The Book of the Epic: The World's Great Epics Told in Story

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Thus divinely ordered to leave, Aeneas dares not disobey, but, dreading Dido's reproaches and tears, he prepares to depart secretly. His plans are, however, detected by Dido, who vehemently demands, how he dares forsake her now? By Jupiter's orders, Aeneas remains unmoved by her reproaches, and sternly reminds her that he always declared he was bound for Italy. So, leaving Dido to brood over her wrongs, Aeneas hastens down to the shore to hasten his preparations for departure. Seeing this, Dido implores her sister to detain her lover, and, as this proves vain, orders a pyre erected, on which she places all the objects Aeneas has used.

That night the gods arouse Aeneas from slumber to bid him sail without taking leave of the Tyrian queen. In obedience to this command, our hero cuts with his sword the rope which moors his vessel to the Carthaginian shore, and sails away, closely followed by the rest of his fleet. From the watch-tower at early dawn, Dido discovers his vanishing sails, and is so overcome by grief that, after rending "her golden length of hair" and calling down vengeance upon Aeneas, she stabs herself and breathes her last in the midst of the burning pyre. The Carthaginians, little expecting so tragical a denouement, witness the agony of their beloved queen in speechless horror, while Anna wails aloud. Gazing down from heaven upon this sad scene, Juno directs Iris to hasten down and cut off a lock of Dido's hair, for it is only when this mystic ceremony has been performed that the soul can leave the body. Iris therefore speedily obeys, saying:

  "This lock to Dis I bear away
   And free you from your load of clay:"
   So shears the lock: the vital heats
   Disperse, and breath in air retreats.

Book V. Sailing on, Aeneas, already dismayed by the smoke rising from the Carthaginian shore, is further troubled by rapidly gathering clouds. His weather-wise pilot, Palinurus, suggests that, since "the west is darkening into wrath," they run into the Drepanum harbor, which they enter just one year after Anchises' death. There they show due respect to the dead by a sacrifice, of which a serpent takes his tithe, and proceed to celebrate funeral games. We now have a detailed account of the winning of prizes for the naval, foot, horse and chariot races, and the boxing and archery matches.

While all the men are thus congenially occupied, the Trojan women, instigated by Juno in disguise, set fire to the ships, so they need no longer wander over seas they have learned to loathe. One of the warriors, seeing the smoke, raises the alarm, and a moment later his companions dash down to the shore to save their ships. Seeing his fleet in flames, Aeneas wrings his hands, and prays with such fervor that a cloudburst drenches his burning vessels. Four, however, are beyond repair; so Aeneas, seeing he no longer has ship-room for all his force, allows the Trojans most anxious to rest to settle in Drepanum, taking with him only those who are willing to share his fortunes.

Before he leaves, his father's ghost appears to him, bidding him, before settling in Latium, descend into Hades by way of Lake Avernus, and visit him in the Elysian Fields to hear what is to befall his race.

When Aeneas leaves Drepanum on the next day, his mother pleads so successfully in his behalf that Neptune promises to exact only one life as toll.

  "One life alone shall glut the wave;
   One head shall fall the rest to save."

Book VI. Steering to Cumae, where the Sibyl dwells, Aeneas seeks her cave, whose entrance is barred by bronzen gates, on which is represented the story of Daedalus,—the first bird man,—who, escaping from the Labyrinth at Crete, gratefully laid his wings on this altar. We are further informed that the Sibyl generally wrote her oracles on separate oak leaves, which were set in due order in her cave, but which the wind, as soon as the doors opened, scattered or jumbled together, so that most of her predictions proved unintelligible to those who visited her shrine. After a solemn invocation, Aeneas besought her not to baffle him by writing on oak leaves, and was favored by her apparition and the announcement that, after escaping sundry perils by land and sea and reddening the Tiber with blood, he would, thanks to Greek aid, triumph over his foes and settle in Latium with a new bride. Undaunted by the prospect of these trials, Aeneas besought the Sibyl to guide him down to Hades, to enable him to visit his father, a journey she flatly refused to undertake, unless he procured the golden bough which served as a key to that region, and unless he showed due respect to the corpse of his friend. Although both conditions sounded mysterious when uttered, Aeneas discovered, on rejoining his crew, that one of his Trojans had been slain. After celebrating his funeral, our hero wandered off into a neighboring forest, where some doves—his mother's birds—guided him to the place where grew the golden bough he coveted.

