May 8, 2014, by Helen Lovatt
The joy of starting at the end
Why are endings a good place to start when studying stories?
I am just coming to the end of my third year special subject, Epic Endings. We started with the end of the Aeneid (Aeneas plunges his sword into Turnus and symbolically founds Rome – the Latin word condere means both ‘plunge’ and ‘found’) and moved on to look at responses to it in the later epic tradition: the series of apotheoses (people turned into gods) at the end of Ovid’s Metamorphoses; Lucan’s refusal to end (or the fact that his unfinished text seems somehow to leave Caesar looking like he is about to lose the Civil War); the superfluity of endings to Statius’ Thebaid and the way that none of them feel exactly satisfactory; most interestingly for me, the fifteenth century Supplementum by Maffeo Vegio, which provides a thirteenth book for the Aeneid.
I quite often look at the end of a book at some point while I’m reading it, just to see what it says. Spoilers don’t really bother me. In fact, I quite like reading things in which I already know the story. There’s a special challenge to taking up a story in the middle, or at the end, working out what is going on and enjoying it anyway. When I asked if other people felt the same, I was surprised to find that hardly anyone did. In particular, my husband likes to encounter stories in order, to see them all the way through, and does not like to deviate on the way. He won’t even start a trilogy if the author has not finished writing it, in case the author dies.
So what have I done by taking a bunch of long narrative poems and making my students start at the end? Have I ruined Latin epic for them? In the case of the Aeneid, I’m sure they all knew the whole poem pretty well before, so it was a good way of summing up many of the main issues. Is the dark abrupt and violent ending a fair way to represent the whole poem? For the Metamorphoses, you can’t exactly give away the plot, because there isn’t one – at least not one continuous story linking all the episodes together into a meaningful whole. Starting at the end is not that different from starting anywhere else in the poem: although the final book is rather idiosyncratic, much less superficially attractive than many of the earlier stories (Pygmalion, Narcissus, Phaethon: to pick a few of the more famous ones). In book 15 you have the speech of Pythagoras (philosophy or parody?), imperial apotheoses, Ovid’s own claim of immortality. To appreciate it, you have to think hard about it.
Lucan (and Valerius Flaccus) offer different challenges because they seem to break off mid-story, and can be read as unfinished. What effect does that have on how we read the rest of the poem? Should we come up with our own imagined end-points? Does it matter if they were broken off intentionally, left unfinished at the poet’s death, or parts of the poem were lost in transmission?
In Statius, you get almost a recapitulation of the whole epic genre, from the lamenting women of the Iliad, through the military show-down of the Aeneid, to the ship coming into port (reminiscent of Apollonius’ Argonautica?) and the poet’s seal or claim of immortality, as in Ovid.
Reading the end makes you think about the structure of the whole, potential ways of understanding its significance. The puzzles you are set by an ending on its own can encourage you to go back and find out about the rest of the story. The answer is 42: but what is the question?
Coming soon: further thoughts on unfinished texts and how to go about completing them.
Image: Marcus, Emi and Fran discussing some epic endings in the last session of last term. Photo: HVL.