[For more on the relationship between ancient Greek lyric and The New World, especially the Malick’s use of Sappho, see my post “Sappho’s Poetry in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005/8).”]
Epic is the political genre of the Greco-Roman world par excellence and also the category to which one intuitively assigns movies about culture heroes and wars of foundation. One may envision The New World as an Odyssey in which John Smith comes to Virginia as an Odysseus figure, yet passes that mantle to Pocahontas who makes her own great journey, not only into the life of the English settlers in Virginia, but to England itself.[i] Still more, it resembles Vergil’s Aeneid, in which Smith, a would-be Aeneas, misses his opportunity to play the part of symbolic founder-ancestor of a new Roman nation born, like the old, of two peoples. In his stead, Pocahontas becomes its very different progenitor. In support of this conception of Malick’s Pocahontas is the comment to the New York Times from the president for marketing at New Line Cinema, Russell Schwartz: “Terrence said to me very early on, ‘This is our original mother,’ meaning that her journey is that of America itself….”[ii]
The epic character of the film makes Sappho’s voice necessary, for she offers a broader horizon of gender possibilities than does any other Greek or Roman author, while remaining within the confines of pre-modern patriarchy. Furthermore, the adaptation of her voice from classical antiquity establishes a sense of cultural consistency in the dialogue between the film’s approach to gender and that of the epic tradition on which it draws. The result is that Pocahontas grows within and, eventually, beyond a traditional epic role to develop a perspective that envisions, evaluates, and selects from possible destinies. In the course of these experiences, she rejects self-destruction and loss of original identity.
It is Pocahontas’ navigation both of her desires for John Smith and John Rolfe and of the consequences of each relationship that enables her to assume and preserve the protagonist’s part. Smith is the obvious competitor for this position, but he loses it through his refusal to acknowledge his desires or to confront their consequences. Instead, by making the traditional epic hero’s choice to continue his quest, he forfeits his role as protagonist.
For his characterization of John Smith, Malick draws on Vergil’s Aeneid, the signature epic of the Roman tradition, much as he employs Sappho for Pocahontas. This connection is unsurprising, for there has been a Vergilian presence in the Pocahontas tradition since 1801, when John Davis published his romanticizing version of the tale. Davis compares Pocahontas to Dido, the Carthaginian queen.
When Aeneas and his followers, fleeing the Greek destruction of Troy, are washed up on the shores of Libya, Dido gives them refuge. The goddess Venus, Aeneas’ mother, protects him by ensuring that Dido falls in love with him. She also arranges for Jupiter to insist that he leave Carthage to pursue his destiny of founding a new people in Italy, which down the generations will become the Roman nation. When Aeneas leaves, Dido despairs and commits suicide. Aeneas’ quest leads him to the Underworld where he must seek the counsel of his deceased father. There he encounters Dido in the company of her first husband, whose murder by her brother originally drove her to flee to Libya and found Carthage. Aeneas greets her, expressing his shock and sadness at finding her there. Dido stares in silence at the ground, refusing to acknowledge him.[iii] It is this response that Davis, quoting the Latin, uses to describe Pocahontas’ encounter with Smith.[iv]
Pocahontas, now Rebecca Rolfe, has visited England in the company of her husband John Rolfe years after Smith leaves Virginia. While there, she encounters John Smith, whom she had thought dead. This meeting inspires Davis’ quotation from the Aeneid. Malick’s use of Vergil accepts Smith as an Aeneas figure, while emphasizing Pocahontas’ difference from Dido. Most fundamentally, in The New World she is not a Dido figure because she is not undone by loss and her lover’s duplicity, whereas Davis’ quotation from the Aeneid reduces her to a self-silenced protest against Smith’s caddish conduct.
Malick’s John Smith speaks in voice-over the first time that we hear his voice in the film: “How many lands behind me? How many seas? …. What blows and dangers? Fortune ever my friend.” These lines draw on Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of Vergil’s Aeneid, but they come not from Aeneas, but his father Anchises. The ghost of Anchises awaits his son’s visit to the Underworld and, as he sees him approach, utters this address: “I greet you now, how many lands behind you, / How many seas, what blows and dangers, son! / How much I feared the land of Libya / Might do you harm.”[v]
Anchises’ anxiety about the land of Libya, Dido’s home, suggests a fear that Aeneas might have abandoned his colonizing quest due to love for the queen. By making these lines part of Smith’s internal dialogue, Malick implants in him an intuition that plays the part of an epic father figure mindful of the concerns of glory. This allusion to the Underworld sequence in the Aeneid resonates with the circumstances of Smith’s arrival on the shores of Virginia: an execution from which he is reprieved at the last moment. The visual of his abortive hanging reinforces the sense of Smith’s presence among the dead.