Armed with this talisman and escorted by the Sibyl, Aeneas, by way of Lake Avernus, entered the gloomy cave which formed the entrance to Hades. Following the flying footsteps of his mystic guide, he there plunged into the realm of night, soon reaching the precinct of departed souls, where he saw innumerable shades. Although he immediately crossed the river in Charon's leaky punt, many spirits were obliged to wait a hundred years, simply because they could not pay for their passage. Among these unfortunates Aeneas recognized his recently drowned pilot, who related how he had come to his death and by what means he was going to secure funeral honors.

In spite of the three-headed dog and sundry other grewsome sights, Aeneas and his guide reached the place where Minos holds judgment over arriving souls, and viewed the region where those who died for love were herded together. Among these ghosts was Dido, but, although Aeneas pityingly addressed her, she sullenly refused to answer a word. Farther on Aeneas came to the place of dead heroes, and there beheld brave Hector and clever Teucer, together with many other warriors who took part in the Trojan War.

After allowing him to converse a brief while with these friends, the Sibyl vouchsafed Aeneas a passing glimpse of Tartarus and of its great criminals, then she hurried him on to the Elysian Fields, the home of "the illustrious dead, who fighting for their country bled," to inquire for Anchises. The visitors were immediately directed to a quiet valley, where they found the aged Trojan, pleasantly occupied contemplating the unborn souls destined to pass gradually into the upper world and animate the bodies of his progeny. On beholding his son, who, as at Drepanum, vainly tried to embrace him, Anchises revealed all he had learned in regard to life, death, and immortality, and gave a synopsis of the history of Rome for the next thousand years, naming its great worthies, from Romulus, founder of Rome, down to Augustus, first emperor and ruler of the main part of the world.

This account of the glories and vicissitudes of his race takes considerable time, and when it is finished the Sibyl guides Aeneas back to earth by one of the two gates which lead out of this dismal region. Pleased with having accomplished his errand so successfully and duly encouraged by all he has learned, Aeneas returns to his fleet and sets sail for the home he is so anxious to reach.

Book VII. We now skirt with Aeneas the west coast of Italy, sail past Circe's island, and see his ships driven up the winding Tiber by favorable winds. On his first landing the Muse Erato rehearses for our benefit the history of the Latins, whose royal race, represented at present by Latinus, claims to descend from Saturn. Although Latinus has already betrothed his daughter Lavinia to Turnus, a neighboring prince, he is favored by an omen at the moment when the Trojans land. On seeking an interpretation of this sign, he learns he is not to bestow his daughter upon Turnus, but is to reserve her hand for a stranger, whose descendants will be powerful indeed.

Meantime the Trojans feast upon meat which is served to each man on a wheaten cake. Young Iulus, greedily devouring his, exclaims playfully that he is so hungry he has actually eaten the board on which his meal was spread! Hearing these significant words, his happy father exclaims they have reached their destined goal, since the Harpies' terrifying prophecy has been fulfilled.

  "Hail, auspicious land!" he cries,
     "So long from Fate my due!
   All hail, ye Trojan deities,
     To Trojan fortunes true!
   At length we rest, no more to roam.
   Here is our country, here our home."

