Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Iliad, Canterbury Tales, Sabriel

I've got a bit more of a mixed bag this time around than the three mysteries from last time.

First off, I finished book 17 of the Iliad. The last section of the book shows, I think, why the Homeric poet is a great poet, not just a great story-teller. In a few rushing lines, as the two Ajaxes cover Menelaus and Meriones's retreat from the Trojan advance, we get 5 similes, and each one is beautifully worked to show one (or sometimes more) aspect of the conflict. First, the conflict is like a raging fire, pushing townsmen away, with a horrible din. Then the two heroes are like mules, hauling Patroclos's body, as they sweat and strain. The Aiantes hold back the Trojan advance like a wooded ridge holding back a river, but Aeneas and Hector scatter the greeks as an eagle scatters starlings.

It's even more amazing when you consider that this was all worked out within the constraints of a very strict formular system.

I sent Garth Nix's Sabriel with Moshe to summer camp because I'd heard very good things about it, and, now that he's back, I decided to give it a try myself. It was very, very good indeed. Nix has a great feeling for similes (an evil spirit laughs like a match striking, for example), and his fantasy world feels unique. I'm not normally into books about the undead, and I probably wouldn't have started this one if I'd known that undead spirits were going to be a theme, but he really pulled it off in a way that didn't owe anything to other authors. Necromancers in this book control the dead through the sounds of bells, and Nix's aforementioned skill with similes really works well, here -- each bell has a different sound, and he evokes them all beautifully.

I've been listening to The Canterbury Tales, and I've been very gratified to find that it was better than I'd hoped. Chaucer tells all sorts of tales in all genres -- animal fables, ribald jokes, sermons, courtly love, and so on. I'd known that going in, but I wasn't expecting to find how much he gave each narrator his own voice, whether by giving some characters Latin words to throw in, or quoting from more or less learned sources, or using more or less foul language. The multiplicity of narrative voices is something that I've associated with more modern writing, and it's interesting to run across it in some of the oldest English literature extant.

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