Monday, June 4, 2012

Parodying as a Form of Flattery

   One famous American idiom is “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.”  The same can also be said of a parody.  A parody is defined as a humorous or satirical imitation of a serious piece of literature or writing.1 This has been done numerous times over the years in both literature and film. 
    In order for such a parody to be successful it is important that a well-known piece of literature should be chosen.   This piece of literature can be representative of a particular culture or is so well known that its content transcends a particular culture. The transcending of a given culture is largely based upon the theme of a given novel. 
    One theme which transcends a given culture is the hero’s journey or quest.  Joseph Campbell (1904-1987) spoke about this in a series on the Public Broadcasting Company (PBS) which aired the year after Campbell died. He initially wrote about this The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). 
    This theme is present in numerous novels and such films as Star Wars (1977) which was directed by George Lucas.  One classic novel where this theme is present was Virgil’s Aeneid. Considered one of the classics of Western literature, The Aeneid has been read by countless generations of students. 
   The summary of this classic tale is as follows.  On the Mediterranean Sea, Aeneas and his fellow Trojans flee from their home city of Troy, which has been destroyed by the Greeks. They sail for Italy, where Aeneas is destined to found Rome. As they near their destination, a fierce storm throws them off course and lands them in Carthage. Dido, Carthage’s founder and queen, welcomes them. Aeneas relates to Dido the long and painful story of his group’s travels thus far.
   Aeneas tells of the sack of Troy that ended the Trojan War after ten years of Greek siege. In the final campaign, the Trojans were tricked when they accepted into their city walls a wooden horse that, unbeknownst to them, harbored several Greek soldiers in its hollow belly. He tells how he escaped the burning city with his father, Anchises; his son, Ascanius; and the hearth gods that represent their fallen city. Assured by the gods that a glorious future awaited him in Italy, he set sail with a fleet containing the surviving citizens of Troy. Aeneas relates the ordeals they faced on their journey. Twice they attempted to build a new city, only to be driven away by bad omens and plagues. Harpies, creatures that are part woman and part bird, cursed them, but they also encountered friendly countrymen unexpectedly. Finally, after the loss of Anchises and a bout of terrible weather, they made their way to Carthage.
    Impressed by Aeneas’s exploits and sympathetic to his suffering, Dido, a Phoenician princess who fled her home and founded Carthage after her brother murdered her husband, falls in love with Aeneas. They live together as lovers for a period, until the gods remind Aeneas of his duty to found a new city. He determines to set sail once again. Dido is devastated by his departure, and kills herself by ordering a huge pyre to be built with Aeneas’s castaway possessions, climbing upon it, and stabbing herself with the sword Aeneas leaves behind.
   As the Trojans head to Italy, bad weather blows them to Sicily, where they hold funeral games for the dead Anchises. The women, tired of the voyage, begin to burn the ships, but a downpour puts the fires out. Some of the travel-weary stay behind, while Aeneas, reinvigorated after his father visits him in a dream, and takes the rest on toward Italy. Once there, Aeneas descends into the underworld, guided by the Sibyl of Cumae, to visit his father. He is shown a pageant of the future history and heroes of Rome, which helps him to understand the importance of his mission. Aeneas returns from the underworld, and the Trojans continue up the coast to the region of Latium.
   The arrival of the Trojans in Italy begins peacefully. King Latinus, the Italian ruler, extends his hospitality, hoping that Aeneas will prove to be the foreigner whom, according to a prophecy, his daughter Lavinia is supposed to marry. However, Latinus’ wife, Amata, has other ideas. She means for Lavinia to marry Turnus, a local suitor. Amata and Turnus cultivate enmity toward the newly arrived Trojans. Meanwhile, Ascanius hunts a stag that was a pet of the local herdsmen. A fight breaks out, and several people are killed. Turnus, riding this current of anger, begins a war.
