, posing as The Complete Man, feels ashamed. So does the male reader.

In a taxi he tries to kiss her but she is really traumatised, pushes him away, is in floods of tears. He feels dreadful and grovellingly apologises, it takes ages to persuade her to see him again. Next day he takes her to Kew Gardens, they walk easily hand in hand, they sit on the grass, they talk about wildflowers which he used to collect as a boy with his mother, they talk about playing the piano – she likes the opening of Beethoven’s Sonata 32 opus111 – Theodore admires her neck and hair, thinks how beautiful she is (occasionally also remembering Rosie in her pink underwear).

Suddenly Gumbril realises they’re going to be late for the evening he’s planned. The exit the Gardens and grab a taxi and race into London, but are a bit late to arrive at the classical concert he’s bought tickets for. Nonetheless, they get in in time to see the ‘Sclopis Quartet’, plus extra viola, play the Mozart String Quintet No.4. Huxley gives us over a page of prose poetry designed to match or evoke the music (pp.148-9).

But that is nothing compared to the extended lyricism of the passage which describes them going back to his ‘rooms’ in Great Russell Street, where they sit talking by candlelight till it is very late and then, in an ecstasy of expectation, he invites her to stay the night.

Like shy fawns they strip in the night and get into bed, but all he does is stroke her neck and arms while she shivers from cold and fear, gently gently reassuring her till she falls asleep in his arms and then he falls asleep, too.

So the book is not at all played for laughs. In some places it can be as sensitive as D.H. Lawrence.

Chapter 14

Similarly all kinds of new psychological depths are played with in this chapter. Mrs Viveash exits her house weary and bored. She had cancelled all her appointments but now is overcome with futility. At the corner by the London Library she sees a familiar face and haloos Gumbril. He runs up, says hello, tells her he can’t stay as he has an appointment to catch the 2 o’clock train from Charing Cross. Lovely Emily has rented a cottage in Sussex and will be waiting at the station in a cart.

But Mrs Viveash really pressurises him to joining her for lunch, and something in him gives in, and we follow in detail his changing psychology as he says Emily is only a girl, and is seduced by Mrs Viveash’s sophistication, and is led by her to a post office where he sends Emily a telegram saying he’s had a slight accident, will come down tomorrow same time, then lets himself be led off for a heavy lunch of lobster and wine.

Over lunch he is a hilarious clown, quotes poetry and Mozart opera, is very witty. Afterwards in a cab back to her place he is sad, but not as sad as Mrs Viveash who is overcome by memories of Tony Lamb, young and beautiful with blond hair and blue eyes, they shared a glorious week together in 1917, then he went back to the War and was killed. Now she imagines his beautiful face and blue eyes rotting under the ground and is devastated, but is too controlled to weep.

Chapter 15

That evening Theodore and Myra are dancing at a revue or cabaret club to a jazz band of four people of colour (they’re referred to as negroes or blackamoors in the text). They’re dancing to a tune called ‘What’s he to Hecuba?’ with its refrain ‘Nothing at all’ and, once again, the text isn’t really funny, it’s a combination of almost stream-of-consciousness rendition of their thought processes, heavily flavoured by Mrs Viveashe’s depression, her sense that everything is Nil, you can’t escape Nil, nothing can escape Nil.

‘What’s he to Hecuba?’ Lachrymosely, the hilarious blackamoors chanted their question, mournfully pregnant with its foreknown reply. Nil, omnipresent nil, world-soul, spiritual informer of all matter. Nil in the shape of a black-breeched moon-basined Toreador. Nil, the man with the greyhound’s nose. Nil, as four blackamoors. Nil in the form of a divine tune. Nil, the faces, the faces one ought to know by sight, reflected in the mirrors of the hall. Nil this Gumbril whose arm is round one’s waist, whose feet step in and out among one’s own. Nothing at all. (p.167)

Chapter 16

This is a peculiar, and possibly consciously ‘experimental’, chapter.