Then the Trojans begin to explore, and, discovering Latinus' capital, send thither an embassy of a hundred men, who are hospitably entertained. After hearing all they have to say, Latinus assures them that men of his race once migrated from Asia, and that the gods have just enjoined upon him to bestow his daughter upon a foreign bridegroom. When he proposes to unite Lavinia to Aeneas, Juno, unable to prevent a marriage decreed by Fate, tries to postpone it by infuriating Amata, mother of the bride, and causing her to flee into the woods with her daughter.

Not satisfied with one manifestation of power, Juno despatches Discord to ask Turnus if he will tamely allow his promised bride to be given to another man? Such a taunt is sufficient to determine hot-headed Turnus to make war, but, as a pretext is lacking, one of the Furies prompts Iulus to pursue and wound the pet stag of a young shepherdess called Sylvia. The distress of this rustic maid so excites her shepherd brothers that they fall upon the Trojans, who, of course, defend themselves, and thus the conflict begins. Having successfully broken the peace, Discord hastens back to Juno, who, seeing Latinus would fain remain neutral, compels him to take part in the war by opening with her own hand the gates of the temple of Janus. Here the poet recites the names of the various heroes about to distinguish themselves on either side, specially mentioning in the Rutules' force Mezentius, his son Lausus, and the Volscian maid Camilla, who prefers the stirring life of a camp to the peaceful avocations of her sex.


Book VIII. Because Turnus is reinforced by many allies, Aeneas is anxious to secure some too, and soon sets out to seek the aid of Evander, king of Etruria, formerly a Greek. On his way to this realm, Aeneas perceives on the banks of the Tiber a white sow with thirty young, which he sacrifices to the gods in gratitude for having pointed out to him the spot where his future capital will rise. On reaching the Etruscan's stronghold, Aeneas readily secures the promise of a large contingent of warriors, who prepare to join him under the command of Pallas, son of the king. He then assists at a great Etruscan banquet in honor of one of Hercules' triumphs, and while he is sleeping there his mother, Venus, induces her blacksmith husband, Vulcan, to make him a suit of armor.

Dawn having appeared, Evander entertains his guests with tales, while his son completes his preparations. Aeneas' departure, however, is hastened by Venus, who warns her son that his camp is in danger when she delivers to him the armor she has procured. This is adorned by many scenes in the coming history of Rome, among which special mention is made of the twins suckled by the traditional wolf, of the kidnapping of the Sabines, and of the heroic deeds of Cocles, Cloelia, and Manlius, as well as battles and festivals galore.6

Book IX. Meantime, obedient to Turnus' orders, the Rutules have surrounded the Trojan camp and set fire to Aeneas' ships. But, as Fate has decreed these vessels shall be immortal, they sink beneath the waves as soon as the flames touch them, only to reappear a moment later as ocean-nymphs and swim down the Tiber to warn Aeneas of the danger of his friends. This miracle awes the foe, until Turnus boldly interprets it in his favor, whereupon the Rutules attack the foreigners' camp so furiously that the Trojans gladly accept the proposal made by Nisus and Euryalus to slip out and summon Aeneas to return.

Stealing out of the Trojan camp by night, these two heroes bravely thread their way through their sleeping foes, killing sundry famous warriors as they go, and appropriating choice bits of their spoil. Leaving death in their wake, the two Trojans pass through the enemy's ranks and finally enter a forest, where they are pursued by a troop of the Volscians, who surround and slay Euryalus. But, although Nisus first manages to escape from their hands, he returns to defend his comrade and is slain too. The Volscians therefore bear two bloody heads to the Rutules camp to serve as their war standards on the next day. It is thus that Euryalus' mother becomes aware of the death of her son, whom she mourns in touching terms.

        "Was it this, ah me,
  I followed over land and sea?
  O slay me, Rutules! if ye know
  A mother's love, on me bestow
    The tempest of your spears!
  Or thou, great Thunderer, pity take,
  And whelm me 'neath the Stygian lake,
  Since otherwise I may not break
    This life of bitter tears!"

