The Heart of Father’s Day

Of arms & men

Father’s day always conjures up certain images, the emblems & equipment of the men we celebrate this day; but I wonder how much those images really reveal. The golf Dad, the grill Dad, the gadget Dad, the necktie Dad–it all seems kind of thin. Don’t get me wrong, here; I’d like a steak on the grill with an Oregon Scientific AW131 Grill Right Wireless Talking BBQ/Oven Thermometer and a good beer as much as the next guy. But really is that all there is? Don’t we guys get to be as deep and complicated as the women are supposed to be?

I know, there are other masculine images to choose from: warriors, hunters, builders, rulers–even wizards and lovers. And one would hope that mature masculinity would involve courage, strength, competence, wisdom, and passion. But it seems to me that something crucial is missing from all these portraits of powerful manhood, left ignored or unacknowledged off in the shadows of all those heroic stories we tell. Fathers are parents as well; we deal with those who are (as we once were) tender, and weak, and unprepared. Our strength is employed to their good and enjoyed in their company. That is the true heart of a father. It is a context of relationship changes everything.

All of this comes to the surface in the story of Aeneas, the tale “of arms & a man,” the prince of Troy who escaped that city’s fall with his family, and went on to become the ancestor of Roman kings. The Chronicle Review has a wonderful description of the rich human understanding that has gone into a new translation of Virgil’s Aeneid by Sarah Ruden. Early in her academic career, Ruden lived in Cape Town, South Africa, and saw the ending years of apartheid first hand.

“How imperial conflict works itself out isn’t an academic matter for me,” she explains. “The Aeneid isn’t a stiff antiquarian pageant. It’s immediate and primal…I don’t believe I put the slightest strain on the Latin in trying to echo Virgil’s defensiveness and helpless grief, but first I had to understand it, and Africa gave me that gift.”

Richard Thomas, who taught Ruden at Harvard, puts it this way: “Epic poetry is the title we give it, but look onto any page and you’re looking at human voices, male and female, you’re looking at the human condition, you’re looking at worlds gone wrong, you’re looking at power and victory and defeat.”
The Chronicle Review for May 16, 2008, “Measuring the ‘Aeneid’ on a Human Scale”

And you’re looking at families with children. Here is Ruden’s rendering of Aeneas’ thoughts as he flees from the burning city of Troy, leading his wife and young son while carrying his father Anchises on his back:

…dextrae se parvus Iulus
implicuit sequiturque patrem non passibus aequis;
pone subit coniunx. ferimur per opaca locorum,
et me, quem dudum non ulla iniecta movebant
tela neque adverso glomerati ex agmine Grai,
nunc omnes terrent aurae, sonus excitat omnis
suspensum et pariter comitique onerique timentem.

–from an edition of Virgil’s epic poem (1st Century B.C.) by J.B. Greenough, via the Perseus online archive

My little Iulus’ fingers
Were twined in mine; he trotted by my long steps.
Behind me came my wife. We went our dark way.
Before I hadn’t minded the Greeks’ spears
Hurled at me, or the Greeks in crowds, attacking.
Now every gust and rustle panicked me
Because of whom I led and whom I carried.

–from The Aeneid translated by by Sarah Ruden (2008)

So to all the fathers out there: a thank-you from those of us you have led and carried. We see your hearts, and we are following your stories.

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