The band ceases, packs away behind curtains, then the curtains open to reveal the stage is set for a play. In Act I a mother has just died in childbirth and the grieving father, infuriated by the baby that did it, gets a tubercular cow brought on stage and milked into a dirty bucket, which milk he proceeds to feed the baby, or ‘Monster’ as he calls it.

Curtain down, scene change, Theodore and Mrs Viveash make desultory, jaded, cynical conversation. This is all a bit like the Weimar Republic cabaret vibe depicted in the Neue Sachlichkeit artists like Dix and Grosz.

Metropolis by Otto Dix (1928)

Act II: the Monster has grown into a sickly man, bandy-legged from rickets, coughing up lung from TB. He’s just turned 21 and is poetically minded. He looks out the window at a lovely girl and rhapsodises about her.Unfortunately we hear her thoughts and she’s worrying about whether to buy some fabric for new underwear, specially as her fancy man, Roger, might any day now go as far as seeing her underwear and she doesn’t want it to look middle class now, does she? The monster reaches out through his window towards the girl but she flings his hand away, yuk, disgusting at that point Roger strolls up, healthy and fit, his motorbike is on the corner, they both mock the Monster and leave. Another woman comes along, a painted prostitute. ‘Feeling lonely, ducks?’ He asks her in, the curtain descends for the duration of a quick sexual act, then she kicks up a fuss because he tries to write her a check.

During all this onstage action, Mrs Viveash and Theodore make ironic comments. She is appalled, not at its ‘immorality’, but because it is so clichéd and dire.

As in Joyce or Woolf, words and phrases connected with her lost, dead love, her only one true love, Tony Lamb, recur and repeat, broken up and recombined in her half-drunk consciousness.

Then Coleman turns up, punning cynically, accompanied by a very pretty, drunk young man. He wittily introduces himself as Virgil and the young man as his Dante, who he is taking him on a tour of the circles of hell (in fact he found him drunk at some nightclub and about to be fleeced by two prostitutes twice his age).

Back to the onstage play, Act III: The Monster, now bald, sans teeth, with a patch over his eye, is confined in an asylum. He makes a speech certain that there are real men somewhere, living in freedom and beauty, climbs the back of his chair, topples off it and breaks his neck, as verified by the same doctor from Act I, who enters, now terribly old with a long white beard.

Mrs Viveash is relieved the ghastly thing is over. The others want to carry on drinking and so, against his better judgment, Gumbril invites them back to his ‘secret’ rooms in Great Russell Street. they drink heavily and are blasphemous. This is the secret room where he spent that magical evening with Emily, by candlelight, until he coaxed the delicate bruised young faun into bed with him. Now Coleman and his pick-up boy are carousing on the same divan and suddenly the boy is sick all over it. As Gumbril throws them out, the boy tells them all his name is Porteous and boasts about how much money he’s spent drinking and debauching.

This is the last straw as Porteous is the name of one of Theodore’s father’s oldest friends, a poor man who’s had to scrim and save all his life.

So these last couple of chapters have described the complicated frame of mind in which Gumbril has allowed himself to betray Emily’s trust, and led away from his better self to the cynical, sophisticated nightclub roue. It’s a long way from the clever sweetness of Crome Yellow.

Chapter 17

Predictably enough he feels like hell in the morning, and not just in a physical way. He’s barely roused himself at 11.30, planning to catch the 2 o’clock train, when he gets a telegram from Emily, a long, long telegram telling him how upset she was when she got his telegram, after all the plans she’d made for a perfect day, and how, then, thinking about it, she realised their relationship was doomed from the start; for him she was just a nice adventure but sooner or later he’d tire of her and dump her and then she would never recover, whereas he’d get over it. So she says it’s goodbye, she’s packing her bags and leaving the cottage and he’ll never see her again.

Gumbril spends an agonising train journey beating himself up for his stupidity, and casually mentions that this afternoon he had to pass up ‘an afternoon’ with Rosie, and – in a spirit of malicious satire – sent her a note telling her he was indisposed & could she please come and see him at 213 Sloane Street. It is a wicked joke because that’s the address of Mr Mercapton and his rococo boudoir.

