Tuesday, September 19, 2017


Konrad Dominas, Elżbieta Wesołowska, Bogdan Trocha (ed.), Antiquity in Popular Literature and Culture. Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2016. Pp. 340. ISBN 9781443890243. $98.95.

Reviewed by Michelle Lee Borg, University of Sydney (mbor8692@uni.sydney.edu.au)

Version at BMCR home site


This volume is a collection of essays which derive from a 2014 conference at the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Poland. Together they seek, as Martin M. Winkler notes in his useful introduction, to demonstrate "the continuing presence of the past or, to put it slightly differently, the importance of the past in the present and, by extension, for the future" (p.xiii).

The compilation is arranged into three self-explanatory parts: first, "Antiquity in Popular Literature," second, "Antiquity in Popular Culture," and third, "Antiquity in the Cinema."

Part 1: The first set of papers examines the influence and presence of antiquity in a variety of genres, including speculative fiction, detective fiction, and youth fiction.

Oziewicz ("Antiquity is Now: Modern Strands of the Mythical Method in Contemporary Young Adult Speculative Fiction," pp.3-19) explores theories around the mortal impulses driving myth-making and remembering and refers to a variety of texts throughout. Trocha ("Between the Clichés and Speculative Re-Narration: Features of Ancient Times in Popular Literature," pp.21-36) then broadly summarises the thematic assumption and re-narration of early fiction through to more modern efforts.

The focus on antiquity in literature then zooms in on particular authors and their utilisation of antiquity. Dominas ("What Undergoes Changes and What Remains Unchanged, or How to Research Antiquity in Popular Literature and Culture on the Model of the Trilogy Troy by David Gemmell," pp.37-49) explores fantasy author David Gemmell's conventional use of antiquity in his Troy trilogy series, but also argues, as a case study, that he is being innovative in his transfiguration of Aeneas into Heliacon. Ultimately, Gemmell's mechanisms successfully bring together elements of ancient and popular cultures and new media. Similarly, Zieliński ("The Ancient Quotations in Marek Krajewski's Detective Novels," pp.51-64) examines the use of ancient Latin and Greek quotations in the detective novels of Marek Krajewski. These function according to Zieliński sometimes as an elitist "code characteristic of the educated people" (p.53) and at other times are intentionally misused in order to convey a double entendre or to provide comic relief. Often, ancient quotations are functionally crucial to solving the mystery at hand or appear in an erotic context. Ultimately, this is the author's appreciation of the rich repository of ancient literature preserved for those who value it.

The strategies of two Polish authors transposing mythology for young audiences are considered by Miazek-Męczyńska ("Olympus Shown by Grzegorz Kasdepke and Katarzyna Marciniak, or How We Should Present Mythology to the Youngest Audience," pp.65-75). While both authors render mythology modern in terms of language and sensibility for their contemporary readers, Miazek-Męczyńska asserts that they differ by virtue of their approach and target audience. With regard to these differences, textual elements are re-examined critically for their pedagogical value and shortcomings. Last, Kaczmarek ("The Gladiatorial Games in Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins: Some Thoughts on Antique Culture in the Modern World," pp.76-88) surveys the gladiatorial elements of the Hunger Games series, itemising the various aspects of ludi: training; the procession; score-keeping; the arena and the audience. Finally, Kaczmarek draws some very expansive conclusions, but nonetheless underlines the connectedness of these modern texts with ancient pastimes.

Part II: This section focusses on antiquity in popular culture, a somewhat nebulous and generic term. Gemra ("Nec Hercules Contra Plures: What Popular Culture does with Antiquity (Outline of the Problem)," pp.91-116) begins this section by evaluating the use of references to antiquity in popular texts: from Conan the Barbarian to Asterix the Gaul, through Studniarek, and other popular authors such as Gaiman and Pratchett. The strengths (the connection of past to present) and weaknesses (facts that are distorted in order to entertain are taken to be fact) are examined, ending with an exhortation to fashion well-made texts that establish a sense of belonging with a modern audience.

Next, Wojciech Mikołajczak takes the reader through an interesting and well organised discussion of ancient influence on fountain pens ("Antique Motifs in the Design of Fountain Pens", pp.117-125), distinguishing between and exploring the syntactic, symbolic, and functional aspects of the pen. Examples of the reception of antique motifs, in particular lines of pens from different parts of the globe, are examined from production, nomenclature to ornamentation.

The extent to which anti-Napoleonic satirical cartoons drew upon the ancient world is explored by Fulińska ("Ancient Topics in Anti-Napoleonic Caricature (1796-1821)," pp.127-155). The survey of British, French, and German cartoons uncovers, surprisingly, that the use of the ancient world to satirise Napoleon was neither prolific nor deeply meaningful. Ultimately, the author hypothesises that the usefulness of ancient personalities for the purpose of ridiculing a current leader is minimal when those personalities were otherwise heroes and role-models. The proceedings then move on to the more obscure, yet illuminating introductory overview of the portrayal of Mount Athos in society and popular culture (Dymczyk, "Sacrum Versus Profanum: the Reception of Holy Mountain Athos in Ancient and Contemporary Culture," pp.157-175). Dymczyk traces the references to the natural monument in ancient and apocryphal literature, popular literature, and even tourist guide books. Dymczyk concludes that the mysticism and obscurity of the mountain itself, whether as a religious symbol or tourist destination, will likely continue.

