Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)

Conventional English name for Italian Latin poet Publius Vergilius Maro (70BC-19BC), who led an apparently quiet life, distinguished after 39BC by the indirect patronage of the (then future) Emperor Augustus, whose reign has ever since been symbolized, foremost, by Virgil's poetry.

Later generations fathered on him the poems now called the Appendix Virgiliana: one or two very brief works among these may represent his juvenilia, though not the two fantastic works, the short epic Ciris and the curiously effective mock epic Culex, which deals with the death and afterlife of a wasp. The first work we know to be Virgil's is the ten Eclogues (42BC-39BC; coll 39BC). These pastoral poems, though modelled on Theocritus's (see Greek and Latin Classics), narrow the latter's range to the specific, implausible but not fantastic land of Arcadia, the basis of the Western European Pastoral tradition. Only one (the sixth) tells of anything fantastic, and it is more a precis of mythical history than a tale. (The fourth has become most famous, as an alleged prophecy of Christ.)

These poems won him entrée to the Augustan circle, where he found his deeper role, as a public, committed poet. During a decade of civil war he wrote the Georgics (29BC; vt Bucolics), a didactic poem about the peaceable conduct of farming. Often misinterpreted as a programme for the actual revival of Italian agriculture, the work propounds an ideal close to the poet's, and Augustus's, heart. It contains one short, confusedly told and profoundly strange Myth towards its close. The Georgics has been called the best poem in Latin; it is the last its author completed.

He then accepted the task later imperial poets routinely shunned, that of celebrating the emperor in epic. The surprising result, posthumously published, was the Aeneid (circa 19BC). This tells not of Augustus's wars but of his legendary ancestor, Aeneas. Its first half describes Aeneas's homeseeking (as opposed to the homecoming of Homer's Odysseus), its second his war to found a city (as opposed to Homer's Achilleus's war to sack one). Few readers find the second part lives up to the first, but the early episodes of the sack of Troy, Aeneas' romance with Dido, and his visit to the Underworld, as well as the concluding nightmare of his surrender to battle rage, are all moving; the style is consistently clear and noble; and the epic is by common consent the greatest in Latin. The Aeneid is not always accepted as fantasy today, though fantasy is in fact what Virgil's contemporaries expected of epic. Virgil never admits to providing it (as do his successors Ovid and Statius), and the second half of his work, generally realistic, overshadows the frequent passages of wonder in the first. Moreover, his Gods are too civilized and decorous for the usual excitements of myth.

However, it is precisely in its least fantastic aspect that the Aeneid fundamentally shaped later fantasy. In its characters' consistent political concern, in its narrative elevation of tone and content, in its tragic outlook on both Love and war, and especially in its Hero's piety and struggles with his fated purpose (these last being elements fully original to it), the Aeneid prefigured the greater part of Western epic, whose writers usually had read it. If Ovid gave the fantasy tradition its voice, Virgil gave it the words it has most loved to say.

He has also figured as a character in much fiction, most notably Dante Alighieri's Inferno and Purgatorio. [JB]

further reading: For a full discussion of Virgil's role in medieval literature see Virgilio nel medio evo (1872; rev 1896; trans E F M Benecke as Vergil in the Middle Ages 1895; rev 1908; rev Giorgio Pasquali 1937) by Domenico Comparetti. For the romantic tales which bear little relation to the historical Virgil but which, in turn, underlie Avram Davidson's Vergil Magus stories, a more sympathetic account is Virgil the Necromancer (1934) by John Webster Spargo. Also of interest is the poem "Virgil the Sorcerer" (1924) by Robert Graves.



This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.