Monday, January 2, 2017

Eneas

Eneas: a Twelfth-Century Romance, translated by John Yunck

Storytime: way back in college when I was taking literature classes, one of my favorite classes was on medieval literature, and it was taught by one of my favorite professors, who had a newly-minted Oxford PhD and probably not much familiarity (yet) with Berkeley students.  She threw a mass of really weird stuff at us, which in retrospect was probably not the usual kind of fare for an average introduction to medieval literature -- though of course I had no idea at the time.  We started with the Aeneid, because it was so admired and emulated, and then at some point we read Eneas, a medieval re-telling of the Aeneid that is also really the first of the French romances.  The author took the old-fashioned chansons de geste about heroes (like The Song of Roland) and combined them with the new fashion for romantic love and psychological evaluation.  So this story features Sir Eneas, the prince and knight, and his great romances with Dido and then with Lavine.  The author also had a great love of wonders, especially architectural wonders, which furnishes the modern reader with a lot of entertainment.

Sir Eneas sails the ocean
 I still have my photocopied reader from the course, but I went looking to see if there was a new edition or anything.  No dice.  Eneas is an Old French poem, and the only English translation is this one from 1974 by John Yunck.  I think it's high time somebody published it in a nice paperback!

The story is just the same as in the Aeneid, just with different emphases.  Sir Eneas, the prince of Troy, leads his people on a quest for the land the gods have chosen for him.  He ends up in Carthage, where he and Dido fall in love, but he's ordered to move on and Dido kills herself.  He visits the underworld.  Eventually he gets to Italy, where the king recognizes his claim and promises him the kingship and his daughter Lavine, but the previous claimant is angry and there's a war.  Eneas has the victory and he marries Lavine, founding Alba and a dynasty that will lead to Rome.  But Dido spends all her time fainting and turning white and red by turns, and there are long discourses about the nature of love.  Lavine has no intention of falling in love with anyone, but when she spies Eneas from her window, she falls prey to the malady of love too; and so does Eneas, so they spend the week before the wedding pining for each other.

Dido casts herself into the flames
The Eneas author does not, however, make much of the Roman gods except for Cupid/Love in the medieval fashion.  The gods' constant interventions are really downplayed; the author is quite embarrassed by all this pagan superstition stuff and tries as hard as he can to edit it out whenever possible.

Did I mention the wonders?  Oh, golly, the wonders are so much fun.  I can't possibly quote them all, since it would be boring and spoil the fun, but I do have to quote a couple.  If you read it, look for Camilla's horse, which tops them all. 
...they make black dyes in Carthage from the blood of a great water serpent, which is called the crocodile, of which there are a great many on an island.  These serpents are enormously large, and of a very unusual nature; when one of them has devoured his prey, then he falls asleep with gaping jaws.  He has no bowels whatever.  The birds enter inside his body and during his sleep feed on what he has previously eaten.  He does not purge himself otherwise, for he has no fundament.
...and a cloak which was very valuable.  Its fur was cut in squares, from an animal of a hundred colors; the whole mantle was hemmed with other furs richer and finer, in front and on the bottom border.  The lining was very costly, and the outside was worth much more; it was all embroidered outside with gold.  The fasteners and the buckles and the buttons and the tassels alone were worth more than three castles...
The deer was so well behaved that at night it served at dinner, and acted as a candelabrum before the father and daughter.  Its head was marvelously beautiful when a large candle burned on each of the points of its antlers.
My personal favorite marvel is Camille's tomb, which is far too lengthy a description to quote here, but starts with two intersecting arches and then each successive layer is taller and wider than the one below -- and made in a completely different style -- until it is surmounted with an adamant pointy roof topped with a magic mirror, at least 150 feet up in the air.  Within, Camille rests with an eternal flame and even more wonders.

Eneas is just a kick to read, and it's neat to find the first time that a poet melded knightly deeds and romantic love into one story.  I'm really glad I read it again, and if you're interested in medieval literature, it's well worth getting a copy of the book on ILL.


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I enjoyed the medieval literature class so much that I audited the next semester too.  And that's where I got my abiding affection for weird medieval stories.

3 comments:

Mudpuddle said...

this sounds REALLY fascinating... so what's ILL?

Jean said...

Oh, sorry. Inter-Library Loan. Librarian-speak. :)

o said...

This sounds great! I must try and get a hold of it :)