Selected Shorts: Tales from the Great Epics

The great epics of literature—from those by Homer to "Beowulf" to the "Song of Roland" and Dante’s "Divine Comedy"—are not short stories. For one thing, they are all rather long. But they were intended to be read—or sung—aloud before enraptured audiences. We’ll hear two such readings on this program, as well as a re-telling of "Moby Dick" from the whale’s point of view.  

First, from Homer's "The Iliad," we hear the thrilling final battle to the death between the Greek besieger Achilles and the Trojan defender Hector. The reading makes use of the brilliant English version by the late Robert Fagles, who turns Homer’s dactylic hexameters into wonderfully flowing, evocative, and modern-sounding English verse. This moving reading is performed by Stephen Lang.

Our next epic author, Dante Alighieri, was at least a couple of thousand years younger than Homer. He lived from 1265 to 1321. The Florentine poet’s great epic, "The Divine Comedy," written in terza rima stanzas in a combination of Tuscan Italian and Latin, is a journey in three parts: "Hell" (or the "Inferno"), "Purgatorio," and finally, "Paradiso." In “Inferno,” Dante is guided on his tour of "Hell" by the Roman epic poet Virgil, who takes him through the successive circles, pointing out the celebrity sinners as they writhe in torment, or just stand around hopelessly, having read the sign over the entrance “Lasciate Ogni Speranza, Voi Ch’entrata” (“Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter.”)

We’ll hear Cantos IV and V, culminating in the travelers’ encounter with the tragic lovers Paolo and Francesca. The English text is from the poet Daniel Halpern’s wonderful volume: "Dante’s Inferno: Translations by Twenty Contemporary Poets.”  Canto IV was translated by Mark Strand, and Canto V by Daniel Halpern himself. The reader is the actor and director Phylicia Rashad. 

The third story on our program is derived from a more contemporary epic, Herman Melville’s "Moby Dick." Paul West’s “Captain Ahab, A Novel by the White Whale” is a short but compelling meditation on that epic novel in the voice of the great white whale himself (or herself—it’s not clear.) The events of the Melville novel are all over, and the massive white swimmer looks down at the skeleton of its nemesis Ahab still tangled and attached by rope and harpoon.

Paul West was born in England, served in the Royal Air Force, and moved to America for a life of teaching and prolific publication. His white whale is wonderfully realized, including the sound of the blow hole, by Diane Venora.

The musical interlude in this program is “The Death of Hector,” from James Horner’s score for “Troy.” The SELECTED SHORTS theme is Roger Kellaway’s “Come to the Meadow.”

For additional works featured on SELECTED SHORTS, please click here.

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