Review of Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy

Review of Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy


Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy is the first edited collection that focuses on the relationship between modern fantasy fiction and Greco-Roman literature and culture and follows on from Brett M. Rogers and Benjamin Eldon Stevens’ first edited collection, Classical Traditions in Science Fiction (2015). The editors acknowledge that this volume is limited to Anglo-American texts, meaning that it cannot be seen as definitive. Instead, Rogers and Stevens intend to start a discussion in this emerging area of scholarship to inspire others to contribute to this field. This book is thematic and divided into four sections, which examine the works of popular fantasy authors such as C.S Lewis, George R.R. Martin, J.K Rowling and J. R. R. Tolkien.

Part one, “Classical Apparitions in (Pre-) Modern Fantasy”, provides insights into the influence of classical antiquity on the origins of modern fantasy. Jesse Weiner’s chapter, “Classical Epics and the Poetics of Modern Fantasy”, compares modern high fantasy to the epic form. Weiner analyses Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire (ASOIF) series using Aristotle’s Poetics to persuasively argue that modern fantasy novels, like Martin’s, share many themes and conventions with ancient Greek and Roman epics. For example, Weiner notes that Martin’s series, like classical epics, is concerned with the origin and destiny of a land, depicts a struggle between good and evil, and prioritises political and moral obligations over private concerns. Weiner claims that the title of Martin’s series alone reveals that it is influenced by epic poetry, which often contained heroic songs. Fans of Martin’s series, and its television adaptation Game of Thrones, will also be familiar with the songs in the novels which, like epics, tell stories of the triumphs and downfalls of great heroes.  Moving away from analysing literary conventions, Genevieve S. Gessert’s chapter, “The Mirror Crack’d: Fractured Classicisms in the Pre-Raphaelites and Victorian Illustration”, evaluates the relationship between classical and medieval imagery in modern fantasy, shedding light on our collective interpretation of the aesthetic of the genre. Gessert discusses the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite style and philosophy, which is indebted to classicism, as well as medieval imagery in Henry Justice Ford’s illustrations. Ford illustrated Andrew Lang’s fairy tales, which influenced Tolkien and Lewis. Collectively, this section re-evaluates the origins of the content, form, language and imagery of modern fantasy, by suggesting it is largely influenced by ancient Greek and Roman culture.

Part two, “False Medievalism and Other Ancient Fantasies”, follows on from Gessert’s chapter by focusing on Tolkien and Lewis and the influence of classicism on their fiction. This aspect of Tolkien and Lewis’ books is often overlooked as scholars more often focus on the medieval influences. Benjamin Eldon Stevens chapter, “Ancient Underworlds in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit”, is particularly significant as he articulates why research into the relationship between modern fantasy and classical texts is so important. Stevens shows how Tolkien departs from classical depictions of the descent into the underworld by presenting Gollum and Smaug as forgetful and unhelpful in contrast to the wise, dead prophets, who guide the hero in classical texts. He then relates his rediscovery of the influence of classical literature on Tolkien’s fiction to the rediscovery of modern fantasy’s origins. He claims that The Hobbit “reinforces the sense that, eventually, all memory will be lost […]. And yet […] certain images persist: ‘down there, at the very roots’ of Tolkien’s influential version of modern fantasy, are truly ancient underworlds” (144). This apt metaphor encapsulates the importance of both this volume and the work of scholars investigating classical literature’s influence on modern fantasy. The chapters in this section build on part one, by discussing not only the influence of classical literature and culture on the modern fantasy genre but also the importance of discovering this literary heritage.

Part three, “Children and (Other) Ancient Monsters”, examines children’s fantasy fiction and how it educates young readers in morals and virtue, showing that these teachings originate from the classical period. Rowling’s Harry Potter series is examined by Brett M. Rogers in relation to Aeschylus in his chapter “Orestes and the Half-Blood Prince: Ghosts of Aeschylus in the Harry Potter Series”. Rogers argues that as the series progresses, “Rowling’s view of education draws increasingly closer to […] Aeschylean perspectives on teaching and learning […] [which emphasises] becoming educated in moral virtue and civic action against tyranny” (222). Rogers suggests that from the Half-Blood Prince onwards, Rowling draws on Aeschylus’s Oresteia because she sees the themes that Aeschylus emphasises—knowledge, education and kinship—as solutions to social issues. Whilst Rogers examines a series intended for young adult readers, Elizabeth A. Manwell discusses a modern children’s story in her chapter, “Girls in Bears’ Clothing in Greek Myth and Disney/Pixar’s Brave”. Manwell states that tales of the transformation of humans into bears are common in many cultures. However, she notes that Greek myths, such as the tales of Callisto and Iphigenia, often portray young girls on the cusp of womanhood transforming into bears. Through her analysis, Manwell explores how Brave’s protagonist, Merida, subverts traditional expectations of women by comparing her journey to the women in Greek mythology. Manwell acknowledges that the women in Greek myths would not be able to delay marriage and prolong their adolescence, as Merida does. Brave therefore reflects the increasing agency that women have in the twenty-first century, by drawing on classical mythology and inverting the moral of the story. This section identifies the important role that modern fantasy fiction has in educating young readers and demonstrates that this tradition is influenced by classical literature, which was didactic and concerned with moral teachings.

Finally, part four, “(Post) Modern Fantasies of Antiquity”, claims that the modern fantasy genre is postmodern because it uses themes, motifs and tales from classical literature and makes intertextual references to classical texts. The collection is appropriately ended with a discussion of the intertextuality of classical literature in ASOIAF, the first modern fantasy series discussed in chapter one. Ayelet Haimson Lushkov chapter, “Genre, Mimesis, and Virgilian Intertext in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire”, compares Nisus and Euryalus’s sexually ambiguous relationship in the Aeneid to Renly Baratheon and Loras Tyrell’s in ASOIAF. Lushkov states that both stories mirror each other in terms of plot and imagery. For example, both pairs are involved with games and tourneys before being involved in the horrors of war and Lushkov also notes that Euryalus and Loras are both “young, beautiful, and characterised by floral imagery” (313). Lushkov’s chapter, like all the contributions in this section, highlights how modern fantasy texts borrow from different classical texts and traditions in order to re-examine the stories and teachings of the original tales from a contemporary viewpoint.

Overall, this collection presents insightful research into popular, well-known modern fantasy novels, establishing their connections to classical antiquity. The volume sparks as many questions as it answers about the modern fantasy genre and its origins, traditions and role in contemporary culture. Rogers and Steven’s book, with its diverse content, ambitious scope and accessible format, will be of interest to both scholars and fans of modern fantasy and classical antiquity, who seek to discover more about modern fantasy’s literary heritage.

Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy by Brett M. Rogers & Benjamin Eldon Stevens. Oxford University Press. 2017. 367 pp.

Review of Classical Traditions in Modern Fantasy
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Jade Hinchliffe

JADE HINCHLIFFE is a PhD researcher at The University of Hull, funded by the North of England Consortium for Arts and Humanities. She has a First-Class BA (Hons) and an MRes in English Literature from The University of Huddersfield. Her interdisciplinary PhD thesis explores surveillance, social sorting and globalisation in twenty-first century dystopian literature.

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