Gumbril really seems to have evolved very fast from the frustrated schoolteacher of the first chapter who was shy around girls. He’s metamorphosed into a rake, juggling all these women. I suppose this is the meaning of the book’s epigraph, a quote from Marlowe:

My men like satyrs grazing on the lawns
Shall with their goat-feet dance the antic hay

‘Men like satyrs’, to be precise, Gumbril is the satyr in question, dancing with his clumsy goat-feet.

The chapter returns to a lighter mood because it contains a crusty old gentleman who tut tuts at all the suburban villas the train is passing and when Gumbril sympathises, launches into a long speech about how overpopulated the world is becoming. Gumbril agrees, partly in a satirical spirit of getting the old dog to carry on but then is disarmed when he offers to give Theodore a case of his best brandy. He is just writing Theodore’s name in his notebook when Theodore looks up and realises the train is pulling out of the station he should have got off at. He leaps to his feet, flings open the door and jumps onto the platform, stumbling a few paves then managing to stop. The old man waves inaudibly from the window. Presumably the story is meant to show us just how fickle and superficial Theodore is.

When Theodore finally arrives at the cottage a) it is every bit as beautiful as Emily predicted b) she is long gone c) she left no forwarding address. Miserable, he catches the next train back to London.

Chapter 18

Broad comedy. We find Mr Mercaptan in his exquisite rococo rooms putting the finishing touches to an exquisite essay. In barges Lypiatt who is furious. His exhibition was a failure, he sold nothing, and he was infuriated by Mercaptan’s superior, mocking review which implied his works were insincere.

After a brief exchange, Lypiatt loses his temper and boxes the exquisite dandy about the ears until Mercaptan tells him the cruelest barb in his review – that Lypiatt’s paintings looking like adverts for Cinzano – was actually thought up by Mrs Viveash. The woman Lypiatt adores. He is instantly crushed and quelled.

He is standing silently by the mantelpiece when Rose Shearwater is shown in. She is very confused. She was expecting to meet Theodore who, we now learn, has never told Rosie his real name, preferring to be referred to as ‘Toto’. To cut a long story short, Rosie quickly adjusts to the new surroundings – determined to play the grande dame who nothing flusters – while Mercaptan in his dandyish way proceeds to flatter and impress here.

We are given to understand that they end up having sex on his sofa. Well, Rosie moved on from Theodore easily enough. Later, that evening, she’s at home while boring Shearwater tries to write an essay about kidneys but just can’t, he is so upset at the way Mrs Viveashe picked him up for about three days and now appears to have dropped him.

Plucking up his clumsy courage, Shearwater blurts out a confession to Rosie that he’s had a crush on another woman, that it’s over now, and that he feels guilt about how he’s treated her and will do better in future – and is disconcerted when Rosie is so relaxed as to be indifferent.

Chapter 19

Lypiatt returns to his mews utterly devastated by the news that it was Mrs Viveash who contributed the most telling thrust in Mercaptan’s devastating review of his art exhibition i.e. that they looked like posters advertising Italian drinks. He sits down and writes her an extended soul-searching letter wondering whether his entire life has been a wretched failure.

He is surprised and fearful when he hears steps coming up to his studio. To his surprise it is a funny little man who introduces himself as Mr Boldero (the thrusting businessman who has agreed to take up & promote Theodore’s idea of the Patent Small-Clothes. He listens in a daze as the man explains his silly scheme, but then Boldero makes the mistake of saying that they’d like him to do the art work for their advertising campaign, something in the style of Italian liquor posters, and this triggers a titanic wave of rage and frustration in Lypiatt who rises from his chair, rushes at Boldero, seizes and shakes him till the man wriggles free and makes a run for it down the stairs, out the door and along the mews.

