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austinchapman

in libris

Read much. Talk little.

Currently reading

The Best Science Fiction and Fantasy of the Year, Volume Eleven
Joe Abercrombie, N.K. Jemisin, Ken Liu, Jonathan Strahan
Progress: 208/507 pages
Empire: The Russian Empire and Its Rivals
Dominic Lieven
The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages
Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams
Progress: 367/543 pages

Reading progress update: I've read 331 out of 543 pages.

The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Vol. A: Middle Ages - Stephen Greenblatt, Alfred David, James Simpson, M.H. Abrams

The next item in this anthology is an excerpt from John Gower's Confessio Amantis ("The Lover's Confession"), a late 14th century moral satire in which Amans ("Lover") receives life lessons from one he calls "Father". Many of these lessons involve stories from ancient mythology (mostly culled from Ovid's Metamorphoses, a fine source for ancient myths!). The one chosen here by the editors is the tale of Philomene and Tereus (we would know Philomene as Philomela... small distinction). In brief, this is the myth where Philomene is raped by her sister's husband Tereus (the sister is called Progne in this story, Procne in Ovid's version). Tereus cuts her tongue out and then locks her up, but Progne helps Philomene escape, and together the sisters plot vengeance. Progne is so overcome with rage that she decides to kill the infant son she's had with Tereus, then chop him up and serve him in a stew to Tereus. He eats it right up, then is informed by his wife (Progne) that he's just eaten his son! A fight between Progne & Philomene on the one side and Tereus on the other is about to erupt when suddenly Venus turns them all into birds. The type of bird each becomes depends on the person's character: Philomene becomes a nightingale to broadcast her suffering, Progne a swallow to advertise Tereus's evil nature, and Tereus a lapwing, "the falsest bird of them all" (it has a crest to make it seem noble like a knight, as Tereus is ironically described, but is really just a fool).

 

I've read this story before in Ovid's Metamorphoses, but the direct and visceral quality of it is still shocking, to say the least. Gower does not try to gloss over the horror of rape or murder, and in fact he seems sensitive to the human desire to be treated fairly and with respect. The action in the story is certainly what we would consider "over the top", but it serves to illustrate the moral in a way that's more emotional than veristic (indeed, I think the modern cultural preference for "realism" in entertainment is a bit tiresome, but that is a rant for another day). Despite the mildly sickening violence, I came away with a feeling for Gower's humane spirit, which I did not necessarily expect from a medieval writer in a story that contains no references at all to Christianity. That's refreshing in any age. 

 

UP NEXT:

(almost forgot this part!)

I'm going to read an anthology called Solaris Rising: The New Solaris Book of Science Fiction, edited by Ian Whates. I love reading literary anthologies, especially ones put together by editors who like to suggest running themes by the artful arrangement of their stories. We'll see if Whates can give me what I want.