Pocahontas’ declaration, “A god he seems to me,” offers a useful point of departure for appreciating Malick’s film as a Sapphic epic. [For more on this see my post “Sappho’s Poetry in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005/8).”]“God-like” is a standard epithet in Homeric epic, marking the superiority of one mortal over others.[vi] In both fragment 31 and The New World, resemblance to a god introduces an example of male attractiveness, for which desire for another is promptly substituted. The Homeric echo in fragment 31’s “like a god” resounds still more strongly in fragment 16.
This poem is important to the broader sense of the significance of ancient authors for The New World. It offers a model for approaching the content and concerns of the Iliadic tradition while keeping Helen at its center. The speaker in the poem recalls the example of Helen as an analogy for her own experience of desire (fragment 16, lines 1-8):[vii]
Some say a host of cavalry, others of infantry, and
Others of ships, is the most beautiful thing on the
Black earth, but I say it is whatsoever a person loves.
It is perfectly easy to make this understood by everyone:
For she who far surpassed mankind in beauty,
Helen, left her most noble husband and went sailing
Off to Troy with no thought at all for her child or dear
Parents, but (love) led her astray … lightly …
Although Malick does not quote from this poem, it merits attention insofar as it draws together the ideas broached in Malick’s allusions to Sappho’s god-like man, her characterizations of desire, and the relationship of both to the context of Pocahontas’ story. This fragment’s brief narrative of Helen offers parallels to the film in that both women abandon their communities for a foreign visitor. Unlike the Greek Helen, Pocahontas does not provide the occasion for her people to go to war. Nevertheless, in the film’s version, the help she gives to Smith prevents the Powhatan from eliminating the English colony before the return of the English ships with the personnel, weaponry, and supplies that ensure its survival and their defeat.
For Sappho’s Helen and Malick’s Pocahontas, desire informs their decisions. Force may swirl about them, but they choose where they go. In neither case, however, does this attribution of agency serve as a basis for their condemnation or removal to supporting roles in the stories of male lovers. Pocahontas’ father exiles her for her actions, while she confesses to her uncle, late in the film, to having made “many mistakes.” Even here, she is allowed to address the issue. Most importantly, the man who resembles a god does not have final authority to determine what Pocahontas does with her desire. Likewise, to look at the film through the lens of fragment 16, Smith’s epic world with its troops and ships does not command her attention. What, or whom, one loves and why are the questions on which the film turns. Accordingly, when Smith abandons love, he drops from the film. When he returns briefly, it is to comment on that abandonment.
Film scholar Lloyd Michaels identifies four types of story in The New World: epic, creation myth, love story, and personal story.[viii] Malick’s Sapphic voice unites these four dimensions, combining allusions to a male-centered epic tradition and Sappho’s woman-centered erotic lyric. These allusions and the narrative directions they open up enable Pocahontas to experience the passion and loss characteristic of the abandoned women of epic, yet to emerge, without any sense of anachronistic gender identity, as the protagonist of a revisionist epic of desire and discovery.
[For a fuller treatment of classical allusions in this film see my chapter entitled “Sappho and Pocahontas in Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005)” in Screening Love and Sex in the Ancient World. Monica Cyrino, Ed. Palgrave-Macmillan, 2013.]
[i] Bleasdale (2011) 50. Bleasdale observes that Pocahontas is presented as the successful explorer, Smith the failed one.
[ii] James (2005).
[iii] Aeneid 6.469 (in the Latin original). Line numbers of translations will vary. The line numbers of Sarah Ruden’s translation are closest to those of the Latin.
[iv] Davis (1801) 292-293.
[v] Autochthonous88 (2008a). Fitzgerald (1981) 184. Book 6, lines 927-930 in Fitzgerald’s translation and Book 6, lines 692-694 in the Latin text.
[vi] Page (1955) 21n1.
[vii] Campbell (1982) 67.
[viii] Michaels (2009) 85.