Chapter 20

Coleman lives with Zoe in an atmosphere of violent arguments. One of these ends with her stabbing him in the arm with a penknife and rushing out. Coleman tries but can’t stanch the bleeding. At that moment Rosie arrives. She’s been given Coleman’s address by Mercaptan, on the misunderstanding that her original lover ‘Toto’ had a blonde beard. None of them realise that ‘Toto’ is Gumbril because he never told Rosie his name. Instead Rosie arrives just in time to administer some first aid and bandage the wound.

Coleman is a huge Cossack of a man with a big blonde beard, very loud, talks loudly and tactlessly, quoting the Christian Fathers about women being bags of ordure, and so on, in a way which puts Rosie off, she gets up and runs to the outer door but it won’t open and in a few paces Coleman is upon her. When she starts screaming and crying, he is enraptured and licks her tears. Are we to understand that he ‘ravishes’ her? That he rapes her?

Chapter 21

The taxi chapter. Gumbril turns up to see Mrs Viveash. She is feeling increasingly bilious and unhappy. He accuses her of wrecking her life i.e. persuading him to go for lunch with her so that he missed his date with Emily.

She is tired of men blaming her for everything and, frankly, so am I. Gumbril, Lypiatt, Shearwater, they all blame her for making them fall in love with her. How tiresome men are! (This is precisely the sentiment expressed by Anne in chapter 21 of Antic Hay).

Gumbril tries talking about things other than love and for two pages we are treated to a surreal jumble of facts about the natural world or literature until Mrs Viveash shouts at him to stop. Gumbril announces he’s fed up of everything and is going to leave the country. Mrs Viveash says they must have a going-away dinner. So they decide to go and invite all their friends. This, as it turns out, is a pretext for a kind of survey of the state of play with each of them:

They take a taxi across London to Lypiatt’s studio. Cut to Lypiatt plunged in the deepest melancholy and contemplating suicide. He is just putting a loaded Service revolver against his forehead when he hears the taxi pull up, a knock on the door and the sound of Mrs Viveash’s and Gumbril’s voices outside.

After a few more knocks they decide Lypiatt must have gone out and depart. Lypiatt remains in his darkened studio, in utter misery. It’s a feature of this chapter that Mrs Viveash and Gumbril comment on the lights of Piccadilly twice as they pass through on their to Lypiatt’s and back i.e. a little bit of social history of which adverts were there at the time. And to emphasise the depths of Mrs Viveash’s Weltschmerz.

Mrs. Viveash drew the corners of her mouth down into a painful smile and did not answer. “Aren’t we going to pass through Piccadilly Circus again?’ she asked. “I should like to see the lights again. They give one temporarily the illusion of being cheerful.’

Instead they go to visit Mr Mercaptan but he’s not there (according to his gabbling housekeeper). And we cut to Mercaptan having a delightful time staying with rich Mrs Speegle amid her butlers and staff at the delightful Oxhanger House. She had wittily thrown out the comment that some people have skins as thick as pachyderms whereas you and I, darling, we have painfully thin skins because we are such spiritual and artistic people. And so Mercaptan has worked this up into one his simply adorable little essays, dividing the poor pachyderms into lots of sub-categories, as he amusingly explains to Mrs Speegl and Maisie Furlonger at dinner.

Meanwhile Lypiatt lies at home lost in the void. Gumbril and Mrs Viveash take a taxi to Coleman’s. It’s not too long since Coleman ravished/raped Rosie. He answers the door. Gumbril glimpses past him the open door to his bedroom, and there a bare female back, and as it turns over, for a split second he recognises beyond doubt Rosie! My word! He’s astonished and disgusted.

The text cuts to a little stream-of-consciousness as we dip into Rosie’s mind and see her stream of memories – unhappy domestic scenes with Jim Shearwater, and then memories of being made love to by huge animal Coleman. Which is disconcerting. Anyway, Coleman says he can’t come to any farewell dinner.

They then take the cab to Shearwater’s house in Maida Vale. He’s out and so is the Missus, according to a characteristically uneducated maid (it doesn’t seem to occur to any of the bourgeois characters, when they talk about love and, occasionally, fairness or a better society, that this might include the army of servants and butlers and drivers and cleaners who service their oh-so-sensitive lives).