To recount all the deeds of valor performed on this day would require much space, but, although Mars inspires the party of Aeneas with great courage, it is evidently on the verge of defeat when Jupiter orders Turnus to withdraw.

Book X. Having convoked his Olympian council, Jupiter forbids the gods to interfere on either side, and decrees that the present quarrel shall be settled without divine aid. Hearing this, Venus vehemently protests that, having promised her son should found a new realm in Italy, he is bound to protect him, while Juno argues with equal force that the Trojans should be further punished for kidnapping Helen. Silencing both goddesses, Jupiter reiterates his orders and dissolves the assembly.

The scene now changes back to earth, where the Trojans, closely hemmed in by foes, long for Aeneas' return. He, on his way back, encounters the sea-nymphs, who explain they were once his ships and bid him hasten and rescue his son. Thus admonished, Aeneas hurries back, to take part in a battle where many heroic deeds are performed, and where Turnus, Mezentius, and Lausus prove bravest on the enemy's side, although they find their match in Aeneas, Pallas, and Iulus. Among the brilliant duels fought, mention must be made of one between Pallas and Turnus, where notwithstanding his courage the Trojan prince succumbs. After stripping his companion of his armor, Turnus abandons his corpse to his friends, who mourn to think that he lost his life while helping them. Vowing to avenge him, Aeneas next attacks his foe with such fury that it seems as if Turnus' last day has come, but Juno pleads so eloquently in his behalf, that, although Fate has decreed he shall perish, she grants him brief respite.

To preserve Turnus from the deadly blows of the real Aeneas, Juno causes him to pursue a phantom foe on board a ship, whose moorings she loosens, thus setting him adrift upon the Tiber. Perceiving only then how he has been tricked, Turnus threatens to slay himself, but is restrained by Juno, who after awhile allows him to land and return to the battle. Thus deprived of his principal foe, Aeneas ranges over the battle-field, where he wounds Mezentius and kills Lausus. Seeing his beloved son is gone, Mezentius is so anxious to die that he now offers an unresisting throat to Aeneas, who slays him on the spot.

  "One boon (if vanquished foe may crave
   The victor's grace) I ask—a grave.
   My wrathful subjects round me wait:
   Protect me from their savage hate,
   And let me in the tomb enjoy
   The presence of my slaughtered boy."

Book XI. Having made a trophy of the enemies' spoil, Aeneas, even before proceeding to bury his own comrades, adorns the body of Pallas and sends it back to Etruria. Then he bargains with Turnus' ambassadors for a twelve-days truce, during which both parties celebrate pompous funerals, the finest of all being that of Pallas.

Hoping to check further bloodshed, Latinus now proposes a peace, whose terms Aeneas is willing to accept, but which Turnus angrily rejects since they deprive him of his promised bride. The conflict is therefore resumed, and the next interesting episode refers to Camilla, the warrior maid, whose father when she was only a babe tied her to the shaft of his spear and flung her across a torrent he was unable to stem with her in his arms. Having thus saved her from the enemy's clutches, this father taught Camilla to fight so bravely, that she causes dire havoc among the Trojans before she dies, using her last breath to implore Turnus to hasten to the rescue.

  "Go: my last charge to Turnus tell,
   To haste with succor, and repel
   The Trojans from the town—farewell."
   She spoke, and speaking, dropped her rein,
   Perforce descending to the plain.
   Then by degrees she slips away
   From all that heavy load of clay:
   Her languid neck, her drowsy head
   She droops to earth, of vigor sped:
   She lets her martial weapons go:
   The indignant soul flies down below.

Book XII. Unappeased by Latinus' reiterated assertions that he is bestowing Lavinia upon a stranger merely to obey the gods, or by the entreaties in which Amata now joins, Turnus still refuses peace. More fighting therefore ensues, during which Aeneas is wounded in the thigh. While his leech is vainly trying to stanch his blood, Venus drops a magic herb into the water used for bathing his wounds and thus miraculously cures him. Plunging back into the fray, which becomes so horrible that Amata brings Lavinia home and commits suicide, Turnus and Aeneas finally meet in duel, but, although Juno would fain interfere once more in behalf of her protégé, Jupiter refuses to allow it. But he grants instead his wife's petition that the Trojan name and language shall forever be merged into that of the Latin race.

