The Earthly Paradise

Introduction to "Bellerophon in Lycia": The Classical Tale for February

Narrative:

When Bellerophon first appears before King Jobates of Lycia, he carries a warrant for his execution, signed by his sometime friend Proetus, King of Argos. After Jobates has read the warrant in grim silence, his daughter Philonoe--physical twin and moral antitype of Proetus's wife Sthenoboea--introduces herself to Bellerophon, declares her affection for him, and tells him she has dreamt his life is in danger.

In response to Proetus's letter, Jobates orders Bellerophon to acquit himself of a series of arduous and potentially deadly tasks. Philonoe's advice and gift of a jewelled sword help him accomplish this first exploit--conquest of the Solymi, a fierce tribe of mountain-dwelling enemies--but Jobates is unsatisfied, and Philonoe warns him once again. His choice to stay rather than flee is prompted partly by love of Philonoe, partly by duty to her fellow-Lycians, and partly by the incipient hero's sense that "not yet my days are done!" (l. 813).

His second enemy is an army of Amazons, sent forth by their patron Diana to avenge profanations of her temples. These doughty women-warriors are "clad in warlike guise/ In scales of brass, beasts' skins, and cloths of dyes, /Uncouth and coarse, made vile with earth and blood,/ A dream of horror!," but Bellerophon and his comrades-in-arms fight them off.

After another foray--this time against Tyrrhenian pirates­-Bellerophon faces his last and most serious enemy: the notoriously elusive Chimaera--now goat, now lion, now serpent-­which transfixes its victims with fear. Jobates has the belated grace to offer Philonoe's hand to the man who overcomes this menace, and the resolute Bellerophon sets forth.

After his departure, Jobates' captain suggests that the king sim­ply put an end to Bellerophon by ordering his assassination, but a man-at-arms suddenly arrives, and reports that Bellerophon has slain the great beast. After showing near-godlike courage, he had assured the badly shaken soldier in quasi-Christian cadences that "I am a man/E'er as thou art" (ll. 2670-71) and explained that the monster's only weapons were fear and consternation. In witness to his words, a part of the beast's carcass has eerily disintegrated into "a line of grayish ashes" as they dragged it home, and all memory of its appearance has begun to fade from the combatants' minds,"like a dream dissolved by morning light," (l. 2834).

Bellerophon and Philonoe now prepare to wed, but remain wary of Jobates's intentions. When Philonoe is unable to sleep, she rises and hears soldiers in the darkness plan to murder Bellerophon and claim that the gods have assumed him into heaven. She quickly wakes him and hands him his sword, shield and spear, then hurries off to blow the ceremonial horn which wakens the royal household. When they arrive, the attackers encounter Bellerophon and flee in disarray, but their captain faints away altogether, in a syncope reminiscent of the Chimaera's victims ("Belike it was of fear they died," l. 2690). After the skirmish finally ends, Jobates hands Bellerophon Proetus's letter as a token of reconciliation, and the couple are duly wed.

Unmoved by the tale's tranquil conclusion, its narrator somberly observes that his reflective hero has dwindled to an "empty name," and the lyric singer denounces the brutal lies and betrayals of the "[m]any-peopled earth," its bitter isolation, its "causeless wars that never had an aim," and its "short-lived days of rest/ While in this love that touches everyone, /Still wilt thou let each man abide alone, /Unholpen, with his pain unnameable .... /Is it, perchance, lest men should come to tell/ Each unto other what a pain it is, ... /Lest they die out and leave thee void of strife, /Empty of all their yearning and their fear, /'Twixt storm and sunshine of the changing year? (ll. 3356-61)

Bellerophon's ardent and reflective vindication ends the year's cycle of classical tales, but its pensive closure leads to the bleakest passage in the entire work: life itself might be intolerable, if its inadequacies did not dull the very sensibilities that enable us to endure it.

Sources:

In addition to the entry in Lemprière's Classical Dictionary and the passages in Book VI of the Iliad, noted above in the headnote for "Bellerophon in Argos," Morris modified an account of Bellerophon's exploits in Apollodorus's Bibliotheca, book II, iii, to end his tale with the slaying of the Chimaera and underscore Bellerophon's modesty and resolution. None of these sources described the Amazons (the Iliad simply refered to them as "women peers of men"), so Morris presumably drew on other classical traditions for their somewhat lurid depiction (e. g., Herodotus IV, Chapters 110-116).

Morris also modulated his sources to make the Chimaera an archetype of the neant. Apollodorus's conventionally loathsome beast "had the fore part of a lion, the tail of a dragon, and its third head, the middle one, was that of a goat, through which it belched fire," but Morris's monster shifts shapes in psychologically nuanced, indefinable ways.

As Ralph Bellas has noted, Morris's introduction of the scheming captain effectively exempted Jobates from much of the responsibility for the plot against Bellerophon's life. Morris also amplified greatly the active intervention of Philonoe, which in his sources had been a virtual reward for services rendered. Her quick-witted endeavors and solidarity contrast markedly with Sthenoboea's destructive narcissism, and the two sisters' identical appearance underscores the point that Bellerophon and Philonoe's union is a marriage of true minds.

Nothing in Morris's sources, above all, anticipated the benevolence and spiritual insight of his curiously reflective action-hero. Bellerophon's meditative abilities to learn from pain and inner doubt make it more possible to view him as something like what the narrator says he is--a "godlike man."

Critical Remarks:

The Bellerophon diptych is one of Morris's best narratives. Bellerophon's integrity, courage and honor, shaken in the first narrative, are vindicated in the second, in which he also benefits from an alliance with a woman whose integrity and resolution mirror his own. The tale's carefully crafted liminal descriptions of the Lewis-Carrollian Chimaera's multiple dissolves called forth some of Morris's most ingenious poetic inventions. It may also merit notice that the hero of the cycle's last classical tale does slay "mighty monsters" (one of the things the "idle singer" pointedly tells us that he himself cannot do).