Gumbril leaves a message for Mrs i.e. Rosie, to tell her that Mr Toto apologises for not having spoken to her when he saw her in Pimlico. I.e. signalling that he saw her at Coleman’s.

Lastly they call on Mr Gumbril Senior, happily sitting on the balcony of his apartment watching his beloved starlings in the plane trees in the square. The text reverts back to Huxley’s Peacockian approach i.e. a character becomes the mouthpiece for a theory, in this case, Mr Gumbril Senior explains to Mrs Viveash his theory that we humans have a capacity for telepathy which we have let go to rust, but we could revive it if we wanted.

Look at the general development of the mathematical and musical faculties only within the last two hundred years. By the twenty-first century, I believe, we shall all be telepaths.

Remember the exquisitely detailed model of London as designed by Christopher Wren which Gumbril’s father had made? Remember how we met Gumbril Senior’s father’s friend, Porteous, and were told how he had scrimped and saved to raise a family and build up a library of precious books. Well, now Theodore’s father takes his son aside to tell him how Porteous’s son has drunk away all the family money and then borrowed more and gambled that away so that Porteous has been forced to sell his library.

That is why, Gumbril Senior explains, he has sold the model to the Victoria & Albert Museum to raise money for his friend. Theodore is touched. So much for the ‘beyond good and evil’, post-war cynicism of his generation. It is a sentimental beacon in an otherwise deliberately cynical narrative.

Mrs Viveashe is touched by Gumbril Senior and his theories about his starlings and telepathy. He is a sweet and kind old man. They get back into the taxi for the last time (this cabby is making a fortune out of them).

Chapter 22

The final chapter describes experiments going on at Shearwater’s laboratory. He is in a sealed room, wearing only a loin cloth, pedalling an early version of an exercise bike. The aim is to find out how long a man sweats for and to catch and analyse his sweat. We enter his head, as we have most of the other characters, and discover he is still tormented by his thwarted passion for Mrs Viveash, is dreaming, as he steadily cycles on, of fleeing her, getting away. Which explains why it is quite a comic moment when he looks up and sees at the porthole looking into his experiment room… none other than Mrs Viveash!  Convinced he is hallucinating a nightmare, he turns back to facing the wall and pedals all the more furiously.

His assistant, Lancing, shows Gumbril and Mrs Viveash around the garish and grotesque biological experiments they’re carrying out in the lab. Animal identity is being tampered with through extensive vivisection. Maybe human beings will be next. They look out a big window across the Thames to St Paul’s illuminated in the night and both are awed into silence by thoughts of time and destiny.

Then are roused back to the present. ‘Come on’, says Mrs Viveash. ‘Let’s go and see Piers Cotton.’ The great issues of time and destiny may stand over us. But most people hide them by getting on with the endless tittle tattle of their busy social lives. We are, according to Aristotle, first and foremost social animals, interested in gossip and tittle tattle. Big Ideas and theories come a looooooooong way back in the queue.


Recurring themes

1. As others see us

The theme which strikes me as recurring most obviously in Crome Yellow and Antic Hay is the panic fear various characters have of realising that they are beings-in-the-world – meaning their horrified realisation of the gap between their own sense of themselves as full of life and ideas and passions which are serious and deep and full – and the terrible realisation that for most other people you barely exist, and even then only as the butt of cheap jokes.

Most other people think that I – the vital, all-important I that lives and moves and loves and feels – is scarcely relevant to their busy lives, or at best the punchline of a crappy anecdote.

Lypiatt stood with folded arms by the window, listening. How lightly they threw his life, his heart, from hand to hand, as though it were a ball and they were playing a game! He thought suddenly of all the times he had spoken lightly and maliciously of other people. His own person had always seemed, on those occasions, sacred. One knew in theory very well that others spoke of one contemptuously – as one spoke of them. In practice – it was hard to believe. (Antic Hay chapter 21)

Thus when I am in love, it is all Wagner and Shakespeare. Whereas other people in love ‘are always absurd’ (p.238).

