First posted November 2006.
The Deputy Headmistress quoted today from The Delight of Great Books, by John Erskine, published in 1928. "He says in his first chapter that too often, 'a book is famous enough to scare off some people who, if they had the courage to open the pages, would find there delight and profit.' The remaining chapters hold his proofs of that statement as applied to specific books- Canterbury Tales, The Faerie Queene, Paradise Lost, Moby Dick, Candide, Modern Irish Poetry and The Ordeal of Richard Feverel, for example." Mortimer J. Adler says in How to Read a Book that "most of us are not aware of the loss we suffer by not making that effort [to read epic poetry]," although "any of these major epics exerts enormous demands on the reader--demands of attention, of involvement, and of imagination."
Katherine Paterson once wrote that she had just finished reading The Odyssey, and she couldn't figure out why nobody had ever told her before what a great book it was! Not a Great Book in the Great Books sense, but just a great book.
I've been thinking the same thing lately, especially since I started into Paradise Lost. (I've been temporarily distracted by re-reading Breathing Lessons, which is less ambitious but which was calling out for another read.) I keep running into all these marvellous quotes and images, and some of it is really funny--even the parts about Satan.
The fallen angels in Hell have a big council about whether or not they have any chance of getting revenge on God, and whether if they storm heaven's gates God might punish them. One of them says something like, "Well, what's He going to do? Send us to hell?" Eventually they decide that they don't have any chance of taking over Heaven, so the best thing they can do is get revenge through this new thing God is making-- "some new race, called Man, about this time To be created like to us, though less In power and excellence, but favoured more Of Him who rules above." So Satan volunteers to try to blast through the frontiers of Hell, and he runs into a particularly monstrous, ugly fiend blocking the way. He says, "Whence, and what art thou, execrable shape, That dares, though grim and terrible, advance Thy miscreated front athwart my way To yonder gates?...." The monster snaps back, "....Back to thy punishment, False fugitive; and to thy speed add wings, Lest with a whip of scorpions I pursue Thy lingering...."
This is real storytelling, even if you don't think you like stories about foul fiends and such things. And yes, Milton does do all kinds of rabbit trails not only into Biblical imagery but into classical mythology; and some of them, if you've read enough of the stories, you recognize with delight. Other references you could look up if you wanted to, but you don't have to--I just keep reading if I don't recognize whatever analogy he's making. (That's partly why I said in an earlier post that I think I enjoy this more now than I did in university.)
And this is the other thing I've found about enjoying books like Paradise Lost and The Odyssey--find an edition (and, for everything except Paradise Lost) a translation that you enjoy. We were given some Harvard Classics recently, including the volume of Milton, but I don't like reading it out of the HCs: the pages are too crispy and the print's too small. I like my big illustrated hardcover with the nice big print. (Like a little kid with a big book.) That doesn't apply just to epic poetry, by the way. One of the two books I brought home from the thrift shop last weekend was a very nice edition of Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. As in, the illustrator of The Wind in the Willows and other childrens' books. We have an Everyman paperback of The Vicar too, which isn't too exciting to look at; but this one almost yells to be read. But I digress. The point is that the greatest books of the Western world were never meant to be slow torture by boredom. If you can get beyond being scared off by the foul fiends of English classes past, they make good reading too.