Book Review: “Daphnis and Chloe” by Longus

“When I was hunting in Lesbos, I saw, in a wood sacred to the Nymphs, the most beautiful thing that I have ever seen—a painting that told a love-story.”

So begins the ancient Greek prose narrative of Daphnis and Chloe, attributed to Longus, who goes on to describe the beautiful painting that provoked “a longing to write a verbal equivalent […] as an offering to Love and the Nymphs and Pan, and as a source of pleasure for the human race—something to heal the sick and comfort the afflicted, to refresh the memory of those who have been in love and educate those who have not. For no one has ever escaped Love altogether, and no one ever will, so long as beauty exists and eyes can see.”

Daphnis and Chloe are young teens growing up together and falling in love on the island of Lesbos. A series of melodramatic obstacles beset the couple. For example, a would-be rapist hiding under a wolfskin is foiled after a pack of dogs mistake him for an actual wolf and maul him. His victim, Chloe, not realizing what he intended, gently tends his wounds, and he later saves Daphnis, by way of apology. The scenario is so absurd that horror is undercut by the urge to laugh. And this is but one of many such scenarios.

The novel (as we now categorize it) is one of five narratives of this kind—featuring piracy, kidnappings, (threats of) war, reversals of fortune—that have survived from antiquity. Their dating is unknown, but analysts have placed them anywhere from the first to third century AD. It seems they were composed to be read, not performed. I read the English translation of Paul Turner and found it melodious, suffused with nostalgia, and emotionally insightful about love and longing, another reminder of what is eternally human. The story has inspired art in a range of media, including Yukio Mishima’s The Sound of Waves, which is wonderful to read alongside Daphnis and Chloe.

Have you read this or any of the ancient prose narratives, Roman or Greek?

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