    Aeneas, at the suggestion of the river god Tiberinus, sails north up the Tiber to seek military support among the neighboring tribes. During this voyage, his mother, Venus, descends to give him a new set of weapons, wrought by Vulcan. While the Trojan leader is away, Turnus attacks. Aeneas returns to find his countrymen embroiled in battle. Pallas, the son of Aeneas’s new ally Evander, is killed by Turnus. Aeneas flies into a violent fury and many more are slain by the day’s end.
   The two sides agree to a truce so that they can bury the dead, and the Latin leaders discuss whether to continue the battle. They decide to spare any further unnecessary carnage by proposing a hand-to-hand duel between Aeneas and Turnus. When the two leaders face off, however, the other men begin to quarrel, and full-scale battle resumes. Aeneas is wounded in the thigh, but eventually the Trojans threaten the enemy city. Turnus rushes out to meet Aeneas, who wounds Turnus badly. Aeneas nearly spares Turnus but, remembering the slain Pallas, slays him instead.2
     It is interesting that the first literary work ever published in the modern Ukrainian language was a 1798 epic poem entitled, Eneyida, which was parody of Virgil’s classic story.  This epic poem was written by Ivan Petrovych Kotlyarevsky (1769-1838), who is considered the first modern Ukrainian author.  In Kotlyarevsky’s poem, the main characters are no longer Trojans, but Zaporozhian Cossacks.3 These men had a profound impact upon Ukrainian history prior to being disbanded in 1775.  It seems only fitting that a Ukrainian author would choose such a group of men for his parody.  They were as meaningful to his culture as Aeneus was to the Greek speaking world.
    An example of an American parody is the novel, The Wind Done Gone (2001) by Alice Randall. This novel is based upon Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 classic novel, Gone with the Wind, but is written from the standpoint of Scarlett O’Hara’s slaves.  This is a very interesting approach to addressing the issue of slavery during the Civil War. 
    Ms. Randall wrote a book based upon a novel which went on to become an Academy Award winning film (1939) and gave a voice to those who would have been nameless, faceless people in their own time period.  In fact, since they were slaves, they would not have been considered people, but property. 
    One of the most remarkable aspects of the Ukrainian language is the fact that it exists at all in the modern world. It has been banned and discouraged several times by non-Ukrainian regimes, but always maintained its existence somehow, even by using informal methods of keeping the tongue alive, such as songs, folklore, and Ivan Kotlyarevsky’s Eneyida, which was the first book to be published in Ukrainian and has become a classic.
    The Ukrainians have seen periods of substantial unrest and the current version of the Ukrainian language reflects the periods of trouble in the country. However, tracing the language back over time has often proved problematic, as until the 18th century, the spoken and written forms of Ukrainian differed immensely from one another. Before the 18th century the contemporary form of Ukrainian was a vernacular language which existed alongside Church Slavonic. It was mostly peasants and the bourgeoisie, who spoke this language, and there was also something of a linguistic hierarchy at the time, as a lot of literature, scientific texts, or any other sort of important writing was being produced in different languages, for example, Greek, Latin, or Polish. This is not to say that Ukrainian was in danger of dying out, for it was still widely spoken in Ukraine, but in terms of a written language, it was overlooked in favor of other tongues.4 
  The fact that Kotlyarevsky was able to publish his epic poem in the Ukrainian language actually help to maintain this Slavic language and likely served as an inspiration for future authors like Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852) who would have been able to read this poem in his native language.  The Ukrainian language is still spoken in modern day Ukraine, but it seems to be much more popular in western Ukraine than eastern Ukraine where many people speak Russian. 
   Parody certainly can be a sincere form of flattery, especially when it is based upon a classic piece of literature.  Kotlyarevsky’s Eneyida has become a classic piece of literature and the people of Ukraine own him a debt of gratitude for helping to keep their beautiful language alive for future generations.
                                                           End Notes
1) “Parody (accessed 6/3/12)
2) “The Aeneid” (accessed 6/3/12) 
3) “Ivan Kotlyarevsky  (accessed 6/3/12) “The Highest Manifesto Zaporozhian Sich Destruction (written 12/14/06, accessed 6/2/12)  
4) “The Ukrainian Language  (accessed 6/4/12)

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