  "Let Latium prosper as she will,
   Their thrones let Alban monarchs fill;
   Let Rome be glorious on the earth,
   The centre of Italian worth;
   But fallen Troy be fallen still,
     The nation and the name."

Toward the end of this momentous encounter, during which both heroes indulged in sundry boastful speeches, a bird warns Turnus that his end is near, and his sister Juturna basely deserts him. Driven to bay and deprived of all other weapons, Turnus finally hurls a rock at Aeneas, who, dodging this missile, deals him a deadly wound. Turnus now pitifully begs for mercy, but the sight of Pallas' belt, which his foe proudly wears, so angers Aeneas that, after wrathfully snatching it from him, he deals his foe the deadly blow which ends this epic.

  "What! in my friend's dear spoils arrayed
     To me for mercy sue?
   'Tis Pallas, Pallas guides the blade:
   From your cursed blood his injured shade
     Thus takes atonement due."
   Thus as he spoke, his sword he drave
     With fierce and fiery blow
   Through the broad breast before him spread:
   The stalwart limbs grow cold and dead:
   One groan the indignant spirit gave,
     Then sought the shades below.


The national epic in France bears the characteristic name of Chanson de Geste, or song of deed, because the trouvères in the north and the troubadours in the south wandered from castle to castle singing the prowesses of the lords and of their ancestors, whose reputations they thus made or ruined at will.

In their earliest form these Chansons de Geste were invariably in verse, but in time the most popular were turned into lengthy prose romances. Many of the hundred or more Chansons de Geste still preserved were composed in the northern dialect, or langue d'oil, and, although similar epics did exist in the langue d'oc, they have the "great defect of being lost," and only fragments of Flamença, etc., now exist.

There are three great groups or cycles of French epics: first the Cycle of France, dealing specially with Charlemagne,—the champion of Christianity,—who, representing Christ, is depicted surrounded by twelve peers instead of twelve disciples. Among these, to carry out the scriptural analogy, lurks a traitor, Ganelon; so, in the course of the poems, we are favored with biblical miracles, such as the sun pausing in its course until pagans can be punished, and angels appearing to comfort dying knights. The finest sample of this cycle is without doubt the famous Chanson de Roland, of which a complete synopsis follows. Other remarkable examples of this cycle are Aliscans, Raoul de Cambrai, Garin le Lorrain, Guillaume d'Orange, Les Quatre Fils d'Aymon, Ogier le Danois, etc.

Even the character of the hero varies from age to age, for whereas Charlemagne in the Chanson de Roland—which dates perhaps as far back as the tenth century—is a heroic figure, he becomes during later periods, when vassals rise up against their overlords,—an object of contempt and ridicule. A marked example of this latter style of treatment is furnished by Les Quatre Fils d'Aymon.7

The second group, or cycle of Brittany, animated by a chivalrous spirit, and hence termed court epic, finds its greatest exponent in the poet Chrestien de Troyes, whose hero Arthur, King of Brittany, gathers twelve knights around his table, one of whom, Mordred, is to prove traitor. The principal poems of this cycle are Launcelot du Lac, Ivain le Chevalier au Lion, Erec and Enide, Merlin, Tristan, and Perceval. These poems all treat of chivalry and love, and introduce the old pagan passion-breeding philtre, as well as a whole world of magic and fairies. These epics will be noticed at greater length when we treat of the English versions of Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, because many of the poems have been reworked in modern English and are hence most popular in that language.


