Tuesday, February 19, 2008

The Greek Myths

Last month left-of-centre broadsheet The Guardian issued a series of booklets retelling the Greek myths. These were written by James Davidson, author of the much-fêted The Greeks and Greek Love. I don’t get the paper regularly (for economic, rather than ideological reasons). But friends do, and I collected a full set a couple of weekends ago, and read them all on the train. You don’t need to do this, as they are online here.

It’s a slightly curious collection. For a start, Davidson has an individual prose style, often ready to abandon the tones of academe. Sometimes this works and is funny: ‘Deianeira wondered what it was about her that monstrous creatures found so attractive’ (No. 3: Thebes, p. 18). On other occasions, such as when Helen, reunited with Menelaus, says ‘Tell me, how are the children?’ (No. 5: The Trojan War, p. 22), it’s just a bit banal.

But it’s his choice of myths to retell that most had me raising my eyebrows. True, Davidson only has ninety pages for a topic that could easily fill out a book-length study (and often has), so some selectivity is inevitable. I’m not surprised that Bellerophon is gone completely, the only exploit of Theseus is that with the Minotaur, Achilles’ concealment amongst the women of Scyrus is overlooked, and there’s no place for more than a brief allusion to any homecoming from Troy other than that of Odysseus.

But it does seem odd that all reference to Jason’s father Aeson, and the usurpation of his kingdom by his brother Pelias, is gone. Removing this requires Davidson to devote space to another motivation for Pelias’ murder, one different from that most commonly known (and one I have as yet not tracked down in my mythology text books, though I’m sure Davidson has an authentic source). Why not keep the version familiar through the likes of the 1963 film?

When it comes to No. 5: The Trojan War, ‘odd’ no longer seems adequate. In Davidson’s version, the Iliad is missing. There is not a word about the wrath of Achilles, his dispute with Agamemnon, or about Patroclus. Hector’s death is there, but not the immediate lead up to it or the ransoming of his body. In the Iliad’s place is a tale of Achilles’ lust for Troilus, drawn from late Latin sources. It’s almost as if Davidson is deliberately choosing little-known variants. That may help him set his own stamp on the stories, but may not have been in the mind of whoever in The Guardian commissioned the booklets.

The danger in such a work as this, as Mary Beard noted when reviewing Nigel Spivey’s Songs on Bronze, is that it creates the impression that the way the stories are presented in the work concerned is in some way canonical, and the ‘true’ version, something which, in Beard’s words, ‘amounts to reconstructing a narrative which never really existed, directly against the grain of the mythic culture of Greece’. A common question students in myth courses ask, when presented with variant accounts, is ‘which one is right?’ It takes a long time to get to grips with the idea that, as Beard notes in her introduction to No. 6: The Odyssey, these are constantly evolving stories, and no one version should take precedence over the others.

So it’s particularly odd that what is ostensibly an introduction to Greek mythology (though some of it us possibly actually Roman - for instance, there’s a strong case for saying that the legends of Echo and Narcissus were first linked by Ovid) should choose in some places such outré versions. There are plenty of forewords by luminaries such as Michael Wood or Neil MacGregor, but what is missing is an afterword where Davidson explains his rationale. Some of it is obvious - Eros is a driving force throughout the stories Davidson chooses, and no doubt the chapter on Achilles from The Greeks and Greek Love will shine light on his motivation for selecting Troilus - but some of it remains obscure.

I don’t want to come across as being too negative about this. Anything that gets people reading Greek mythology is good, and it’s an interesting idea for the Guardian to do this. I just find it curious in its selection.