The Lusiads is a literary epic that one approaches with certain expectations. The literary epic is a form created by the Roman poet Vergil in his Aeneid, based on Homer’s Iliad (c. 750 b.c.e.; English translation, 1611) and Odyssey (c. 725 b.c.e.; English translation, 1614) and similar works. Readers can expect the epic to include a statement of theme, an invocation of the muse, battles, a catalog of ships or some equivalent catalog, a trip to the underworld, a warrior-hero, and the “divine machinery,” that is, the Greek or Roman gods interfering in the action. Most of these elements, especially the gods, comprise The Lusiads, though their presence is a little disconcerting in a work so insistently Christian.
Luis de Camões, however, in his invocation, promises a new and loftier conception of valor than in the old epics whose day has passed. It is a rather bold move to transport the Vergilian epic wholesale into the modern world. He does leave out a few of the expected elements and supplies some genuinely original scenes. The Aeneid (c. 29-19 b.c.e.; English translation, 1553), however, remains the primary model, though readers will notice also the influence of Ludovico Ariosto’s Orlando furioso (1516, 1521, 1532; English translation, 1591) in the ottava rima stanza form and in the emphasis on love, sometimes bordering on the erotic. Even when the sailors are promised a story of heroism rather than of love in hearing the tale of The Twelve of England, the story turns out to be a rather romantic tale.
Camões does not “update” the element of interfering gods. The gods belong to the ancient world, and they always seem a little out of place in so alien a setting. Even in Homer and Vergil their interference in the action seems almost irrelevant, as a nearly omnipotent Zeus/Jupiter can always overrule them. However, adding a Christian God with power even beyond that of Jupiter makes the gods almost trivial. Their motives remain unconvincing. Bacchus is connected mythically with the founding of Portugal, but he opposes Portuguese adventure for the negligible reason that he does not want them to rival him as an explorer of Asia. Venus appears to have been chosen by Camões as the patron of...
(The entire section is 971 words.)