2. Working classes

It’s so tiny as to be buried, but just now and then the characters meet people from the working classes. None of the characters in these novels has a job: Mrs Viveash doesn’t work, Lypiatt is a poor artist, Mercaptan dashing off his reviews is hardly work, Theodore lives off a legacy from an aunt (£300 a year from ‘the intolerable Aunt Flo’, p.24).

It’s only when members of the working class intrude a little that you realise what a solidly upper-middle-class book this is, set among the owners of manor houses, rich widows and their amusing hangers-on – writers and artists. Thus the dawdling dilettante Pasteur Mercaptan’s housekeeper, Mrs Goldie, is one of the few working class characters and voices in the book:

Mr. Mercaptan, it seemed, had left London. His housekeeper had a long story to tell. A regular Bolshevik had come yesterday, pushing in. And she had heard him shouting at Mr. Mercaptan in his own room. And then, luckily, a lady had come and the Bolshevik had gone away again. And this morning Mr. Mercaptan had decided, quite sudden like, to go away for two or three days. And it wouldn’t surprise her at all if it had something to do with that horrible Bolshevik fellow. Though of course Master Paster hadn’t said anything about it. Still, as she’d known him when he was so high and seen him grow up like, she thought she could say she knew him well enough to guess why he did things. It was only brutally that they contrived to tear themselves away.

Yes, the working classes do have a habit of nattering on so, don’t you find?

There is one place where serious social concern does intrude, a ‘sudden irruption’ into the self-obsessed peregrinations of the narcissistic characters.

After a typical night’s drinking and arguing the Bohemian crew (Lypiatt, Coleman, Shearwater, Gumbril) find themselves at the all-night coffee stand at Hyde Park corner. It’s here that they bump into Mrs Viveash and her monocled posh-boyfriend. But as they gossip and make clever witticisms about Love, they slowly become aware of a pair of hard-core, down and out, unemployed, homeless proletarians slumped up against the railings nearby.

One wrecked specimen is telling a small crowd a hard luck story about how he was leading his rag and bone cart when the cops stopped him and told him the old pony Jerry was too unwell for the job and took him away and now he doesn’t have any work, couldn’t get work, him and the missus heard of work in Portsmouth so they walked there, his missus being heavily pregnant but no money for transport, but there was no jobs in Portsmouth and so they had to walk back.

‘’Opeless,’ ’e says to me, ‘quite ’opeless. More than two hundred come for three vacancies.’ So there was nothing for it but to walk back again. Took us four days it did, this time. She was very bad on the way, very bad. Being nearly six months gone. Our first it is. Things will be ’arder still, when it comes.’
From the black bundle there issued a sound of quiet sobbing.
‘Look here,’ said Gumbril, making a sudden irruption into the conversation. ‘This is really too awful.’ He was consumed with indignation and pity; he felt like a prophet in Nineveh.
‘There are two wretched people here,’ and Gumbril told them breathlessly, what he had overheard. It was terrible, terrible. ‘All the way to Portsmouth and back again; on foot; without proper food; and the woman’s with child.’
Coleman exploded with delight. ‘Gravid,’ he kept repeating, ‘gravid, gravid. The laws of gravidy, first formulated by Newton, now recodified by the immortal Einstein. God said, Let Newstein be, and there was light. And God said, Let there be Light; and there was darkness o’er the face of the earth.’ He roared with laughter.
Between them they raised five pounds. Mrs. Viveash undertook to give them to the black bundle. The cabmen made way for her as she advanced; there was an uncomfortable silence. The black bundle lifted a face that was old and worn, like the face of a statue in the portal of a cathedral; an old face, but one was aware somehow, that it belonged to a woman still young by the reckoning of years. Her hands trembled as she took the notes, and when she opened her mouth to speak her hardly articulate whisper of gratitude, one saw that she had lost several of her teeth. (pp.65-6)

The narrative then swiftly returns to its endless permutations of love affairs and artistic agonising among the educated and unworking classes, but it’s a dark and disturbing moment. Its bleakness puts all the self-obsessed navel gazing of the main characters into perspective. And makes you ask: one hundred years later, have are we any close to solving the issues of homelessness, unemployment and poverty?