Besides the Chansons de Geste pertaining to various phases of this theme, the Breton cycle includes many shorter works termed lais, which also treat of love, and were composed by Marie de France or her successors. The best known of all these "cante-fables" is the idyllic Aucassin et Nicolette, of which a full account is embodied in this volume.

One of the best samples of the domestic epic in this cycle is the twelfth century Amis and Amiles, in which two knights, born and baptized on the same day, prove so alike as to become interchangeable. Still, brought up in separate provinces, Amis and Amiles meet and become friends only when knighted by Charlemagne, whose graciousness toward them rouses the jealousy of the felon knight Hardré. When Charlemagne finally offers his niece to Amiles (who, through modesty, passes her on to Amis), the felon accuses the former of treacherously loving the king's daughter Bellicent, and thereupon challenges him to fight. Conscious of not being a traitor, although guilty of loving the princess, Amiles dares not accept this challenge, and changes places with Amis, who personates him in the lists. Because Amis thus commits perjury to rescue his friend from a dilemma, he is in due time stricken with leprosy, deserted by his wife, and sorely ill treated by his vassals. After much suffering, he discovers his sole hope of cure consists in bathing in the blood of the children which in the meanwhile have been born to Amiles and to his princess-wife. When the leper Amis reluctantly reveals this fact to his friend Amiles, the latter, although broken-hearted, unhesitatingly slays his children. Amis is immediately cured, and both knights hasten to church together to return thanks and inform the mother of the death of her little ones. The princess rushes to their chamber to mourn over their corpses, only to discover that meantime they have been miraculously restored to life! This story is very touchingly told in the old Chanson, which contains many vivid and interesting descriptions of the manners of the time.

In this cycle are also included Gérard de Roussillon, Hugues Capet, Macaire (wherein occurs the famous episode of the Dog of Montargis), and Huon de Bordeaux, which latter supplied Shakespeare, Wieland, and Weber with some of the dramatis personae of their well-known comedy, poem, and opera. We must also mention what are often termed the Crusade epics, of which the stock topics are quarrels, challenges, fights, banquets, and tournaments, and among which we note les Enfances de Godefroi, Antioche, and Tudela's Song of the Crusade against the Albigenses.

The third great cycle is known as Matière de Rome la grand, or as the antique cycle. It embodies Christianized versions of the doings of the heroes of the Iliad, Odyssey, Aeneid, Thebais, Alexandreid, etc. In their prose forms the Roman de Thèbes, Roman de Troie, and Roman d'Alexandre contain, besides, innumerable mediaeval embellishments, among others the first mention in French of the quest for the Fountain of Youth.

Later on in French literature we come across the animal epic, or Roman du Renard, a style of composition which found its latest and most finished expression in Germany at the hands of Goethe, and the allegorical epic, Le Roman de la Rose, wherein abstract ideas were personified, such as Hope, Slander (Malebouche), Danger, etc.

There are also epic poems based on Le Combat des Trente and on the doings of Du Guesclin. Ronsard, in his Franciade, claims the Franks as lineal descendants from Francus, a son of Priam, and thus connects French history with the war of Troy, just as Wace, in the Norman Roman de Rou, traces a similar analogy between the Trojan Brutus and Britain. Later French poets have attempted epics, more or less popular in their time, among which are Alaric by Scudéri, Clovis by St. Sorlin, and two poems on La Pucelle, one by Chapelain, and the other by Voltaire.

Next comes la Henriade, also by Voltaire, a half bombastic, half satirical account of Henry IV's wars to gain the crown of France. This poem also contains some very fine and justly famous passages, but is too long and too artificial, as a whole, to please modern readers.

The most popular of all the French prose epics is, without dispute, Fénelon's Télémaque, or account of Telemachus' journeys to find some trace of his long-absent father Ulysses.

Les Martyrs by Chateaubriand, and La Légende des Siècles by Victor Hugo, complete the tale of important French epics to date.

6See the author's "Story of the Romans."
7See the author's "Legends of the Middle Ages."
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