Nonnos' Dionysiaca is what happens when someone wants to tell Ovid's Metamorphoses as a Homer styled epic, but with none of the human insight or subtlety that makes those works great. The end result is a good story buried under a deluge of pointless speeches, equally pointless characters, and a strange emphasis on where various constellations are positioned during the action rather than paying attention to the action itself. The epic is further hampered by the translator's insistence on turning the epic from a careful hexameter into prose, which never works well in these types of stories. Unfortunately, there are no alternative translations available in English at this time.
Moving onto the work itself, the story of first volume of the Dionysiaca is actually quite straight forward. Beginning with Dionysus' mortal grandparents, the first half of the book covers the various triumphs and tragedies of the family before Zeus lusted after Dionysus' mother, Semele. After a brief intreval describing Zagreus' (who would eventually be reborn as the titular mad god) birth and subsequent murder, the narrative returns to describe the birth and youthful follies of the young Dionysus. Eventually, the death of Dionysus' first love leads to the creation of the first grapevine, and with it comes the invention wine. After this drunken coming of age, it is revealed that Dionysus must earn his place before being accepted into Olympus. Thus the stage is set for Dionysus' invasion of India, as nothing less than triumph in war is deemed acceptable to his divine father.
Nonnos' idea of tragedy is lackluster at best. In almost every chapter, he simply opts to have someone tell the audience precisely what's going to happen and why (often by making a dozen comparisons to similar tales), then retells the event later with little additional insight or depth. Nonnos also seems to think that namedropping a bunch of mythological figures makes the story more grandiose, but the end result is just boring.
That said, the chapters dealing with the romance and death of Ampelos are probably the best in this first volume of the work. The contrast between what Dionysus has been prophesied to be and how he goes through the stages of grief is surprisingly effective. Nonnos likes to emphasize how important wine is for humanity's morale, so it makes sense that the creation wine would come out of a great love and a great grief. Even in modern times, an alcoholic is far more likely to be a person washing away their pain than just a happy party-goer who likes to drink. Dionysus' decision to bring wagons of vines with him to war later draws further attention to the coupling of drinking with tragedy.
Naturally, it's immediately undermined by Nonnos providing an alternative and less emotionally engaging creation tale, where wine is discovered by complete accident and everyone proceeds to drink too much and sexually assault nymphs. Lovely.
But of course, Dionysus is not only the god of wine, but also the god of madness. In an interesting twist, the seeds of madness are more often than not sown through any deliberate action of Dionysus himself until adulthood and the Indian War. From the famous raving female worshippers to Ino's suicide to Ampelo's ambitious but fatal delusions, almost everyone Dionysus associates with early on are eventually targeted and driven insane by Hera or her own loyal divine followers. Interestingly enough, the text even goes out of its way to justify why Dionysus is immune to the madness of intoxication at one point. On the other hand, even when he does actively cause madness, Hera's influence is never far away from the cause. It's an interesting dynamic that just manages to shine through layers of equally uninteresting prose.
As the Indian War only begins in the last two chapters, it'd be more prudent to discuss its depiction in future reviews of the later volumes of this work.
I read the online edition of the book, where numerous footnotes were sprinkled throughout the text. They ranged from extremely helpful (clarifying referenced myths and figures, explaining clear mistakes in the manuscript, and defining the meaning of several untranslatable words) to pointless (often simply referring the reader to previous footnotes or other publications, complaining about the inaccuracies of several constellation placements, or simply repeating previous comments), but overall they make reading the work much easier for readers unfamiliar with specific Greek mythos.
In addition to the footnotes, there are four short note sections included at the end of several chapter that go into specific details about ancient cultural or mythological facts that required background knowledge to fully comprehend. The introductions provided at the beginning of the book are also quite interesting, as they detail the literary importance of the Dionysus as well as describe how Dionysus mythology worship itself changed dramatically between its beginnings in ancient Greece to the fall of the Roman Empire. Overall, these additions do an excellent job of providing solid information without being too distracting or off-topic.
Despite its flaws, it was a fascinating read. It draws attention to many figures rarely seen in more than one or two disconnected myths. Echo, for example, has a surprising supporting presence throughout the work. Furthermore, it gives the mad god a level of depth that's worth digging through the terrible prose and constant namedropping in order to find it. As such, I look forward to the next two volumes of the Dionysiaca and how they’ll address some of the god’s many iconic exploits.