Social history

References which indicate what his readers in 1922 had heard of or were thinking about, topics in the news:

Lenin and the Bolshevik revolution. Gumbril’s tailor Mr Bojanus gives his ideas about ‘liberty’, which people resent the rich, and why he’d welcome a revolution, despite thinking it would make no great difference (people will never be ‘free’ because they will always have to work).

Russian famine ‘After you’ve accepted the war, swallowed the Russian famine,’ said Gumbril. ‘Dreams!’

The first famine in the USSR happened in 1921–1923 and garnered wide international attention. The most affected area being the Southeastern areas of European Russia, including Volga region. An estimated 16 million people may have been affected and up to 5 million died (Wikipedia)

Nietzsche ‘Beyond good and evil? We are all that nowadays.’ thinks Theodore. The interesting point is that he frames it in Nietzsche’s terms, i.e. the endurance of Nietzsche’s thought.

Freud Gumbril and friends criticise Lypiatt’s use of ‘dream’ in a poem saying that nowadays ‘the word merely connotes Freud.’ I.e. by 1922 sophisticated urbanites were so over Freud.

Stopes ‘British author, palaeobotanist and campaigner for eugenics and women’s rights… With her second husband, Humphrey Verdon Roe, Stopes founded the first birth control clinic in Britain. Stopes edited the newsletter Birth Control News, which gave explicit practical advice. Her sex manual Married Love (1918) was controversial and influential, and brought the subject of birth control into wide public discourse.’

Schoenberg avant-garde composer and inventor of the twelve-tone system which would come to dominate classical music after the Second World War

Heroin I was surprised by a reference to heroin, I thought cocaine was the fashionable drug of the 1920s:

‘Who lives longer: the man who takes heroin for two years and dies, or the man who lives on roast beef, water and potatoes till ninety-five? One passes his twenty-four months in eternity. All the years of the beef-eater are lived only in time.’
‘I can tell you all about heroin,’ said Mrs. Viveash. (p.224)


Style

Huxley flexes his wings a little. In the two years since he published his first book, T.S. Eliot and James Joyce had brought out The Waste Land and Ulysses, respectively. Huxley doesn’t go mad, but the text includes noticeable linguistic experiments.

Inverted word order

Floating she seemed to go, with a little spring at every step and the skirt of her summery dress—white it was, with a florid pattern printed in black all over it…

Rare vocabulary

  • rachitic – feeble, weak
  • imberb – beardless
  • callipygous – having finely developed buttocks
  • empest – to corrupt or infect
  • priapagogue – an invented word
  • paronomasia – a play on words; a pun
  • disembogue – of a river or stream, to emerge or be discharged into the sea or a larger river
  • inenarrable – incapable of being narrated, indescribable

Onomatopoeia

And in a handful of places he makes the prose onomatopoeically to mimic the action being described. These are all timid baby steps which distantly echo the revolution in writing taking place at the time.

Piranesi

There are recurring references to Piranesi, specifically that the archway into the mews where Lypiatt lives looks like one of the arches in Piranesi’s series of etchings of vast imaginary prisons. As it happens I visited a free exhibition of Piranesi at the British Museum.


Credit

Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley was published by Chatto & Windus in 1923. All references are to the 1984 Panther paperback edition.

Related links

Aldous Huxley reviews

  • Crome Yellow (1921)
  • Antic Hay (1923)
  • Those Barren Leaves (1925)
  • Point Counter Point (1928)
  • Brave New World (1932)
  • Eyeless in Gaza (1936)
  • After Many a Summer (1939)
  • Time Must Have a Stop (1944)
  • Ape and Essence (1948)
  • The Genius and the Goddess (1955)
  • Island (1962)
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