- Fénelon’s Subversive Uses of Aeneid 6
François Fénelon’s The Adventures of Telemachus, Son of Ulysses (1699) is a novel that the general audience has forgotten today. Yet it was not only the most popular literary work of the eighteenth century, but also an important point of reference in the political, pedagogical and theological discussions of pre-revolutionary France and beyond. Montesquieu described it as a divine work that brings Homer to life, and Rousseau thought that Fénelon’s book alone was sufficient for the education of his fictional student Emile.1 As it happens, The Adventures of Telemachus was written for the education of another—real—student, the Duc de Bourgogne, grandson of Louis XIV, to whom Fénelon had been appointed tutor in 1689. In his effort to engage this young mind, the author decided to avoid pedantic instruction; instead he created “a fabulous narration in the form of a heroic poem, like those of Homer and of Virgil,” into which he incorporated the major lessons suitable for a prince who, by virtue of his birth, was destined to reign (letter to Father LeTellier, in Riley, François de Fénelon xviii; Maréchaux 59–74). Yet, despite the novel’s mythological pretensions, its thematic preoccupations and strong correspondence to current sociopolitical situations suggest that it has more specific concerns. These concerns, although traceable throughout the novel, nowhere manifest themselves more pointedly than in Book 14, which describes Telemachus’s trip to the realm of the dead. To the best of my knowledge, no scholar has discussed systematically the affinities between the discourse that shapes Fénelon’s underworld and the legitimate complaints one could bring up against the policies of Louis XIV. It is my aim in this paper to concentrate on this episode and examine the ways in which the author, fortified by his Quietist convictions, uses a Homeric cast of characters and the revered setting of Virgil’s underworld to produce a critique of the regime (foreign policy, economy, domestic affairs), a critique that had implications both for the author personally and the subsequent intellectual developments in France. I contend that the pronouncements of the various characters, whether in Tartarus or in the Elysian Fields, far from being innocuous generalized truths, address the present with an immediacy and force that would have not been possible otherwise in the authoritarian environment of the court of Louis XIV.
Fénelon speaks of a “narration” following in the footsteps of the two great poets, and indeed the original title alone, Suite du quatrième livre de l’Odyssée d’Homère, ou Les Aventures de Télémaque, fils d’Ulysse (Sequel to the Fourth Book of Homer’s [End Page 190] Odyssey or the Adventures of Telemachus, son of Ulysses), suggests that the novel capitalizes on the enduring popularity of Homer’s epic and exploits a narrative window in its storyline (Books 5–15). In the opening of the Odyssey, Telemachus is shown living among the suitors, and, at the instigation of the goddess Athena, he visits Pylos and Sparta in the hope of receiving news about his father. But in Book 5 he disappears from the narrative, reappearing ten Books later to be reunited with Odysseus. During his long absence, Homer focuses on the wily king of Ithaca, while of Telemachus we know only that he is a guest in Sparta, until spurred on by Athena to return home. Fénelon uses this blank period to insert his own story by creating a hero who, contrary to Homer’s inactive Telemachus, displays unusual initiative and roams the Mediterranean in search of his father. It is his wanderings, encounters with extraordinary men, contact with a wide range of political realities and, above all, the wise counsel of his companion, Mentor (eventually shown to be the goddess Minerva), that produce maturation and a sense of purpose in the young hero, qualities which Fénelon wishes to instill in his royal student as well.
While in southern Italy, Telemachus, convinced by repeated dreams that his father is dead, decides to meet him by descending into the underworld through a cavern in...