Sunday, February 05, 2006

Books with classical themes

The latest issue of Vector, the critical journal of the British Science Fiction Association, popped through my letterbox on Friday. In there are a couple of reviews of books that I also have reviewed over recent months, and which are relevant to the themes of this blog.

First up is Susan Peak's review of Troy: Lord of the Silver Bow, by David Gemmell, which I reviewed, at considerably greater length, for Diverse Books. I'd like to quote Peak's penultimate paragraph in toto:

While the book is indeed well-written, and with good characters, it is curiously lacking in plot. Not much actually happens during the story and, although it is set in the time of Troy, it is not at all clear how close to the siege the story is at the end of this volume. It certainly doesn't happen here. So the book is a little slow, and has also a faint sense of pointlessness - why, exactly, are we being told the story of these various people? What is their significance? It might have helped to have a brief summary of the Trojan war and its key characters in some sort of foreword - the historical novel equivalent of a map, perhaps. (And an actual map would also have been useful.) The book failed to evoke any real sense of reading about a very different culture - there is more alienness in Patrick O'Brian's stories of Napoleonic naval warfare than here.

Peak may have a point about the lack of plot, but her comment about the need for a foreword suggests that she's missed the point of what Gemmell is trying to do, perhaps through a lack of familiarity with the mythology. As I noted, Gemmell's is a pretty radical 're-imagining' of the Trojan cycle. Including a summary of how the canonical version of the myth would be pointless, as Gemmell isn't following that script. To include anything else would be to ask him to give his plot developments away. The comment on the map, however, derives from the fact that Peak is reviewing a proof copy, as the published version I received does include a map, albeit one which can be criticized for inadequacy (some locations where crucial events take place are not located on it). As for her final comment, I can see her point, in that the characters do sometimes seem to behave like twenty-first century AD humans -on the other hand, I did think Gemmell did a good job of making the inhabitants of the Bronze Age real human beings rather than archaeological abstractions.

(I should perhaps point out, in case anyone thinks sour grapes may be involved in my reaction to Peak's review, that I was offered this book for Vector, but had to turn it down as I'd already agreed to do the Diverse Books review.)

Elsewhere in the same issue, Niall Harrison, who in his role as Reviews Editor of Strange Horizons asked me to review Jeffrey M. Ford's The Cosmology of the Wider World , a book where the central character is a minotaur, writes a review of that selfsame work that is far more perceptive and thoughtful that what I have turned in for him.


Another Damned Medievalist said...

Hmmm... I can't say your review makes me want to go to the trouble. As an historian, I see a lot of merit in re-casting the Trojan War into the larger scale of things (Mycenaean relations with the Hittites, the complete plausibility of Troy being a Hittite vassal kingdom, etc.) But there are ways in which the story is immutable to me. It's totally nonsensical, and odd, since I have no problems with some kinds of fanfic and spin-offs. But the Iliad is sacred-cow-like to me in the same way that Tolkein is. The Odyssey is not, nor is the Aeneid, although the reasons for that latter are perhaps more sensible. Consideringthat there's enough evidence, IIRC, to suggest that even the Iliad was performed in ways that allowed for change in the retelling, I don't know why it should need to be the canonical version of things for me, but it does.

Tony Keen said...

For any retelling of the Trojan War (of which, as you know, the Iliad is merely a single, albeit important, incident), one is forced to choose between divergent versions (all of Euripides' Trojan War plays, for instance, are incompatible with each other on various details). From there, it's a short trip to thinking, if the ancients could change the stories, why can't modern writers? (And if one attempts to link the story in with the archaeological evidence, new changes are I feel forced upon the author.) Which then raises the question of how far can one go. Some would say that this should not be very far at all beyond what is recorded in ancient sources. Wolfgang Petersen's Troy attracted a great deal of controversy for such things as not having Helen reunited with Menelaus at the end of the war, and killing off Menelaus early. But the original form of the legend derives from a society where a wife was a husband's property, and the Trojans were intrinsically in the wrong for keeping Helen away from Menelaus. This won't necessarily work for a twenty-first century audience where a wife has the right to leave her husband, and therefore the Greeks are in the wrong for their violent reaction. My own view, expressed here, is that I can put up with a lot, as long as it makes sense within a work's own terms (therefore the change I most objected to was Paris' survival, because the film has earlier set up his death).

There's also some questions of elitism here, in that Classical mythology is considered sacrosanct in the way that other mythologies perhaps aren't - compare the furore over Troy with the relative lack of protest over the mangling of the Arthur/Lancelot/Guinevere triangle in King Arthur, arguably much more of an exercise in missing the point. And in the end, I do find myself asking what the point is of just doing another straight retelling of the Trojan cycle. I find Gemmell's radical approach rather more interesting thatn Eric Shanower's excessively reverential treatment in Age of Bronze.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I don't doubt the elitism -- it's a good explanation for why I am happy to read some fanfic, but just can't handle the Tolkein stuff. I'd not thought too much about Euripides, either, I have to admit. When it comes down to it, I think it's the combination of horrific inaccuracies (like the horror that was the recent King Arthur *headdesk*) and the deep-seated fear that such retellings will take the place of the originals. It's one thing to have read the Iliad and perhaps some Euripides, and then be able to contextualise the new and different version. But if the only version is that new one, it seems to me that we lose something. I do't know about your students, but mine are most likely to only read the newest novel version or see the film (they frequently think Eaters of the Dead is a perfectly acceptable version of Beowulf, for example!)

Tony Keen said...

I take your point, but I think that means it's our job as educators to say that there are other versions out there, and that one version of the story is not necessarily 'what happened'. I don't think we can do this by declaring certain versions of the story sacrosanct and immutable. That's not the way legend works (history is a different matter, of course). I think each new version needs to be taken on its merits. That means that we condemn as point-missers all the versions of the Lancelot/Guinevere/Arthur legend that excise the adultery, but leave room for the inmaginative new interpretations that bring something new, say, for instance, by relocating the Odyssey to the Depression-era southern US.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Sorry -- I didn't mean to say I felt this as an academic (or not as an academic in a perfect world where students actually get some sort of fundamental education!). It's more a reflection on my own idea of "don't mess with my canon!"

And as I said, I don't kow why this particular thing bothers me, when I tend to like fanfic, etc.

Atriades said...

I have to say that I agree with you entirely, Tony, on the issue of the need for pupils to be educated in the Greeks regular revision of myths in plays etc and it is an angle which I had forgotten to use to justify some of Troy's failings as an accurate representation of the story of Troy.