Bellerophon's character also deepens as the diptych unfolds, and the second tale's images of resurrection backlight a quasi­religious hero who is explicitly non-supernatural and psychologically credible. When Bellerophon finds the man-at-arms prostrate from terror at the sight of the Chimaera, his words of comfort echo those of Christ after the Resurrection--"Be of good cheer"--but when the soldier wonders if he is an apparition or a spirit, he ironically denies it, in the lines quoted earlier: "I am a man, he said, /E'en as thou art; thou livest, if I live" (ll. 2670-71).

Other traits of the narrative include its successful fusion of romantic and heroic plots, and its schematic dramatization of earlier tales' erotic tensions. Bellerophon confronts the specter of himself as brother-murderer before he becomes a heroic rescuer, and turns away predatory sexuality in the figure of Sthenoboea ("strong cry"), before he finds an equal in the actively benevolent Philonoe ("lover of mind").

Morris may also have benefited in the process from the very sketchiness of his sources. Better-defined originals of his other long narratives--The Life and Death of Jason, "The Lovers of Gudrun," Sigurd the Volsung--constrained as well as prompted him, but he felt free to create social-'historical' contexts for "Bellerophon'''s relatively inchoate plot, and meditate on the sources of religion in after-the-fact efforts to memorialize un­supernatural human courage. He also seems to have mined early speculations on the historical origins of classical myth and worship, of the sort he might have found in Max Müller's Comparative Mythology, for a kind of skeptical field-anthopologist's view of such rites and portents.

Indeed, he paused at several points to provide careful explications of Lycian religious rituals. One passage reconstructs the rites of Diana, for example, and explains why the Lycians might interpret disruptions of them as presages of disaster. Frightened people, in flight from the Chimaera, "thought no shame/ To tell how dreams had scared them, or some sign/ In earth, or sky, or milk, or bread, or wine,/ Or in some beast late given unto a god" (11. 1898-1901). Less forgivably, Jobates's captain, Bellerophon's would-be assassin, hoped to cover up his crime with a bogus ascension-cult: "[The Gods] took [Bellerophon] hence/ To make him sharer in omnipotence .... so shall ye rear/ A temple to him nigh the gate" (11. 3163-64, 3171-72).

Finally, when the graceful Philonoe, "a slim close-mantled woman," shrouded herself in a grey cloak to blow the city's ancient war-horn, she appeared Athena-like to the townspeople ("A woman ... All armed and helmed"), and an old man firmly admonished Bellerophon to "doubt not this was Pallas." These "marvels" wryly underscore the tale's implied recommendation that we find ways to understand life's uncertainties without confessional smoke and mythological mirrors.

Morris also used this freedom to invent prototypical bits of "people's history" of a sort quite rare in contemporary epic poetry--reactions of bystanders and ordinary Lycians, for example, and descriptions of daily agricultural tasks, craftwork, and commerce. Among these are two long monologues by ordinary citizens--a vintager who lovingly describes to the King a peasant wine harvest disrupted by the Chimaera (ll. 1649-1855), and the man-at-arms who reports the death of the Chimaera and the collective efforts to drag it home (ll. 2640-2784). Mild bits of anti­royalism also infuse the tale's portrayals of Proetus and Jobates--in Bellerophon's laconic remark, for example, when he finally realizes that Proetus has put out a contract on him: "Not everything to every king will fall/ As he desires it" (ll. 162-63).

Morris also added Bellerophon's actively cooperative alliance with Philonoe and her lucid dreams, and he takes care to highlight the two lovers' unselfishness and forthright mutual attraction. Such contrasts suggest that one might even read Morris's Bellerophon epic as an implicit rejoinder to the Arthurian heroic ideals of Tennyson's better-known contemporary epic Idylls of the King. Both works portrayed their heroes in spiritual terms, and both provided natural reconstructions of supernatural events, but Tennyson considered these two metaphysical realms complementary, whereas Morris added explicit naturalistic explanations for Bellerophon's 'godlike' powers.

Other comparisons are similarly pointed in their implications. Tennyson's epic cast Arthur as a military leader, but all his engagements were offstage. Bellerophon, by contrast, actively recruits, exhorts, heartens, and consoles his fellow-soldiers, and acts, in effect, as a remarkably mild-mannered Platonic 'guardian,' whose task it is--in his 'warrior'-phase--to confront the amorphous Chimaera.

These changes also anticipate the preoccupations of Love Is Enough (1873), Morris's next long poem, as does Bellerophon's laconic characterization of the afterlife as a mirage: "Not overmuch/ I fear or hope the gates of these [heaven and hell] to touch,/ Unless we twain be such men verily/ As on the earth make heaven and hell to be" (ll. 2027-2030). His geocentrism also echoes the modesty of the larger cycle's "idle singer," whose opening words informed us that "Of heaven or hell I have no power to sing."

Both Philonoe and Bellerophon, finally, philosophize about the timeless recurrence of love and its power to free us for a time from the prison-house of eld and death. Bellerophon remarks at one point that human limitations "are the engines of the Gods, lest we, /Through constant love, Gods too should come to be" (11. 827­28), and when Philonoe broods about its force within her, she asks what will happen when she dies, and concludes that "love shall live which once was part of me" (l. 3051). Both suggest that "love" is a miniature eternity, the only one we will ever have.

See also Bellas, 176-83; Boos, 160-69; Calhoun, 208-209; Kirchhoff, 201-207; Oberg, 45-57; and Silver, 68, 73.

Manuscripts:

A pencil draft exists in British Library Add. M. S. 45,301, and the final copy for the printer in Huntington Library M. S. 6418.