The Aeneid for Boys and Girls
© 1908 Alfred J. Church
What do I know of The Aeneid? It’s the story of a survivor of Troy, who goes on to found the City of Rome after breaking the Queen of Carthage’s heart. That much I’ve retained from — strangely enough — a college music appreciation course that covered an opera about Aeneas and (Queen) Dido. With that ignorance in mind, I decided to read The Aeneid for Boys and Girls by A.J. Church before trying the actual poem — to make understanding the story easier, rather like I listened to an audio play of The Epic of Gilgamesh before reading it.
So, if you’ve never heard of The Aeneid except as something vaguely famous, let’s begin with the story of the Trojan War. The Greeks have, after an eleven-year siege, finally taken and sacked the high-walled city of Troy, via the famed wooden horse doubling as a troop transport. One young man, the daughter of the goddess of love, is given sight to see that this was Troy’s tragic destiny, for even the gods are aiding in the city’s destruction. Aeneas’s own destiny is to sail towards the west, to the land his people originally came from, and build a new city there.
Unfortunately for him, Juno — wife of Jupiter and the queen of heaven — still has an axe to grind against the Trojans. Oh, sure, they’ve lost their city, and well they deserved it. (Their ruler didn’t think she was as pretty as that Spartan trollop, Helen! Obviously everyone had to pay.) But now the Trojans are coming west, and if they do that they’re destined to found a city that will destroy her pet city, Carthage. Carthago delenda est? Not on her watch! So, like Ody- sorry, Ulysses — Aeneas is driven hither and yon by malignant winds on Juno’s promptings, losing seven years of his life. He meets a woman – Dido — and falls in love, until Jupiter sends down a little reminder to get with his Italian destiny, whereupon the now-abandoned Dido delivers an aria and stabs herself. (Okay, the aria came later.)
At long last the Trojans reach Italy, navigating to the city of the Latins, and there they are met in celebration. Seers have prophesied that the king’d daughter would marry a stranger from overseas, and glory would be in the offing — but naturally, Juno has to screw things up by poisoning hearts here and there. She is most successful in turning the warrior (former suitor of the king’s daughter) Turnus into the organizer of an Italian alliance against the poor Trojans, who are forced to flee making allies among the Latin’s other enemies. Eventually, after much bloodshed — at least three battles — Jupiter orders Juno to stop meddling. After exacting a promise that the new city of the Trojans won’t be called Troy, she relents, and everyone lives happily after after.
(Except for the Carthaginians.)
Church’s adaptation of the Aeneid renders the story in much simpler prose, of course, yet — given its publication date in 1906 — still retains some formal beauty. In that vein, it frequently borrows Biblical phrases: “he who gives his life will save it”, “your people shall be as my people”, “put away childish things”, “pondered it in his heart”. The initial framing device — copying that of The Odyssey, in which the beleaguered hero is asked to tell of his arduous journey — is abandoned for a straightforward recap of the Trojan war, moving straightaway into Aeneas’ escape and further adventures. Virgil’s original text was itself made constant allusion to the Odyssey, beginning with the muse invocation and continuing throughout.. At one point, one of Odysseus’/Ulysses’ own men is even rescued from the island of the Cyclopes, No doubt the poems will prove to have structural similarities, too, as I now attempt to read Robert Fitzgerald’s verse translation.