The focus on popular culture turns to video and computer games and the depiction of Hercules therein (Chmielewska, "C://Hercules in Computer Games/A Heroic Evolution," pp.177-191). The full gamut of these representations is examined, from the demi-god's highly pixelated form in the 1980s through to the most recent and nuanced God of War series. From a focus on Greece, the proceedings next move to the Near East. Zinkow ("Pop-Pharaohs – 'Reversed Pharaohs': Remarks on the Carnivalized Model of the Reception of Egypt," pp.193-203) argues that the contemporary fascination with Egypt has less to do with the authentic past but a constructed Egypt that is exotic and exaggerated. This view of Egypt began with Herodotus' characterisation for his Western audience and has continued in kind, in various guises, to the present day. The focus on Egypt continues in the next paper with an examination of such motifs as used in products for children (Taterka, "Egyptianizing Motifs in the Products of Popular Culture Addressed to Younger Recipients," pp.205-221). A keen observation is the methodological difficulty inherent in the study of the use of ancient motifs in contemporary culture, resulting in a reversion to a descriptive approach. Moving through literature, animated series, cinema, computer games, toys, and even food, Taterka ultimately notes the didactic value of these representations, even if they are inaccurate.

Part III: The third and last part of the proceedings focuses on antiquity in cinema and deals first with the many uses of Latin in film (Skwara, "In Theatro Cinematographico Latine Loquentes: Latin in Modern Film," pp.226-241), as a determinant of time and place, of fantasy, and of one's profession. These signals of a language that is both foreign and familiar are used in ways that are intended to aid the plot or style of the film, but that can stray into ridiculousness.

The intertextuality of political satire is then examined between Plautus' Amphitruo and Schünzel's film adaptation, Amphitryon: Aus den Wolken kommt das Glück (McHugh, "The Art of Safe Speech: Schünzel's Amphitruo," pp.243-254). McHugh argues that Schünzel's own work was as subtle and successful as that of Plautus, making him a worthy heir. The next paper re-focuses the reader on the use of Latin, but this time in horror films (Piętka, "Thrill for Latinists: Latin Language in Contemporary Horror Films," pp.255-266). The author claims that a "dead" language experiences a second life as a cinematic device rich with allusions to the sacred (such as the right of exorcism) and the occult (à la demonic incantations).

Returning to science fiction television, Klęczar ("The Wise Road-Builders and the Empire of Evil: The Image of Ancient Rome in Science Fiction TV Shows," pp.267-285) surveys the way in which Rome is represented, considering a variety of programs as case studies: the Star Trek universe, Doctor Who, and Star Gate. Interestingly, Klęczar notes that these representations are often self-referential and sourced from popular culture itself rather than from primary evidence or historical commentary.

Stróżyński ("The Oedipus Myth in Selected Films: Antiquity and Psychoanalysis," pp.287-303) provides an analysis of Oedipal structural and thematic motifs, and Freudian psychoanalysis in three case studies from popular culture: the films Minority Report and The Matrix, and the television series Dexter. The various symbolisms and allusions reinforce the relevance and value of these universal Oedipal anxieties.

The last but not least paper (Gierszewska, "Ancient Rome, Anything Goes: Creating Images of Antiquity in the BBC Series Doctor Who," pp.305-314) returns to representations of ancient Rome in the second generation of the Doctor Who television series. Rome, both geographically and ideologically, functions as a marker of a preconceived place, time, and language for the Doctor Who audience. These associations are constructed in a way as to be simultaneously familiar and new, and ultimately Gierszewska concludes that "[i]t is not meant to be historically accurate; it aims to entertain, but it preserves enough of the real classical antiquity to call it a laudable effort at educating" (p.313).

A proceedings volume such as this provides an invaluable platform for conference contributors, both early career and established scholars alike. This particular collection is distinguished by its generic and temporal breadth and (understandable) inclusion of the reception of antiquity in Eastern Europe, as well as the West and the Americas.

Limited space perhaps restricted the ability of contributors to include references to evidence and secondary literature where it would be otherwise expected, requiring some frustrating guesswork for those wanting to know more. The generic structure (literature, popular culture, and cinema) is, at times, only loosely adhered to as an organisational framework, which can be distracting when one is consuming the volume in sequence. Last, there is some overlap of subject-matter between papers, especially concerning Doctor Who, Star Trek, and representations of ancient Rome in television, particularly in the latter half of the volume.

At the same time, there are some refreshingly original topics – Hercules in computer games, Schünzel's Amphitruo, and fountain pens, to name just three – resulting in a corpus well worth reading. Some black and white photographs provide visual interest and typological errata are minimal. The collection does largely fulfil Winkler's stated aim: to demonstrate the presence and importance of antiquity both now and into the future.

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